How Sunken Gold Inflicted Its Curse, 150 Years Later

If only Tommy Thompson had never found it
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 20, 2019 2:23 PM CDT
Updated Aug 25, 2019 6:42 AM CDT
How a Shipful of Gold Ruined a Brilliant Scientist
The SS Central America.   (Library of Congress)

Tommy Thompson was a brilliant gold-hunter who arguably made a huge mistake: He succeeded. Once dubbed a scientific "rock star," the ocean engineer uncovered a shipful of gold that pretty much wrecked his life and turned him into a wild-haired federal inmate who rarely tells the same story twice. In a lengthy piece, Narratively dives into his stunning rise and fall. Devoted to undersea discovery, Thompson bet his career on finding the SS Central America, a Gold Rush-era ship that sank with up to 21 tons of gold on board in 1857. His newly designed submersible spotted it in 1988, but then came a deluge of lawsuits from entities all wanting a piece of the pie—including 39 insurers that claimed they had insured the cargo in the 19th century.

Thompson applied his hyper-intelligent mind to fighting the suits but began to fray amid a long divorce and his father's death. He sold some coins in 2000 for $50 million—all which apparently went to paying legal fees and loans. "Tommy was in agony," an investor told Columbus Monthly years ago. He eventually ran off with 500 gold coins worth about $2.5 million and was arrested in a Florida hotel room, sickly and pale, in 2015. Now 66, he's "serving an indefinite sentence ... for civil contempt" for not giving up the location of the missing coins; his lawyer says they are out of Thompson's reach in an irrevocable trust in Belize. But is it his fault, the investors', or is the gold cursed? "People, modern and historical, are all flawed," says a mission scientist. "The one true superlative is the treasure." Click for the full story. (Or see Thompson's latest thoughts on the coins.)

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