There’s something about gold. Since earliest times it has obsessed mankind like no other element.
The ancient Greek legend of the “Golden Fleece” is both myth and fact. The factual side is based on the real practice of prehistoric prospectors in Colchis, part of what would become the modern-day Republic of Georgia. Ancient Georgians used sheep fleeces as a primitive sort of filter or sieve to “pan” for gold. Some of the residue would saturate the sheepskins lending them a glowing yellow hue. Hence the proverbial “Golden Fleece.”
The fleecing didn’t end with Colchis. Even today, there is no shortage of true believers in the mystical power of gold, as evidenced by the seemingly endless stream of television infomercials featuring clapped-out celebrities pitching overpriced precious metals to underinformed viewers. This would have come as no surprise to Mark Twain. No stranger to gold fever himself, he would ruefully conclude that, “A mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing next to it. The hole in the ground and the liar combine and issue shares and trap fools.”
Appropriately enough, one of the most shameless scams involving gold occurred in fin de siecle America at the dawn of the 20th century — the tail end of the period Mark Twain had labelled the “Gilded Age,” when newly-minted tycoons were the odd bedfellows of political machine bosses.
Before the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, providing for direct election of U.S. senators, members of “the world’s greatest deliberative body” were selected by often corrupt state legislatures. The legislatures themselves were mainly controlled by state party bosses who therefore held powerful political IOUs from the men they had “placed” in the Senate. The robber barons, operating through the machine bosses, often called in these IOUs in crucial policy battles.
For all its flaws, the Gilded Age laid the foundations for the industrial and financial might that would turn America into the single greatest engine for democratically-based progress, prosperity and opportunity in the world. But it also fostered abuses that cried out for reform.
Those cries were answered by courageous reformers. Statesmen of integrity and clean government advocates from both major parties, crusading journalists, trade union leaders, and philanthropies and a primary and secondary education system that helped turned out literate, civic-minded citizens all played their parts. But it was the railroads, the steel mills, the factories and telegraph lines — the great feats of engineering, innovation and initiative — that created the incredible new playing field that the reformers would referee.
One of the areas most in need of refereeing was Alaska during the turn-of-the-century Gold Rush. The account of the scandalous goings-on there published in a crusading West Coast newspaper of the day may sound a bit lurid, but it is based on the truth and could also serve as a thumbnail description of veteran journalist and talented popular historian Paul Starobin’s new book on the subject:
“[B]odies of armed men seeking by force what the law would not give them … threats of bloodshed, of forcible dispossession … and it ends with the breaking open of a safe deposit box and of big boxes of nuggets and carting them in the full sight of a whole town of people, who cheered as they looked on.”
That and much more, including influence peddlers, corrupt senators, a bought federal judge with a drinking problem, a gatling gun-toting crusading attorney, and a crooked, charismatic and literally larger-than-life (six-foot-six by some contemporary accounts) machine boss named “Big Alex” McKenzie, who used his political and Wall Street connections to float a shameless scam that nearly succeeded.
McKenzie was a Republican, as were most of the corrupt politicos and tycoons he cultivated in a period when the GOP was the dominant national party, but so were many of the heroes of this story, including the determined circuit court judge William W. Morrow, a former Republican congressman, who was instrumental in trying, convicting and jailing McKenzie in the end.
Indeed, the title Paul Starobin chose for his thoroughly-researched and skillfully-written account of the affair is borrowed from an indignant letter written by a Republican friend of President McKinley to the latter’s attorney general, Philander C. Knox:
“It is quite evident that a most wicked conspiracy was formed to loot the Nome Country [Alaska] through judicial proceedings.”
In the end, the conspiracy was thwarted and the revelations contributed to mounting public support for direct senatorial elections. It’s a story well worth telling, and Paul Starobin tells it very well indeed.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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A MOST WICKED CONSPIRACY: THE LAST GREAT SWINDLE OF THE GILDED AGE
By Paul Starobin
Public Affairs, $28, 320 pages