Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith.

The DNC and Soapy Smith

To advance the Democratic National Convention, which is now so close you can practically smell the lobbyists, news organizations from beyond these parts are straining to seem like Denver experts -- hence articles like this mondo-obvious USA Today roundup of ten places in town that visitors should see (City Park? The Mint?) and a Christian Science Monitor piece puffy enough to have been written by the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Props, then, to Tim Hames of The Independent, a U.K. publication, for digging deeply enough to unearth the tale of a true Denver original -- Soapy Smith.

Here's how Hames begins a column entitled "Don't Believe a Word You Hear in Denver Next Week:"

The city of Denver will have many delights for the Democratic Party delegates and others who assemble there this weekend. It is, for instance, a place where one can join the Mile High Club without ever leaving the ground as it is situated precisely 1,760 yards above sea level. Its early history is, however, somewhat tainted. In the late 19th century it was virtually controlled by one Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith II, a notorious showman and con artist around whom the film The Sting was partly inspired, who earned his nickname via a trick in which he would sell off bars of basically worthless soap to crowds who bought them for a dollar under the misapprehension that there might be a $100 bill prize hidden within them.

The spirit of Soapy Smith will be alive and well at this convention. The next week will feature a mixture of illusion, insincerity and outright hypocrisy which defy even the normal standards of contemporary politics. And it will be played out before an audience of millions.

Of course, many of us would quibble with the suggestion that Denver's history has been "tainted" by the likes of Smith. Far from it: Rogues like him make the city's past infinitely more lively and colorful. (Of course, that's easy for me to say. I never bought a bar of soap from him.) Still, Hames throws the old guy a bone in a concluding paragraph:

Yet regardless of any of this, what will happen in Denver will be compulsive viewing. Although this is a close contest and may remain so to the end, the election is one in which Obama remains the favourite. Added to which, Soapy Smith maintained his act profitably in Denver for 20 years. This Democratic nominee has but 10 weeks in which to keep up appearances.

And how can Barack Obama do so? Smith, quoted in an entertaining biographical page dubbed "Soapy Smith -- Bunko Man of the Old West," might have put it this way: "A gambler is one who teaches and illustrates the folly of avarice; he is a non-ordained preacher on the vagaries of fortune and how to make doubt a certainty. He is one who, in his amusements, eliminates the element of chance; chance is merely the minister in his workshop of luck; money has no value except to back a good hand."

If Smith was still around today, he wouldn't have time to work cons. He'd be too in-demand as a campaign advisor. -- Michael Roberts

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