Today, other people's money. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Con games are a form of Jujitsu. A con man uses
his mark's momentum to his own advantage. People with the most uncontrolled
momentum -- the greatest wants -- are the most vulnerable to the con, and to
serious humiliation. So let's look at writer Robert Wilson's diagnosis of
The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872.
Philip Arnold had left Kentucky to follow the California Gold Rush at 19, and
worked in the mining business ever since. At 40, he was the book-keeper for
a drill-bit maker in San Francisco -- a company that used industrial grade
diamonds in its rock-drill bits.
Arnold, and a Kentucky cousin named John Slack, approached a somewhat shady
San Francisco businessman, and asked him to deposit a small bag in a bank that
he had access to. They let him pry it out of them that the bag held uncut
diamonds. Then they swore him to secrecy.
They'd chosen their mark well; their Jujitsu worked perfectly. Soon everyone
in town who had big money knew about their find. Big money people soon asked
Arnold and Slack to sell their first piece of the imaginary lode for two
Arnold then hurried off to London to spend $20,000 on uncut stones. He took
them to a scabrous spot in northwestern Colorado where he'd staked a 3000-acre
claim. He salted an acre with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies, then
brought investors in for what Wilson calls a great Easter-egg hunt. One of the
victims later wrote, "Why a few pearls weren't thrown in [I cannot] tell."
Arnold managed to clean up over a half-million dollars in bogus land and stock
shares. Before he was done, the list of the inadvertently complicit included
General George McClellan, Charles Tiffany, General Benjamin Butler, and even
It all might've gone on a lot longer, but for a chance meeting. Clarence King
was then leading a large government survey team. One of his team members met
several investors showing off their diamonds on a California train and leaking
the location of the lode. When King heard about it, he realized that having
missed the Colorado diamonds could cost him his government funding.
He and his men raced to Colorado and located the claim. They immediately began
finding precious stones. Then they noticed that gems turned up only where the
ground was disturbed. And there were none deeper than a few inches below the
surface. Once they saw through it, the whole scheme was downright clumsy.
What happened next is the saddest part of our story: When King reported the fraud
to the investors, they begged him to keep quiet for a few days so they could sell
their own company stock short. But King refused to take part in making others pay
for their folly. Arnold and Slack were indicted for fraud, but never prosecuted.
The investors, it seems, were more concerned with keeping their own foolishness
out of the papers, than seeing justice done.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
R. Wilson, The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872. Smithsonian, June 2004, pp. 70-79.
The fragment of Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" at the end
of the audio is from The Very Best of Marilyn Monroe, 1999 Cleopatra recording B00000KOMV, Track 1.
(All images are clipart)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.