by Fred N. Holabird
Conrad Wiegand was a boisterous man who was born in Philadelphia, worked for the US Mint, and came to the California Gold Rush in the early 1850’s. He went to work for the US Branch Mint in San Francisco at or near its inception in 1854.
Wiegand was small in stature, but big in ideas, and even stronger still in his opinions. He was a devoutly religious person who saw such injustice in the world that he undertook the publishing of his own newspaper—two of them, in fact. His other passion was the metals question, particularly his political stance generally held by most miners that money should be in the form of circulating hard specie—gold and silver coinage and ingots. Wiegand’s outspoken nature repeatedly got him into trouble, especially during his life on the Comstock. He was severely physically assaulted and beaten twice, which endeared him to the likes of Sam Clemens. As he advanced in age, his mental troubles worsened. Ultimately, his life ended in a hangman’s noose at the age of fifty in Virginia City.
A number of his precious metal ingots exist today as testimony of his work as a mainstream western assayer. These include nearly every phase of gold, silver and copper bullion in which Wiegand worked, as well as examples of items used to promote monetary specie.
Conrad Wiegand shared with friends in Virginia City that he was born in Philadelphia in March, 1830. His father was John Wiegand, a one-time banker and later surgical instrument manufacturer. His brothers included a pharmacist (Thomas) and an inventor (George). The family lived in Philadelphia. Conrad, however, soon disappeared from the written historical record of Philadelphia and all American census data.
In an interview later in life, Wiegand said that he “entered the assay department of the Philadelphia Mint on $1 a day for wages.” Wiegand apparently trained for several years at the Philadelphia Mint, and mention was made that he worked in New York as well, probably for a private assaying firm.
Wiegand Appointed Assayer, Branch Mint, San Francisco, 1854
In 1854 he was appointed by President Pierce to the Branch Mint at San Francisco as Assayer. By his own admission, he returned to the east coast shortly after to run the New York New Boys Club, then left that job to study for the ministry. Unsuccessful with the Boys Club, he worked for a stint at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. President Abraham Lincoln subsequently appointed him as assayer to the Branch Mint in San Francisco once again. Working again in San Francisco, he soon published an opinionated pamphlet promoting the use of gold and silver as circulating specie.
As one of the original presidential appointees of President Pierce for the US Branch Mint at San Francisco when it opened in 1854, Wiegand held special status. Information on this early period is scant. By 1855 he held the position with the Branch Mint as Assayer, though this may be near the time that he returned to New York for a short while. While working there, his naturally boisterous and vociferous nature came to the forefront almost immediately, particularly when the Vigilance Committee was formed and action later taken. Wiegand gave a public speech, reported October 12, 1856 on the moral aspects of the Casey matter. He also published at least one article under the pseudonym William Carroll.
Wiegand was right in the middle of the 1856 Vigilance Committee fracas after James King of William was assassinated by James Casey. These events shaped his life forever, and more importantly, probably helped save his own life a decade later when a possible assassination attempt was made on his own life by John B. Winters. Perhaps the main way in which the James King of William Vigilance problem affected Wiegand was the power of and the use of a free press. In the same manner as James King of William assailed corruption, fraud among politicians and businessmen in San Francisco, Wiegand did the same later in Gold Hill against the powerful Bank of California. Indeed, in a strong paper published after the death of James King of William, it was noted that “he has died a martyr to Freedom of Speech.” This period of Wiegand’s life set the stage for his future work: as an assayer and as a humanitarian speaker and religious leader, probably stemming from his upbringing and family’s roots in Germany.
Wiegand traded jobs within the Mint system several times, perhaps typical of many jobs today, where one changes positions within a specific company for the express purpose of learning all aspects of the business. In this regard, when Wiegand became Coiner in about 1860, he was given the opportunity to learn even more about the assay, gold and coining business.
Wiegand was present for the troubles at the San Francisco Branch Mint in 1856 when charges were brought against A. Haraszthy for embezzlement. However, once it was learned that the Mint had been under tremendous pressure to process gold shipments at record rates of production never before seen in America, Haraszthy was exonerated. The losses were simply a result of fast and furious throughput in the Mint, and the dust exhumed from the Mint’s chimneys found on neighboring rooftops carried much of the missing gold. Under these extreme circumstances, Wiegand would have learned how to handle the toughest jobs under pressure. It may also have been the first event in his life that placed tremendous stress and burdens upon his mind that may have later led to his undoing.
Wiegand Starts Politicking President Lincoln, 1861-2
In February, 1862, Wiegand wrote to President Lincoln in Washington. He had tried unsuccessfully to use an end-around method to take charge of certain affairs in the Assay department at the San Francisco Mint by trying to gain authority from Lincoln to hire and fire staff in the assay department whom he did not approve of. Wiegand tried to fire Jackson Snyder, but Branch Mint Superintendent Stevens instead terminated James Mars, who was Wiegand’s apparent right hand man in the Assay department. The letter shows a clear serious disagreement between Branch Mint Superintendent Stevens and Wiegand, but Wiegand felt the matter of such importance and “to the integrity of our National Coinage” that he wrote Lincoln, bypassing the established chain of command.
President Lincoln must have taken heed, because Superintendent Stevens was subsequently compelled to write a lengthy letter to Lincoln days later justifying his actions and further stating that Wiegand’s letter was part of a “persistent system of attack which this singular person has kept up against me for months.” Stevens noted that Wiegand was “removed at the close of 1857 for extraordinary and unofficerlike conduct—indeed it was the common report at the time that he was insane.” Indeed, in Haraszthy’s defense of the embezzlement charges, “the counsel for the defense strenuously urged the unfitness of Wiegand for the position from (claiming) unsoundness of the mind, and the consequent unreliability of the assays by which the bullion was charged to the Melter and Refiner.” Wiegand was reinstated in June, 1858. Stevens wrote Lincoln that Wiegand’s behavior was so bad, and his “insidious inciting” of other officers of the Mint against him, that he asked Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to prefer charges and remove him. Stevens was subsequently given authorization to remove him. Stevens wrote in a post script in April that Wiegand was minding his own business and doing his job satisfactorily. Wiegand agreed to obey orders, but was removed in October, 1861. Stevens went on to write that Mars was removed because he was “one who thinks the South should be left alone.”… “Mr. Snyder is a northern man.” Wiegand was later reinstated, perhaps because the Mint could not find a suitable replacement.
Wiegand continued to correspond with Lincoln, in both writing letters of recommendation for various people, and in a request for a personal audience. Ultimately, Wiegand resigned his position at the San Francisco Branch Mint in December, and Lincoln was notified December 14, 1863.
Wiegand Starts New Era in Nevada, 1863-1864
Conrad Wiegand immediately went to work at the newly constructed huge mill of the Gould & Curry Gold & Silver Mining Company located at the intersection of Six and Seven Mile canyons about a mile below Virginia City. The Gould & Curry had struck a bonanza ore deposit in 1862-3 which vaulted the Company into becoming the leading producer of gold and silver in America. A new mill was built to handle the ore, and the Company was so big at the time that it employed about a third of the local work force. Louis Janin, the mine and mill superintendent, must have been happy to have one of the key assayers from the Branch Mint helping manage the company’s operations. Wiegand had been recommended by Thomas Starr King of San Francisco, the brother of James King, of William, assassinated in 1856. But Janin, a well trained mining engineer of the Freiberg School of Mines, was a tough taskmaster, and probably did not tolerate Wiegand’s antics. Regardless of Wiegand’s behavior, there was a problem at the mill in late 1865, and Wiegand may have been subject to layoff. This is perhaps best evidenced by a letter Janin wrote to Gould & Curry President Alpheus Bull that there was a “bullion shortage at the mill… due to the long stoppage at the mill…I have been unwilling to engage outside mills.” This would have precipitated a major employee layoff as a cost-saving measure, even if temporary.
Wiegand’s job with the Gould & Curry lasted only a few months. With business booming on the Comstock, Wiegand went into business for himself. At that time he must have decided to open his own assay office on the Comstock, and began preparations to relocate to Gold Hill, Nevada, just south of Virginia City.
The Gold Hill Assay Office, 1865
Wiegand opened the Gold Hill Assay Office on May 14, 1865. He scheduled the official opening for June 1, but the Virginia Daily Union reported the earlier opening. Wiegand was financed by the Bank of California through his friend William Chapman Ralston, whom he had befriended in San Francisco. Ralston’s agent on the Comstock was William Sharon, who had full charge of all the affairs of the Bank in the Virginia City region. Sharon had tight control over Comstock mines and businesses. This control, and conflicts created by competing business interests, would soon work against Wiegand.
Wiegand took on a partner a few months after he opened the Gold Hill Assay Office, W. T. Rickard. Apparently Rickard also may not have been able to tolerate Wiegand’s antics, and left for the employ of Van Wyck & Co., assayer competitors who held the Savage Mine contract. Coincidentally, Wiegand’s business failed. The insolvency affected Wiegand, and he swore that he would never again go through such humiliation.
The insolvency was not due to normal debt. William Sharon showed up at Wiegand’s Assay Office one day without notice with a Sheriff in tow, and demanded immediate repayment of the loan which was about $19,000. Wiegand was unable to comply, especially on no notice. Sharon had the Sheriff seize most or all of Wiegand’s assay equipment. Within a couple of weeks, Wiegand was able to secure private financing, but suffered from financial harm while closed. The reason behind the seizure may have been competition with some of Sharon’s friends, not atypical of Sharon’s behavior as Bank manager. Regardless, the episode shaped Wiegand’s future business affairs and steered him toward helping the plight of small miners and businessmen. It was the foundation and the inspiration behind the People’s Tribune, which he published a few years later. By the beginning of 1866, the Gold Hill Assay Office was once again in operation, and Wiegand had brought in A. S. Edwards as a partner.
When Wiegand opened the Gold Hill Assay Office, his competitor was Harvey Harris, who may have had more work than he could handle. Harris was a successful well-known western assayer who got his start in the California gold rush with Kellogg & Co. and the US Assay Office, and later for the assay firm of Justh & Hunter. He had come from the New Orleans Branch Mint, and after the Branch Mint at San Francisco opened in 1854, he moved into the Melting & Refining Department. In late 1855 Harris and Desiree Marchand opened assay offices in Sacramento, San Francisco and Marysville. The firm is perhaps best known today for their beautiful gold ingots recovered from the wreck of the SS Central America which sank in 1857. Harris, in tune with the latest gold and silver rushes, opened offices in Carson City and Aurora in 1861, some of the earliest assay offices in the Territory, if not the first. The Comstock so enthralled Harris, that in 1863 he sold his interest in his firm of Harris & Marchand to his partner and moved to Gold Hill.
The Circulating Specie Push
During the early phases of his western career as assayer, Wiegand began a long period of openly politicking for specie payments. The Federal Government was making a strong move to sell the American People on the use of greenbacks, and the possibility arose that the Fed might demonetize silver and perhaps gold, which set the western miners and businessmen on their heels. Paper currency, known as “greenbacks” because of their colorful green backsides, were so despised in the West that newspapers regularly published advertisements by merchants offering to buy them at discounts up to fifty percent. The feeling among the Western miners and merchants was that miners produced all this new money, and they wanted to be paid in it, not some paper replacement. In their minds, the paper currency was worthless, as proven by the many broken and failed banks in the East during the three decades preceding the establishment of the San Francisco Branch Mint which left depositors with piles and wallets full of worthless paper that had never been backed by gold or silver. Paper currency issued and distributed by San Francisco banks during the gold rush also proved to be worthless. This experience drove home the uselessness of paper currency to western miners, and they wanted nothing to do with it whatsoever.
Wiegand was a continuous pusher of precious metals as a medium of exchange. He gave many speeches, first in San Francisco while under the employ of the US Branch Mint, then in Gold Hill and Virginia City where he operated his own assay offices. He used the power of free speech and freedom of the press to further his agenda of specie circulation. These speeches set the stage for the issuance of a number of gold ingots which he used as money in late 1865 and early 1866. In 1866, he made at least one pure monetary gold ingot – a gold ingot with a face value of $20.00. As circulating specie, this ingot exactly fit the needs of the daily businessmen with whom he was acquainted, including William Ralston, a friend, and president of the Bank of California. With a serious shortage of circulating specie, Wiegand proposed more metals be circulated in the public sector. If the Federal Government couldn’t do the job, private industry could.
His personal slants on religion also came back into the limelight, and he became a Rector for the Humanitarian Christian Society in January 1868, though he resigned two months later. His main concern was for the plight of the small miner and businessman, many of whom were overrun by big business interests. The press, controlled in large part by the Bank of California, suggested Wiegand was crazy and some of the public bought into the idea, though those that knew him said otherwise.
Wiegand continued to make small ingots for presentation, prizes, and so forth. Indeed, he may have been the most prolific of the Comstock assayers to do so since there are nearly twenty known specimens remaining of which there is direct knowledge. One of these ingots, which is well documented but has not been located, was given by Wiegand to Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) in 1868 on the occasion of Clemens’ second lecture in Virginia City. Clemens “was yesterday made the recipient at the hands of Conrad Wiegand, the well known assayer, of a very beautiful and highly polished silver brick, worth some $40. The Brick bears the following inscription: “‘Mark Twain….’” About ten other ingots, both gold and silver, were contained in the famous John J. Ford Collection.
Wiegand Becomes Publisher and Assayer, 1870
In early 1870, Wiegand began publication of the Peoples Tribune, a newspaper he started to further moral issues with the public, including the exposure of fraud and scandalous activity on the Comstock. Its technical title, People’s Tribune; Devoted to the Betterment of All Things to the Defense of Right and to the People paralleled the efforts of the Germans in 1848 and later James King, of William’s San Francisco Bulletin. Here, Wiegand used his power of free speech and freedom of the press in exactly the same manner as James King of William with very nearly the same result. Bank of California interests told the people through their voice in the newspapers that he was using the Tribune as a “religious forum,” but he was clearly using it for his political forum for his views of maintaining specie payments and the standardization of gold and silver in the US monetary system. Rich Lingenfelter and Karen Gash summarized the effort: “To Wiegand, the Tribune was a moral mission. It was a crusading magazine, which endeavored to become the conscience of Washoe.” Only six issues were printed because of the trouble it caused. A month later, he tried to start another paper “The People’s Paper”, but its level of success is unknown as no copies survive.
Just after the People’s paper began publication, Wiegand was seriously physically attacked by Griff Williams as reported in the Territorial Enterprise January 14, 1870. Williams coldcocked Wiegand, who was preoccupied, carrying an armload of papers and headed for his Gold Hill office. Williams repeatedly struck Wiegand with his fist from behind and violently kicked his head with his boots without provocation. Wiegand at first had no idea who hit him. Witnesses came to his aid and Williams was later arrested, fined $7.50 and told the judge “that he had been talking about him, and he could not stand it any longer.” Clemens later claimed any talk of Williams by Wiegand was imaginary.
“Mr. Wiegand is a weak man, and notoriously non-combative” wrote the editor of the Territorial Enterprise Joseph Goodman. Then, a few days later, Wiegand was physically assaulted again in what was probably an assassination attempt, this time by John B. Winters, the superintendent of the Yellow Jacket Mining Company. Winters had asked (Wiegand later stated that Winters demanded and ordered his appearance) for a meeting with Wiegand after somewhat insulting charges and insinuations were made in the Peoples Tribune. Wiegand refused, so Winters went to Wiegand’s office and waited out of sight in the dark and sent Gold Hill News editor Phillip Lynch to find Wiegand. Wiegand, soon encountered Winters, thinking Lynch was an impartial witness. Winters denied what he claimed were the charges in the Tribune and demanded a retraction. Wiegand refused, and Winters struck him with a “cowhide” several times, apparently knocking him silly. The Territorial Enterprise interviewed Lynch, who thought the action of Winters was disgusting. Ultimately it may have cost Winters his job, as William Sharon, a Board member of the Company, and financier through the Bank of California, may have decided the behavior was unacceptable, though some have suggested Sharon was behind the attack. In July, Wiegand experienced another setback when his assay office burned in a terrible fire that destroyed most of the local Gold Hill business district. It caused Wiegand to temporarily open an office in the Morrill building in Virginia City, which subsequently remained open for a number of years.
Enter Sam Clemens (Mark Twain)
Sam Clemens was a friend of Territorial Enterprise editor Joe Goodman’s, as well as most of the Comstock editors. At the time of the attacks, he was deep in the throws of writing “Roughing It,” later published in 1872, a wondrously humorous autobiographical work of Clemens’ mining sojourns and editorial whimsies and mishaps. Clemens heard of the affairs, and was so incensed at their nature, that he published the whole mess in the back of the first edition of “Roughing It.” A short recitation of a few of Clemens’ comments on Wiegand well illustrate his sentiments:
Concerning a Frightful Assassination That Was Never Consummated
If ever there was a harmless man, it is Conrad Wiegand of Gold Hill, Nevada. If ever there was a gentle spirit that thought itself unfired gunpowder and latent ruin, it is Conrad Wiegand… When I met Conrad Wiegand he was superintendent of the Gold Hill Assay Office—and he was not only its superintendent, but its entire force. And he was a street preacher too, with a mongrel religion of his own invention, whereby he expected to regenerate the universe.
Something less than two years ago, Conrad assailed several people mercilessly in his little People’s Tribune and got himself into trouble. Straightaway he airs the affair in the Territorial Enterprise in a communication over his own signature, and I propose to reproduce it here, in all its native simplicity and more than human candor. Long as it is, it is the richest specimen of journalistic literature the history of America can furnish, perhaps.
Wiegand in the Territorial Enterprise article noted how John Winters’ threats were carried out. His assay business suffered severely, as other mining companies took their business elsewhere, again implicating coercion by Sharon and the Bank of California. He described Winters’ direct conversation to him about how they were going to kill him, and indeed, he was told he would have been killed (“not permitted to reach home alive”) then and there if he were not quite full in the head. Wiegand insisted that Winters was assisted by Gold Hill News Editor Lynch, who was in on the scheme from the start. Lynch later admitted he was involved, though denied any knowledge of an assassination attempt.
Wiegand Finds Ways to Reestablish His Assay Business
After the Winters attack, Wiegand lost a lot of business. But after the Territorial Enterprise article, business slowly dribbled back in. Public sentiment eventually went against Winters, but Wiegand had to find new ways to gain business. He held lectures, taught classes and did most anything in the limelight to draw attention to his business.
In 1873, Wiegand published papers on the refining of copper-based precious metals bullion, and it is most likely during this period that he produced the few copper-based precious metals ingots that survive today.
During the course of his career, he authored at least one book on assaying, and several pamphlets on the specie issues, as well as many public lectures on specie and religion, morality, etc. He wrote and published a pamphlet for the Money Commission in 1876, and was said to have greatly assisted Nevada senator John P. Jones in his specie arguments on Capitol Hill.
Always the inventor, as were other members of his family, Wiegand patented a new process for slimes and tailings reduction machinery in 1874. A few years later he was involved in a new mercury and silver separation process.
In the mid to late 1870’s Wiegand taught assaying classes in Virginia City that included blowpipe analyses and mineralogy.
But the next few years were devoted to his work and the “Silver Question.” Feds had proposed to eliminate silver from the money issues, and Nevada lobbied and protested vehemently, through their newspapers, Congressmen, Senators and business interests. Somehow the Centennial year prompted the most action from Wiegand, and the local papers were full of his commentaries.
Tragedy struck Wiegand many times. His daughter died, and her husband, an assayer in Eureka Nevada, also died a premature death.
An Assayer Dies in the Hangman’s Noose
Wiegand hastened his meeting with his maker on May 31, 1880 by questionably committing suicide in his office by way of hanging. Though there were injuries to the body and blood was found in unusual places in his office, his death was ruled a suicide by the Storey County Coroner. He was suffering serious debt, though his wife felt it was under control. He also suffered fits of what he himself considered insanity, and he feared that mental condition as an ultimate fate at old age. Sam Dowling, who had been working for Wiegand for a number of years, took over the business, which retained the name for several years. W. S. James later bought the business. Many people thought Wiegand was murdered, and the usual suspect was believed to be John Winters. Even Territorial Enterprise Editor Goodman thought there was a bit of possible tom-foolery in the death. Later journalists, such as Sam Davis of the Carson Appeal commented: “No review of early journalism in Nevada would be complete without mention of Conrad Wiegand, the most peculiar man who ever tramped the trails through the sagebrush. As assayer by profession, he was a deep student of the question of metals as a medium of exchange and wrote voluminously on the subject.” Davis noted that he was beaten by opponents, while “most any other editor would have had recourse to a six shooter.”
The Wiegand Ingots
A number of precious metal ingots remain today as a testament to this troubled, yet apparently brilliant man. Perhaps ten different silver ingots exist, mostly from the Gold Hill Assay Office. A few may have originated from the short-lived Virginia City office. At least five gold ingots exist from Wiegand’s Gold Hill Assay Office, all dated 1865 or 1866, which was during the initial period of his Comstock assay business, and during which time Wiegand pushed the specie in payment issue in preference over greenbacks.
Much has been written of late on Wiegand, but little of it coming from detailed research. Wiegand’s historical record clearly demonstrates that he made many presentation ingots including one to Sam Clemens. More importantly, he was an outspoken proponent of specie as money. He constantly pushed the “specie as money” concept in the press, in public speeches, in printed pamphlets, and in his own newspaper. From his early days working for the Branch Mint at San Francisco to his last days on the Comstock, Wiegand promoted the use of gold and silver. The $20 gold ingot from Gold Hill is a lasting artifact and testament to Wiegand’s life.