|Home -> James H. Barry Press -> The Great Diamond Hoax - Chapter XXXVI|
Associates Bar Great Financier From Conference and Soon After His Body Is Found in the Bay.
Fortune Plays Cruel Trick; At Height of Ralston's Power His Big Bank Is Forced to Close Its Doors.
Ralston succeeded B. O. Mills as president of the Bank of California, in 1872. While conceding the titular supremacy to another, and contenting himself with the station of cashier, Ralston had always been the actual head. In all matters of policy and large accommodation his word was law. After the withdrawal of Mills, the directors practically gave him a free hand.
All through the ascendancy of Ralston, the institution had the splendid reputation that the Bank of California enjoys to-day. It not only possessed the fullest confidence of the community, but ranked as one of the strongest banks of the United States, with agencies throughout the civilized world and unlimited credit everywhere. The splendor of Ralston's hospitality, the immense enterprises in which he was engaged, and his vast holdings in real estate and corporate concerns, gave him the standing of a man whose wealth was almost beyond computation. There was not an intimation of embarrassment when, on August 25, 1875, the Bank of California closed its doors.
I was not a witness of what followed. I was living quietly in my home in Kentucky. But from what I have heard, it was one of the most intense moments in the history of the West. For blocks around the Bank of California stood a packed mass of pale-faced men, anticipating ruin. What might have become an unparalleled panic and almost universal wreck, was happily averted by the closing of the stock exchange and the practical suspension of business for a period long enough to allow the community to catch its breath.
Ralston stood the ordeal with all the resources of fortitude, met many patrons of the bank, admitted the grave conditions of its finances, but contended that its assets were very large. Everything he possessed in the world, he said, would be used to make good.
On the afternoon of August 27 the directors called a meeting. Ralston was on hand as usual, but was barred from attendance by D. O. Mills. The incident, it is said, touched him to the quick. Every director had profited by his friendship in the days of his power and prosperity. This seemed a harsh return in the hour of his deep distress. He left the meeting with a dazed and haggard face.
He proceeded to his home and thence to North Beach, where he was accustomed to take a swim in the bay when the weather was opportune. There are a number of living witnesses of what followed. Shortly after he entered the water other swimmers noticed that something was amiss. His body did not sink, but he was floating face downward. A boatman was quickly at his side. This boatman declared that the banker was still living. Be that as it may, when he reached the shore with his burden the once master spirit of the Pacific Coast was dead.
How great was the hold that Ralston had on the hearts and minds of men could only be illustrated by the passion of grief under which the whole city bent. His death was looked on as a common calamity. No spectacle has ever been witnessed in modern times such as his funeral presented. By common consent, business of every kind was suspended in San Francisco. You might say that the population of the city of more than 150,000 inhabitants turned out en masse. The proudest and the humblest touched shoulders at his grave. Such tribute was never paid to any potentate or prince.
There were even some who found it convenient to make an exhibition of immoderate sorrow who might have been more fittingly employed elsewhere.
I once heard a story of a French gentleman who had suffered a domestic bereavement. A friend met him shortly after and tendered the customary condolences.
"Ah! My poor wife! Yes, it was indeed a great loss!" sighed the Frenchman.
"I was at your house during the funeral," continued the sympathetic friend, "and was deeply touched by your manifestations of grief."
"Ah! You saw me at the house," exclaimed the bereaved Gaul. "Many thought that fine. But you should have seen me at the grave. There I raised hell."
Very much in the same way, there was one man at Ralston's obsequies conspicuous for his ostentatious sorrow, who was more responsible for his downfall than anyone else and profited largely by his death. But after the funeral he was able to speak of the tragic event with much fortitude and a certain degree of complacency. Ralston's death, he said, was extremely opportune - in fact, the best thing that could have happened, for it made easy going for everyone.
But nothing can be more true than the cynical words that Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Marc Antony. The evil a man does lives after him. The good is buried with his bones. The city went about its business, forgot its sorrow, which is necessary and proper, unless the world is to be draped with perpetual mourning weeds, forgot much of the great services Ralston rendered California although to this clay, among the oldtimers and their descendants his name still stirs a thrill. But all his human weaknesses have been remembered and handed down, duly magnified, to posterity.
Not only that, but his memory has been assailed by accusations of the gravest nature, relating to the failure of the Bank of California. These charges reached me in Kentucky, and as they did not proceed from an authoritative source and, moreover, seemed totally inconsistent with the character of my old friend, I made a special visit to the Pacific Coast to investigate the circumstances immediately preceding and associated with his death, for the better satisfaction of myself and of the world at large.