The following is an article from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader.
(Image credit: Flickr user kawaiikiri)
Most stories have the moral at the end. But we’ll put it right up front: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
One evening in February 1871, George Roberts, a prominent San Francisco businessman, was working in his office when two men came to his door. One of them, Philip Arnold, had once worked for Roberts; the other was named John Slack. Arnold produced a small leather bag and explained that it contained something very valuable; as soon as the Bank of California opened in the morning, he was going to have them lock it in the vault for safekeeping.
Arnold and Slack made a show of not wanting to reveal what was in the bag, but eventually told Roberts that it contained “rough diamonds” they’d found while prospecting on a mesa somewhere in the West. They wouldn’t say where the mesa was, but they did say it was the richest mineral deposit they’d ever seen in their lives: The site was rich not only in diamonds, but also in sapphires, emeralds, rubies, and other precious stones.
The story sounded too good to be true, but when Arnold dumped the contents of the bag onto Robert’s desk, out spilled dozens of uncut diamonds and other gems.
If someone were to make such a claim today, they’d probably get laughed out of the room. But things were different in 1871. Only 20 years had passed since the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California spiked the greatest gold rush in American history. Since then other huge gold deposits had been discovered in Colorado, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. A giant vein of silver had been found in the famous Comstock Lode in Nevada in 1859, and diamonds had been discovered in South Africa in 1867- just four years earlier. Gems and precious metals might be anywhere, lying just below the earth’s surface, waiting to be discovered. People who’d missed out on the earlier bonanzas were hungry for word of new discoveries, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 opened up the West and create the expectation that more valuable strikes were just around the corner. When Arnold and Slack rolled into town with their tale of gems on a mesa and a bag of precious stones to back it up, people were ready to believe them.
The next morning the two men went to the Bank of California and deposited their bag in the bank’s vault. They made another big show of not wanting anyone to know what was in the bag, and again they let some of the bank employees have a peek. Soon everyone in the bank knew what was in it, including the president and founder, William Ralston. He had made a fortune off the Comstock Lode, and had his eye out for the next big find. Ralston didn’t keep the men’s secret, and neither did George Roberts: Soon all of San Francisco, the city built by the Gold Rush of 1849, was buzzing with the tale of the two miners and their discovery.