The Gold Accumulator and the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company
If you could get rich by panning for gold from a river bed, surely you would get similar results if you were able to explore the sea bed for the mineral? And how much easier would it be if you had a special contraption, the design of which was revealed to you in a heavenly vision, which could do all the hard work for you? Such was the reasoning of the Reverend Prescott Ford Jernegan, a pastor in Middletown, Connecticut, who claimed in 1896 to have the very thing to extract and exploit the gold residing at the bottom of the sea.
His contraption, called the Gold Accumulator, was hardly the epitome of the cutting-edge of white hot technology, consisting of a wooden box with holes cut into it through which the seawater would flow. The guts of the contraption consisted of a pan of mercury containing a mystery ingredient through which a wire ran to a small battery. You lowered the box into the water, leave it overnight and when you raised it up again and got it on to terra firma, voila, there would be gold.
Jernegan interested a local jeweller, Arthur Ryan, in the box and Ryan decided to test it with a few of his mates. To prove that there was nothing fishy about the contraption – other than, perhaps, some errant fish that strayed through the holes – Jernegan absented himself from the trials that were held in February 1897 just outside of Providence, Rhode Island. The trial proved successful because when the Accumulator was hauled, some gold flakes worth about $4.50 were found inside.
Although the amount of gold was negligible, the process was so simple that it could easily be expanded. There was little in the way of operating expenses, save the initial outlay for the Accumulator, and a thousand of the things – this is how many Jernegan reckoned could be built in a year – running every day would drag up a tidy amount of gold and provide a good profit, to boot. Fired up with enthusiasm Jernegan, Ryan and a few others established the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company whose headquarters were in Boston but whose field operations were based in Lubec, Maine.
To begin with, all went swimmingly. A handful of Accumulators were generating $145 of gold a day, profits began to roll in, the company was floated on the stock market with an initial price of $33 a share. Within weeks the share price hit the heady heights of $150. But in July 1898 Jernegan, along with his unassuming assistant, Charles Fisher, disappeared and immediately the serried ranks of Accumulators stopped bringing gold up from the depths of the ocean. The investors realised they had been the victim of an elaborate scam, the company folded and they lost all of their money.
It seems that the secret ingredient in the mercury pan was Fisher, a trained diver. In the initial demonstration of the Accumulator, Fisher had swum underwater, found the box and replaced the pan of mercury with one containing some traces of gold. When the company was founded and production was in full swing, the investors never troubled themselves to go down to Lubec. All Jernegan and Fisher had to do was present them with gold bars, representing the latest haul from the Accumulators. Of course, the bars were bought in Boston.
The Directors’ plans to expand the operations presented a logistical problem for the duo and so when they had made around $200,000 each, they scarpered and were never caught. Perhaps filled with Christian remorse, Jernegan is said to have refunded $75,000 at a later date.