Wilson Mizner, 1873-1934: “God help those who do not help themselves.”

America really has degenerated as a breeding ground for Class A scoundrels.  Bernie MadoffKen LayCharles Keating? Small men in both ethics and actions, but mostly in their lack of style.  Put them up against a Wilson Mizner and they shrink to the D list specimens they are.

Mizner was old school.  He was the youngest son of an old line California family from  Russian Hill.  A beautiful place, but it was not for him.  Money and comfort were all well enough, but Wilson was man of restless intelligence and a need of excitement, and there was little of that where his parents lived.  His preferred venues were the dives and hells of the Barbary Coast where there was always something interesting going on.  At six foot four and over two hundred pounds, he was able to handle himself.  With a little help and guidance from some of the area’s shadier people, he was soon able to handle others as well.

He worked as a saloon singer despite a terrible voice (women didn’t mind; but then, they weren’t really listening so much as watching), played the shill to a patent medicine salesman, and organized illegal prize fights.  When gold was discovered in Alaska (1897), he and two of his brothers followed the call of the wild.  It didn’t take him too long to realize, like Levi Strauss, that the real money, the easy money, was not in the river beds, but  in the miners’ pockets.

Unfortunately for the miners, Mizner had fewer ethics than Strauss. Continue reading

Charles Tyson Yerkes, 1837-1905: “Buy Up Old Junk, Fix It Up a Little, and Unload It Upon Other Fellows”

Or, how to make a fortune in public transportation.

Yerkes is one of the Robber Barons who tends to be forgotten amongst the Carnegies and Mellons and J.P. Morgans and Rockefellers of the Gilded Age. For one thing, he died nearly broke and the only hard asset legacy he left is the Yerkes Observatory – high tech in its age,  quaint now.

Forgotten or not, his life was the stuff of scandal, full of material worthy of a novel. Theodore Dreiser found Yerkes so irritating that he wrote three: The FinancierThe Titan, and The Stoic.

Well, who reads Dreiser much any more?  (Kind of surprising, given his taste for the rich and seamy.) Continue reading