The day Lucky Bill's fortune changed

Even for someone named Lucky Bill, there would be an indication that things aren't going so well when you know a gallows is being built before the verdict of your trial is decided.

Lucky Bill Thorington was hanged in Genoa in 1858, but was it justice or murder? Author Michael Makley presents both sides of the controversy when he speaks about his book, "The Hanging of Lucky Bill," 7 p.m. Thursday at the Douglas County Historical Society's free lecture series at the Carson Valley Museum & Cultural Center.

The story about real-life Genoa resident Lucky Bill Thorington has to do with murder, gambling, polygamy and vigilantes. After almost 150 years, the cast of characters' names are familiar as geographic points on a map or street signs: Major Ormsby, Sarah Winnemucca, Hawkins, Van Sickle, Mott, Dangberg.

"Lucky Bill was the most powerful and popular man of the time," said Makley. "He owned two ranches, created the Woodfords Canyon Toll Road, built the White House Hotel in Genoa and he was a gambler."

Lucky Bill's game was thimblerig or the shell game. Many times he beat emigrants out of their horses and wagons only to return them - to the wife, not the husband - and let them continue on their journey.

"That's why he was popular - he was a big-hearted, generous guy," Makley said. "'Do not gamble,' he'd tell those people coming through. 'If you gamble, you're going to lose.'"

During the lecture, Makley will show a short film about vigilantes and take comments from the audience.

"Lucky Bill Thorington is more of a local," he said. "I hope we have a pretty good discussion at the lecture. I hope folks from Genoa, descendants of Hawkins, Dangberg and Van Sickle can add to the discussion."

Makley, 59, grew up at South Lake Tahoe and retired this year after 34 years as a history teacher and football coach. He and his family moved to Woodfords 16 years ago.

Makley's curiosity about local history lend to research for "The Hanging of Lucky Bill," published in 1993. Makley wrote "The Infamous King of the Comstock. William Sharon and the Gilded Age in the West," published in 2006 and he's putting the final touches on a new book about John Mackay.

Mackay is known for mining, as in the Mackay School of Mines at the University of Nevada, Reno, and was one of the richest men of the Comstock era. The subject of Makley's book about Mackay was the bonanza king's second career challenging Jay Gould's Western Union Telegraph cable cartel and taking on Sharon's Bank Ring.

The history of the Comstock has to do with a small number of men controlling the mines, stamp and timber mills, water and railroads.

"I like doing books. It's fun for me," said Makley. "The research is like detective work - you get different points of view to find out what we can believe."

Makley's "The Hanging of Lucky Bill" lecture is 7 p.m. Thursday at the Carson Valley Museum & Cultural Center, 1477 Highway 395, Gardnerville. The lecture is free. Information, 782-2555.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment