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Infamous King of the Comstock

William Sharon And The Gilded Age In The West

Michael Makley

Publication Year: 2009

William Sharon was one of the most colorful scoundrels in the nineteenth-century mining West. He epitomized the robber barons of the nation’s Gilded Age and the political corruption and moral decay for which that period remains notorious; yet he was also a visionary capitalist who controlled more than a dozen of the greatest mines on Nevada’s mighty Comstock Lode, built the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, manipulated speculation and prices on the San Francisco Stock Exchange, and revived the collapsed Bank of California. One enemy called him “a thoroughly bad man—a man entirely void of principle,” while a Comstock neighbor called him “one of the best men that ever lived in Virginia City.” Both descriptions were reasonably accurate. In this first-ever biography of one of Nevada’s most reviled historical figures, author Michael Makley examines Sharon’s complex nature and the turbulent times in which he flourished. Arriving in San Francisco shortly after the Gold Rush began, Sharon was soon involved in real estate, politics, banking, and stock speculation, and he was a party in several of the era’s most shocking business and sexual scandals. When he moved to Virginia City, Nevada’s mushrooming silver boomtown, his business dealings there soon made him known as the “King of the Comstock"

Published by: University of Nevada Press

Front Cover

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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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pp. 4-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

I received a significant amount of assistance in developing this book, which is reflected in the fact that the first draft of the manuscript was over eight hundred pages long. A considerable debt is owed both to those who helped me accumulate that amount of information and to those who helped me reduce it to publishable size. ...

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pp. 1-8

On August 27, 1875, William Chapman Ralston swam out into San Francisco Bay and drowned. Earlier that day the Bank of California’s board of directors had asked Ralston to resign his position as president. Because of his reckless speculations, the once invincible bank had failed. Fortunes, large and small, were lost. ...

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Chapter One: Black Broadcloth

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pp. 9-20

William Sharon was born in Smithfield, Ohio, on January 9, 1821, his ancestors having helped settle William Penn’s Philadelphia at the end of the seventeenth century. The family tree included a lieutenant who served in the New Jersey campaign in 1776, a Presbyterian minister, and a state legislator. ...

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Chapter Two: Gambling

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pp. 21-40

Early in 1864, mines in the Nevada boomtown of Aurora dried up, and its stocks crashed on the San Francisco Exchange. In Virginia City four hundred wildcat mining companies, most of which had been formed the previous year, were proving unsuccessful and being deserted. ...

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Chapter Three: The Virginia & Truckee

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pp. 41-55

In 1862 Herber Spencer amplified the doctrine of his friend Charles Darwin by discussing the law of evolution and introducing the phrase “survival of the fittest.” In the 1870s at Yale University, William Graham Sumner began applying Spencer’s postulations and theories to the social order, teaching that social progress depended on survival of the fittest. ...

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Chapter Four: The Lamb

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pp. 56-65

The bane of mine shareholders was assessments. When they deemed it necessary, mine trustees posted an amount per share levied upon capital stock, payable immediately. A month later, unpaid assessments would be deemed delinquent and advertised for sale at a public auction to be held one month after the advertisement. ...

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Chapter Five: Conflicts

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pp. 66-83

Located on two hundred acres at Glenbrook Creek, about a mile from Lake Tahoe, the Glenbrook House was organized as a club for Bank Ring members and other Comstock magnates. Sharon and Charles Bonner started it in 1869; when they later sold it, it became the Glenbrook Hotel. ...

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Chapter Six: Hurly-Burly

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pp. 84-102

At the same time the Sutro hearings were being held in Washington, D.C., Sharon let it be known that he was a candidate for Nevada’s U.S. Senate seat. He and Ralston had first considered such a move two years earlier.1 ...

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Chapter Seven: The Ophir Debacle

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pp. 103-109

Economic historians long ago debunked American laissez faire as myth. Jefferson’s colonial Virginia philosophy proposed a wise, frugal government that, while preventing men from injuring one another, left them free to regulate their own pursuit of industry. ...

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Chapter Eight: Failure

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pp. 110-124

In 1875 Sharon's father, still a bank director in Smithfield, Ohio, died at age eighty-three. After Clara’s wedding Sharon’s wife Maria took to her bed. She was forty-two, suffering from stomach cancer. Living as an invalid for several years, she suffered her illness patiently and died on May 14, 1875. ...

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Chapter Nine: Rebirth

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pp. 125-132

Because branch offices on the Comstock closed their doors along with the mother bank, D. O. Mills sent word to H. M. Yerington to open a Virginia & Truckee Railroad account with Wells Fargo. A week later, the railroad announced: “The affairs of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad are in no way embarrassed by the suspension of the Bank of California ...

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Chapter Ten: Settling Up

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pp. 133-141

Twenty percent of the syndicate subscription to save the Bank of California was $1.5 million, and by September 29, 1875, nearly the entire amount had been collected. Capital assessments were also being paid.1 The bank’s reopening was imminent. ...

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Chapter Eleven: An Ill-Fitting Toga

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pp. 142-156

On December 6, 1875, the First Session of the Forty-fourth United States Congress was gaveled to order. The new senator from Nevada, William Sharon, immersed in bank and Ralston estate business, was not in attendance. Two months later, on February 12, the Territorial Enterprise announced Sharon’s imminent arrival in Virginia City ...

Photo Insert

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pp. 172-193

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Chapter Twelve: The Rose

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pp. 157-167

William Sharon's San Francisco had changed dramatically by the 1880s. Tumultuous at the time of his arrival in 1850, it now was a unique cosmopolitan milieu, equal parts pomp, decorum, and bustle. The town’s disordered plank buildings and brick two-stories had given way to business blocks of three- and four-story ornate structures. ...

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Chapter Thirteen: In Superior Court

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pp. 168-183

The courtroom was crowded every day of what would be a very lengthy trial. Thirty-three-year-old Jeremiah F. Sullivan presided. The attorneys would call 111 witnesses, many of whom were either rumormongers or perjurers. The plaintiff and four lawyers sat at the center table. ...

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Chapter Fourteen: Pressing On

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pp. 184-188

On June 6, during the trial’s continuation, the Republican Party met in Chicago to nominate its presidential candidate. Sharon traveled there, arriving on the morning of Saturday the 7th. On June 10 the Chicago Herald reported on a party the ex-senator hosted at the Palmer House. ...

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Chapter Fifteen: Bitter End

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pp. 189-196

In October, 1884, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer of the U.S. Circuit Court ruled on a plea for dismissal of the Sharon-initiated federal case. Sawyer was a protégé of Stephen Field, called in at least one instance his “toady.”1 Months earlier, Sawyer had decided that the case came under federal jurisdiction. ...

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Chapter Sixteen: Resolutions

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pp. 197-210

Obituaries for William Sharon in the San Francisco newspapers were long and detailed, outlining his life and achievements. They also described his last day, commenting on his stoic endurance, and mentioned the torment of the divorce trial. ...


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pp. 211-258


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pp. 259-272


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pp. 273-291

E-ISBN-13: 9780874176698
Print-ISBN-13: 9780874177794

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 28 b/w photos
Publication Year: 2009