(p. C9) One evening sometime in the 1850s, John Mackay, a prospector, was playing poker with his fellow silver miners in Virginia City, Nev. The wagering was furious, and Mackay was playing well. In one hand, he was dealt an improbable three aces. The man next to him was “betting like a cyclone,” when Mackay drew the astonishing fourth ace, whereupon he laid down his cards and walked away without picking up the pot. “Leave me out, boys,” he said. He didn’t need it. At this point in his life, he had more money than he could ever spend.
. . .
With not a cent to his name, Mackay began swinging a pick ax for subsistence wages on other peoples’ claims, eventually working his way up to mine supervisor. “Mackay tried to cast his imagination into the rock,” Mr. Crouch says, “looking for clues that would lead him to a greater understanding of what wealth lay underground.” By 1865 he had acquired enough cash to buy a stake in a promising mine called the Kentuck. At first the investment looked to be another bust, but it suddenly hit big, paying out $1.6 million of the “precious needful,” as miners called valuable ore, over the next two years.
. . .
The author saves for last an account of the delicious comeuppance Mackay delivered to the American businessman Jay Gould –“the most hated man of the age.” Gould had secured a monopoly on trans-Atlantic telegraphy. Without competition, he gouged users, prompting Mackay, a believer in private enterprise, to lay his own undersea cable, thus breaking Gould’s stranglehold and winning public admiration on both sides of the Atlantic.
Mr. Crouch clearly admires his protagonist, at times nearly to distraction. He portrays Mackay throughout this well-written and worthwhile book as a man of high principle–kind, charitable and fair, dependably doing the noble thing. Strong and silent, he is the Gary Cooper of the sagebrush set. It ever so lightly strains credulity, however, to believe that Mackay didn’t harbor a little larceny in his heart, like nearly everybody on the Comstock during the mad rush. But readers may well want to take the author’s word that a man of such humility and generosity was exactly that. Nowhere will you read John Mackay’s name among the robber barons of his era. Some men who are dealt four aces in life deserve them.
For the full review, see:
Patrick Cooke. “‘The Man Who Hit the Mother Lode.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 7, 2018): C9.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 5, 2018, and has the title “‘The Bonanza King’ Review: The Man Who Hit the Mother Lode.”)
The book under review, is:
Crouch, Gregory. The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle over the Greatest Riches in the American West. New York: Scribner, 2018.