Review: A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age

In the sunset of the days of the last real political bosses, robber barons, handpicked judges, and laws designed to help only them, Alexander McKenzie tries to wrest control of Alaskan gold mines from rightful claimants.

Author Paul Starobin has created an exceptionally readable book that traces McKenzie’s beginnings from poor and broke to wealthy kingmaker. It is superbly researched, and conveys not just the sentiment of the day – moguls say who will be sent to Congress, who will be President, and woe be unto you if you buck their requests for money and/or support – but also the aspirations of those seeking their golden fortune in Alaska after the California gold rush had settled.

McKenzie, already a rich man by the time the Alaskan gold rush begins, decides there is never too much wealth, and ropes in various people to assist with his takeover of the existing (and some not yet existing) gold claims in Alaska. Among them are Senators, judges, lawyers, former lawmen, and every day people who believe they are buying shares of McKenzie’s new company. He agitates for and receives the judge of his choice to be placed in Nome – and coincidentally, this same judge will hear the suits of the claim holders against corrupt lawyers and McKenzie. This is the same judge who (illegally) places the claims into receivership – with McKenzie as the receiver, thus freed to start taking gold out of the ground even while the other suits grind through the system, deliberately slowed by McKenzie and his cronies.

It’s a fascinating look at the politics of the times – one might even be inclined to say the politics of our times haven’t changed all that much.

It’s also a great look at some unrecognized heroes, standing against corruption on a massive scale. They include Senators, Federal judges in the 9th Circuit Court in California, lawyers not taken in by McKenzie, and, as always, journalists.

In the end, the punishment for these misdeeds – as is so terribly often the case in circumstances like these – is not befitting the bad actors. In that respect, there certainly have not been many changes from then to now.

Fans (as I am) of books about businesses and their leaders behaving badly (such as The Smartest Guys in the Room about the downfall of Enron), history buffs, and anyone ever tantalized by treasure should appreciate this book.

This is an eminently readable and enjoyable book. Five stars.

Contains photos and extensive notes.

Thanks to NetGalley and PublicAffairs for the advanced copy.

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