Monday, May 21, 2012

Johnny Skae (1842-1885): Rags to Riches to Rags; Friend and Literary Subject of Mark Twain

 Had John William “Johnny” Skae lived in modern times, he might have made headlines as an internet hacker or a violator of SEC insider trading laws. But Skae lived in Virginia City, Nevada during the peak of the mining days. He became a millionaire as an early “hacker” when he used his position as the local telegraph operator to decipher messages from mining magnates to the San Francisco stock market. Like a modern day insider trader, he used the information to line up investors and make a fortune off of the silver barons, known as the “Bonanza Kings” - John W. Mackay, James G. Fair, James C. Flood, and William S. O'Brien.

Skae was born into relative poverty in Oshawa, Ontario of Scotch and Irish parents. He came to California as a boy and perfected the telegraph trade, which some members of his family had trained for in Canada. He was working for the California Telegraph Company when the Bonanza Kings were developing the Consolidated Virginia and California mines. He raised cash based on the knowledge he acquired and bought large amounts of stock on margin. He was so successful that he became a major figure at the Stock Exchange. As the stock climbed, he recklessly ordered his brokers to “double up” daily until stock that was purchase for $20-$30 reached $1,000 a share. He amassed millions of dollars and took control of the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Works.

Virginia and California Mine
Skae’s activities prompted the California Telegraph Company to implement a policy that prohibited their employees from owning stock in the mines.

Skae was a well-known public figure and was featured by Mark Twain in two of Twain's stories in the Territorial Enterprise (Oct. 22-24, 1865) and the Californian (Aug. 26, 1865) which related to California mining enterprises.

As his wealth increased, he began spending his money in reckless ways. He would fill ponds with trout, invite over friends and provide fishing poles with dried beef tied to the hooks. His “trout breakfasts” became legendary among gourmands in the region. His parties also included some of the most expensive wines which could be purchased in the mining country and it was said that it flowed like water. It was said that he once lost $60,000 in one poker game at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, his luck ran out when he no longer had insider knowledge from the telegraph dispatches. He failed to sell his stock in time to avoid the crash and the man who at one time was worth $10,000,000 was broke. Newspaper reports claim that the “father of the new Bonanza” was found helplessly drunk by a police officer on a San Francisco street. With only a few coins in his pockets, he couldn’t pay his $5.00 ticket and he was sent to jail. 

[There is at least one account that claims that Skae did not die penniless.]

The grassy area is the Skae family plot
Skae is buried Plot 27, Lot 14 just beneath the famous Crocker monument on Millionaire’s Row. The grass plot contains no headstones. The Skae family is buried in an underground vault with six crypts, which sits two feet beneath the surface.

[Excerpted from the July 18, 1885 obituary,  the July 23, 1885 Omaha Daily Bee, Lighting Out for the Territory and Mark Twain’s “Notebooks and Journals”]

Mark Twain
An excerpt from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches” by Mark Twain:
Our esteemed friend, Mr. John William Skae, of Virginia City, walked into the office where we are sub-editor at a late hour last night, with an expression of profound and heartfelt suffering upon his countenance, and, sighing heavily, laid the following item reverently upon the desk, and walked slowly out again. He paused a moment at the door, and seemed struggling to command his feelings sufficiently to enable him to speak, and then, nodding his head toward his manuscript, ejaculated in a broken voice, "Friend of mine -- oh! how sad!" and burst into tears. We were so moved at his distress that we did not think to call him back and endeavor to comfort him until he was gone and it was too late. The paper had already gone to press, but knowing that our friend would consider the publication of this item important, and cherishing the hope that to print it would afford a melancholy satisfaction to his sorrowing heart, we stopped the press at once and inserted it in our columns:
 DISTRESSING ACCIDENT. -- Last evening about 6 o`clock, as Mr. William Schuyler, an old and respectable citizen of South Park, was leaving his residence to go down town, as has been his usual custom for many years, with the exception only of a short interval in the spring of 1850, during which he was confined to his bed by injuries received in attempting to stop a runaway horse by thoughtlessly placing himself directly in its wake and throwing up his hands and shouting, which, if he had done so even a single moment sooner, must inevitably have frightened the animal still more instead of checking its speed, although disastrous enough to himself as it was, and rendered more melancholy and distressing by reason of the presence of his wife`s mother, who was there and saw the sad occurrence, notwithstanding it is at least likely, though not necessarily so, that she should be reconnoitering in another direction when incidents occur, not being vivacious and on the lookout, as a general thing, but even the reverse, as her own mother is said to have stated, who is no more, but died in the full hope of a glorious resurrection, upwards of three years ago, aged 86, being a Christian woman and without guile, as it were, or property, in consequence of the fire of 1849, which destroyed every blasted thing she had in the world. But such is life. Let us all take warning by this solemn occurrence, and let us endeavor so to conduct ourselves that when we come to die we can do it. Let us place our hands upon our hearts, and say with earnestness and sincerity that from this day forth we will beware of the intoxicating bowl. -- First Edition of the Californian.
The boss-editor has been in here raising the very mischief, and tearing his hair and kicking the furniture about, and abusing me like a pickpocket. He says that every time he leaves me in charge of the paper for half an hour, I get imposed upon by the first infant or the first idiot that comes along. And he says that distressing item of Johnny Skae`s is nothing but a lot of distressing bosh, and has got no point to it and no sense in it and no information in it, and that there was no earthly necessity for stopping the press to publish it. He says every man he meets has insinuated that somebody about THE CALIFORNIAN office has gone crazy.
 Now all this comes of being good-hearted. If I had been as unaccommodating and unsympathetic as some people, I would have told Johnny Skae that I wouldn`t receive his communication at such a late hour, and to go to blazes with it; but no, his snuffling distress touched my heart, and I jumped at the chance of doing something to modify his misery. I never read his item to see whether there was any thing wrong about it, but hastily wrote the few lines which preceded it, and sent it to the printers. And what has my kindness done for me? It has done nothing but bring down upon me a storm of abuse and ornamental blasphemy.
Now, I will just read that item myself, and see if there is any foundation for all this fuss. And if there is, the author of it shall hear from me.· · · · · · · ·I have read it, and I am bound to admit that it seems a little mixed at a first glance. However, I will peruse it once more.· · · · · · · ·I have read it again, and it does really seem a good deal more mixed than ever.· · · · · · · ·I have read it over five times, but if I can get at the meaning of it, I wish I may get my just deserts. It won`t bear analysis. There are things about it which I cannot understand at all. It don`t say whatever became of William Schuyler. It just says enough about him to get one interested in his career, and then drops him. Who is William Schuyler, any how, and what part of South Park did he live in, and if he started down-town at six o`clock, did he ever get there, and if he did, did any thing happen to him? Is he the individual that met with the "distressing accident"? Considering the elaborate circumstantiality of detail observable in the item, it seems to me that it ought to contain more information than it does. On the contrary, it is obscure -- and not only obscure, but utterly incomprehensible. Was the breaking of Mr. Schuyler`s leg, fifteen years ago, the "distressing accident" that plunged Mr. Skae into unspeakable grief, and caused him to come up here at dead of night and stop our press to acquaint the world with the unfortunate circumstance? Or did the "distressing accident" consist in the destruction of Schuyler`s mother-in-law`s property in early times? Or did it consist in the death of that person herself three years ago? (albeit it does not appear that she died by accident.) In a word, what did that "distressing accident" consist in? What did that driveling ass of a Schuyler stand in the wake of a runaway horse for, with his shouting and gesticulating, if he wanted to stop him? And how the mischief could he get run over by a horse that had already passed beyond him? And what are we to "take warning" by? and how is this extraordinary chapter of incomprehensibilities going to be a "lesson" to us? And above all, what has the "intoxicating bowl" got to do with it, any how? It is not stated that Schuyler drank, or that his wife drank, or that his mother-in-law drank, or that the horse drank -- wherefore, then, the reference to the intoxicating bowl? It does seem to me that, if Mr. Skae had let the intoxicating bowl alone himself, he never would have got into so much trouble about this infernal imaginary distressing accident. I have read his absurd item over and over again, with all its insinuating plausibility, until my head swims; but I can make neither head nor tail of it. There certainly seems to have been an accident of some kind or other, but it is impossible to determine what the nature of it was, or who was the sufferer by it. I do not like to do it, but I feel compelled to request that the next time any thing happens to one of Mr. Skae`s friends, he will append such explanatory notes to his account of it as will enable me to find out what sort of an accident it was and whom it happened to. I had rather all his friends should die than that I should be driven to the verge of lunacy again in trying to cipher out the meaning of another such production as the above. 

1 comment:

Barbara Smith said...

Poor Johnny Skae - at least at Mountain View, he won't have to find $5.00. He found a place where he can rest in peace. What a tale!

Barbara Smith