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How To Salt A Gold Mine

July 2024
12min read

In the mining country of the Old West some men struck it rich without touching a shovel. All it took was a little legerdemain—and a sucker
bitten by the gold bug

A classic western aphorism commonly attributed to Mark Twain defines a gold or silver mine as a hole in the ground with a liar on top. Generally, the misrepresentations were a standard form of mining-camp bragging—but not always. Luxurious rewards awaited the bunco artist who could make gold seem to appear in a hole where no gold actually existed, or the con man who could produce, for suspicious examining engineers, specimens of silver that assayed higher (as the gulled buyer discovered too late) than the ore body from which they supposedly came.

Small investments could produce grand returns. By dishonestly increasing the apparent per-ton worth by a mere twenty-five cents, a seller could unload a hundred-thousand-ton mine for $25,000 above its value. Microscopic amounts of metal were enough to create such inflation. Dusting a ton of ore with one eightieth of an ounce of gold, at its price of $20.67 per ounce, would add twenty-five cents to the value per ton—as would less than one quarter of an ounce of silver.

Nor was it necessary to sprinkle the salt, as the fraudulent additive was called, throughout the exposed ore—that would have been too expensive—but only in those samples, taken here and there, from which the valuation of the mine was calculated. Since many a mine has been sold on the basis of samples totalling only a few tons, less than a hundred dollars might be enough to turn a handsome trick.

Newcomers, panting with desire for quick money, were so convinced that riches could be plucked carrotlike from the ground that they often believed any encouraging signs they saw. And, of course, there were obliging souls ready to provide attractive sights.

No one was handier at furnishing these tantalizing glimpses at high-value ore than William Lovell, champion fraud of Leadville, Colorado, during that famed silver camp’s first frantic boom. From the outset, Lovell used more than a pick and shovel to bring him fortune. When he joined the headlong rush across blizzard-swept South Park and over the snow-heaped Mosquito Range in the winter of 1877–78, he took along a wagonload of chickens to sell at premium prices. A howling storm snowed him in near an abandoned log cabin. Freighters who broke through the road several days later found him hale and fat, surrounded by feathers and frozen chicken remains. Ever afterward he was called Chicken Bill.

Bill was one of the first to prospect on Fryer Hill, immediately north of the new camp at Leadville, but he was not as lucky as two Germans, August Rische and George Hook, who followed close behind him. In April of 1878, Rische and Hook obtained a grubstake, including a jug of whisky, from Leadville’s store-keeper-mayor, H. A. W. Tabor. The long, back-packing trudge up Fryer Hill winded them. They sat down in the shade of an evergreen, refreshed themselves with a nip from the jug, and looked up the slope ahead. Why climb higher? They started to dig where they were. Twice they ran out of food and had to go back and beg Tabor for more. All told, they used up fifty-four dollars’ worth of supplies.

In May, when their shaft was thirty feet deep, they ran into a fabulous vein later known as the Little Pittsburgh. By sheer chance they had hit its apex, the only point where the vein could have been reached with pick and shovel. The first wagonload of ore netted them two hundred dollars. Word spread instantaneously, and Leadville’s boom soared. Although Rische and Hook sold their one-third interests in the mine for relatively modest sums (Hook got $98,000 and Rische, selling a little later, $273,000), Tabor held on to his grubstake third for a year. He netted $500,000 in dividends and then sold out for a million. Visitors were understandably impressed.

Immediately after the discovery of the Little Pittsburgh, Tabor quite naturally began buying claims all over the slope. One night, Chicken Bill Lovell stole a few hundred pounds of ore from the Little Pittsburgh and dumped the haul into the barren bottom of his own shaft. He then invited Tabor to look at his mine. A glance at ore showing those characteristics was enough for Leadville’s overnight tycoon. Grandly, he gave Bill about $900 for the property.

Wages then ran roughly $2.50 a day, and Bill probably equated the sale with a year’s work—not bad. But Tabor may not have been gullible so much as canny. He named his purchase the Chrysolite and had his men sink a shaft through the salted ore and into the rock beneath. They soon hit another vein. Tabor took an estimated $150,000 from it before selling out.

Chicken Bill’s next victims were more typical—two English tourists he met one day on the porch of a Leadville hotel. Learning that Lovell was a miner (he did have a few holes scattered here and there, just in case), they plied him with so many questions that he decided to rig a show. The next day, as he was again yarning with the pair on the porch, a pack train shuffled by, the mules loaded with bulging ore sacks.

“From my mine,” said Chicken Bill, with an off-hand wave. “Would you like a souvenir?”

The Englishmen said they would. Bill halted the mule drover and opened two sacks, apparently at random. He gave each man a chunk of shiny ore and then ambled off to keep an appointment, so he said.

The tourists rushed to an assayer and had the ore appraised. Eureka! Hoping to outfox Bill, they learned the location of his mine and wandered out to see it —mere tourist curiosity, of course. The hole didn’t look like much, but at its mouth was a small pile of that fancy ore, which Bill was busily sacking.

He was grumpy when interrupted. No, he was not interested in selling the mine. Could they look inside? Well, yes, if they were careful not to hurt themselves. He remained outside (proof of his indifference), and when the pair reached the breast of the tunnel they hurriedly knocked off some specimens and hid them in their pockets. Being greenhorns, they took the pieces that broke off most readily—too readily, in fact, for Bill had just placed them there.

Assays of those pieces also revealed a high silver content. After earnest entreaties, the gulls managed to persuade Bill to part with the property. And this claim did not backfire, as the Chrysolite had: it stayed barren, while Bill settled down contentedly to another year of paid-up existence. Since he had never offered to sell them the mine, the English dupes did not risk ridicule by taking the case to court.

Chicken Bill became so famous as a salter that he even received credit, possibly undeserved, for creating a stampede to the western shoulder of Pikes Peak in 1884. What happened, apparently, was that trade was languishing in the nearby railroad town of Cañon City. Hoping to revive it, certain merchants paid two Leadville ne’er-do-wells, S. J. Bradley and D. G. Miller, two hundred dollars to dig a hole eighteen feet deep on a slope forty-five miles from Canon City, and to produce, supposedly from that hole, ore that assayed at $2,000 a ton. The scheme worked. Five thousand people poured into Canon City, swarming through the hotels, hardware stores, groceries, and livery stables, buying supplies for prospecting trips. When trained miners showed their suspicions, the salters vanished. Because local gossip had it that Bradley had once worked for William Lovell in Leadville, Chicken Bill was thought to have had a hand in the business, and he still appears in some history books as the perpetrator of the great Mount Pisgah hoax. If so, he must have had even wrier memories about it than about the Chrysolite, for a few years later gold was found at Mount Pisgah. The field developed into Cripple Creek, maker of at least twenty-eight millionaires.

Methods like Chicken Bill’s of introducing outside ore into a mine he proposed to sell were essentially crude—success depended on the greed of the buyer. When there was greed, almost any device worked. Consider, for instance, the incredible brashness of one salter during the early frenzies on Nevada’s Comstock Lode. He simply scattered a few handfuls of cut-up silver half dollars throughout the broken rock in the bottom of his shaft. A prospective buyer chemically treated, milled, and amalgamated several tons of the “ore.” Dazzled by the returns, the buyer all but sprained his wrist reaching for his checkbook and did not learn the truth until, on starting his own operation, he discovered a battered coin lodged in a crevice.

Undeveloped prospect holes such as these seldom sold for high prices. A Chicken Bill might be content with a return of a thousand dollars or so, but big-money frauds preferred to work with mines whose various shafts and drifts had penetrated enough veins to suggest ore bodies of truly majestic scale. A type of property especially favored for salting was one that had started as a bonanza operation but whose vein was threatening to turn barren as the depth increased. If this drop in value could be hidden from potential buyers, then a sale at a highly satisfying figure—satisfying to the seller, at least—might be achieved.

Investors risking $100,000 or more seldom bought such a property without first seeking the advice of trained engineers. Mine sampling, as the engineers’ investigations are called, developed into a complex skill whose rudiments were taught in engineering schools. Although accurate evaluation of the mine rather than detection of fraud was the sampler’s main purpose, gigantic swindles became so common that textbooks on mining still outline the basic tricks.

The principles of sampling were routine enough. The engineer, generally assisted by a reliable crew, cut a widely spaced series of shallow grooves, an inch or two deep and four or five inches wide, across as much of the vein as had been exposed. The chips from each groove were individually sacked in stout canvas bags. The sacks were wired shut, sealed with a lead seal bearing the examiner’s “brand,” and numbered according to location. Each sackful was then assayed and the mine’s potential value calcuated.

Chipping samples out of rock with a hammer and moil, or even with a pneumatic drill, is devilishly hard work, especially when a man has to stand on a rickety scaffold and swing over his head at the roof of a stope, as excavations in the vein are called. Nevertheless, precautions are taken to assure accurate samples. Clean canvas is spread to prevent adulteration from rock scattered on the ground.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that values are seldom evenly distributed throughout a vein. Most ores are friable and full of cracks. Fine dust carrying above-average concentrations of metal is likely to collect in these cracks. Because cracked ore breaks loose fairly readily, a lazy or careless engineer, intending no fraud whatsoever, may wind up with a sampling far richer than the mine will bear out. Results can be disastrous.

One famous example of this sort of unintentional salting occurred at the Ray copper mine in south-central Arizona in 1899. A careless English engineer let his Mexican crew collect samples without adequate supervision. They naturally chipped away at the softest spots. The samples, sent to London for assaying, indicated a bonanza—rock containing five per cent copper, or a hundred pounds of metal per ton. Excited investors built a railroad into the area, erected a mill, and built tennis courts, a golf links, and a polo field to go with houses staffed with butlers who astounded the local populace by serving afternoon tea.

Repeated mill runs on the first 50,000 tons of ore showed that the samples had erred by about two per cent. Within two years the company was bankrupt. More cautious American investors took over the operation a few years later and spent $300,000 to sample the mine. Eventually mass-production techniques and an ore body of over a hundred million tons made the Ray mine one of America’s greatest producers.

As engineers became more sophisticated, so did swindlers. Some bunco artists tamped minute fillings of dental gold into tiny cavities in the rock. Others preferred to paint the face of the ore bed with a solution of gold chloride or silver nitrate, as the case might be, or to squirt the liquid into cracks with a syringe. Another favorite device was to load a shotgun shell with coin shavings and fire the charge at close range against the rock. Enough metal adhered to give high assay values to samples chipped from that face.

But these methods did not go undetected. Suspicious engineers vigorously washed down the rock faces with brush and water, or blasted a foot or so of rock off the face and sampled the freshly exposed ore before a salter could get at it. Frustrated by these precautions, the salters then turned with fresh ingenuity to meddling with the samples themselves.

Gold dust is easily concealed in any kind of tobacco. Doctored quids were sometimes used by the sellers of California placer mines. A man would bite off a chew, chomp it well, and spit into the pool of water he was using for washing the gravel in his gold pan. Inevitably the residue showed colors.

Ashes from the pipes of native women employed on the sluicing operations at the head of the Jaina River in the Dominican Republic salted those alluvial deposits enough to bleed thousands of dollars from a Boston mining concern. Subsequently, an American con man named Ely Dorsey got hold of the same Jaina River field and interested some Philadelphia capital in running extensive boring, panning, and sluicing tests. Values were intriguing—thanks to tiny clay pills, each containing a grain of gold, dropped into the gravel by native workers. No sale resulted, however, because suspicions were properly aroused when five of the workers suddenly disappeared.

Before long, no engineer would allow tobacco users near a place where sampling was going on. Nor were workers allowed to wear their fingernails long. Wax under the nails of one bribed Mexican laborer in western Chihuahua enabled him to transfer tiny flakes of gold from his pockets to some samples, and his employer extracted a down payment on the mine of $100,000 from a San Francisco operator.

Toward the close of the last century, churn drills were introduced for sampling ore bodies hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the earth. A heavy drilling bit on the end of a stem was lifted a few feet by a cable run by a steam engine on the surface. The bit was then dropped back into the hole. The chips loosened by this hammering accumulated in the water that was dribbled into the hole to soften the earth. Every so often the sludge was raised to the surface, dried, and assayed. Engineer C. S. Haley told, in a 1913 issue of the Mining and Scientific Press , of a test hole that he carefully sealed against tampering during nights when the crew was away. Nevertheless, the hole was salted. The swindler did it by sprinkling gold dust into mud that he then smeared onto the cable attached to the bit. The next morning the dried mud jiggled loose as the cable moved up and down; the mud fell to the bottom of the hole and raised the apparent values. But one morning the swindler applied the mud too late. An alert driller wondered why fresh mud was on a cable that had been idle all night. The plot failed.

Salters were unfazed by canvas sample sacks with their wired-shut mouths and lead seals. Sometimes they got hold of the bags before they were used, and sprinkled grains of gold along the fuzzy inside seams. Some managed to take wax impressions of the engineer’s seals, make duplicates, open and salt the sacks at leisure, and reseal them with the counterfeit seals. Or, given the proper circumstances, they would slit the bags open, salt them, and sew them up again.

Refined swindlers occasionally blew gold dust into sample sacks through goose quills, or injected solutions of gold chloride with hypodermic needles. One suspicious engineer, investigating a mine on an island near Juneau, Alaska (selling price: $450,000), demanded that the owners and their men leave the island while he did his sampling. He took his sample sacks to the docks at Juneau and hired watchmen to guard them night and day until a ship arrived that would take them to San Francisco for assaying. During the wait, dudes would wander by on various occasions asking foolish questions of the bored watchmen and now and then poking at the sacks with their walking sticks. Many weeks later the buyers figured out that there must have been syringes in the ends of those canes. By then, however, it was too late. The deal had gone through, and the victims were stuck.

The equipment in an assayer’s office—crusners, mortars, crucibles, and the like—could also be doctored, sometimes without the assayer’s collusion, but more often with it. Furthermore, an occasional assayer was a friendly soul who liked to report pleasantly high values in order to keep business coming—and some miners, like some health-seekers, will keep looking for a diagnostician who will tell them what they want to hear. Mark Twain, in Roughing It , described how one such assayer at Virginia City, Nevada, was exposed when suspicious rivals sent him a fragment from a carpenter’s grindstone; the assayer said he found both silver and gold in it. More than half a century later, a skeptical, well-read California engineer trapped a fraudulent assayer in San Diego by exactly the same device—chips from a grindstone that the assayer declared to be worth fifteen dollars a ton in gold.

According to experienced engineers, salting cannot be absolutely prevented; the most a prospective buyer can hope for is that he will detect the fraud in time. One way is to invert the process by placing dummy sacks of barren rock among the legitimate samples. If the worthless specimens suddenly blossom with gold or silver, something is amiss and the buyer is well advised to quietly drop his options. In such cases there is not much use in trying to prove fraud against any particular individual. The best one can do is to sit tight, growl though he may. Perhaps that is why the following tale from Yreka, California, is so gratifying.

In the old days, Chinese were often barred from California placer operations until after the whites had moved on. Then, with extreme patience and endless labor, the Orientals managed to rework the sifted ground at a profit. Hence, they were willing to pay for claims that showed any trace of gold at all. Hearing that a certain Chinaman was shopping around Yreka for claims, and was talking in terms of $5,000, two salters rushed to their abandoned holdings, sprinkled five hundred dollars’ worth of gold dust in the gravel, and let the Oriental test it. He admitted to finding color, but asked for time to make up his mind. The extension was granted, but at its end the buyer did not appear. The light began to dawn, and the would-be sellers hastened to their property. Sure enough, the scoundrel had carefully washed their five hundred dollars’ worth of salt out of the gravel and had vanished—perhaps to pull the trick on over-eager swindlers somewhere else.

Would You Believe Salted Salt Water?

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