July 8 Historical Footnotes – Soapy Smith, Wolfgang Puck, Kevin Bacon, Vasco da Gama

July 8, 2010
By Vannini

Notable Events

1099 – First Crusade: 15,000 starving Christian soldiers march in a religious procession around Jerusalem as its Muslim defenders look on.

1497 – Vasco da Gama sets sail on first direct European voyage to India.

1716 – Great Northern War: Battle of Dynekilen

1889 – The first issue of the Wall Street Journal is published.

1898 – The shooting death of crime boss Soapy Smith releases Skagway, Alaska from his iron grip.

1932 – The Dow Jones Industrial Average reaches its lowest level of the Great Depression, bottoming out at 41.22.

1965 – Train robber Ronald Biggs escapes from Wandsworth Prison, London.

1997 – NATO invites the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to join the alliance in 1999.

2003 – Sudan Airways Flight 39, with 116 people on board, crashes in Sudan; the only survivor is a two-year-old boy who subsequently dies as a result of his injuries.

Notable Births

1760 – Christian Kramp, French mathematician (d. 1826)

1839 – John D. Rockefeller, American industrialist and philanthropist (d. 1937)

1908 – Nelson A. Rockefeller, 41st Vice President of the United States (d. 1979)

1933 – Marty Feldman, English comedian and actor (d. 1982)

1949 – Wolfgang Puck, Austrian-born celebrity chef

1951 – Anjelica Huston, American actress

1957 – Carlos Cavazo, American musician (Quiet Riot)

1958 – Kevin Bacon, American actor

Notable Deaths

1726 – John Ker, Scottish spy (b. 1673)

1822 – Percy Bysshe Shelley, English poet (b. 1792)

1898 – Soapy Smith, American con artist (b. 1860)

1994 – Kim Il-sung, North Korean leader (b. 1912)

1999 – Pete Conrad, American astronaut (b. 1930)

2008 – John Templeton, British businessman and philanthropist (b. 1912)

Holidays and observances

Sunniva and companions

Soapy Smith Wake (Skagway)

The prize soap racket:

Some time in the late 1870s or early 1880s, Smith began duping entire crowds with a ploy the Denver newspapers dubbed “The prize soap racket”.

Smith would open his “tripe and keister” (display case on a tripod) on a busy street corner. Piling ordinary soap cakes onto the keister top, he began expounding on their wonders. As he spoke to the growing crowd of curious onlookers, he would pull out his wallet and begin wrapping paper money, ranging from one dollar up to one hundred dollars, around a select few of the bars. He then finished each bar by wrapping plain paper around it to hide the money.

He mixed the money-wrapped packages in with wrapped bars containing no money. He then sold the soap to the crowd for one dollar a cake. A shill planted in the crowd would buy a bar, tear it open, and loudly proclaim that he had won some money, waving it around for all to see. This performance had the desired effect of enticing the sale of the packages. More often than not, victims bought several bars before the sale was completed. Midway through the sale, Smith would announce that the hundred-dollar bill yet remained in the pile, unpurchased. He then would auction off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders.

Through manipulation and sleight-of-hand, he hid the cakes of soap wrapped with money and replaced them with packages holding no cash. The only money “won” went to shills, members of the gang planted in the crowd pretending to win in order to increase sales.

Smith quickly became known as “Soapy Smith” all across the western United States. He used this swindle for twenty years with great success. The soap sell, along with other scams, helped finance Soapy’s criminal operations by paying graft to police, judges, and politicians. He was able to build three major criminal empires: the first in Denver, Colorado (1886–1895); the second in Creede, Colorado (1892); and the third in Skagway, Alaska (1897–1898).

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