Hearst kidnapping had Nevada legacy

George Hearst

George Hearst

In just a month, the attention of millions of Americans will be drawn to the 40th anniversary of one of the most written-about and dramatic kidnappings in American history.

The kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst on Feb. 4, 1974, also had solid, historical connections and legacies to Northern Nevada: George Hearst, Patty’s great-grandfather who made millions in the mines of the Comstock Lode, not only used his wealth to bankroll the future publishing empire of his son, William Randolph Hearst, but his accumulated millions helped fund the massive ransom the kidnappers demanded for Patty Hearst’s release as well.

Patty Hearst, 19, was kidnapped from the Berkeley, Calif., apartment she shared with her boyfriend by a urban guerrilla group known as the “Symbionese Liberation Army.” Her kidnappers demanded ransoms ranging from $70 million to $500 million, and at least some of this had been paid to the kidnappers before Patty announced that she did not want to be freed, that she had fallen in with her kidnappers and embraced their causes, and had changed her name to “Tania.”

Two months after she was kidnapped, Patty was photographed wielding a rifle while robbing a San Francisco bank to raise money for the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was captured by the FBI 17 months later, tried, found guilty and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

President Bill Clinton, however, commuted her sentence to two years and she was released 22 months later. Clinton granted her a full pardon a week before completing his two-terms as president.

Patty Hearst married Bernard Shaw, a former policeman who served as one of her bodyguards following her release from prison. They had two children and Shaw died of cancer three weeks ago at the age of 68. Patty today is 59 years old.

As for George Hearst, Patty Hearst’s great-grandfather:

Born on a Missouri farm in 1820, he traveled west with 16 other men by wagon in 1850 to make it rich in the newly-discovered goldfields of Northern California. Settling in Grass Valley in Nevada County, he became financially successful in mining, ranching, farming and running a general store.

But when he learned of the great 1859 silver discoveries in Virginia City, which then was part of Utah Territory, he traveled east over the Sierras and purchased one-sixth interest in Virginia City’s fabled Ophir Mine. That winter, Hearst and his partners mined 38 tons of high-grade silver ore, shipped it to San Francisco on the backs of mules, and the men made a profit that would amount to nearly $4 million in today’s dollars. The mines in Virginia City and Silver City soon became known as the “Comstock Lode” in reference to Henry Comstock, one of the early prospectors in the area.

Comstock, however, was a poor businessman. He sold his mining claims for a pittance, became destitute and shot himself to death in Montana in 1870 at the age of 50.

While in Virginia City, George Hearst befriended another miner who also had made it big in the mines, Irish-born John William Mackay who was to become one of Nevada’s famed “Silver Kings.”

In 1860, a year before the Nevada Territory was formed and four years before Nevada became the 36th state, Hearst purchased a large, three-story house at 129 D St. in Virginia City that had been the office of a local mine superintendent. He subsequently sold it to Mackay, and today the house is known as the Mackay Mansion and has been a museum since 2010.

Built in brick Italianate style and surrounded by a wide porch, the mansion reportedly had one of the first flush toilets west of the Mississippi that wags called the “indoor outhouse.” The mansion also had a gold chandelier, a Tiffany window and a mirror made of crushed diamonds. President Ulysses S. Grant gave a speech from its second-floor balcony in 1879 and actor Johnny Depp, who lived in the house (when it was privately owned) while filming the 1995 motion picture “Dead Man,” said he saw the ghost of a little girl dressed in white in the bedroom where he slept.

George Hearst made further profitable purchases of mining properties in Utah, South Dakota, Montana and Peru, married a woman 22 years his junior when he was 40, served as a Democratic U.S. senator from California, and died at the age of 70 in Washington, DC in 1891.

Before his death, Hearst won the San Francisco Examiner in a gambling debt, and his son, William Randolph Hearst, who took over the newspaper in the late 1890s, eventually became one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful media barons.

The Patty Hearst kidnapping was not the only famous kidnap case to have Nevada connections.

On Dec. 6, 1963, Frank Sinatra Jr., the son of the famous singer and actor, was snatched from Room 417 of Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Hotel and Casino while his father and several other members of the Hollywood “Rat Pack” were filming “Robin and the Seven Hoods.” Young Sinatra’s father paid a $250,000 ransom, Frank Jr. was released unharmed two days later, the three kidnappers were soon arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to long terms in prison.

President John F. Kennedy, a close friend of the Sinatras and the “Rat Pack,” had been assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald two weeks before the kidnapping, and the stress of both incidents caused Frank Sinatra to seriously consider abandoning the production of “Robin and the Seven Hoods.”

But Sinatra was pressured to go on with the filming, and the motion picture was completed at Lake Tahoe.

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.


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