JAMES KING OF WILLIAM
The name of James King of William (see Baldwin & Co.) had sinister connotations, especially to his rival coiners, for he was inclined to send their private coins to United States Assayer Humbert to be analyzed and then had the unfavorable reports distributed to every major newspaper for publication. These embarrassing revelations of fraud, or at least incompetence, virtually put an end to California private coinage for over a year and helped cause a depression in California.
In truth, James King was an intelligent man, a mediocre banker, and a very able journalist with a penchant for being absolutely honest. King vigorously pursued his course of imposing his values on the people of San Francisco – whether they liked it or not.
Born on January 28, 1822, in Georgetown, Washington, D. C., he tacked the suffix “of William” onto his name to distinguish himself from the other James Kings of Washington. He migrated to Pittsburgh, where he was employed as a clerk for a year, and thence to St. Joseph, Missouri. Ill health forced him to return to Georgetown in 1838, where he worked as a post office clerk.
Soon King was drawn to political journalism and for some time was connected with the Washington Daily Globe and Kendall’s Expositor. On May 24, 1848, King set out for the West Coast via Panama on the steamer California, then overland to Valparaiso where he boarded another vessel for the gold fields. On November 10, 1848, he reached Yerba Buena Cove and quickly traveled inland to Hangtown, the center of the mining district.
King tried his hand at mining, but soon turned to the less strenuous task of lending gold dust rather than digging for it. He quickly realized the potential for exchanging hard coin for gold dust, and in July 1849 he traveled to Washington, D. C., where he arranged for capital from the financial firm of Corcoran & Riggs. He returned on December 5 to open his own bank on Montgomery Street between Clay and Merchant. King’s Exchange and Deposit Office bought and sold gold dust and received coins in trade for Bills of Exchange payable in Eastern cities. It was evidently during this time that King issued his 1849 ingots.
At first King’s bank was a success, but his bank manager used large sums of money intended for purchasing gold to invest in the stock of the bankruptcy-bound Tuolumne Hydraulic Association. King made good this embezzlement, but the financial loss he suffered left him penniless by early 1850.
Then King became involved in a partnership with bankers Samuel J. Hensley and Robert D. Merrill in April 1850, and became their agent in
San Francisco until June 1850. Evidently King traveled to Washington again, for he returned to San Francisco in late January on the steamer Tennesseefrom Panama along with Augustus Humbert. Sometime in early 1851, King formed a new company called James King of William, located at 131 Montgomery Street at the southwest corner of Commercial. Here he struck his private $20 gold ingots.
It was in March that the most notorious chapter in private gold coinage occurred. On the 21st of that month, King sent $180 in face value of Baldwin, Schultz and Dubosq coins to U. S. Assayer Augustus Humbert, to be assayed. Humbert replied five days later that the Baldwin coins were worth from 1.8 to 3 percent under face value, the Schultz coins 2.6 percent under par, and the Dubosq coins 0.8 percent under their purported value.
- ASSAY REPORT OF AUGUSTUS HUMBERT, MARCH 26, 1851.
In Grains Fineness w/o Silver % of Par
Baldwin’s 13 pieces $20 ea. 516-10/32 871 $ 19.40 97.0%
Baldwin’s 10 pieces $10 ea. 259-1/2 872 9.74 97.4
Baldwin’s 23 pieces $ 5 ea. 130-11/14 871 4.91 98.2
Schultz’s 45 pieces $ 5 ea. 129-14/15 875-1/4 4.87 97.4
Dubosq’s 7 pieces $10 ea. 262 880 9.93 99.3
Dubosq’s 3 pieces $ 5 ea. 131 880 4.96 99.2
SOURCE: Pacific News March 28, 1851
- ASSAY REPORT OF ECKFELT AND DUBOIS
Coiner Denomination True Value % of par
Dubosq & Co. $ 5 $ 5.00 100 %
Moffat & Co. 10 9.97 99.7
Baldwin & Co. 10 9.96 99.6
Dunbar & Co. 5 4.98 99.6
Schultz & Co. 5 4.97 99.4
Miner’s Bank 10 9.87 98.7
Templeton Reid (Georgia) 10 9.75 97.5
Norris, Gregg & Norris 5 4.86 97.2
Cincinnati Mining & Trading Co. 10 9.70 97.0
Oregon Exchange Co. (Oregon) 5 4.85 97.0
Ormsby & Co. 10 9.37 93.7
Mormon (Utah) 10 8.52 85.2
Mormon 20 17.00 85.0
Pacific & Co. 10 7.86 78.6
SOURCE: Joseph R. Eckfeldt and William E. DuBois, New Varieties of Gold and Silver Coins, Counterfeit Coins, and Bullion, with Mint Values (New York: George P. Putnam), 2nd edition, 1851, pgs. 8-9.
These results, together with the related correspondence, were sent by King to every major newspaper and were published the next day.
Almost immediately, scathing and often exaggerated editorials began appearing in the newspapers. One even claimed that the private issues were worth 10 percent less than face value and implored “the People” to refuse resolutely to take the private issues.
It was not long before the California Legislature began debating proposals to regulate or prevent the manufacture of private coinage. Meanwhile, bankers and merchants refused private coinage except at discounts which started at 5 percent and reached 20 percent before all was over. The result of these debates and the Act of April 15, 1851, was an effective end to the private issues of Baldwin, Schultz, and Dubosq, and eventually other private coiners such as Dunbar & Co. It does not seem, however, to have had a lasting effect on the Moffat-Humbert $50 slugs, since these were continually issued throughout 1851 and 1852.
King survived the California economic depression of 1850-51, which he may have started and whose effects he certainly accentuated, and in July 1851 he acquired a partner, Jacob B. Snyder, and changed the name of his firm to James King of William & Co. The firm operated a bank which prospered for a few years. During these few years, King also took time out to lend money without interest to the city hospital as well as other enterprises.
Yet misfortune continued to plague King, and during the spring depression of 1854, he again suffered major financial losses. This time his fortunes were saved by I. C. Woods, the managing partner of the banking and express house of Adams & Co. in California. Woods offered King $1,000 per month as managing clerk and offered to have Adams & Co. take over his business assets and assume his liabilities. King agreed and joined Adams & Co. in June 1854, where he continued working until the company suffered a financial crash in February, 1855.
In March of that year, King left the financially ruined Adams & Co. and took a new partner, Henry Reed. He again opened his own bank under the name James King of Wm. & Co., located at the southwest corner of Montgomery and Washington Streets, San Francisco. This was a foolish venture in the middle of a banking crisis, and the result was another failure within a few months. Having suffered several business failures, the embittered King resumed his crusading journalism, and, along with publisher C. O. Gerberding, began the Daily Evening Bulletin on October 8, 1855.
King used his paper to crusade fanatically against immorality and corruptionin San Francisco, both of which were in ample local supply. As a member of the 1851 Committee of Vigilance, King had helped rid the city of some of its more corrupt citizens. In November 1853, he had acted as foreman of the grand jury which indicted the City Treasurer – none other than Hamilton Bowie, the cousin of private coiner J. H. Bowie (see above, p.65).
King used his reputation of unimpeachable integrity again in 1855 to turn on unscrupulous characters. His blistering editorials were straightforward, powerful, and frequently scurrilous. He often denounced United States Senator and former private coiner David C. Broderick, and left virtually no one untouched whom he considered corrupt.
King finally went too far when he exposed the fact that one of the then County Supervisors, James P. Casey, had once served a sentence in Sing Sing Prison. As King left his printing office the afternoon of May 14, 1856, Casey shot him in the chest. Six days later, King died. This incident immediately incited the formation of the Second Vigilance Committee which swelled in number to 8,000 members. Four days prior to King’s funeral they forcibly stormed the police station where Casey had fled, demanded the murderer, and hanged him the same day as King’s funeral.
--Reprinted with permission of the author
from Donald H. Kagin's, "Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the
United States", copyright 1981, Arco Publishing, Inc. of New