“No previous scandal could be said to match this one in breadth, across the branches of government.”
Paul Starobin’s “Most Wicked Conspiracy” may have been, as the subtitle notes, “The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age,” but it was far from the only one.
The Gilded Age, which ran roughly from the end of the Civil War to the start of the 20th century, got its name from the title of a satirical Mark Twain novel. It was a time when infamous robber barons built large oil, rail and steel conglomerates, often using political influence, intimidation, violence and bribery to amass wealth at the expense of working people.
In Starobin’s book, the grifter was Alexander McKenzie, chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party. Because he controlled the state Legislature — which at the time decided who represented the state in the U.S. Senate — many politicians were beholden to him.
When he heard about the discovery of gold in Alaska, McKenzie hatched a brilliant, albeit shady, scheme. Using his influence and about $60,000 in bribes ($2 million today), he got President William McKinley to appoint Arthur W. Noyes federal judge for the area where the gold was. Included in the package were a federal prosecutor and a federal marshal, both also prepared to do McKenzie’s bidding.
As anyone who has ever watched a western knows, where there are mining claims, there are always claim jumpers. Noyes’ job was to delay deciding who was the rightful claimant and to appoint McKenzie as a receiver to take charge of the property until then. A receiver is supposed to watch, not loot; but McKenzie mined his assigned claims illegally, appropriating tens of thousands of dollars.
Interestingly, the first important voice of dissent was a newspaper, the Nome Daily Chronicle, whose editorials united the miners and encouraged them to seek legal remedies. Lawyers for the miners sent a motion to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found in their favor. They demanded that McKenzie return the gold he’d stolen. And when he didn’t comply completely, he was sentenced to a year in jail for contempt.
That put an end to a tangled web McKenzie had spun, which included creating a mining company with which he’d hoped to defraud investors. In the end, though, McKenzie scored a victory of sorts. While his efforts to receive a presidential pardon failed, President McKinley commuted his sentence after he had served only a few months.
If these shenanigans sound familiar, it is one of the reasons this book is important. If we do not study and remember our history, we are doomed to repeat it.
What McKenzie did goes beyond mere avarice. To sate his greed, he willingly subverted the American system. This book also serves as a hopeful reminder that ultimately there are people who will stand up for what is right.
As a matter of personal preference, I try to avoid books that begin with a listing of characters — and there are more than 50 characters noted here. But I needn’t have worried. The writing is fluid, the structure is logical without unnecessary diversions. Also, the events in Nome provided the final impetus for the 17th Amendment, the direct election of U.S. senators, and at least a partial decrease in the powers of the bosses.
I love happy endings.
Curt Schleier is a book critic in New Jersey.
A Most Wicked Conspiracy
By: Paul Starobin.
Publisher: Public Affairs, 296 pages, $28.