A SPECULATION. John W. Collins had nothing left. One of San Diego’s most beloved citizens and president of California National Bank, Collins lost his wife and two children in a boating accident in 1890. Eighteen months later, his partner, David Dare, embezzled $200,000 and ran off to Europe. The bank folded. Collins swore he was innocent. To show good faith, he gave his $85,000 life-insurance policy to help repay creditors. On March 3, 1892, thinking he was going to prison in Los Angeles, Collins sat on the bathroom floor of his hotel suite, put a .38 caliber muzzle in his mouth, pointed upward, and — could hell be worse? — pulled the trigger.
“Mr. Collins thought he was to have his preliminary hearing here,” hotel manager Ed O’Brien told reporters. “I think the sudden notification that he would have to go to Los Angeles…had a great deal to do with the rash act.
“The deputy marshal was with him at the time.” O’Brien added, “We are at a loss to know where he obtained the pistol. The room was searched carefully and I am certain no weapon was there.”
For over a century, two questions have haunted Collins’s suicide: 1) Where did he get the gun? 2) Was it loaded?
A rumor swept through San Diego that Collins had faked his death. Friends allegedly whisked him onto a boat so he could join up with Dare, his partner in crime, in Europe. U.S. Custom House records, some say, have a strange entry: Shortly after Collins was interred at Mt. Hope Cemetery, a “human-sized” box took a sea cruise.
And the body at the cemetery? “Just a dummy,” said Simon Manasse. Born in Old Town in 1874 (his father, Moses, ran a store across from the battlefield at San Pasqual), Manasse was interviewed in 1957. Collins, he said, “had to escape some way to get…money left in the bank, so they made a statue out of wax,” buried it, and he “went to Europe.” Collins tried to return 40 years later, says Manasse, “and I don’t know whether he got back or not.”
“History or folklore?” asks historian Jerry MacMullen. “How they took care of the legal paperwork on that one is something you’ll have to figure out for yourself.”
When Collins took his life at the Brewster Hotel, the clerk called Dr. Fred Baker to come at once. Baker found Collins on his back, in the bathroom of suite 39, a still-smoking revolver in his right hand. Blood oozed from Collins’s nose and mouth, covering his pallid forehead and forming a crimson splotch on the carpet. At least four other men, among them Judge T.K. Wilson and Deputy Marshal Rebling, watched Baker unbutton Collins’s black vest and feel for a pulse. Nothing.
“He is beyond all human aid,” the doctor said, “he is quite dead.”
Four men followed Collins’s casket to the San Diego Undertaking Company, at Fourth and F.
The next day coroner M.B. Kellar held an inquest on the cause of death. He and seven jurors went to view the body. Outside the parlor, an official swore them in. They entered a hushed room, flanked by somber drapes, where the slightest sound popped like gunfire. Collins lay in an open casket, hands crossed at his waist. His lips and nose were black as coal. The bullet, said the coroner, remained lodged in his brain. As the jurors walked single-file around him, one observed that the 43-year-old looked years older. “The face, which was wont to light with a smile for every one,” was empty. To verify the suicide, the coroner opened Collins’s mouth. Powder burns had also blackened the tongue.
The group returned to the courthouse. The coroner, two doctors, and the seven jurors testified that the cause of death was suicide.
John W. Collins was dead, indeed — doornail dead.
Given all he suffered, it’s difficult to see why he’d consider running away. He’d lost his family, business, reputation, wealth, friends (it hurt his “very sensitive nature,” wrote the Union, when no one would pay his $50,000 bail). Convinced he was headed to prison, Collins lost hope of redemption. Everywhere he turned, a door slammed with iron finality. In the end, he had but one means of escape.
Collins and David Dare resembled Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Collins, the churchgoing family man, had been a beacon for San Diegans after the land boom of the 1880s busted. And when his family died, the city embraced him even more. The shady, articulate Dare played on peoples’ hopes like a flim-flammer. When authorities identified him in Italy, Dare wrote his sister that he’d been ill for three months and that, as soon as he was well, he’d gladly return to San Diego and ’fess up. He never did.
But did Collins have his own, internal Mr. Hyde? After his death, along with the rumor that he’d faked it, reports of a dark side spun his reputation from sunlight to midnight. Judges, fellow bankers, and friends argued that Collins erred on the side of generosity, not fraud: the bank’s loans were far too liberal, and many transactions went unrecorded. But San Diegans rendered penniless by California National’s collapse damned to hell the man they once held high.
The witch hunt began the day after Collins died. The San Diego Union printed a story it had previously kept quiet, because “publication might have seriously interfered with the strenuous efforts being made toward the bank’s resumption.”
Collins was born and raised on a farm near Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania. M.E. Post, a family friend from Cheyenne, Wyoming, noted that the young man had a good business sense. In 1870 Post hired the 21-year-old as a clerk in his bank, the only one in Cheyenne. Collins soon earned high marks for industriousness and efficiency. He also became so popular with customers that Post promoted him to the prestigious position of cashier.
During this time Collins became friends with David Dare, a sign-painter who specialized in enlarged photographs in crayon. They worked on several projects together, and Collins loaned Dare the money to build a pretentious stone house, Dare Castle, on Cheyenne’s “Millionaire’s Row.”