Gold bars to prison bars: US treasure hunter stuck in jail years after salvaging shipwreck

The 'SS Central America' was filled with gold and other treasures when it sank in the Atlantic in 1857

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As ripping yarns go, it is hard to beat the story of the SS Central America and the fate of its treasure.

Known as the “Ship of Gold”, the 85-metre steamship sank off the coast of North Carolina during a hurricane in September 1857 while sailing from Panama to New York City.

Of the 578 passengers and crew, only 153 survived. The ship's cargo and personal belongings were lost to the Atlantic until its wreck was found in 1988.

Now almost 1,000 items from the wreck have been assembled, catalogued and conserved. More than 900 of them are about to go on public display for the first time across the US.

Some items will then be sold and many others are being donated to museums.

The salvage operation of the SS Central America, which lay 2.1 kilometres below the ocean's surface, was led by Tommy Thompson, an oceanographic engineer.

Using a remotely operated vehicle, he salvaged gold estimated to be worth as much as $150 million and a trove of artefacts painting a vivid picture of life during the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century.

A gold ingot on display at the World's Fair of Money in Boston in 2010. It was among two tonnes of California Gold Rush gold recovered from the shipwreck of the 'SS Central America' which sank in 1857. AP

But from there, things turned rather complicated, with Mr Thompson becoming mired in litigation with investors who had pumped in millions of dollars for the expedition.

It centred on the gold, in particular 500 coins that were “restructured”.

This entailed melting down the ingots that were found in the wreckage. Having removed the layer containing the historical stampings, the gold was reminted using mid-19th century tools to strike the coins.

It had been sold to a marketing group for $50m, but investors received nothing, with Mr Thompson saying the cash had been swallowed by the cost of the expedition.

Loss of the 'Central America'. The side view of the ship the last time she left the port of New York; passengers on a raft; and scene of the catastrophe after the ship sank. Photo: Library of Congress

At the very least, they wanted the coins. Pursued by investors and insurers, Mr Thompson, 70, went on the run in 2012.

Staying in hotels under an assumed name, he evaded the authorities until he was finally captured and extradited to Ohio.

He was jailed for contempt in 2015 after telling the court that he did not know the location of the gold, which had been put into a Belize trust.

The impasse has left Mr Thompson — a swindler according to his critics and an intrepid explorer and scientist to his supporters — stuck indefinitely in a Michigan jail and on the hook for more than $2m in fines.

He will remain there until he discloses the coins’ whereabouts.

It has become a stand-off between Mr Thompson and Judge Algenon Marbley, says Keith Golden, a lawyer who acted on his behalf.

“Thompson was never a treasure hunter, he is an oceanographer,” Mr Golden told The National.

“The treasure-hunting aspect was a means to the end … essentially the treasure efforts could provide the funding for the development of the deep-sea rescue and exploration."

Mr Golden said investors had been warned they would not get their returns back quickly, but one insisted on getting his money back immediately and they secured a judgment against Mr Thompson.

But Mr Golden said they wanted the value of the gold and the coins for themselves. They were, he said, “double-dipping”.

Mr Thompson carried out four expeditions from 1988 to 1991. Then, after more than two decades, Odyssey Marine Exploration revisited the wreck in March 2014.

“The technology had changed radically,” Bob Evans, the chief scientist to the original missions who also acted as a consultant to Odyssey, told The National.

“The 1988 to 1991 expeditions had Nemo, the robotic submarine, which was cutting edge at the time.

“But the industry became a lot more high-powered and was able to explore far more of the site.”

FILE-This Aug. 29, 1991, file photo shows 

Tommy Thompson in August 1991, with (seated) chief scientist Bob Evans and Barry Schatz, right, in the control room of the 'Artic Discover'. Mr Thompson found the 'SS Central America' in 1988. AP / The Columbus Dispatch

This has enabled a spectacular potpourri of Gold Rush items to be rescued from the deep, painting a riveting picture of life in mid-19th century America.

“Seemingly ordinary items from the passengers and crew today give us extraordinary insight into the everyday lives of the people who travelled on the steamship,” Mr Evans said.

“They show the kinds of day-to-day clothes that normally ended up in the rag bin after 10 years of wear, such as goldfield miners’ work pants, long underwear — some of them still not worn — as well as the fancier spats and cravats.

“The common, everyday clothes rarely are represented in historic costume collections, which are dominated in the antique category by things like formal gowns and dress uniforms.”

Thousands of recovered gold and silver coins have already been sold and and about 90 items have been shown in “Ship of Gold” exhibitions, from California to New York.

Now the rest of the collection is going on display.

“These incredible artefacts that were in secure storage in three different states now are giving us a glimpse of Gold Rush-era daily life for passengers and crew in the 1850s,” said Dwight Manley, managing partner of the California Gold Marketing Group, which owns the recovered items.

They include the oldest-known Wells Fargo treasure shipment box and a pair of jeans, complete with a fly button, that may have been made by Levi Strauss.

The trousers, insured for $1m, had been packed tightly in a trunk so they were not exposed to elements that could have caused them to rot.

There are three Brooks Brothers shirts, jewellery, and gemstones, including an 18-carat gold brooch owned by Samuel Brannan, a prominent San Francisco businessman and California’s first millionaire.

Among the photographs is a daguerreotype metal plate photograph of an unidentified young woman who has been nicknamed the “Mona Lisa of the Deep”.

It was found in a pile of the ship’s coal.

“The Mona Lisa of the Deep is a half-plate daguerreotype with exceptional depth of field resolution,” said Fred Holabird, whose company is auctioning many of the items.

“It is by far the finest such image of the 1850s era that I’ve seen in my 50 years of working with historic photographs.”

Tour dates for the treasure include: Reno, Nevada from July 28 to 31; Rosemont, Illinois, from August 16 to 20; and Hartford, Connecticut on August 20.

Items of treasure rescued from the wreck of the 'SS Central America'. PA
Updated: July 08, 2022, 6:00 PM