If you had been walking on the muddy streets of Rossland on a certain day in 1898, there was a chance you could have run into the richest man in the world.
“If you had met him in Rossland, you would have been very impressed,” says Henry Macrory of investor Whitaker Wright.
“He was very large, he weighed about 18 stone [252 pounds]. He was very distinguished looking, and if you had stopped and talked to him, you would have found him very fascinating.”
Wright was in town to check up on his investment in the city’s booming gold mines. And he had no trouble capturing locals with his charm.
“A. H. Tarbet [owner of the Centre Star mine] said he was broad-minded and had an intensely interesting personality, and had a fund of information and was a very interesting talker,” says Macrory, author of a new book on Wright.
But if Rossland was seen as an opportunity for Wright, it also helped to lead to his undoing. Because everything about Whitaker Wright was a lie.
Macrory’s new book, Ultimate Folly: The Rises and Falls of Whitaker Wright, tells the story of this larger-than-life swindler who used Rossland as a springboard to becoming one of the world’s richest men.
“He usually kept just on the right side of the law,” says Macrory.
“What he did was vastly over-inflate the value of his properties. He was a brilliant salesman. He would purchase a mine, promote it for all it was worth. People would flock to buy shares in companies he set up. He would have shares himself, and he would wait til the shares would peak — and he was very good with his timing. He would sell out at its peak and make a lot of money. And usually the share price would plummet afterwards and most people would lose money because the mines weren’t worth very much.”
Wright began his career as an impoverished Methodist minister in the north of England. Giving up on the church, he crossed the Atlantic and moved into rented rooms in Toronto.
For several years he worked as a travelling salesman in Toronto before crossing the border to prospect for gold and silver in the Rockies. Buying up mining claims, he floated them on the stock exchange. As the money rolled in, he acquired a 16-year-old wife, bought a mansion and a yacht, and became a millionaire many times over.
“At his peak, Wright was arguably the richest man on the planet, and was nicknamed the ‘Napoleon of Finance,’” says Macrory. “His underwater glass smoking room, built beneath a lake on his 9,000-acre estate in 1897, was like something out of a James Bond novel. On summer evenings, as the fish peered in from outside, he entertained his high-born friends in it and regaled them with tales of his adventures in the Wild West. Amazingly, it still exists — the ultimate folly that has stood the test of time.’”
Then the bubble burst. With angry investors closing in on him, he returned to England and started again. This time Canadian and Australian gold was his route to wealth. Among his purchases were numerous mining properties in the ‘Golden City’ of Rossland. They included the mighty Le Roi mine — ‘the King of the Hill’. That’s what led to Wright’s visit to the city in 1898.
His downfall was as dramatic as his ascent. Because as it turned out, the owners of the Le Roi had pulled a fast one on Wright.
“He bought it for 800,000 pounds, and acquired some lesser mines there as well,” says Macrory. “Unfortunately for Wright, the mine’s owners had ravaged the pit in the months before the sale, and left the place in very bad condition and in need of many repairs. So Wright bought himself a bit of a dud.
“But that didn’t bother Wright too much because he was such a brilliant salesman. He just said, ‘I have this wonderful mine in Rossland and it’s worth a fortune,’ and he launched the British-American Corporation on the strength of this, and put the company on the stock market. And there was a huge take-up because everyone thought Whitaker Wright was a god,” he says.
“He had no problem selling shares, the share price soared. Then he sold the shares as usual and cleaned up. But in the long term the mines were a bad deal for investors. They waited in vain for dividends and most ended up losing money.”
On the last trading day of the 19th century his financial empire went belly up. He fled to New York but was arrested and sent back to England.
At the end of what the press dubbed ‘”the most dramatic trial of modern times,” Wright was sentenced to seven years in jail. Minutes later he swallowed cyanide.
Few mourned his death, although the Rossland Evening World felt he deserved gratitude for having given the town “a new lease of life.”
“Rossland certainly has no kick coming at Whitaker Wright whatever may have been his misdeeds,” the paper’s editors mused. “He deserved a better fate.”
Drawing on family papers, private memoirs and archives around the world, Macrory’s account “reads like a thriller and offers an insight into the mind of the ultimate gambler and conman”, says a news release for the book.
Ultimate Folly has just been published in hardcover in Canada by Biteback Publishing of London.