On February 23, 1892, after Collins finished breakfast at the Brewster Hotel, U.S. marshal George Gard led him into a parlor. Out of the public eye, Gard placed Collins under arrest for “abstracting” $200,000 from California National and defrauding investors.
“I have nothing to say about this unexpected trouble that has come upon me,” a strained Collins told reporters. “I am perfectly at ease as to the outcome, and when called upon for my explanation am satisfied I can give one that will exonerate me from the charges preferred.”
Collins would face a grand jury in Los Angeles the first week of April. Since Collins couldn’t pay the $50,000 bail, Gard chose not to lock him in jail, where his life could be threatened. Trusting that he wouldn’t try to escape, Gard confined Collins to his suite at the Brewster, a posh, wood-frame-and-brick structure at the southeast corner of Fourth and C, two blocks up from the bank.
Though he knew Collins wouldn’t flee, Gard searched the sitting room, bedroom, and bathroom of suite 39 for weapons. He inspected the thick moquette carpet, leather sofas, and handsomely carved chiffonier and mantel. He halted before the life-sized, smiling portraits of Fannie, Mary, and John, and understood why an entire city had mourned their loss. On a stand near a window overlooking Fourth Street, a little knot of blue ribbon — most likely Mary’s — served as a bookmark for Byron’s poetry.
Finding no weapons, Gard stationed deputy marshal J.F. Rebling outside the door.
Interviewed on February 27, Collins told reporters that the 12 percent interest-bearing certificate was a falsehood. All certificates were much lower and issued with full knowledge of the entire bank’s management. He added that he had never taken a single dollar from California National: “All I ask from those who have undoubtedly suffered by the suspension of the bank is that they not pass judgment until the facts are fully known.”
To show good faith, Collins signed his life insurance policy — $85,000 — over to the bank to repay investors.
On Thursday morning, March 3, Collins learned that his preliminary hearing would be postponed until March 15. Relieved, he had lunch at the Brewster with attorney general William H.H. Hart, who’d come from Washington DC to investigate the case, and brigadier general E.J. Murray, a newcomer to San Diego. Collins, one leg over the arm of a high-backed chair, listened to their tales of the Civil War with rapt attention.
At ten minutes after 1:00, Gard entered: Collins must go to Los Angeles “on the 2:40 train. Pack your bag.”
Gard didn’t say why. Collins assumed it meant prison. He begged George O’Brien — the bank’s cashier suspended for unnamed infractions — to try again to raise bail money and urge Gard to postpone the departure.
Asked how he felt, Collins replied, “Oh, about as well as could be expected.”
He went to his rooms on the third floor to pack a valise. “I haven’t taken my drink of whiskey,” he told deputy Rebling. Collins poured two fingers into a glass, then went into the bathroom — presumably to splash the drink with tap water — and locked the door.
Judge T.K. Wilson, Collins’s attorney and close friend, met Rebling in the corridor. As Wilson asked where Collins was, they heard a blunted crack.
Rebling raced in: sitting room, empty; bedroom, no. With his shoulder, Rebling bulldozed the bathroom door off its hinges. He found Collins on his back next to the bathtub. Blood streamed from his mouth into an expanding scarlet pool. His right hand clutched a smoking, ivory-handled .38 revolver. His body made a slight tremor, then was still.
Minutes after Wilson and Rebling found Collins, George O’Brien returned to the hotel, out of breath with good news: Marshal Gard agreed not to hurry Collins. They could go to Los Angeles the next day, or even the day after. Instead of prison, Gard would arrange for a Brewster-like confinement. “Had [Collins] waited five minutes,” wrote the Union, “he might have been well.”
Collins, in a black business suit, had sat down on the floor. He stuck the muzzle into his mouth, pointed upward, and fired, “causing death instantly” (Sun). “There was not the slightest evidence of a death struggle. How Collins secured possession of the revolver is yet a mystery.”
Collins had two heavy, old-style pistols, his monogram, “J.W.C.,” engraved under the cylinder. He kept one at the bank. The night before the attempt, George O’Brien said he was worried about Collins’s state of mind. So, O’Brien asked for the other pistol. Collins gave it to him “with some reluctance.”
“I haven’t the least idea how he secured that pistol,” Rebling told reporters. “One thing I do know: it was not in any pocket of his clothes that hung in the rooms, unless it was placed there by some outside party just prior to the suicide.”
Rebling swore he searched the suite “almost constantly for fear someone might leave something [he’d use] in case of extremity. I was anxious to take no chances.”
Rebling had guarded Collins for several days. “I cannot say that he was crazy, but he acted very strangely.” Irate investors had sent death threats. He feared some “crank” would try to murder him or his friends.
“It was a hard matter for me to keep him away from…his troubles,” Rebling added. “He has gone over the whole transaction from beginning to end so often that I have it by heart.”
When Rebling changed the subject, Collins returned to the bank’s failure and his innocence. “He said when the people understood the matter they would pity rather than blame him.” Collins remained convinced that the bank would come around and he’d be president again. He only referred to his drowned family once, “and then he choked up so completely he could not proceed.”
Dr. Fred Baker arrived at the Brewster, accompanied by deputy coroner Stetson. A crowd, shocked that Collins had attempted suicide, gathered in the hotel’s rotunda. They discussed Collins, wrote the Union, “in hushed voices. Men who had previously denounced him in bitter words now spoke kindly.”