Soapy Smith gets a little posthumous credit

Private magician's club holds Hollywood wake as fundraiser

Posted: Monday, July 18, 2005

Legendary con man Soapy Smith of the Old West wasn't a model citizen, but he is a model of sorts to another kind of trickster - the magician.

On July 8, the anniversary of Smith's shooting death in Skagway in 1898, about 250 magicians and conjuring buffs, many in Victorian and Old West costumes, crowded into the Magic Castle in Hollywood to hold a wake for Smith.

"You should see some of the mustaches," said magician Whit Haydn.

This is the second year the private club for magicians, a Victorian mansion built in 1908, has hosted the wake. It was organized by professional entertainers Haydn and Anton Riniti, the latter known as Chef Anton.

The event raised about $2,000 to help indigent magicians as part of the Dai Vernon Fund, Haydn said.

"Soapy Smith was a hero to Dai Vernon, who was the father of modern close-up magic," Haydn said. Magicians call Vernon "the professor."

In his childhood at the turn of the century, Vernon heard stories of Smith. Haydn heard the same stories from Vernon, who virtually lived at the Magic Castle late in his life.

Smith is considered the best practitioner of the shell game, where spectators bet on which of three walnut shells covers a pea.

"Part of Soapy's secret was he had more than one pea," Haydn said, laughing appreciatively.

The wake featured performances of confidence games, a costume contest (hence the exaggerated mustaches), a talk by Smith's great-grandson Jeff Smith, and a display of Smith's original wooden grave marker - or one of them.

The Smith family bought the marker at auction in Seattle, part of the effects of Harriet Pullen, who had a museum in Skagway, Jeff Smith said.

The marker - and Smith's body - were uprooted by a flood in 1919. The body was never found, making Skagway just another town Smith disappeared from. He was the kind of man who was chased out of Denver for rigging elections.

Jeff Brady, publisher of the Skagway News, said the Smith family's grave marker is the second one. There have been many over the years at the town's Gold Rush cemetery, he said.

"He's there in spirit only, I guess," Brady said.

That's just as well because the wake's toast, given at 9:15 p.m., the hour of Smith's death, is, "Here's to Soapy's ghost." It repeats a toast made by an old member of Smith's gang, Jeff Smith said.

Haydn and Riniti also run the School for Scoundrels, a course in con games, such as three-card monte and the shell game, for entertainment purposes. Magicians and even cops - just for background, of course - have taken the classes, which are held at the Magic Castle, Haydn said.

Magicians have a lot to learn from cheats, suggested Los Angeles-based Haydn, who has visited Juneau and Skagway as a cruise ship performer.

People who use manipulation to cheat at cards are called mechanics. Card mechanics, for example, have excellent technique, which they must use under the close scrutiny of other players, Haydn said. Every devious action has to be invisible, every movement natural for a card player.

Magicians, on the other hand, rely partly on their ability to control the audience's attention, diverting eyes from the performer's hands during sleights.

But magicians don't condone the crookedness of con men.

"We admire them for their technique and their cleverness, not for their thieving. We don't think Soapy was a good guy. Remember, we're celebrating the night he was shot, not the night he was born," Haydn said.

Jefferson Randolph Smith (1860-1898) gained the nickname "Soapy" from a scam he developed and his gang ran in the West.

Acting as an outdoor soap salesman, he'd display some wrapped soap bars to a crowd and apparently place large-denomination bills inside a few of the wrappers. A confederate would buy a bar, offered at a $5 a chance, and apparently find a bill.

The winner then would tell other bystanders how to discern which wrappers held the money. But Smith had used sleight of hand to only appear to have put money inside the wrappers.

The psychology is classic for cons, taking advantage of the victims' greed and dishonesty: The soap buyers believed they were cheating the salesman because they had a tip on how to pick the right bar.

Street magicians also can learn from con men, Haydn said. Magicians know that the trick takes place in the spectators' minds.

The con man "has to draw a crowd and engage their attention ... so he can control their thinking and manipulate them," Haydn said.

Soapy Smith "was a magician in a way," Haydn said. "He would walk into a crowd of vigilantes who were ready to hang someone and talk them out of it."

The Magic Castle's wake follows in the, well, wake of a long tradition in Skagway.

The former Gold Rush town of 870 people 90 miles northeast of Juneau has held a wake for Smith since the mid-1970s, initiated by the Smith family.

The first wakes were attended by family members and performers from a Soapy Smith play for tourists, said Brady, the local newspaper editor.

The wakes were held in the Gold Rush cemetery until they got too big and disrespectful by the 1990s. Some people carried on a tradition of urinating on the grave of Frank Reid, the man assumed to have killed Smith in an altercation.

Jeff Smith, in an interview from Anaheim, Calif., called the "sprinkling of Reid" a "horrible tradition, but funny as all hell."

Now Skagway's wake isn't the same, although the Smith family still sends money for champagne.

"The wake in Skagway has turned too commercial," Smith said.

Family members were upset in 1998, when the party-givers wanted to charge them admission to the wake.

Today, the wake is just a party held in the Eagles fraternal hall attracting mostly locals, Brady said.

"They passed the champagne around. We toasted him several times. That's about it. It's Skagway - any excuse for a party," he said.

One difference between con games and magic is that spectators generally don't want to kill the magician, especially if the trick works.

The magic ran out for Soapy Smith after a miner named John Stewart was robbed of $2,600 worth of gold nuggets playing three-card monte in an alley near Smith's saloon, according to a Smith family Web site.

Smith and his gang confronted a quickly formed group of vigilantes, including Reid, and shots were exchanged. Smith died and Reid, who was badly wounded, died 12 days later.

Three-card monte, in which suckers try to spot the location of one of three cards that have been tossed around on a surface, is vicious, Haydn said.

The victims bet everything they have after they've been led to believe they know the "money" card, because they think it's the card that has a bent corner unnoticed by the operator.

Shills in the crowd have egged the suckers on, making them the star of the event, making them feel they're going to take advantage of the man throwing the cards and be a hero.

"People, when they're taken by three-card monte, their knees buckle. They throw up," Haydn said. "It's a terrible thing to see. It's because of the humiliation. It's because of the exposure. They feel like such idiots for being taken."

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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