A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age
“Greed and avarice aside, this is certainly a cautionary tale, reminding us all that one must still do one's due diligence and not necessarily depend on someone’s word and ostensible good will when it comes to investing and financial matters.”
The so-called Robber Barons of the Gilded Age should be as well-known for the their outright swindles and cons as they are for the many shady deals which they foisted on investors, the public at large, and the government even while many politicians were their biggest boosters as a result being in the pockets of those captains of industry. Not surprisingly, they took advantage of said public's pursuit of the almighty dollar at a time when the watchword was “get rich quick” by virtually any and all means.
Indeed, there are many examples from the Credit Mobilier scandal, the first of the Gilded Age, to the many machinations perpetrated by cutthroat railroad magnates and oil and steel tycoons. Mostly envied and admired by Americans for their “conspicuous consumption,” the public should have realized that, surely, there must be an object lesson here for the multitudes. As it was, there were those who had the integrity and principles to challenge these barons, but the government wasn't always on their side.
In 1869, there was an attempt by Jay Gould and Jay Fisk to corner the gold market which effectively would have left them in control of the mineral which, at the time, was the preferred backing of the nation's legal tender and could have been manipulated to the extent of placing much of the nation's wealth at their mercy.
Some 30 years later, another attempt was made to control the newly discovered riches of the Alaskan gold fields, particularly those on the Seward Peninsula, centered on Nome. This “wicked conspiracy” was led by one Alexander McKenzie, already a major player of the day. With power and influence, in and out of government, he strong armed his way into taking over, as a one-man receivership, the mining claims of Americans and foreign citizens alike.
With the backing of some local officials and the federal district judge, at least some of whom were in on the plot, McKenzie was able to initially fend off many of the legal challenges instigated by individual miners. As the wild frontier of the time, there could have been violence, and the threat was always there. However, to their credit, miners displaced from their claims took the legal route through the judicial system.
Between the efforts of McKenzie's friends and influential members of Congress to aid him and integrity of the judges of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court, based in San Francisco, it was quite the tortuous path to justice. The miners ultimately got what they wanted (mostly) while McKenzie was only imprisoned for contempt of court for ignoring a writ of the Ninth Circuit Court ordering him to desist in his ongoing efforts in the gold fields.
In the end, even the Supreme Court and President McKinley got involved. The former denied McKenzie's petition for release on grounds of ill health (another scam, apparently, on his part), and the latter was pressured by various Republican politicians and party leaders to pardon him on the same basis. That otherwise left the judicial bulls eye placed squarely on McKenzies' attorneys and the federal district judge. Obviously, quite the tangled web was weaved.
The accumulated actions of the Robber Barons did eventually lead to trust busting and anti-monopoly legislation in the early 1900s so it could be said that some good did finally come out of this.
The author, Paul Starobin, is a journalist and not a historian. Consequently, the notes reflect a specific quote or expression on the relevant page, and there is no formal bibliography although there is a Bibliographical Note which explains the source of much of the material used to construct the text.
Helpfully, there are two maps. One is an inset, of Alaska, which shows the location of Seward Peninsula. The second, and larger, is of the greater Peninsula area locating those mining areas in dispute. The photographic section contains contemporary portraits of the principals and relevant Alaskan locations. Fortunately, as well, there is a “cast of characters” list inasmuch as one will need a scorecard to keep track of the players in this rather convoluted story.
Greed and avarice aside, this is certainly a cautionary tale, reminding us all that one must still do one's due diligence and not necessarily depend on someone’s word and ostensible good will when it comes to investing and financial matters.