First Thanksgiving: Most people enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner and we all probably learned in grade school that the first Thanksgiving involved the Pilgirms and the native Indians of North America. But, the real first official Thanksgiving Holiday was proclaimed on October 3,1863 by President Lincoln, calling for an annual day of national Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. The president used the opportunity to thank the Union Army for the reversal of fortune in the Union effort by the victory at Gettysburg. President Washington had declared a “national day of thanksgiving and prayer” in 1789, but it didn’t become an annual event. In fact, Thomas Jefferson thought that such national events of demonstration towards a deity was not appropriate. Other presidents agreed until President Lincoln’s decree. President Franklin Roosevelt tried what I call a political move in 1939 when he moved the holiday to the third Thursday. However, I suppose its plausible to argue that Lincoln’s initial declaration was rooted in politics. Anyway, FDR was hoping to extend the Christmas shopping season. I guess he thought that by moving Thanksgiving he could pull the wool over American’s eyes and use the psychology of calling a different day Thanksgiving to get them to spend more money. Anyway, Congress had enough of the foolishness and in 1941 put the national holiday back to where President Lincoln put it in the first place.
On This Date in History: In the second half of the 19th century, there was gold fever out west. Lot’s of
swindling was going on. A typical scam was for someone to “salt” a worthless mine by tossing out some gold dust or small nuggets so that somone else would think that there was lots of gold there and they would buy it for an exhorbitant sum.
A man from LaRue County Kentucky, Philip Arnold, had gotten into the prospecting game for about 20 years without much success. In 1870, the poorly educated Arnold got a job as an assistant bookkeeper in San Francisco for a drill maker that used industrial grade diamonds on drill bits. No one seemed to notice but, for an accountant, Arnold took quite an interest in the diamonds as he read many academic sources on the subject.
In 1871, San Francisco businessman George D. Roberts was sitting in his office one night when two dirty men entered carrying a bag. They said what they had inside was something of great value but they could not deposit it in the bank due to the late hour. At first, they were reluctant to say what it was but one of the men let slip that they were uncut diamonds. Roberts tried, but they refused to say from where it came. The two men were Philip Arnold and his cousin John Slack. Arnold later told the Louisville Courier Journal that he told Roberts not to tell anyone. Arnold knew that the best way to spread a tale was to tell someone not to tell anyone else. As soon as the pair had left his office, Roberts was out the door to tell a big shot financier named William Ralston.
This is a legnthy and interesting story (worth the read if you’ve got the time) but the long and short of it is that Ralston got together some other bigshots and started the New York Mining and Commercial Company with $10 million in investors money. Among the investors were prominent politicians, military leaders and businessmen, including Asbury Harpending who wrote extensively of the story in his biography. Arnold and Slack first took a blindfolded expert to the site in Colorado where the man “found” all sorts of diamonds..and rubies..and emeralds! When they returned to San Francisco, Ralston offered to buy them out but the pair of Kentucky hoodwinkers weren’t as dumb as the city slickers thought. They took $50,000 up front. They then went to London where they bought a large volume of low end jewels…so crummy they were generally considered not jewels…for $20,000. They returned to the states and salted the site a couple of more times to convince more experts. The Ralston group even took 10% of the take to Tiffany’s in New York for appraisal and were told that the $20,000 worth of stuff bought by Arnold and Slack in London was worth $1.5 million. So, they ended up paying Arnold and Slack $600,000 (1872 dollars). They disappeared. News of the big jewel find got out and piqued the attention of a young member of the geographical survey who was assigned to that region. Clarence King and his crew were extremely skeptical and decided to investigate. The found the site and determined that it was a fraud. On This Date in 1872, Clarence King became an international celebrity when his story was printed in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin which dubbed it as The Great Diamond Hoax. (Here is another version of the story along with evidence produced by King)
Arnold was tracked down in Elizabethtown where he had started a bank and was living the life of luxury. The good old Commonwealth of Kentucky, for unknown reasons, decided to protect one of its boys and refused to extradite him. Arnold paid $150,000 in exchange for no charges being filed but couldn’t enjoy the remaining part of his fortune for long because he died of pneumonia in 1878. His cousin, John Slack, apparently was not the brains of the operation because he was last reported to be a coffin maker in New Mexico. Then again, maybe he was smarter than I give him credit for because his fate is unknown…maybe he gave everyone the slip and lived like a king.
Speaking of King….Clarence became the first director of the US Geological Survey and became friends and hobknobbed with a host of international dignitaries, politicians and celebrities. He became a celebrated author. He had it all, but apparently not enough. He left the Geological Survey and tried getting rich in mining, ranching and even banking. He lost all of his money, most of his friends and much of his reputation. He died at the age of 60 in poverty and debt of tuberculosis in 1901 in Phoenix in a small brick house.
So, it would appear that the whistleblower who gained fame and prominence was the biggest loser in this tale. He had it all and lost it all and more. The brains of the caper, Arnold, did okay but didn’t get to enjoy his larceny for long. History seems to suggest that John Slack was also a loser because the last thing they know about him was he was making coffins in New Mexico. But, I would submit that its possible the nit-wit cousin may have been the big winner and the smartest of them all, pulling off one final scam before disappearing from view. As Hank Williams, Jr sang, A Country Boy Can Survive.