In 1880, Post became Wyoming’s territorial delegate to Congress. He served four years. While Post was away, Collins became, in effect, the bank’s manager. When Post returned in 1884, he found his institution flourishing. As a reward, Collins demanded if not equal status with Post, then at least to be a shareholder.
Post said no. Collins had run things “in his own interests,” and Post would never promote him.
Collins quit. He vowed to not only start his own bank, but to ruin Post’s. Collins and Dare combined local backing with Eastern stockholders and built Cheyenne National. As the bank grew, someone — Collins? Dare? — started a rumor that Post’s verged on insolvency. Many of his patrons changed institutions, and the bank collapsed. Collins and his associates secured the transfer of patronage. Two years later, they came to San Diego and founded California National.
After Collins died, the Union’s inflammatory revelations gave San Diegans a much-needed scapegoat during the city’s first economic depression. The L.A. Times joined in: Collins’s “suicide will be taken as a confession of guilt.” Condemnation by the press closed the case in the public’s mind. Collins had been as two-faced as Dare all along.
And quite possibly insane. Two days after the suicide, the Sun interviewed Deputy Marshal Rebling. He guarded Collins at the Brewster and heard his story many times. “When the people understood the matter,” Collins told Rebling, “they would pity rather than blame” him. Collins was so adamant about his innocence that Rebling “questioned the soundness of his mind.”
We’ll never know what Collins would have said in court. A revolver silenced his testimony. The trail of the weapon, however, opens up other paths — and schemes.
Collins had matching ivory-handled pistols, his monogram engraved under the cylinders. For years he kept them in a polished wood box lined with red velvet. Since he was often out of town, he loaned one to the bank for protection. The other remained on his third-floor suite at the Brewster, where he’d lived since his family died.
When marshal George E. Gard arrested Collins, rather than put him in jail, where his life would be in danger, Gard confined him to the Brewster. Deputy Rebling often searched the rooms for guns and poison. Collins wouldn’t attempt an armed escape, both men were certain. But he might try to end his life.
Suite 39 had an elegantly furnished sitting room, a bedroom and bathroom, each separated by heavy portieres. In the bathroom, to the right of the washstand, was a 30-inch deep wardrobe where Collins hung his clothes above a strip of Brussels carpet. Rebling inspected the leather sofas, the odd bric-a-brac, the handsomely carved chiffonier. He frisked the clothes on hooks in the bathroom. “I searched every nook and corner in the rooms,” Rebling testified in court, “almost constantly.
“I haven’t the least idea how he secured that pistol. 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 paused, then blurted, “We think we can put our hands on the man who knows more about how that pistol came in Mr. Collins’s pocket… than he cares to tell.”
The court didn’t pursue this lead.
At the trial, George O’Brien, former cashier at California National, said he feared Collins would kill himself. On the day before the suicide, O’Brien begged Collins to hand over the ivory-handled revolver. Collins did so, O’Brien said, “with reluctance.” O’Brien said he found “another old weapon” in the suite. He left with both.
But if Deputy Rebling checked the suite “almost constantly,” what were two pistols doing there? Or were they?
O’Brien had other worries. He’d been suspended from California National on suspicion of fraud. As cashier, O’Brien took orders from Collins, as did O’Brien’s brother, Harry, the head bookkeeper. Collins had been in San Francisco for most of October. On the 13th and 14th, O’Brien credited Collins with $20,000 and $25,000. When the bank suspended operations, on November 12, 1891, Collins had only $11,420.90 in his account. Somehow, along with the $200,000 that Dare had embezzled, for which Collins was held responsible, $33,029.10 had disappeared.
Did Collins steal the money for his own interests? Or was this an example of his “liberal” management, an under-the-table loan to a friend — to John C. Fisher, say, to complete his Opera House (which went into receivership shortly after Collins died)? If Dare hadn’t run off and the bank didn’t close, the loan would have been repaid, and no one would have been the wiser.
In the many court proceedings that followed, lawyers drew a blurry line between Collins’s “irregularities” and “frauds.” On some off-the-books loans, Collins had Harry O’Brien write “special” in red ink across the top of a blank certificate. In a court of law, these unwritten, gentlemanly agreements constitute embezzlement.
When Collins was away, George O’Brien ran things and, says a legal brief, “committed wrongful acts,” including false certificates of deposit and suspicious withdrawals totaling $45,000. Harry became a suspect as well.
Instead of worrying that Collins might attempt suicide, the O’Brien brothers may have prayed that he would — the three O’Brien brothers, Harry and George, who worked at the bank, and Ed, who ran the Brewster Hotel.
A speculative scenario: At 11:30 a.m., on March 3, Collins lunched at the Brewster with U.S. attorney general H.H. Hart, who’d come to investigate the case, and brigadier general E.J. Murray. Ed O’Brien and Deputy Rebling stood by as the trio shared Civil War stories. Collins, fascinated, draped one leg over the arm of his chair.
At 1:30, Marshal Gard entered. Sad troubles, he whispered to O’Brien: Collins must go to Los Angeles on the afternoon train. Gard escorted Collins to a first-floor parlor, sat him down, and broke the news. Gard neglected to say that the move was for protection, since death threats had increased. Assuming it meant prison, Collins turned white. He had an hour to pack and leave San Diego.