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Alison "Eilley" Oram Bowers
Eilley Bowers.jpg
Born Alison Oram
September 6, 1826(1826-09-06)
Forfar, Scotland
Died October 27, 1903 (aged 77)
San Francisco, California, USA
Residence Washoe County, Nevada
Nationality Scottish-American
Known for Miner, Socialite, Fortune-teller
Religion The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Spouse(s) Stephen Hunter (1841–1850)
Alexander Cowan (1853–1860)
Lemuel Sanford "Sandy" Bowers (1859–1868)

Alison "Eilley" Oram Bowers (September 6, 1826 – October 27, 1903) was a Scottish American woman who was, in her time, one of the richest women in the United States, and owner of the Bowers Mansion, one of the largest houses in the western United States at the time. She was a Scottish farmer's daughter who, after converting to Mormonism as a teenager, immigrated to the United States. After briefly living in Nauvoo, Illinois, she became an early Nevada pioneer, farmer and miner. She became a millionaire during the Comstock Lode mining boom. Married three times and divorced twice, she had three children but outlived them all.

Following the deaths of her last husband and her three children, and the collapse of the Nevada mining economy, she became bankrupt and destitute, reinventing herself as "The Famous Washoe Seeress", a professional scryer and fortune-teller in Nevada and California. Worth over $4 million at the height of the Nevada mining boom, she died penniless in a care home in Oakland.

Early life

Alison Oram (sometimes spelled "Orrum"), commonly called Eilley, was born into a farming family on September 6, 1826 in Forfar, Scotland, one of ten children.[1] Although she had little interest in religion, she was dissatisfied with her prospects should she remain in Scotland, and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to gain the means to move to the United States.[1]

Accompanied by her sister Betty, Eilley arrived in Nauvoo, Illinois, at this point the hub of the Latter Day Saints movement, in 1841. In 1842 Eilley married Scottish widower and missionary Stephen Hunter, at 45 years old thirty years her senior.[1][N 1] Following the assassination of Joseph Smith, Jr. the couple joined the migration of the Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley, settling in Salt Lake City.[2]

As Hunter believed Eilley to be unable to conceive children, he took a second wife, polygamy at this point being legal in the Utah Territory and socially acceptable within the Mormon community. Unwilling to share a husband, in 1850 she paid $15 (approximately $Template:Formatprice today)Template:Inflation-fn to divorce Hunter, supporting herself by working in a Salt Lake City general store.[2]

Remarriage and settlement in Nevada

In 1853, Eilley married farmer Alexander Cowan. Two years later the couple joined a mission to Mormon Station, near the western edge of Utah Territory.[3] Shortly afterward the mission relocated to Franktown, in what is now Washoe County, Nevada. Eilley and her husband settled near present-day Virginia City, roughly halfway between Reno and Carson City. They bought 320 acres (1.29 km2; 0.50 sq mi) of land, which contained a hot spring, for $100 (approximately $Template:Formatprice today).[2]Template:Inflation-fn[4] Alexander farmed, and Eilley opened a boardinghouse in nearby Gold Canyon.[2]

During the crisis of the Utah War in 1857, Brigham Young recalled Mormon colonists from the western areas of the proposed State of Deseret to the core area of Mormon settlement south of the Great Salt Lake. Alexander heeded the call, but Eilley remained at home. Cowan's 13-year-old nephew Robert Henderson assisted her with the boardinghouse, and she hired casual labor to work the farm. For a short period afterwards Alexander returned periodically, but in 1858 he returned permanently to Salt Lake City for unknown reasons.[5]

Gold Hill and the Comstock Lode

Gold Hill

Gold Hill in the 1870s

When the Mormons abandoned the Franktown settlement, Eilley and Robert moved to the mining camp of Johntown, south of Silver City. As prospectors began to enter the area in large numbers, Eilley opened a new boardinghouse in the growing town of Gold Hill. (Fetherling claims that she was the only woman in the community, a claim which cannot be verified.[6]) She cooked and laundered for her boarders, and was known to engage in fortune-telling using a traditional Scottish "peep stone" she had brought from Forfar when originally emigrating to the United States.[N 2][4][7] Henry de Groot recorded that on his arrival in August 1859:
"Mrs Ellen Cowan was living at Gold Hill in a very rude and comfortless sort of abode. She did the washing for the miners, a business that paid well at that day, and had gathered not a little gear prior to her marriage with Sandy."[8]

Two of the boarders, Lemuel Sanford "Sandy" Bowers and James Rogers, jointly owned a 20-foot mining claim in Gold Canyon, registered on January 28, 1859.[5] In 1859 Eilley purchased Rogers's half of the claim for $1,000 (approximately $Template:Formatprice today).Template:Inflation-fn[9][N 3] On August 9, 1859 Eilley married Sandy Bowers,[10] and on June 4, 1860 she divorced Alexander Cowan on grounds of desertion, being granted half of the 320-acre farm they had owned in the Washoe Valley.[9][11]

As the area boomed following the discovery of the Comstock Lode, the Bowers's claim proved to hold one of the richest seams of silver ore in Nevada, and because the lode was close to the surface, it was easily extracted without initial capital investment.[12] Sandy and Eilley's claims together yielded over $4 million (approximately $Template:Formatprice today),Template:Inflation-fn at one point generating over $100,000 (approximately $Template:Formatprice today) per month,Template:Inflation-fn[13] making the couple among the richest people in the United States, Sandy Bowers the first Comstock millionaire,[14] and Eilley Bowers the first female millionaire in Nevada.[9][N 4]

European tour and the Bowers Mansion

On June 28, 1860 Eilley Bowers gave birth to a son, John Jasper Bowers, who died on August 27, 1860. On June 16, 1861 she gave birth to a daughter, Theresa Fortunatas Bowers, who died on September 17, 1861.[9] Shortly after Theresa's death, the couple began to plan a grand mansion on the 160 acres in the Washoe Valley which Eilley had received in settlement from Alexander Cowan.[15] While the house was being built, the couple planned a grand European trip to purchase furniture for the new house.[15]

Sandy Bowers

Lemuel Sanford "Sandy" Bowers

Shortly before their departure, the couple hosted a banquet at the International Hotel in Virginia City, to which the entire town was invited, and which included free champagne.[15] After travelling to California, the Bowers sailed from San Francisco for England on May 2, 1862, aboard the steamer Golden Gate. The couple visited Eilley's family in Scotland, and purchased large quantities of furniture in Scotland and London, including an ornate formal walnut wood chair custom made for the couple in Scotland, and took ivy cuttings from the walls of Westminster Abbey and broom from Forfar, which were to be planted on the verandah of the house.[16] While in London, the couple planned to meet with Queen Victoria,[12] with Eilley going as far as to have an ornate dress made for the occasion; however, Victoria refused to meet with the couple as she disapproved of Eilley Bowers's two divorces.[17][18] Following the visit to England and Scotland, the couple visited Paris, where they bought silverware, jewelry and a large number of dresses, and to Florence, where a sculptor was commissioned to make a series of busts.[18]

The couple returned to Nevada and the newly-built Bowers Mansion in April 1863, accompanied by a baby girl, whom the couple called Margaret Persia Bowers. The couple never divulged where they had acquired the child. Some comtemporary sources claimed she was Eilley's child, born on the crossing to Europe. Others state that she was a Scottish orphan, adopted during the couple's visit to Scotland, while other sources claim that she was the daughter of a Margaret Wixson, who died on the return journey to the United States, and that the Bowerses had undertaken to find the child's relatives but, unable to locate them, had adopted the child as their own. There is no evidence for any assumption, and no record of Sandy or Eilley Bowers ever having spoken about the matter.[18]


J. Neely Johnson, architect of the Bowers Mansion

The Bowers Mansion was one of the most expensive buildings built in the western United States at the time. Designed by J. Neely Johnson, the former Governor of California,[19] it cost around $400,000 (approximately $Template:Formatprice today)Template:Inflation-fn to build and furnish, and soon became nicknamed "Bowers' Folly".[N 4] As a twice-divorced woman and a Mormon, Eilley Bowers in particular was unpopular with much of the population, while the couple's conspicuous displays of wealth were unpopular during the local recession caused by the fall in demand for silver following the end of the American Civil War.[20]

Economic hardship

On April 21, 1868 Sandy Bowers died suddenly of silicosis-related illness, aged 35. He was buried on a hill at the rear of the Bowers Mansion.[20] Following his death, it was discovered that he had seriously mismanaged the couple's financial affairs—loaning out large sums of money to friends and acquaintances without collateral, and mortgaging much of their stock—and had entered into negotiations to sell part of their holdings.

Bowers Mansion FSA

The Bowers Mansion

With the Comstock lode almost exhausted and the mining industry in severe decline, and occupying a house costing large sums to maintain, Eilley Bowers opened part of the Bowers Mansion to the public as a resort, allegedly on instructions received from her peep stone.[10] The hot springs in the grounds were advertised as being beneficial to health, while dances and social events were held in the mansion with Bowers charging admission fees. Bowers borrowed funds to build an extension to the mansion, adding a dance hall and luxurious hotel rooms, including indoor bathrooms.[20] Meanwhile, Margaret Persia Bowers was sent to live with friends in Reno to keep her away from the sometimes-raucous parties held at the mansion, and to allow her to obtain a better education than was available in Virginia City.[21]

Bowers was by this point in chronic debt. The mines were sold to pay off creditors, and she entered into negotiations with the newly-created State of Nevada for the state to purchase the mansion as a psychiatric hospital.[21] Unfortunately for Bowers, the deal fell through, and she was obliged to begin to sell her possessions to settle debts. To maximize income, jewelry, silverware, paintings and clothing were raffled off with tickets costing $2.50 apiece.[21]

Margaret Persia Bowers

Margaret Persia Bowers c. 1872

In mid-July 1874 Reno was struck by simultaneous outbreaks of typhoid, malaria, diphtheria and cholera, and on July 14, 1874, Margaret Persia Bowers suffered a severe fever.[N 5] Eilley immediately left for Reno to be with her, but before she arrived Margaret died, aged 12. Her body was brought back to Virginia City and buried on the hill behind the mansion, next to Sandy Bowers.[21]

Bankruptcy and scrying

On May 3, 1876, the bank initiated foreclosure proceedings against Bowers, giving her six months to settle her debts. She was unable to do so. On November 27, 1876, the Bowers Mansion—valued at $638,000 ($Template:Formatprice today) at the time of Sandy Bowers's death in 1868—was sold at auction for $10,000 ($Template:Formatprice today).Template:Inflation-fn[7]

Bankrupt and with no remaining family in the United States, Eilley Bowers set herself up as a fortune-teller using her peep stone, billing herself as "Mrs L. S. Bowers, The Famous Washoe Seeress".[12][22] She enjoyed some success with her predictions, successfully predicting, among other things, the fire which destroyed much of Virginia City in 1875.[7] Due to the continued economic decline in northern Nevada following the collapse of the mining industry, in the 1880s she moved to San Francisco, where she continued to practice as a scryer.[23]


In the late 19th century, Bowers returned to Nevada. Her hearing had diminished significantly, and she was forced to give up the scrying business as she was unable to hear the requests of her clients. She launched a claim against the government asking for financial assistance in return for the $14,000 she and Sandy Bowers had donated to support the Union cause in the Civil War and to finance the 1860 Paiute War, but was ignored.[23] Destitute, she was placed in the Washoe County poorhouse, and became the subject of a protracted legal dispute between the governments of Nevada and California over who was to pay for her care. In August 1901 it was agreed that California would take responsibility for her welfare, and she was summarily put on a San Francisco-bound train by Reno officials with $30 cash. For the last two years of her life she lived at the King's Daughters Home in Oakland, dying on October 27, 1903.[23] Her ashes were returned to Nevada and buried alongside Sandy and Margaret at the Bowers Mansion.[24]


Eilley Bowers continues to be one of the most famous of 19th century female pioneers, and a major figure in the early history of Nevada. In one writer's words, she "is one of the most researched, written and talked about women in Nevada history."[25]

Following its sale at auction following foreclosure, the Bowers Mansion was abandoned. Eventually purchased by Reno saloon owner Henry Riter, it was renovated and reopened as a resort in 1903.[26] The hot springs were remodeled to feed warm swimming pools, and a spur was built from the Virginia and Truckee Railroad to serve the property.[26] It continued to operate as a resort until 1946. It is now considered the finest example of the mansion houses built by the millionaire beneficiaries of the Comstock boom,[19] is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is administered by the Washoe County Parks Department.[19]


  1. Some sources state that the marriage took place in Scotland prior to emigration, however it is documented that it took place in 1842, following her move to Nauvoo.
  2. Although frowned on by most Christian denominations, scrying using stones was an accepted practice in the Mormon movement in the 19th century; see also Seer stone (Latter Day Saints).
  3. Some sources say that Eilley Bowers acquired the claim from a boarder who was unable to pay his bill and ceded her the deeds in lieu of payment. However, the surviving ledger shows that the 10-foot claim was purchased from James Rogers at $100 per foot.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Smith (1998), p. 96, disputes the claims regarding the wealth of the Bowers family and the cost of the construction of the Bowers Mansion, claiming that on the death of Sandy Bowers his entire estate was valued at approximately $88,000.
  5. As Nevada did not begin keeping medical records until 1887, the true cause of Margaret Persia Bowers's death cannot be established; in addition to the typhoid, malaria, diphtheria and cholera outbreaks in Reno at this time, some sources speculate that she suffered a ruptured appendix or scarlet fever.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Cleere, p. 3
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Cleere, p. 4
  3. Rast, p. 196
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Bowers: Washoe Valley". Portraits of Nevada. University of Nevada, Reno. Retrieved 2007-03-20. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Cleere, p. 5
  6. Fetherling, p. 87
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Cleere, p. 11
  8. Henry de Groot, Mining and Scientific Press, October 12, 1876, quoted in Smith, p. 95
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Cleere, p. 6
  10. 10.0 10.1 Rast, p. 197
  11. "Bowers: European Adventures". University of Nevada, Reno. 1996. Retrieved 2009-03-22. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 James, p. 68
  13. Beebe & Clegg, p. 24
  14. Rocha, Guy (October 2003). "Searching for "Sandy" Bowers". Nevada State Archives. Retrieved 2007-03-20. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Cleere, p. 7
  16. Cleere, p. 1
  17. Beebe & Clegg, p. 27
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Cleere, p. 8
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 "Bowers Mansion". National Parks Service. Retrieved 2009-03-22. 
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Cleere, p. 9
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 Cleere, p. 10
  22. Smith, p. 96
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Cleere, p. 12
  24. Cleere, p. 13
  25. Buzick, Tamera. "Alison (Eilley) Oram Bowers". Women's Biographies. University of Nevada, Reno Women's Resource Center. Retrieved 2007-03-20. 
  26. 26.0 26.1 Myrick, p. 159


  • Beebe, Lucius; Clegg, Charles (1956). Legends of the Comstock Lode. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0 804704 63 5. OCLC 232129019. 
  • Cleere, Jan (2005). More Than Petticoats. Guilford, CT: TwoDot. ISBN 0 762727 39 X. OCLC 57001649. 
  • Fetherling, Douglas (1997). The Gold Crusades: A Social History of Gold Rushes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0 802080 46 4. OCLC 39508362. 
  • James, Ronald Michael (1998). The Roar and the Silence: a history of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press. ISBN 0 874173 20 5. OCLC 38936706. 
  • Myrick, David F. (1992). Railroads of Nevada and Eastern California. 1. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press. ISBN 0 874171 93 8. OCLC 26054665. 
  • Rast, Sheila, ed (1940). Nevada: A guide to the Silver State. Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort. ISBN 1 603540 27 X. 
  • Smith, Grant H. (1998). The History of the Comstock Lode, 1850-1997. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press. ISBN 1 888035 04 8. OCLC 38992986. 

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