Death of a Bonanza King: An accident or suicide?

December 26, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

"Last Bonanza Kings: The Bourns of San Francisco" by Ferol Egan (University of Nevada Press, 1998) is a wonderful local history even for people who don't like history.

Author/historian Egan tells a good story, a skill too often overlooked when it comes to writing history.

He writes about one of the wealthiest and most powerful of the bonanza or mining kings in this state, William Bowers Bourn I and his son and successor, William Bowers Bourn II.

The elder Bourn, descendant of an early New England family, arrived in San Francisco shortly after the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills. Although he eventually invested heavily in mines in Grass Valley and on the Comstock, his initial success was as a businessman in the booming port city of San Francisco. After his death in 1874, the family's many business interests were taken over by Bourn's young son, William, who built upon his father's success, expanding the Empire Mine in Grass Valley into one of the largest, most productive and technologically advanced hard-rock gold mines in the West.

Egan even manages to make the basics of mining interesting to a general reader.

The younger Bourn inherited his father's Midas touch and developed a range of business interests that included a vast privately owned water system that became the basis for San Francisco's current water supply.

The best place to read a book on Northern California history is on the train heading from Davis to Reno, preferably when there's a snow storm on the summit. At least, that's how I read "Last Bonanza Kings" earlier this month and I'm sure the place and pace added to my enjoyment.

Plus, Egan writes about a mystery concerning the death of William Bowers Bourn I.

In the summer of 1874, the elder Bourn was living at the family's Taylor Street home in San Francisco where he enjoyed introducing his son, 17, and nephew, 21, to the world of business and investments that included stock transactions, real estate, farm and ranch land speculations and the complicated science of removing gold from quartz brought up from the depths of the Empire Mine. His wife was at their country home in St. Helena at the time.

The two young men were eager for their next trip to the mine in Grass Valley, which would take place when William Bourn Sr. would make a payroll delivery run. The only flaw about taking the payroll to the mine was the need for Bourn to carry a Colt revolver. He didn't like carrying a gun, but didn't want to entrust the job to Wells Fargo because he was irritated with the way the stage coach company changed its prices. The constant fluctuation of prices was not only annoying but added an expense he saw no reason to pay since he had to make trips to Grass Valley anyway to keep in touch with the mining operation.

Still, the cash would require protection. A careless word about the transfer of a large amount of money, say at a lunch in a San Francisco restaurant where he could be overheard by a waiter, could be dangerous, and stagecoach robberies were not uncommon. Bourn's business friends knew he was making the payroll delivery trips and their concern focused on Bourn's carelessness in handling firearms.

Bourn decided to make a trip to the mine with the boys on July 24. When the day arrived, however, the elder Bourn did not get up for breakfast. They boys had last seen him the previous night before they went out on the town.

And when his nephew checked the bedroom that morning, he found the body of his uncle dressed only in a night-shirt, which was saturated with blood. The body lay on the floor with one arm encircling the head. At the feet was a large revolver.

When the coroner examined the body, he declared that Bourn had been standing when the shot was fired, and he ruled that Bourn had taken his own life. It was known that Bourn suffered greatly from headaches and it was thought that this might have been a contributing factor to his suicide. An empty vial of chloroform was found in the bathroom off his bedroom.

But Bourn's business friends, who knew about his attitude toward firearms, thought it highly unlikely that Bourn would commit suicide by shooting himself in the stomach.

They believed, and a later investigation found, that Bourn had been trying to load his Colt revolver and did not realize that he had a bullet in the firing position. He fumbled with the pistol and dropped it, causing the weapon to go off and fire a shot upward into his stomach and through his body.

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