by Jack Harpster – author of The Curious Life of Nevada’s LaVere Redfield: The Silver Dollar King
This article is adapted from Reno, Nevada author Jack Harpster’s upcoming book, The Curious Life of Nevada’s LaVere Redfield: The Silver Dollar King, that will be released on November 4, 2014 by The History Press, Charleston, SC, and available on Amazon.com. Harpster has six other published books, including King of the Slots: William “Si” Redd and The Railroad Tycoon Who Built Chicago: A Biography of William B. Ogden.
Nevada, with its long history of gambling, divorce, and legalized prostitution in some counties, has attracted more than its share of unconventional people over the years. But few can compare with a young man who arrived in Reno with his wife in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, with a fortune in cash and stock certificates stuffed in his suitcases and pockets.
LaVere Redfield had made his first fortune as a contrarian investor. He thrived during the huge Wall Street surges of the Roaring Twenties; he thrived during the market’s staggering collapse in 1929; and he thrived during the miserable equity market doldrums of the Great Depression. He was a genius at picking stocks—he intuitively knew when to buy and when to sell—and he did it entirely on his own, never seeking or accepting anyone’s counsel. Stockbrokers in the Los Angeles financial district where he practiced his trade for fifteen years tabbed him the “Lone Wolf of Spring Street.”
In 1935 Redfield was one of about fifty multi-millionaires who were enticed to move to Nevada to take advantage of the state’s tax haven status. He joined such luminaries as E. L. Cord, Max Fleischman, Bing Crosby, Dean Witter, and others; yet while these men were being patronized by Nevada politicians and glorified in the state’s newspapers, Redfield went completely unnoticed. This was exactly the way he liked it, and for the first twelve years he lived in the little city on the Truckee River, he had managed to maintain his much-sought-after anonymity. But that would all begin to change on a cold January afternoon in 1948 as Redfield walked toward his home in southwest Reno from a downtown casino where he often played high-stakes roulette.
Short and trim, with a graying crew cut, Redfield would not normally have attracted any attention as he walked briskly home. He was dressed in worn workman’s clothes—his normal attire—and probably a light jacket to shield his slight frame from the mid-500 temperature. He was less than four short blocks from his Mt. Rose Street house, an imposing stone mansion that sat atop the highest knoll in the neighborhood. Despite the nearby safety of his house, however, he had a gnawing sense of foreboding, and he quickened his pace.
It was 1:50 in the afternoon. The children who would normally have been playing hopscotch or kick-the-can on the streets and sidewalks were still in school, and without their happy shouts and laughter, the neighborhood was quiet. Redfield was normally at ease passing by all these familiar scenes on his way home, but on this day he was apprehensive. He had had a good run of luck at the roulette wheel at Harolds Club, and his $2,300 winnings were tucked into a paper bag clutched tightly in his hand. His alarm had been aroused by a man he noticed had been following him for the past few blocks. He would later describe the man to police as about thirty-five years old, of medium height and weight, with a dark complexion.
Redfield picked up his pace again as he neared his street, but the stranger overtook him. The man announced that he had a gun in his pocket, and he demanded of Redfield, “Give me the $2300.”
Despite his small size and mild manner, LaVere Redfield was not a pushover in any sense of the word. It occurred to him that the man must have been following him all the way from the downtown casino. The stranger repeated his demand, but Redfield stood his ground, tightly gripping the fragile brown paper sack.
If ever there was a man who had difficulty parting with a dollar under any circumstances, it was LaVere Redfield. Those who knew him well—and there were few such people outside of his large extended family—could have told the would-be robber that he had set a difficult task for himself. But unaware of whom he was dealing with, the robber swung a brick he held clutched in his hand, and hit Redfield on the side of the head with a resounding crack. Again the mugger demanded the money, and again Redfield resisted. Twelve to fifteen times, according to Redfield’s later estimate, the stranger hit him on the head with the brick; but each swing only tightened Redfield’s grip on the paper bag, and steeled his resolve not to surrender his money to the thug. Eventually, frightened by the commotion he was creating on the quiet street, the stranger gave up and ran away.
Redfield had proven to be as tough as a boar’s hide. But he paid a high price for his courage and stubbornness. He lay on the hard, cold pavement with a fractured skull and a concussion, the paper sack holding his $2,300 winnings still clutched tightly in his hand. A passerby called the police, and an ambulance was dispatched to the scene and hurriedly carried the injured man to Washoe General Hospital. The following morning’s newspaper reported that hospital personnel said Redfield, “was in serious condition . . . [but] he is believed to have a good chance of recovery.” Redfield remained in the hospital for a number of weeks, and wore a hard, protective skullcap on his head for months after the incident.
The assault and botched robbery would turn out to be a seminal event in the life of one of Nevada’s most prominent and eccentric characters. The mugging would be just the first of five attempts at separating him by force from his considerable fortune over the next two decades. In fact, a burglary just four years later at his Reno home—the largest burglary in U.S. history at that time—would make international news, and subject the ultra-private millionaire to media scrutiny that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Following Redfield’s death in 1974, one of his estate attorneys ventured into the Redfields’ basement while preparing a list of the estate’s assets. He was astonished at what he found. “I was just amazed at what I saw. There is barely room to squeeze along the center between stacks of crates and boxes clear to the ceiling. There are hundreds of cases of canned foods, now old and so spoiled the cans are puffed,” he wrote in his diary. “There are boxes and boxes and boxes of empty bottles of every kind, shape and size. Stacks and stacks and stacks of old newspapers and old magazines. God know[s] what. Everything imaginable.” Later, in his diary, the attorney recorded this notation: “Today Mrs. Redfield told me that before that event [the 1948 mugging] the basement was clean. After that, [LaVere] started going to auctions and buying about everything in sight.”
The search of the fabled Redfield basement also uncovered his vast stash of silver dollars—407,000 of them—that have become known today as the “Redfield Hoard.” The hoard, or collection as some prefer to call it, was auctioned off in 1976 for $7.3 million, the biggest cash deal in the history of coin collecting to that time.
© 2014 Jack Harpster, republished with permission.