By Steve Crump
Far and away the preeminent con man in Idaho history was our second territorial governor, Caleb Lyon.
Lyon, given to “flashing-red cravats,” velvet coats and extravagantly woven tall tales, talked none other than Abraham Lincoln into appointing him as governor of Idaho Territory in 1864. During his two-year tenure, he was — gosh, how to put this delicately? — not scrupulous with the taxpayer’s funds.
In December 1865 — in part to divert attention from the fact that he was a New York Republican carpetbagger trying with limited success to run a Democratic territory full of angry veterans of the Confederacy — Lyon circulated a story that a prospector on the way to Silver City had discovered a diamond some 20 miles south of the Snake River in Owyhee County.
At the end of the Civil War much of the population of Idaho Territory consisted of unsuccessful miners, so that pea-sized quartz crystal was all it took to touch off a full-blown diamond rush.
This may be the Gem State, but Idaho isn’t diamond country. Although the biggest diamond ever found in the United States — 19 1/2 carats — was discovered between McCall and New Meadows, geologists agree there are no commercially exploitable diamond deposits in Idaho, and never were.
Tell that to a busted-down prospector surviving on hardtack.
Hundreds of them streamed to what soon became known as Diamond Gulch. A few diamonds were found — remarkably few.
All of which became painfully apparent by the middle of 1866, by which time Lyon was safely out of the territory. Under pressure from Democratic Sen. James Nesmith of Oregon, President Andrew Johnson had removed Lyon as governor that May.
Within a couple months of Lyon’s departure, state officials discovered a $50,000 discrepancy between the former governor’s receipts and the disbursements of the federal superintendent of Indian affairs. Lyon allowed that he had money with him when he left Idaho Territory, and put it under his pillow for safekeeping on the train taking him back to Washington, D.C.
But somebody stole it, the governor claimed.
The funds were bonded, so the federal government eventually got them back. Lyon was never prosecuted, and retired comfortably to Staten Island, N.Y., until his death in 1875.
No word survives on whether he still had diamond stick-pins sufficient to hold down those flashing-red cravats.
Steve Crump is the Times-News Opinion editor.