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The Perfect Crime of the 1870’s

I’ve been reading The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester, a history of the US told through the elements of wood, metal, water, fire, and air, which is an interesting lens through which to view history. The wood chapter, for example, was all about when wood was the primary material; the homes the early colonists built, the boats they used to explore, right up to the Lewis and Clark expedition, which did truly unite the states in ways they never could have imagined.

The metal chapter had a story in that I’ve never heard before, the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872. So two guys walk into a bank in San Francisco, and they say they want a safety deposit box. They have a bag of jewels, and they say that they found them all in some land, they won’t say where, but the jewels are so plentiful that you can scrape your boot, and hit amethysts, rubies, and diamonds. They’re just everywhere, just waiting to be picked.

Of course all the prospectors in San Francisco want to know more. They had the jewels appraised, and even Tiffany got in on the action saying they were real and valued those stones at $150k. People say they want to see this magical jewel field, and so the guys take people, blindfolded, to the spot. Eventually a company is formed to prospect for more of the jewels once geologists verify that the jewels are real and the land is really full of them. The two original prospectors, Philip Arnold and John Slack become original shareholders of the company, and their shares are worth $300k each.

Eventually, word of all this gets to Clarence King, a government geologist, who smells a rat. The probability of all these jewels being in the same spot is so rare, he just can’t believe it. He goes to SF, asks one of the geologists who verified the field of diamonds and jewels was real. The guy said he traveled for a day and a half by train, and then by horse for 2 days. Everyone had assumed that the field was in Arizona, but King looked at railway line timetables, and guessed that a day and a half by train would put them somewhere in present day Wyoming or Utah or somewhere around there. He got all Sherlock Holmes and asked about what the weather was like, trying to figure out whether the guy had gone across the Rockies or not.

The one distinguishing landmark the geologist had remembered was a dome shaped mountain. He also thought that they had traveled south from the railroad station. King guessed that the station was in Wyoming, and went there. Sure enough, the station managers reported that there had been a rush of activity at the same time the men were having everyone come out to see the diamond field. King traveled south by horse, and saw the dome shaped mountain. He eventually found the field, and the jewels. And he saw that they had all been planted.

Turns out the guys had bought $35k worth of cast-off jewels in Brussels and London and planted them there, literally digging the holes and burying them. Meanwhile, back in SF, the two prospectors decide that running a company isn’t for them, and they’d like to cash out and go back to a quiet life of prospecting, please. So they get their $300k each, and go back to Kentucky. Eventually the whole scam comes out, and people lost a crap-load of money. The guy who owned the bank in SF wound up eventually committing suicide and his body was found floating in the bay.

The story of the planting, the swindling, and the eventual way it was solved needs to be made into a film; seriously, I have no idea why this isn’t a movie yet. It’s freaking fascinating!