William Sharon: The Silver Tycoon Who Conned His Way Into the Senate

William Sharon - Wikipedia

In 1875, Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada chose not to run again. One of the men to step up as a candidate was silver mining baron William Sharon (1821-1885) of Virginia City. Sharon had participated in the Gold Rush in California and subsequently represented the Bank of California’s interests in the Comstock Lode in Nevada. He offered inexpensive loans to mines and mills that were underperforming, and when those that couldn’t succeed crashed, Sharon took them over (Reed). Sharon also got the government to subsidize the construction of his own railroad, the Virginia & Truckee, to carry his ore, thus establishing a transportation monopoly on his product as well. He succeeded in gaining a monopoly over silver mining in the state, thus becoming known as the “King of Comstock”. This gained him many enemies in Nevada, and by 1871 he was facing competition from mine superintendent John P. Jones, who took over the Crown Point Mine with another investor. Even worse for Sharon, in 1873 four Irish miners discovered the Big Bonanza, a massive deposit of gold and silver which produced earnings of the equivalent of over $1 billion in that time’s currency. He had sold them the mine under the belief that it was depleted. That same year, Sharon made a bid for the Senate as a Republican against fellow Republican Jones and claimed without evidence that he had set the Yellow Jacket Fire, which killed at least 35 miners, to gain in the stock market. This false accusation didn’t work; it caused silver stocks to crash and Jones was elected (James, Yellow Jacket Disaster). To make his bid for this Senate campaign, Sharon bought a newspaper that subsequently published stories singing his praises.

Back in 1875, it was not the public who elected senators, but state legislatures. Sharon offered confidential advice to the legislators about buying shares in his Ophir Silver Mining Company, as it was according to him soon going to hit $300 a share. Most of them put their life savings into the company. The truth is, however, that Sharon had been beefing up the prices with his money and as soon as his election was certified, he quietly sold all of his Ophir stock, which he had short sold. The legislators were left with almost nothing and a do almost nothing senator to show for it. As author Irving Stone noted, “No one got the better of William Sharon” (Reed). Sharon stands as Nevada’s worst senator and one of the worst senators in the history of the Senate for the means he got into office as well as the fact that he missed 92% of the Senate’s votes during his term. He was living and doing business in California and seldom visited Washington. Sharon never once visited his constituents and only once spoke on the Senate floor. As history Professor Russell Elliott wrote, “His record of inaction is unbelievable” (Keraghosian). Although nominally a supporter of silver currency as he represented Nevada, he didn’t participate in the currency debates. By contrast, his predecessor, William M. Stewart, had drafted the 15th Amendment. Despite his absenteeism, Sharon was the chairman of the Committee on Mines and Mining. He also became known for his sex scandals, including a lawsuit from his mentally unstable mistress, Sarah Althea Hill, who had preyed on him for his money and claimed that they were married in secret.

In 1881, his seat was pretty much bought by the four Bonanza miners, with one of their own, Democrat James G. Fair, serving for a single term. To this day with the wealth equivalent of about $61.3 billion in 2021 dollars, he is the wealthiest man to ever serve in the Senate (Hargreaves). Fair was a minor improvement over Sharon, as he only missed 76% of the Senate’s votes in his single term. Stewart would return in 1887 and Nevada would once again have two full-time senators. In his final years, Sharon would be dealing with the lawsuit and made sure that his fortune would be protected and handled by his son-in-law and primary beneficiary of his will, future Senator Francis Newlands. Newlands and other family had to move to Nevada as a result to qualify as residents to protect the fortune. Sharon died on November 13, 1885 from heart failure, apparently brought on by the stress of his personal life. His MC-Index score, for what little I could make of it, is a 67%. This isn’t too bad of a measure here, given that his DW-Nominate score is a 0.163.

References

Hargreaves, S. (2014, June 2). The richest Americans in history. CNN.

Retrieved from

https://money.cnn.com/gallery/luxury/2014/06/01/richest-americans-in-history/19.html

James, R.M. (2009, March 17). William Sharon. Online Nevada Encyclopedia.

Retrieved from

https://www.onlinenevada.org/articles/william-sharon

James, R.M. (2009, March 17). Yellow Jacket Disaster. Online Nevada Encyclopedia.

Retrieved from

https://www.onlinenevada.org/articles/william-sharon

Keraghosian, G. (2021, May 23). How notorious tycoon William Sharon left SF’s children a still-popular landmark. SFGate.

Retrieved from

https://www.sfgate.com/sfhistory/article/William-Sharon-golden-gate-park-landmarks-16188509.php

Lilley, W. (2019, June 28). The System of the River: Francis Newlands and the Improbable Quest to Irrigate the West, Chapter 6 – “Mr. Sharon and Lady”. Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Retrieved from

https://newlands.stanford.edu/6-mr-sharon-and-lady

Reed, L.W. (2018, August 8). The Man Who Bankrupted a Legislature. Foundation for Economic Education.

Retrieved from

https://fee.org/articles/the-man-who-bankrupted-a-legislature/

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