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Miner's pack animals in front of mining supply stores. Wikipedia Commons
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Salting the earth: The con is on

As it turns out, P.T. Barnum never said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But that doesn’t make it any less true. Depending on the degree to which someone wants to believe, even a thoughtful person can be convinced of just about anything.

Anxious people with the desire for quick money top the list of easy marks, and gold has long been the ultimate shiny object that lures like no other. If you had a gold mine for sale in the latter half of the nineteenth century, you were in luck, because there was a mother lode of potential investors who were saddled-up and ready to follow the stampede to riches. 

The problem is that many of these mines had dubious amounts of gold, if not downright devoid of it.  So a seller of such a barren or low-producing gold mine would sometimes “salt” it with some verifiable value.

The salt, in this case, is gold, and the ruse is to bring in gold from another location and inoculate a worthless mine in a way that it’s occurrence looks entirely geologic . One notorious way of doing this is by loading a 12-guage shotgun shell with gold dust and then firing it inside a mine where a sample to be assayed would likely be collected.

Typically, the load inside a shotgun cartridge would be emptied and replaced with a mixture of ground rock and either gold dust (from another mine) or gold fragments (such as shavings from a gold coin or wedding band). Standing from, perhaps, twenty to thirty feet away, a shotgun blast would deliver the contents of the shell into a location in the shaft that, after sampling,  would suggest the leading edge of a deep gold vein.

Because gold is soft and malleable, it deforms on impact, wedging itself into the pores and spaces of the existing rock matrix. If done correctly, the gold distributes convincingly, with no evidence of the impact of a shotgun blast.

Once sampled and assayed, only a potential investor with the poorest of imaginations could miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

To further insure that a salting would go unnoticed, one inventive owner in Nevada who wanted to sell a useless gold mine used a snake to throw the prospective buyer off balance. He surreptitiously placed a dead snake near the area where samples would collected, then entered the mine with the buyer the next day. Seeing the snake, the seller fired a shotgun shell full of lead shot mixed with gold dust. He “killed” the snake, and peppered the ground with enough gold to seal the deal.

Gold Miners. Wikipedia commons
Mining for Gold. Circa l890. Wikipedia Commons

Then there were those who planned to pee their way to a mansion on the hill by drinking an elixir called Bichloride of Gold, once used to treat alcoholism and kidney ailments. Just by “taking care of business,” they could invisibly salt rock fractures and crevices with enough gold to show up when a sample was assayed. Chewing tobacco also lent itself as a salting system when combined with gold dust and spat strategically.

Gold mine investors, often from back east, may have been smitten by delusions of grandeur and rife with naiveté, but they weren’t entirely stupid. Many hired professional mining engineers and geologists who used sophisticated sampling techniques that exposed the more primitive salting methods.

For Plan B, then, sellers switched over to salting the samples after they were taken.  To prevent contamination, professional collectors placed their mine samples in numbered canvas bags that they wired shut and sealed with their monogrammed lead seal before the bags were sent to be assayed.

But bags were known to be opened, salted, and resealed with counterfeit seals or cut open and re-sown. Unguarded bags could be (and were) injected with solutions of gold chloride via goose quills or hypodermic needles. With fortunes on the line, there were all-out scams converging from all directions with no shortage of ideas to create value where there was none.

Arguably the most ridiculous sham of all was a fake gold mine built east of Globe by a snake oil salesman named Doc Flower. It was a mine by name only, built like a movie set, complete with a head frame and liberally salted with ore samples from another gold-producing mine. He called his phony mine Spendazuma and successfully promoted it back east until his “mine” was exposed for what it really was by an Arizona Republic reporter.Banner-The Law and the Lawless

About Kim Stone

Kim Stone was a horticulturist, writer, and editor of several publications for the University of Arizona at Boyce Thompson Arboretum over the better part of three decades. He is now happily self-absorbed in freelance writing, travel, and content marketing.

One comment

  1. Great series! Thank you, Kim Stone and Dominion Firearms!

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