Mysteries from the Morgue: Was the Berkshire gold rush an elaborate hoax?
The crowd gathered at the Hinsdale Mining Co. on Oct. 7, 1899, held its breath as the hammer fell upon the clay crucible in the center of the room. It cracked, splinters flying into the air, as a button of gold emerged from inside. A cheer rang out.
Julina Page, draped in a pale blue silk dress with a matching dark blue silk-lined cloak, had wielded the hammer. She had just completed the mining company's first "sugaring off" — a commercial practice her husband, George H. Page, owner and president of the company, assured his investors and a reporter from the Pittsfield Sun, would become a routine occurrence at the mine.
The button of gold, valued at $35 by the esteemed gold expert, Professor John E. Sutphen, of Glen Falls, N.Y., was proof that the minuscule gold flakes could be coaxed and collected from the sands and from a vein running under the Primrose Farm and neighboring French Farm in Hinsdale.
Each ton of sand would yield about $5 worth of gold, he said, while the cost to extract it was only $1.50 a ton.
"Here is a square, reliable, business statement, in every way it is possible to prove a prospect of the statement, and with increased facilities there would be increased work and profit. Here is a plant and proposition that only needs capital and working to turn out fortunes," Sutphen told the Pittsfield Sun.
The public would line up to invest in the Hinsdale Mining Co., as well as the Alpha Mining Co., also owned by Page, purchasing shares for $5 (the equivalent of $154 in 2020).
But it was all an elaborate lie.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were invested in the gold mines, without any profits being seen by shareholders. Where the money went is unknown and just who was involved in the hoax is unclear. In the late 1940s, Hinsdale residents, whose families owned the farms, claimed the Pages were innocent players, duped by men named "Rattlesnake Bill" and "California Jack," who were in league with Sutphen.
But, some modern-day sleuthing done with online newspaper and census databases, has this reporter convinced that Sutphen, the Pages and even some of their mining partners, were the ones who pocketed the shareholders' funds.
"A Wonderful Discovery. The Entire Watkins Farm at Hinsdale is a Gold Mine" headlines on the front page of the Pittsfield Sun proclaimed on June 4, 1896. Gold had been found on the Primrose Farm, owned by the Watkins family for several generations, the story said, by owner E.C. Watkins two years earlier while he was making improvements to the farm's water facilities. Watkins, who had spent two years mining gold in Colorado before assuming his life as a farmer, found gold flakes in a spring and later discovered a vein of quartz rich in gold and silver. He called in a friend, William Teal, a former superintendent of the famous Highland Mary Mine in Colorado to survey the property. Samples taken from a fissure vein on the property assayed by J. Schawell and Co. in New York, resulted in assays of $56 per ton. A more recent assay of the neighboring French farm of $40 per ton was made by Sutphen.
"Great rich ore beds are found on most any part of the property, also decomposed rock fairly glittering with the metal, and sparsely covered hills and mounds," the Pittsfield Sun reported. "It is also disseminated through great rocks, granite and shale. In the soil, in its present state, it is mostly in small grains, fibers and scales and when placed under a glass to magnify is something beautiful to behold. In the quartz rock and also with iron pyrites, where the quantity is larger and more separate, each little spot resembles the gold filling in a tooth."
The paper further stated that the gold would most likely be extracted using the Sutphen Method — a method of extraction and amalgamating — that would require the building of a plant and machinery, costing in the range of $30,000 to $50,000 ( $929,000 to $1.59 million in 2020). The plant, the article stated, would employ 100 men.
Mining rights — for a period of 20 years — at Primrose Farm were quickly purchased by William C. Davis of Lee. Davis, made a small fortune selling The Electric Cough Cure ( a cough syrup most likely containing codeine or the like) and Davis Liniment, which he claimed to cure bruises, sprains, neuralgia, rheumatism pains, back and chest pain, headaches and toothaches. It's main ingredient was aspirin. He broke ground on the gold mine in February 1897. He soon sold his mining rights to George H. Page and his partners. Page would form the Hinsdale Mining Co., raising $30,000 at the start, and the Alpha Mining Co., raising $50,000 in initial capital. (He'd later raise $100,000 for each company by selling shares to the public.)
Gold fever had hit the Berkshires. A nearby Hinsdale farm belonging to Mrs. Mary E. Benemilis was found to be rich in gold flakes. She turned down an offer of $10,000 for the 100-acre farm, opting to form a mining company of her own. In Pittsfield, Deacon Porter, known as the "mine finder," was hired to find a mine on South Mountain. His dowsing rods found one. Gold was found in Alford, Peru, Windsor, Adams, New Marlborough and North Adams. Assays ranged from $40 a ton to $280 a ton. All of the assays were provided by Sutphen.
Berkshire residents, hoping to make their fortunes in gold, were quick to buy shares in the new mining companies. They ignored warnings not to invest. In February 1899, the Boston Banker and Tradesman, stated an investment in the Alpha Mining Co. in Hinsdale was "not a safe investment" and called its ore "low grade."
In May 1902, The Berkshire Eagle published a column in which an unnamed geologist refuted the claims of those who said Hinsdale's farms were ripe with gold veins. The geologist said that any gold found in the Berkshires and across New England were glacial deposits — gold carried by glaciers that once covered the area.
The gold rush was over as quickly as it began. By 1903 most of the mines were abandoned. The mines had produced little, if any, gold, and what was produced was not enough to keep going forward or entice investors to put up more funds. By then, the Pages were making their exit, announcing plans to go to California, where George would head a mining company. Page, in a Letter to the Editor of The Berkshire Eagle, explained that he was not giving up on the mines, but going to California to learn the correct way to amalgamate the gold with mercury.
"As soon as the California project is underway, I will return East, and make another effort to inaugurate the process upon the Eastern ores and sands," Page said in his letter, published in January 1904.
George Page would never return to the Berkshires, not even to bury his beloved wife in her family plot in 1913.
In a 1947 interview with The Berkshire Eagle, a Hinsdale woman, daughter of one of the mine owners, said she vividly remembered the night that Professor Sutphen summoned the mine owners to his home in Glens Falls, N.Y., in 1901, where he made a dramatic deathbed confession.
"When the men returned from Glens Falls," she said, "they were a crestfallen lot. The dying man admitted he had falsified the assays, but we never learned why, as there was no profit in it for him."
The article claimed the Pages were broke when they left for California, having spent every penny on buying up mineral rights and investing in the mines. The couple, said to be in their 20s, was reported to have arrived from Connecticut in 1897, invested in the mines and lost everything. How they came to partner with Sutphen and the two rascals, Rattlesnake Bill and California Jack, was unknown.
Fortunately, today, we can trace people more easily through records. Rattlesnake Bill, descendants of the farm and mine owners claimed, was W.C. Davis, a shady foreman who claimed to come from the mines of Arizona. In 1899, the Sunday Morning Call newspaper interviewed the gruff red-faced six-footer, who referred to himself as 'Rattlesnake Bill' and claimed the yellow and black sand of Watkin's Primrose Farm was "worth no less than $16 a ton." He also claimed to have worked at the Highland Mary Mine, making him William Teal, friend of E.C. Watkins, not W.C. Davis, who initially purchased the mining rights.
The illustrious "California Jack" O'Brien who was said to have disappeared around the time of the deathbed confession, was not involved with the Hinsdale mines. He was Patrick O'Brien, a wealthy Irish immigrant who made his home in Dalton. He earned his nickname, "California Jack," when he made a fortune during the days of the Gold Rush. His obituary said he "returned home with more gold than anyone in the Berkshires had ever seen." When he died in 1906, his wife inherited numerous properties and $80,000.
As for George and Julina Page, the couple did not suddenly appear in 1897. Records show the couple, from Cohoes, N.Y., moved to Dalton in 1893. The Pages set up a stonecutting and masonry shop. They became prominent citizens in the town. In November 1899, weeks after the sugaring off ceremony, the Pages move to a cottage in Pittsfield. It was in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods.
The Pages most likely spent the bulk of the money they had. But, they still had enough to own a place when they arrived in Sacramento. For the first few years, Page listed himself in city directories as being in mining. He eventually became a successful insurance agent. Following Julina's death, he moved to Vajello, Calif., where he owned a stonecutter's shop. He married a wealthy widow and became a partner in an Arizona gold mine.
The most curious of the group is Professor John E. Sutphen, who was not a professor. In 1875, Sutphen, who once claimed he had visited the gold mines of Mexico, was a bookkeeper at a lumber yard in Albany. By 1894, he was calling himself a metallurgist and owned part of the Red Log mine in Lake George. He began calling himself an expert, claiming he had a patented way to cull gold from sand. He sold the Sutphen Method for $5,000. He often invested in the mines that formed after he provided the assay for the gold samples sent to him. He helped secure the machinery needed for the mining plants. He owned gold reduction plants in Queensbury and Gloversville, N.Y., the same plants that handled the Berkshire County gold samples.
Sutphen seems to have disappeared in early 1902. There are no records of his death, nor of his deathbed confession, that can be found, other than his wife listing him as "died Nov. 13, 1902," in the Albany, N.Y., phone directory. It seems strange that Sutphen, a leading expert in gold, whose name appeared almost daily in newspapers in the Berkshires and in Saratoga (N.Y.) County, would not have an obituary.
Did Sutphen succumb to some illness? Or did he fake his death and assume a new name? One can only speculate, but this reporter believes there's more to this story. The reason? In 1965, when the town of Queensbury published legal ads pertaining to the Sutphen Reduction Co., it contained some puzzling information: all six names on the deed were fake.
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