June 24, 2013
An excerpt from the book American El Dorado: The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872.
by Ron Elliott
Many years ago, I saw a televised interview in which a famous novelist discussed the differences between fiction and nonfiction. One of the points he made was that, as there are as many similarities as differences, the line often becomes somewhat blurred. While that is true, the main issue is that in writing fiction, one gets to make up the facts. Still, there are rules. Once something becomes a fact, even if the writer made it so, for the duration of that work it must remain a fact. If the woman’s eyes are blue and her hair is blond, for example, the eyes must remain blue, whatever she does with her hair. The most important rule, perhaps, is that even created “facts” must be feasible. Every novelist knows that a reader will not stick with a story if the “facts” are too improbable to be believed.
Well, then. What does one do with a true story wherein the actual historical facts are indeed too far-fetched to be believed? All I can do is report the facts as I found them, stick an endnote on it to provide a trail to the source and assure the reader that throughout this entire narrative, other than the conversation, I made up nothing. Although the history herein is offered as accurate, many times through the context of this book, you’ll sit back and ask, “How could that have possibly happened? Is that a product of imagination?” As the author, I feel obligated to answer the readers’ questions, but with this story, I can only tell you that I don’t know how these things happened, only that they did happen. Or at least one of the people involved said that it did happen. While I cannot say that some of the events are not a product of Philip Arnold or Asbury Harpending’s imagination, I can promise that I didn’t make it up.
One of the few I can explain is how Philip Arnold managed to make investors believe that he’d actually found an “American El Dorado.” The idea was not as fantastic in 1870 as it sounds to me and you. In the first place, who knew there was gold in California until it showed up at Sutter’s Mill in 1848? Who knew there was silver in Nevada until the Comstock Lode was discovered a decade later? So, then in 1870, who was to say that there were not diamonds to be found somewhere in the largely unexplored American West? And, if such a place did exist, human nature being what it is, everyone who was offered the opportunity would certainly want to be in on the ground floor. Add in the fact that Arnold had taken the trouble to have a San Francisco jeweler certify that his sample consisted of real diamonds and he was off and running. From there, the “great diamond hoax” became a viable concern, sustained by its own momentum.