A Runaway Marriage:
The year was 1886, and Mary Cosser and William John Swail knew what they wanted – each other. But the would-be bride’s parent were apparently less than excited about the match. The fact that Mary was just 16 while her sweetheart was eight years older might have had something to do with it.
So Mary and Billie hatched a quiet plan. One fine September day a friend named Jack Quill paid a friendly visit to the Cosser ranch. And shortly after Quill’s buggy departed, the family discovered Mary was missing.
Quill carried Mary to the Pony Saloon in Jacks Valley, where Billie hopped aboard the buggy. Somewhere further down the road toward Carson they were met by a second carriage, which whisked the pair off to Virginia City to tie the knot.
One tiny bit of further deception was required before the pair could finally be wed; Billie had to lie about Mary’s age on the marriage license. But before long, the newlyweds were safely ensconced in the Exchange Hotel in Carson, where they spent their honeymoon.
The spirited elopement caused a “sensation” in the community, and probably came as a complete shock to Mary’s parents. But it would prove a long and happy union.
Born in Canada in 1862, Billie had immigrated to the U.S. in 1877 and became a citizen in 1881. Before his marriage to Mary, he had lived briefly at Empire, then in Alpine County. After their wedding he ran the Sheridan Hotel for a time (probably with Mary’s help); an 1899 ad proclaimed him a “courteous and attentive landlord.” The 1900 Census described Billie as a “saloonkeeper.” In later years, he became the proprietor of Desert Station, building a new house on his Heybourne ranch. And by 1920, the couple were living in Sacramento, where Swail was engaged in farming.
Sadly, Billie Swail developed health problems later in life. He died in 1927 in San Francisco, where he had gone seeking treatment, at 65 years of age. Mary Cosser Swail would live another 31 years, passing away in 1958 at a rest home near Reno at the age of 88.
Aside from the wonderful story about their runaway marriage, the Swails also left a legacy of a different kind behind. Their first and only child, Ethel Vadrick Swail, grew up and married Edward Springmeyer; and their son, Jeff Springmeyer, would become Nevada Legislative Counsel.
Backtracking a bit in the tale, the Cosser family, too, had a fascinating history. Mary’s father, Richard Cosser, had been born in Midlothian, Scotland in 1839. His family were among the first Mormon settlers in Carson Valley, arriving with the Motts in 1852. Richard later married a native of Lauchres, Ireland (whose name was confusingly also Mary).
But their marriage proved anything but happy. After six children together, Richard and Mary (Redington) Cosser divorced in 1879. Little Mary (their daughter) was just ten years old at the time, and the baby of the family was still an infant. The judge awarded wife Mary the homestead dwelling along with an acre of land, all of the couple’s community property, and all Richard’s personal property as well. Custody of the six minor children went to Mary’s father. All this apparently didn’t sit too well with Richard Cosser; on the day of the court hearing, Mary charged him with assault and battery.
The split was so un-amicable the pair wasn’t even buried together. When Mary Redington Cosser died in 1924, she was interred at Mottsville; but when ex-husband Richard passed away two years later, his remains were placed in Genoa Cemetery (an unmarked grave not far from Snowshoe Thompson’s).
There’s a bit more history and drama associated with the Cosser name in early Carson Valley. Though “one of the prettiest and brightest young ladies in the county,” Agnes Cosser (younger sister of Mary Cosser Swail) tried to hang herself in the blacksmith shop in 1898 – though luckily, the attempt proved unsuccessful. Agnes’s mother discovered her unconscious form, and doctors were able to revive the young lady. And happier days lay not far ahead: Agnes married George Allerman at the Palace Hotel in January, 1902.
Walter (or “Waddie”) Cosser (likely Richard’s brother) was another early immigrant, arriving in Gold Canyon about 1850 and operating an early store at Johntown. He, too, subsequently lived at Mottsville, and became one of the infamous “Committee of Ten” who paid a visit to early recorder Stephen Kinsey, trying (unsuccessfully) to get Kinsey to part with the early land records.
And William P. Cosser (born in Scotland in 1802 and probably the Cosser patriarch who came west with the Motts), was operating a certain hot springs in 1854 that would later become famous as Walley’s.
Special thanks to Marcia Bernard, who so kindly shared the wonderful photo of Mary Cosser Swail from her family photo collection.