A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age
By Paul Starobin. PublicAffairs, 314 pages, 2020. $28
There’s a familiar joke about Alaska’s Gold Rush days. It wasn’t the miners who got rich, it was the people who mined the miners. Barkeepers, madams, card sharks, as well as more reputable shop owners and suppliers. But Alexander McKenzie took such plans one step further when he arrived in Nome in 1900. He pursued his fortune by mining the miners of their mines. And for a few short weeks, he succeeded.
McKenzie was the linchpin of what author Paul Starobin describes as “A Most Wicked Conspiracy,” the title of his lively account of what transpired on Alaska’s western coast during the peak of that region’s prospecting madness, when thousands of people poured into the newly established town of Nome seeking to scoop gold from the ground. It’s a story about the collision between the last sputtering days of the American Frontier (already officially pronounced closed, but still clinging to one last stand in Alaska), and the twilight of the Gilded Age, when political bosses and capitalists combined forces to fill their own pockets with impunity (whether this latter era ever truly closed can be debated elsewhere).
For average men looking to get rich quickly, Nome presented a unique opportunity. Unlike the Klondike, still booming at the time, Nome was easily accessible in summer by boat. And gold abounded. It could even, for a brief time, be scooped out of beach sands. For a wealthy and well-connected scoundrel like McKenzie, meanwhile, Nome also presented a unique opportunity. There was little in the way of laws, much less enforcement. If he could seize control of the legal apparatus, McKenzie reasoned, he could seize control of the mining claims and even the gold that had already been dug from the ground by others. And this is precisely what McKenzie did.
Starobin begins by taking readers into the heady environment of Nome in 1899. The initial gold strike had been made by a trio of men who became known as the Three Lucky Swedes (in truth, only one was Swedish). Prospectors quickly swarmed into the region and staked claims. Meanwhile gold was emerging from the beach, the fabled discovery central to Nome’s founding story.
Most of the early arrivers settled into a mutually beneficial community. As many radiated out into the hills where creeks bubbled with gold, it was agreed, based on U.S. law regarding coastal lands, that the beach was free to all, with no right to stake a claim. Anyone with a shovel and a strong back could grab any available spot and start digging, but once they were done, the next person could move in.
Of course the situation was ripe for exploitation, especially since, in a land without an established legal framework, unsavory attorneys were ready to fill the void. And one of them gained the ear of McKenzie, a Republican political boss in the Dakotas, who saw his chance. Through legal finagling that would perplex any honest person, he devised a scheme that would involve cronies filing lawsuits over the legitimacy of existing claims, with the upshot being that he would be placed in receivership of the active mines while the issues were sorted out in court. This would funnel gold directly into his pockets.
The details are too complex to untangle here, but key to the plot’s success was getting control of the court that was set to be established in Nome in 1900. McKenzie pulled political strings running all the way to the White House and managed to get a lackey on the bench. Judge Arthur Noyes, a weak-willed alcoholic, was the man who would give legal cover to McKenzie’s nefarious activities (Fairbanks residents should breathe easy; the Arthur Noyes for whom the town’s Noyes Slough is named was not the same man).
With pieces in place, McKenzie stepped off the boat in Nome in the summer of 1900 and within hours was handing miners notices to vacate their claims. In only a short period, he had his hands on nearly the entire region, with Noyes declaring McKenzie as overseer of it all. Men took sides, some working for — and frequently in cahoots with — McKenzie, continuing the mining that claim holders had initiated, while others found themselves out of work, deprived of their earnings, and without immediate legal recourse.
It’s remarkable, in retrospect, that it all didn’t lead to bloodshed. Starobin, describing that fevered summer far from civilization, writes, “A climate of mutual trust and suspicion, scented with gunpowder, settled on Nome.”
Guns were drawn, and more than once, but triggers were never pulled. Instead, a flurry of court papers were filed, and what emerges in Starobin’s skillful hands is a real-life legal thriller. McKenzie had gone to great effort to insulate his position from the reach of the law, but he couldn’t rope in everyone. He also failed to foresee that the ousted miners would engage in legal maneuverings of their own, much less that they would find qualified counsel in Nome.
How it all was eventually settled is best left unsaid. This book reads like a good novel, and I don’t want to give away the ending. Suffice to say that the road to resolution wound through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court, and ultimately to then-President William McKinley, an acquaintance and political ally of McKenzie who would face his own embarrassments over his connections to it all (he was never directly implicated, but questions remain). It became a minor national scandal.
In Alaska, meanwhile, the end result was the rule of law. With government and courts established on its western shore, it could be argued (although Starobin doesn’t make this case) that this was the true closing of the American frontier. Freedom such as that which briefly flourished in Nome, and as it had with each westward lurch by pioneers, would never be seen again. “A Most Wicked Conspiracy” is, in some ways, also the story of the last gasp of the Old West.