PHANTOM RUSHES – CASES OF FALSE RUSHES AND HOAXES THROUGHOUT HISTORY
As of 21 June 2021, the diamonds found in South Africa were revealed to be nothing more than quartz. Thousands of people rushed to KwaHlathi, hoping to strike it rich only to find quartz. Other than fears of COVID-19 spreading, officials voiced concern over the environmental damage and how cattle grazing might be impacted. This is only one of a few notable "phantom diamond rushes" throughout history. Phantom rushes occur when stones or precious metals, often diamond or gold, are purported to be in a region only for there to be nothing. They can be delusions, hallucinations, mistakes, or even fraudulent claims, but in every case mentioned forward, there were never enough resources to start a local boom, unlike real rushes.
CALEB LYON'S BIG LIE
While not as widely known as the Great Diamond Hoax, Caleb Lyon's lie caused one of the first American phantom rushes. Caleb Lyon was the territorial governor of Idaho and superintendent of Indian affairs. Born and raised in New York, 1822, Lyon completed his higher-level education and was given the job of being a consul in Shanghai, China. Lyon abandoned this duty to prospect for gold in California during its famous 1849 rush. He served as a secretary to California's constitutional convention, New York state legislature, and Congress before being appointed by Lincoln to serve as the territorial governor of Idaho in 1864. Lyon immediately started issues upon arriving by moving the capital from Lewiston to Boise. A local judge challenged this and summoned Lyon, but he did not appear to court and fled to Washington. Lyon later returned in 1865 to finish his duties and stole $46,000 that was allotted for distribution to the Nez Perce, or the Nimíipuu. Other than rob the Nez Perce people of their funds, he spun a tale about an exciting diamond find to rake in prospectors.
He made a trip to Ruby City and showed the editor of the Avalanche a rough diamond. Lyon claimed that Sam Wilson, a local prospector, had found it. Supposedly, Lyon already knew Wilson since May and showed Lyon the stones ahead of time because he was not sure what they were. Lyon knew they were diamonds and had them appraised. According to Lyon, the largest diamond was worth at least $1,000 (Over $16,500 in 2021). Lyon and Wilson remained in New York for some time and returned to Idaho. Lyon claimed that the location died with its discoverer, as Wilson perished on the Brother Jonathon, which sank not far from the coast of California. Lyon requested that the editor, D.H. Fogus, search for where the locality was supposed to be. Rumors spread, and suddenly diamond fever struck Ruby City. Many men scoured the land for diamonds. Some quartz stones were mistaken for diamonds, primarily the small ones, but nobody could identify a genuine diamond. Some "experts" claimed that they identified authentic diamonds in Ruby City. Later investigations proved many of Lyon's claims to be false.
After Lyon, several prospectors tricked locals into thinking diamonds were in Idaho in 1892. A Professor Plast Byrne from Australia authenticated the diamonds, specifically calling them "silicon diamonds" that were half the price of regular diamonds. He was exposed as a fraud as silicon diamonds did not exist. This lack of knowledge of basic geology casts doubt on his authenticity as a professor.
THE GREAT DIAMOND HOAX
The bustling city of San Francisco did not know it was about to meet two clever con artists in 1871. The Kentuckian war veteran and miner Philip Arnold and his fellow Kentuckian partner John Slack had a large bag filled with various gems and jewels. This was a new development for the prospectors as they had failed to find any worthy stones before 1871. In fact, this was by far their most successful haul in years. The bag even had uncut diamonds, an enticing element for enthusiastic investors. They met with the wealthy George Roberts, bag in hand and scheme in mind. The conmen mentioned a deposit to the Bank of California but did not talk about the sack despite Robert's insistence. Arnold casually mentioned the diamonds, and Robert was hooked. Arnold "wanted" Roberts to keep quiet about the diamond find. Of course, Roberts immediately began contacting people to talk about new diamond localities. Arnold and Slack returned to mention more diamonds and rubies they found in the field. This time, the conmen had more gems than before. This compelled Roberts and several entrepreneurs and financiers to buy out Arnold and Slack. The two men agreed to be bought out, but only after receiving $50,000 immediately and an additional $50,000 after they "prospected" in the field again.
The expedition had little to do with mining or digging and more to do with clever purchases. The two men went overseas under new names and bought over $20,000 in uncut diamonds. Negotiations were underway for over two million dollars, but Arnold and Slack offered to go to the field again. The two men began planting more uncut diamonds and gems. Asbury Harpending, one of the investors, received one of the packs of gems (the other went missing on the train). Investors decided to get confirmation from experts and appraisal. The stones Harpending received were worth at least $1.5 million, and Charles Lewis Tiffany confirmed as much. Arnold and Slack earned another $100,000, bought some uncut diamonds, and tossed them into the "diamond field."
When investors and prospectors were permitted to prospect there, they found many of the small, rough diamonds planted by the conmen. Arnold often guided the investors and traders where diamonds were likely to be found. Henry Janin had inspected the field and authenticated, appraised, and surveyed the diamond field, reassuring the diamond traders. Slack was meant to stay behind and camp on the site, but he later abandoned the diamond field. In the end, Arnold and Slack bought out shares; Arnold made out with more than half a million dollars at the time. He moved back to Kentucky but later had to move when he was exposed. Slack kept out of the public eye and disappeared.
The hoax was exposed when a geologist, Clarence King, conducted a federally subsidized survey close to the "diamond field." King and his fellow surveyors were alarmed to hear a major diamond discovery that they were not aware of, which could undermine their authority as geologists working for the government. An investigation of the diamond field turned up some strange facts that investors overlooked. King and his crew discovered that gemstones were found only near disturbed areas, and digging revealed no diamonds below the earth. By now, it was clear that the diamond field was a hoax. When finances and stock trading were mentioned to King by a diamond trader named J.F. Berry, he sought to expose the fraud before any damage could be done. He broke the news in the Bank of California and stopped the sale of stock. Investors tried to bribe King to stop him from exposing it, but he rejected it. Still, King did not bring the hoax to light for a couple of weeks but only if the stock sales were stopped. The traders and King agreed to this proposal.
The news quickly pointed out how gullible the investors were, and the courts began trying Arnold and Slack for fraud. Arnold settled, and Slack seemingly disappeared into thin air. It was later discovered that Slack fled the country, died soon after the hoax, or lived as a casket trader (as concluded by Bruce A. Woodard). Arnold spent much of his fortune on his family, buying a larger home and livestock, and later became a banker. He later died from a combination of pneumonia and a gunshot wound from a rival banker.
Harpending is one of a few untrustworthy figures not to be explicitly ousted as one of the conmen. Even contemporary sources described him as being "suspicious." His presence in London at the same time as the conmen and the fact he handled Arnold's finances and trades were cited as evidence of him being part of the fraud. Harpending and Roberts also made some unethical decisions even before Arnold and Slack approached them. In 1870 it was apparent that one of their mines in Ralston (coincidentally Arnold and Slack were employed there) was becoming a liability. Harpending and Roberts tried to sell it to Londoners without mentioning its depreciation. However, potential buyers caught wind of the mine's shortcomings, and the mine did not sell. This may have been the last straw for the frustrated and failed prospectors Arnold and Slack.
Additionally, it may have been what pressured Roberts and Harpending to commit to the scheme. They were also the main two men who denied that the diamond field was a fake when it was exposed. Roberts and Harpending continued to defend the diamond field even as it became increasingly apparent that they, along with the other investors, had been tricked. There is no conclusive evidence that Roberts and Harpending were part of the scheme; however, this is only circumstantial evidence.
There is also the existence of James Cooper. Cooper mined with Arnold and Slack at the worthless mine in Ralston and was supposedly involved in the scheme up until Arnold and Slack met with Roberts for the first time. His primary role was supplying Arnold and Slack with some cheap industrial diamonds that he stole from his employer. It's likely that one of the main reasons they had to leave for London was due to the diamond drill-bits not being worth enough to hook investors for long.
Janin, though not in on the scheme, was a useful instrument in the con as it encouraged investors to buy stock and claims in the diamond field. Janin confirmed to the traders and buyers that they would have claims in one of the richest deposits on the planet. In reality, they bought a lot that possessed little more than dust and sand. Janin's estimate, though genuine and in good faith, were incorrect.
Arnold and Slack were the progenitors of the big hoax, but there were other swindlers involved after the original conmen made off like bandits. A few miners had claimed to know the location of the diamond field (mainly to trick those who did not already know). While Arnold and Slack were still trying to trick investors, a few people caught up in the diamond fever swore they found the field in Arizona. Subsequent investigations often proved these to be less sophisticated confidence tricks.
A final note worth mentioning is that King was not the only person who exposed the hoax; King was the only successful person to expose it. A diamond merchant by the name of Keller pointed out that Harpending and Roberts were known swindlers, but American investors denounced Keller and claimed that he was trying to keep a London-Amsterdam monopoly on diamonds to undermine American dealers. More experienced lapidaries than those who worked for Tiffany (and Tiffany himself) in London doubted the authenticity of the diamonds. They astutely pointed out that King later confirmed that rubies and sapphires do not grow with diamonds. Press outside of San Francisco or New York was more likely to be critical of the find, but it was often dismissed. The Colorado Miner expressed doubts as the events unfolded in the September of 1872. The paper was not shy to state that it was a "speculating scheme of the sharpers of San Francisco." Investors were likely unaware that the Colorado Miner was right.
The Diamond Hoax remains one of, if not the greatest, diamond fraud in United States history. The profit the swindlers made, the number of people duped, and the scope of the hoax has not been challenged in America by other frauds in geology and lapidary fields.
BRE-X GOLD FRAUD
The Bre-X fraud is one of the most widely known and elaborate cases of fraud in history. It is on par with, if not more intricate than, the Great Diamond Hoax. It is a story of the meteoric rise of the worthless Bre-X and its subsequent fall from grace in the stock market. The mysteries, intrigue, politics, and deaths involved inspired the film Gold in 2016. What inspired people to commit fraud? Why gold and not diamonds or silver? When it was revealed to be a hoax, why did locals continue prospecting for several years?
In the 1970s, gold was one of the most lucrative investments one could make. The U.S. Government abolished the Bretton Woods system that set a flat rate for gold. By 1980, the price of gold hit $850 for a single ounce. Gold was also notorious for being volatile. A shortage of supply and expectations of inflation pressured buyers into investing in gold. The jewelry industry boomed in 1980, and there was some indication that demand would remain constant during this time. By comparison, silver was a mere $12.5 per ounce and platinum was $420 per ounce in May, 1980. While gold did drop a little, it was still the highest priced precious metal in 1980. Even with its volatility, the rise of the jewelry industry combined with its high price (even compared to other rising precious metals) made it an enticing investment for those who could buy.
It was also known by the late 1970s that diamonds and other pricey gemstones were rising in value. The Desert Sun noted that a diamond that sold for $900 in 1960 would sell for $16,700 in 1977. The Desert Sun claimed that a combination of gemstones being bought as a "hedge" against inflation and the De Beers monopoly on diamonds were driving prices. Thus gold and diamonds had something in common: they were bought due to concerns about inflation. Nevertheless, by the mid 1980s, the dollar began to weaken, and gold continued to be a safe investment. Prices only increased from the mid-80s onward. While gold was volatile, it did seem that its price was only going up. This proved false as it dropped to an average of $459 per ounce in 1981 and floated between the mid 300s and 400s until the end of the decade. Despite this, it was one of the safest investments one could make. Like gold, diamonds plummeted, but the effect was staggering. A 1-carat diamond that once sold for $60,000 was worth $14,000 in the late 1980s.
With gold being reliable, worth more than it ever was in the last few decades, and a safe investment, gold was the stock market's favorite commodity. David Walsh, a Canadian high school dropout, joined a trust company in Montreal and familiarized himself with investments and the stock market. He climbed the corporate ladder until he became the head of the investment department. He later left to form his own trust company that would fail. A few years later, he tried to create an office for another firm and failed. He then established two companies: Bresea Resourced Ltd. for oil and Bre-X Minerals Ltd. for gold. Walsh likely knew what he was doing when he set up Bre-X as a gold company. He put it on the Alberta Stock Exchange in 1988 while prices were still high. Its shares were virtually worthless. The Walsh family was in massive debt and filed for bankruptcy, but in 1991 Walsh said that Bre-X was still in business.
In 1993, Walsh scraped some funds to fly to Indonesia; there, he met John Felderhof, a Dutch geologist. Felderhof and Walsh prospected for gold and worked with Michael de Guzman, a Filipino geologist. To help find gold, de Guzman assembled a crew. Walsh now had a solid team of geologists and prospectors to help find gold and get rich. They purchased an old claim on the Busang and drilled. Like many of Walsh's previous financial adventures, it was a bust. When all seemed lost, de Guzman found gold in 1994. Walsh notified investors and firms, and the stock skyrocketed. Bre-X had shared worth over 286 Canadian dollars. By 1997, Bre-X was the stock market's darling.
Overnight, the stock became worthless. 19 March 1997 was the beginning of the end. De Guzman died under mysterious circumstances. With that came
the company's downfall. Walsh was annoyed by the increasing number of visits to Busang. Investors, geologists, and analysts were eager to search the rich gold mines of Busang. However, as more people arrived, the more suspicious the Bre-X mine became. Freeport investigated and proved Busang had no gold. Rumors kept the price of Bre-X shares high because investors were uncertain that Freeport's investigation was conclusive. When a third party proved there was no gold by 03 May, however, Bre-X stocks plummeted.
How did Bre-X pull it off? How was it possible for the company to evade suspicion for a couple of years only to suddenly get caught? What about de Guzman, Felderhof, and Walsh? These questions often lead to more questions as the Bre-X scandal remains one of the most perplexing schemes in the history of fraud.
Bre-X relied on a technique known as "salting." They sprinkled gold and copper dust on rocks from 1993. This crude method was also used in the Great Diamond Hoax, but it likely would not fool investors for long. They used real gold from the local river from panners to make it more believable. The fraud relied on the salting of core samples to produce false positives when investigations were conducted. Another factor that favored the fraud was the rules on assaying. When cores were assayed, the Alberta Stock Exchange demanded that any "alternative" tests use the standard fire assay as well (fire assaying involves melting samples with other ingredients to determine how much gold is present). The results of both the alternative test and the fire test had to be made public. However, Bre-X was not subject to this rule because the gold had uneven distribution. Fire assays would not be a reliable test to find gold when scattered throughout rock at random.
It helped to have experienced geologists. De Guzman was likely in on the scheme due to a few sources that claim he instructed people how to do it. De Guzman himself allegedly salted samples. However, even beyond inside sources, it is clear that de Guzman was not acting alone. The amount of salting, knowledge needed, and the fact that de Guzman was not present on the mine every day has led investigators to believe there were other actors. Walsh's innocence is a question with no definitive answer.
Walsh acknowledged that the widespread salting but said it would need "an army of people" and that it was not "physically possible." He felt persecuted by the market and claimed that his company was being singled out to drive his stock down. Walsh played a victim and became defensive. Beyond developing a persecution complex, Walsh fled the country, secluded himself, and hired bodyguards. He later died from natural causes.
Felderhof is more likely guilty than not, but there is no conclusive evidence either way. He faced charges for inside trading but was acquitted. Acquittal on its own is not evidence of innocence, but the judge raised a good point that Felderhof (assuming he was not playing a role in the scheme) could be led to believe there was gold due to the extensive salting. He denied being part of the fraud and claimed to cooperate. He even claimed that there was still gold to be mined in Busang. Felderhof also requested an audit and held on to some stock and reinvested.
On the other hand, Felderhof was an experienced geologist, and it has been suggested he played a role that did not involve directly salting samples on-site. Felderhof also sold his stocks in the September of 1996. Felderhof's role in the scheme, if he ever had one, may never be known.
The salting itself wasn't difficult, but how it was conducted and its role in the plan was. The motive behind salting is not clear. De Guzman could have salted because he sincerely thought gold was at the mine and salting would be the necessary boost to get the mine running once more investments poured in. Or, he and the crew could have felt threatened by the possibility of layoffs when the mine was a dud. De Guzman started to salt to keep his job, but as the stocks rose, so too did the stakes, and he had to start salting more samples at a rapid pace to keep investors hooked.
Despite the fraud of Bre-X, locals continued to hunt for gold in Busang in a futile effort to strike it rich. It may be the most speculative and costly phantom rush in history.
PHANTOM RUSH OF NAGALAND
On 25 November 2020, a local found a stone while farming in Nagaland, India. A viral video incited a rush, and people made their way to the province to find their fortunes. Professional soldiers and geologists arrived and conducted investigations. Unfortunately for the eager diggers, the stones that they had unearthed were not diamonds but were, in fact, quartz. Some villagers bought stones for hundreds of thousands of rupees ($1.3k according to OANDA as of June 2021).
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