ECHOES FROM OUR PAST: William Bourn Sr. — an accidental death? |

ECHOES FROM OUR PAST: William Bourn Sr. — an accidental death?

Steve Cottrell
Special to The Union

William Bowers Bourn, a successful 36-year-old merchant from the East, arrived in San Francisco in 1850 ready to invest in California.

A year earlier, he had married 20-year-old Sarah Chase — daughter of his business partner, George Chase. Sarah stayed behind in 1850, but four years later joined her husband in San Francisco.

Bourn initially partnered with his father-in-law in a Bay Area cargo shipping business, then moved on to other ventures. He became a banker, real estate developer, stock investor and, in 1863, a director of the nascent Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. — later serving as its third president. But it was Bourn’s mining investments that eventually dominated much of his time, including acquisition of the Empire Mine of Grass Valley in 1869.

By 1871, Bourn had tremendous wealth, a loving wife, growing family, and place of considerable prominence in San Francisco society. But as a director of Fireman’s Fund, he and other directors took a huge hit that fall when buildings the company insured were destroyed in what became known as the Great Chicago Fire.

Fireman’s Fund faced claims of more than $600,000 with barely half that amount in the bank, and a year later suffered another $300,000 in claims when Boston had its own Great Fire. Compounding the financial strain, William and Sarah Bourn’s 10-year-old son, Franklin, fell at the family home in 1872 and died from his injuries.

Then, in 1874, gold production at the Empire Mine slowed to a crawl at the 1,200-foot level. Although a new, rich vein would eventually be found, Will Bourn, Sr. would not be alive to celebrate its discovery.

The July 25, 1874, San Francisco Chronicle announced that Bourn had committed suicide the previous day, his body having been found in the bathroom of his Nob Hill home — a Colt revolver on the floor at his feet. According to the Chronicle, “The bathtub was dry and there were no indications that Mr. Bourn intended using it or that he had any other object in going into the room than to take his own life.”

A coroner’s inquest determined that the fatal shot entered above Bourn’s navel and traveled up through the heart before lodging in the spine. The inquest jury theorized that Bourn stood in front of a mirror, looking at the gun’s placement to ensure the right trajectory, then fired. As for why Bourn would take his own life, the newspaper alluded to some recent financial setbacks, noting, “Mr. Bourn has been depressed for several weeks, and at times has behaved strangely.”

The July 27 San Francisco Examiner confirmed the jury’s conclusion that Bourn, clad only in his nightshirt, “came to his death by a wound from a pistol bullet inflicted by his own hand while laboring under great nervous excitement and mental prostration.”

Suicide made sense to the coroner and inquest jury, but not to Bourn’s widow, Sarah. In Grass Valley, the Morning Union of Aug. 7 reported that Mrs. Bourn had requested a second coroner’s inquest. She was certain her 61-year-old husband had not committed suicide.

Curiously, Bourn, a very wealthy man and longtime director of Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., had no policy on his life. But even though suicide vs. accidental death had no bearing on his estate, Sarah Bourn paid for a second inquest, including exhumation of her husband’s body and an on-site reexamination at the San Francisco cemetery.

At the second inquest hearing, with 16 friends and business associates testifying at his widow’s request, the jury was told that William Bourn didn’t seem depressed, was financially sound, and known to be careless with firearms. On Aug. 18, the Morning Union announced that the second coroner’s jury had ruled Bourn’s death an accidental shooting.

Evidence may have suggested suicide to the first inquest jury, but not to the second — nor to Sarah Bourn. Or maybe she wanted to protect her husband’s reputation and legacy? Unfortunately, we’ll never know because details of both postmortem examinations and inquests were destroyed during the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.


Four years after his father’s mysterious death, 21-year-old William Bourn II assumed management of the Empire Mine — and his five decades at the helm remain evident throughout the mine grounds. Between 1878 and 1929, when the Newmont Mining Co. acquired the property, Bourn was responsible for construction of the Willis Polk-designed Bourn Cottage, clubhouse, gardens, fountains and other amenities enjoyed by visitors when they tour Empire Mine State Historic Park.

Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at

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