Review: 'Conspiracy' tells of gold rush and Gilded Age greed

This cover image released by PublicAffairs shows "A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age," by Paul Starobin. (PublicAffairs via AP) (Uncredited)

“A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age,” by Paul Starobin (Public Affairs)

Rules, laws and honesty meant little to Alexander McKenzie, a Gilded Age political boss in North Dakota who chummed around with deep-pocketed capitalists and U.S. senators. After gold was discovered in the territory of Alaska at the end of the 19th century, he involved them in his brazen scheme to plunder gold already claimed by miners by secretly rigging the justice system.

Starobin tells a jaunty tale of jaw-dropping greed at the dawn of the 20th century. The complex scheme to grab the gold involved political appointments and back-room deals, but boiled down to having a federal judge in Alaska appoint McKenzie as receiver to a series of contested gold mine claims. Miners fighting off the claim jumpers were unaware that McKenzie had secretly engineered the appointment of the crooked judge, who did his bidding.

Receivers are supposed to safeguard disputed assets, but McKenzie wanted to use the legal proceedings to make sure the gold was extracted for himself and his co-conspirators. He even made a play for Alaska’s beaches, which were common areas open to anyone who wanted to sift for gold dust in the surf.

The cast of characters involved in the conspiracy is large, sometimes confusingly so. But Starobin is able to paint a vivid picture of the mining camps and of Nome, Alaska, then a muddy boomtown filled saloons, dance halls and men dreaming of a big score.

The center of the story is McKenzie, a bear of a man who bootstrapped his way from obscurity. Encountering obstacles once in Nome, he simply bulled through them. Even an order from a higher federal court was ignored. He seemed as incapable of giving up as he was of being honest.

McKenzie eventually got into trouble, and the resulting scandal required the attention President William McKinley, a fellow Republican who had a difficult decision to make about the political boss’s fate. While McKenzie had wronged a lot of people, he had powerful friends working on his behalf. Turns out that some things haven’t changed in 120 years.