The RedState Department of History went on a Solitaire binge last week, and found the going a bit rougher than intended. We didn’t win very much, trying Free Cell, Spider, and even Golf without a lot of success. This got us to thinking about card games that can’t be won — one of which plays a big part in today’s anniversary observation.

Jefferson Randolph Smith II was born in 1860 in Georgia. He was part of a well known family — his father was a well known attorney and his grandfather a plantation owner and Georgia state senator. However, the Civil War wiped out the Smith family’s savings, as it did to many other Southern families, and soon the Smiths headed west.

They settled in Round Rock, Texas, in 1876 and at the age of just sixteen, young Smith formed a group of con men to fleece the locals out of their money through confidence games. One of them was Three Card Monte.

Three Card Monte is a con game where the ‘mark’, or victim, chooses one of three cards dealt face down as a “winning” card, and then tries to select his winning card again after the three cards are shuffled and replaced on the table, as a variation on the old shell game. However, sleight-of-hand and a variety of dealer techniques make it quite literally impossible for the mark to win — and Smith soon was making a lot of money.

Smith also developed a separate con known as the “Prize Package Soap Sell“, which earned him a lot of money as well:

”The con began with Smith setting up a keiser (a suitcase on a tri-pod stand) on a busy street corner. In the suitcase would be piles of ordinary soap wrapped in plain paper. As curious passers-by stopped to look, he would begin to wrap some of the soap bars with paper money, ranging from one dollar up to a hundred. Rewrapping in the plain paper, he would mix them in with the others and sell the soap for $1-5 per bar. In the “crowd” {he} would always have a “shill,” quick to buy a bar of soap, happily opening it to find a $100 bill. The crowd was then anxious to buy their own, which, of course, held nothing but a 5¢ cake of soap. For the next two decades, Smith continued the swindle with great success.”

This racket earned Smith the nickname of Soapy.

After leaving Texas, Smith ran the underworld in Denver, which was then quite a lawless town. Smith went so far as to set up a fake lottery and stock exchange, and reportedly had members of the city government, including the chief of police, on his payroll.

Operating out of his famed Tivoli Saloon and Gambling Hall, Smith posted a sign over the door reading “Caveat Emptor”, or “let the buyer beware”. However, very few of the old western pioneers could read Latin, and enthusiastically entered the Tivoli to be parted from their money.

Finally, in 1894, Colorado Governor Davis Waite had had enough. He replaced Denver’s corrupt officials with his own men, and when the corrupt officials refused to leave, a standoff ensued known as the Denver City Hall War. Victory for Governor Waite soon spelled the end for Smith, who left town to avoid capture after allegedly attempting to kill a saloon owner.

But Smith’s life of crime wasn’t finished. Gold had been discovered in Alaska, and that’s where Smith went — to the town of Skagway, a mining community Smith soon had under his thumb. The confidence games began again, but the tipping point came on July 7, 1898 when a prospector fresh out of the gold fields went to Smith’s saloon — and promptly lost $2,600, or the equivalent of $75,294 in today’s money – playing Three Card Monte.

A local vigilante group known as the “Committee of 101” had had enough of Soapy Smith, and demanded he give the money back to the miner. Smith refused, saying the money had been won in a sporting endeavor. The next night, on this date in 1898, the Committee met in nearby Juneau and Smith decided to crash the party – where he was shot dead outside the hall.

Today, Smith’s legacy is carefully maintained by his descendants, who have set up the Soapy Smith Preservation Trust, which contains its own blog dedicated to the “boss of the bunco brotherhood.”

For his own part, though, Smith never expressed regret for the life he led. His philosophy could be summed up in one of his most famous quotes:

“I consider bunco steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician.”

Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!