Photo courtesy of Sabine Ludwig
Soapy Smith is one of the most well-known and amoral criminal masterminds of 19th century America. An accomplished con artist from the age of 19, he eventually rose to command a gang network of criminal activity through a combination of wit, charm, and weapons.
Jefferson Randall Smith II was born November 2, 1860 into a wealthy, educated Southern family. His grandfather was a plantation owner and his father was a lawyer. However, the after-effects of the Civil War broke the family financially, causing them to move to Texas for a fresh start.
At the age of 19, Smith got his own fresh start in Forth Worth when he began his career as a con man known for his soap shell game and the 3-card monte (which is simply another version of the shell game).
Shell games can be traced back to the Middle Ages where it was often played with thimbles. In the 19th century, it was a popular county fair distraction played with either peas and three shells or balls and cups. The object of the game was to bet where the pea had been hidden. If the guess was correct, the person would win double the money initially put down.
However, due to the expert sleight of hand ability of most shell game players, the bet placer would never win.
Note: Keep in mind that sleight of hand ability shouldn’t always be considered bad. In 2006, David Copperfield confused a would-be thief by claiming he had no wallet on him at the time he was being mugged. Sleight of hand allowed Copperfield to hide his wallet elsewhere. Continue reading