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Saturday, 26 September 2015


A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of writing a study guide to the great American author Mark Twain. I was asked to include some of his many witty aphorisms in an appendix, a terrible task of selection. One that didn’t make the cut was this definition: A mine is a hole in the ground, owned by a liar.

John Sadleir (1813-1856)

Which brings me to my ancestor John Sadleir, MP for Carlow in Ireland and a liar and swindler on a grand scale. In the end he took his own life, belatedly weighed down with remorse about the thousands of investors whose lives he ruined. One of them was, I believe, his cousin my great great grandfather Richard William Ralph Sadleir. John started out being fairly honestly successful in amassing wealth through business and land transactions. But when his financial star waned he turned to increasingly desperate and ill-judged speculation to fund his earlier investments. One of his more colourful get-rich-quick schemes was the founding of the Carson’s Creek Gold Mining Company in February 1852.

Gold was discovered in California at the start of 1848. Although word was at first slow to spread, the trickle of prospectors travelling to the territory soon became a flood. In 1849 some eighty seven thousand men (and three thousand women) joined the Gold Rush. Known collectively as Forty-Niners they found gold in abundance more or less lying around in surface ore. You didn’t even have to go underground – a stick of explosive would send up a shower of gold-bearing quartz, or you could just pan for gold in the silt of the rivers. 

A Forty-Niner (pictured in 1850 – picture from Wikipedia)

In 1849 the pan-handlers extracted $10 million worth of gold. In 1850 it was $41 million. In 1851 it was $75 million and in 1852 $81 million. It must have seemed the answer to all John Sadleir’s prayers, if he could just carve himself out a tiny fraction of the wealth being generated in California

He found his opportunity and went into partnership with the new American owners of a mine on Carson Hill, which stand above the Stanislaus River in central California. Carson Creek, through which the river flowed below the mine, was one of the early centres of the gold rush after James H. Carson found plentiful gold in the riverbed and staked his claim there.

But by 1852 the easy gold was running out. Now you had to dig for it, hard work with uncertain returns. In pitching to London investors Sadleir was able to assure them on the matter of legitimate ownership of the mine (previously occupied by illegal squatters); but there was no knowing how much ore the mine might deliver. But greed, like love, is blind: when Sadleir described the luxury in which the squatters had lived, and wheeled out a tame U.S. attorney eager to buy up any shares left over after the flotation, the money, £154,000 of it, poured in.

A mine and mill on Carson Hill, still being worked in the 1920s

And out again. John Sadleir, now the chairman of the Carson’s Creek Gold Mining Company, borrowed large amounts of money from it which he told investors had been earmarked for the purchase of mining machinery. He could not repay it when it became due in January 1855; so he lodged the deed of some of his Irish property with the London and County Bank as security. 

But he was also the chairman of the London and County Bank, and he quietly retrieved the deed without the knowledge of the bank’s directors and lodged it elsewhere as security against further loans – a bit like selling the land twice. At least the bank had directors; the Carson’s Creek company had none, and after John Sadleir’s suicide no one even knew where he had kept the invested sums, let alone that he had by then spent it all, every last fool's gold penny. 

When in the depths of his remorse he swallowed prussic acid one night on Hampstead Heath, his overdraft at the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank, of which he and his brother James were directors, had risen to around a quarter of a million pounds, while he and his brother had reduced the bank’s assets to only £75,000. Besides defrauding that bank's and the Carson’s Creek Mining Company’s investors, Sadleir had also been selling forged shares in the Royal Swedish Railway Company, to which he owed at the time of his death a further £300,000. 

Landmark sign in Carson Hill, now a ghost town

Gold extraction never again reached the glittering heights of that 1852 value. But nine months after John Sadleir’s death, Morgan Mine elsewhere on Carson Hill yielded a giant piece of gold weighing over thirteen pounds and worth $43,000 at 1856 prices. It is still the largest single nugget ever found in California.

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