William Sharon, King of the Comstock: Part III

Petite Sarah A. Hill proved to be William Sharon’s fiercest adversary. | Courtesy U.C. Berkeley Bancroft Library

Despite his position as an elected Nevada senator, William Sharon spent virtually all his time in San Francisco where his Bank of California was located, as well as his home where his wife Maria struggled with stomach cancer.

READ Parts I & II at TheTahoeWeekly.com

Publicly, Sen. William Sharon doted on his ailing wife, but over the years he spent a lot of money on paid sexual liaisons and trysts with a variety of women, allegedly including the wives of business associates. One of those romantic flings with a younger woman would haunt him in what should have been his final years basking in enjoyable retirement.

In his quest to control Nevada’s mining empire, William “Uncle Billy” Sharon had successfully overcome determined opposition from Comstock kingpins such as the uber-rich Bonanza King John Mackay. Sharon also fought tooth and nail against engineer Adolph Sutro, famous for building the Sutro Tunnel under the mine shafts to improve working conditions and miner safety and facilitate ore extraction and hot water drainage. Sutro was Sharon’s most bitter enemy on the Comstock and some of their political and financial conflicts had to be settled by the U.S. Congress.

In 1875, the Bank of California went temporarily bankrupt, forcing Sharon to sell mining stock to raise capital. The bank’s best mine, the Consolidated Virginia, was producing the richest returns in Comstock history and untold wealth seemed certain. Sharon, however, took his profits and invested in San Francisco real estate — at one point owning 400 properties, many of them corner lots or buildings. When the Nevada mines began to fail in the late 1870s, Sharon was still golden.

Sharon was an absentee senator who failed to attend more than 90 percent of Congressional roll calls. He was often away from Nevada and Washington, D.C., for months at a time. But he was a master at insider trading on the San Francisco Stock Exchange and he perfected Comstock share price manipulation — underhanded practices that made him one of the wealthiest men in America during the Gilded Age of great industrial fortunes during 1870s and 1880s.

In August 1880, despite his poor representation of the Silver State on Capitol Hill, Sharon campaigned for re-election as the Republican candidate to retain his senate seat. When people asked why he seldom visited his constituents in Nevada or rarely voted on legislation in Washington, Sharon replied that he spent most of his senatorial career in San Francisco because managing Nevada’s financial interests took all his time and focus. His previous reasoning was that he needed to be there to care for his infirm wife Maria — who had died in 1875. When asked how he could be an effective Nevada senator while he was a full-time resident of California, Sharon coolly stated: “I am a resident of the State of Nevada by virtue of my office.”

That November, in one of the highest national voter turnouts on record, Republican victories swept the country, but in Nevada, Democrats won the state legislature for the first time, assuring their candidate James G. Fair Sharon’s senate seat. The election was the most corrupt in a state already saddled with a national reputation as the “rotten borough” of politics. Vote buying was done openly and the rate per vote went from the usual $5 to $10 to as high as $80. Democrats pursued this payola approach aggressively, justifying the vote buying as essential to getting Sharon out of office.

Sharon took the election loss in stride and returned to San Francisco. He concentrated on his role as president of the powerful Bank of California and on spending quality time with his new paramour, Sarah Althea Hill.

The 59-year old financier had first met the attractive 30-year-old socialite the previous spring. Hill was unmarried, precocious and exceptionally attractive. She was originally from Missouri. Her father practiced law and served as a state legislator; her uncle was state auditor and governor. Her mother’s lineage dated back to the American Revolution. Tragically, they all died when Hill was still young. Fortunately, their parents left her and her older brother, Hiram Morgan, an inheritance of $20,000 each for when they came of age. When she turned 21, the two siblings moved to San Francisco to live with relatives. (Morgan Hill in the Bay Area is named for Hiram Morgan.)

As a shrewd, ruthless capitalist, Sharon had great success vanquishing business competition, but it was petite Sarah A. Hill who caused him the most personal aggravation and consternation in the final years of his life. Hill’s claim of possessing letters and other documents proving that she and Sharon were legally married nearly cost him his hard-won financial fortune. The litigation and court fights went on even after Sharon died in 1885.

The couple had first met when Hill entered William Sharon’s bank to conduct business. The ever-present executive quickly heard that Hill was doing well financially investing in the stock market and he approached her to say that she could “stop by his office” if she wanted advice. The coy Hill didn’t visit Sharon’s office, but when they saw each other a week later, she invited him up to her hotel room to discuss investment tips. By October 1879 Hill was living at the upscale, Sharon-owned Grand Hotel, across the street from the world-class Palace Hotel, also controlled by the millionaire and where he lived in a suite of rooms on the fourth floor. From then on, the duo was frequently seen together in public. In December when Sharon hosted his daughter Flora’s extravagant wedding at the family’s waterfront estate in Belmont, Calif., Hill was there.

On Sept. 8, 1883, Sharon was boarding a train to the East when he was arrested and charged with adultery. The next day headlines were splashed across the country with one newspaper calling him the “amorous statesman.” Sharon had indulged in extramarital affairs since the 1860s and later admitted to paying monthly stipends to a large number of mistresses over the years. Everyone wondered how could an unmarried widower be guilty of spousal infidelity? The charges were focused on Sharon’s relations with nine women over the prior three years, but only one of the mistresses brought the charge of adultery: Sarah Hill.

Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion in the next edition of Tahoe Weekly and at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

Special thanks to my colleague, historian Michael J. Makley, who authored “The Infamous King of the Comstock: William Sharon and the Gilded Age of the West,” published by the University of Nevada Press.