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Supreme Court’s Decision In Famous Hale & Norcross Mining Case


Having read Professor Stephen Bainbridge’s post about the origins of the judicial doctrine that directors must act on an informed basis, I passed along a reference to the California Supreme Court’s in Fox v. Hale & Norcross Silver Mining Co.,  108 Cal. 369, 41 P. 308 (1895).   The Hale and Norcross mine was a famous silver and gold mine in Nevada’s Comstock mining district.  Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), who had worked in Virginia City, Nevada, even bought shares in the mine on margin, as he related in Chapter 15 of his autobiography:

“One day I got a tip from Mr. Camp, a bold man who was always making big fortunes in ingenious speculations and losing them again in the course of six months by other speculative ingenuities. Camp told me to buy some shares in the Hale and Norcross. I bought fifty shares at three hundred dollars a share. I bought on a margin, and put up twenty per cent. It exhausted my funds. I wrote Orion [his brother and the first and only Secretary of the Nevada Territory] and offered him half, and asked him to send his share of the money. I waited and waited. He wrote and said he was going to attend to it. The stock went along up pretty briskly. It went higher and higher. It reached a thousand dollars a share. It climbed to two thousand, then to three thousand; then to twice that figure. The money did not come, but I was not disturbed. By and by that stock took a turn and began to gallop down. Then I wrote urgently. Orion answered that he had sent the money long ago–said he had sent it to the Occidental Hotel. I inquired for it. They said it was not there. To cut a long story short, that stock went on down until it fell below the price I had paid for it. Then it began to eat up the margin, and when at last I got out I was very badly crippled.”

Samuel Clemens disappointing investment predated by a number of years the litigation that resulted in the California Supreme Court’s opinion. 

The Hale and Norcross mine was located in Nevada, but the corporation that owned it was incorporated in California.  That is why the shareholders sued the directors in the Golden, rather than the Silver, state.  The Supreme Court’s decision was big news.  The day after the decision was issued, The San Francisco Call published this lengthy article that not only described the case, but also published the decision itself and a drawing of the plaintiff, M.W. Fox.

 



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