Seawater Gold

30 Oct

Prescott Jernegan was a man determined to make his future and his fortune. He was certain that he had the formula that would guarantee him success when he came across his best friend from childhood, Charles Fisher in Middletown, Connecticut.

It was 1898, and Prescott was the troubled pastor of the Baptist church in that town. He and Charles took a long walk and caught up on their lives.

“I am in a bad situation with my church,” revealed Prescott. “I have a fierce party opposed to me and a small group of supporters. There are parish leaders who don’t like what I preach to them. They got back at me by cutting my yearly salary, their aim being to force me to quit and leave.”

But what would you do?” asked the other. “Where would you go?”

The Reverend Jernegan stopped and faced his friend, as did the latter.

“I have become a desperate man. My life is falling to pieces. Did you know that I came to Middletown from a parish down in Florida? I contracted a bad case of typhoid and was quarantined for two months. And then my wife divorced me, running off with a secret lover. I was asked to resign, so I returned here to New England.

“I have remarried, but now my two deacons here have organized a group of parish elders to drive me out. I have become a rover like my father, the whaler. What am I going to do?

“An idea came to me in a dream, Charles. But I need a partner to carry it out. If I explain to you what I saw, would you consider joining me in carrying it out?” He looked directly into the eyes of his old chum.

“Tell me what you are thinking of doing, Prescott,” murmured the other with excitement.

“Come with me to the parish rectory and I will show you my plans.”

The two men sat in the room that served as an office, the door shut so that none of Prescott’s family could hear them.

“When I was sick with typhoid fever, I read a magazine article about a recent discovery of traces of gold in sea water. When I completed some calculations, I discovered that a cubic mile of the ocean contains up to 65 million dollars worth of gold.

“Then, the vision came to me at night about how it could be done. It was like a message from heaven. A box containing mercury can be electrified and lowered into the water. The current from a small battery should be sufficient to suck the gold from the sea. This can be our road to unlimited wealth, Charles.”

The latter stared fixedly at his best friend. “Have you tested this method yet, though?”

“No, but I need a partner to assist me with it. Will you join in the endeavor with me?”

“My financial situation is a dire one, so I can’t contribute any money. But I have time and energy that I will put into your brilliant concept, Prescott.”

That evening they formed a team to obtain riches out of the Atlantic.

Charles constructed the first wooden box lined with zinc, placing over it a cover with several large holes. A long wire connected it to a battery that led to a combination of mercury and an unidentified secret formula that Prescott devised for the apparatus he named the Accumulator.

Deacon Arthur Ryan of the Middletown church, recruited into the project, joined them as an assistant. He was a valuable addition, being a wealthy jeweler with many useful business connections and able to provide financing.

Ryan brought in a florist named Andrew Pherson as an investor eager to support an experiment of the first box. Could the accumulator be proven to work?

Prescott and Charles decided to take the device to the waters at Providence, Rhode Island for initial testing before a small group of potential investors.

Charles told his friend of a clever method he had thought up to ensure success for the experiment so as to convince the investors of the efficacy of their invention.

“I am an experienced sea diver,” he innocently grinned. “It is quite possible for me to swim unseen at night, while the accumulator is deep underwater, and open the cover. I will then add to the box a small number of gold flakes that can serve as convincing evidence the next morning when our investors with money arrive to look at the results we have for them.”

Prescott, for a short while, looked at his best friend with an odd, inquiring expression on his face.

“They will never figure out what you have done, Charles?” he softly asked.

“It is impossible for anyone to find out,” the other assured him. “We will be acting a lot like Robin Hood of olden days. Their money will be going for an extremely elevated and good purpose, the advancement of scientific knowledge for all of mankind. I truly believe that we would be justified if I performed a sort of magical trick that convinced these businessmen to give us their money as stockholders. We could set up a company under our personal control to build a factory for extracting oceanic gold. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of my ability to dive down unseen and guarantee the result we know is the right one?”

The two conspirators exchanged sly, knowing smiles.

“Yes,” agreed Prescott. “That would solve financial problems for both of us, Charles. After all that you and I have suffered in life, it would be a kind of divine justice, I truly believe.”

That evening, the plan to carry out a swindle was born.

It worked. Charles, in a special diving outfit, made it to the accumulator box and installed the small flakes of gold.

Early the next morning, the apparatus was brought up for examination. The potential investors were astounded and deeply impressed. They now volunteered to support a company to be set up for the exploitation of the wondrous invention they had just witnessed.

Prescott and Charles exchanged looks of triumph.

The pair returned to Middletown and set their sights on the riches within their grasp.

They hired a lawyer to register an Electrolytic Marine Salts Company for them. They convinced Arthur Ryan, the jeweler, to become its formal president, keeping effective control in their own hands alone.

It was Prescott who came up with a location for their planned factory at a convenient distance away from their enthusiastic investors. He discussed with Charles the advantages of North Lubic on the coast of upper Maine.

“The place is the most eastern spot in the entire United States. We can rent a company office in Boston and hold the factory completely in our own hands. There will not be any nosy people about asking too many questions of us.”

The new company published and distributed a brochure about “Gold from Sea Water at a Profit”.

Ten million shares were to be issued at one dollar a share. In a short time, over a thousand eager, greedy shareholders invested $750,000 in the venture. Money rolled into the Boston office in a flood of emotion.

Prescott and his partner, Charles Fisher, devised a clever method of skimming off a rich share of these proceeds for themselves.

The pair sold their imaginary “secret formula” to their new company in exchange for ownership of forty-five percent of the stock of the outfit. They issued the false claim that they had carried out over two hundred experiments on sea water using electricity and secret chemicals. The secret to untold wealth lay in their hands, they held.

At Lubec, the grist mill of a Hiram Comstock was leased and became the location of their new water-into-gold factory. The company financed the extension of electricity and a telephone line to the plant and the small town. The promise was made to pay half the cost of a new steel bridge into Lubec, for the purpose of hauling away the tons of gold expected to be available in a short time.

Two hundred and forty-three accumulator boxes were built and positioned deep in the facility’s sea water channel. Charles Fisher agreed that he would dive at night to deposit small quantities of gold flakes onto the mercury inside these containers.

The two architects of the scheme felt the intoxicating effect of the money-making mechanism they had created to fleece delirious investors all over New England. There appeared to be nothing that could stop them attaining all their material desires and dreams.

The two conspirators grew too excited to sleep much at night, their minds on what they planned to accomplish the following day.

Prescott spoke about his ancestry and his character to Charles in their rented house in Lubec late one evening.

“My father served as Captain on whaling ships for thirty-eight years. His life was one continuous adventure, and mine has followed the very same pattern.

“Even as a young child, I played impish tricks on others. But my curiosity was insatiable, and I read over two hundred books on travel and adventure at home in my early years.

“I studied at Phillips Academy at Andover in New Hampshire and won excellent grades. My goal became one of entering the ministry. My higher education occurred at Brown College in Providence, and later at the Newton Theological Institution. Yes, I was ordained, but failed to maintain my position at the two churches where I was appointed pastor. My flocks in both Delano, Florida and Middletown, Connecticut contained personal enemies who drove me out of the pulpit.

“Those were painful experiences, but I have overcome them with our sea water enterprise, which shall present me with sweet revenge on all those stupid individuals who opposed me in my religious vocation. I will become a richer person than any of them, that is certain.”

He gazed at his friend Charles with a shining glow in his eyes.

The diver who was planting the flakes of gold suddenly frowned.

“When can we wind down the action we are engaged in?” he asked his partner, startling him. “We have all the investments that we ever dreamed of. Isn’t it time to stop spending any more money and begin to close down the company and its gold factory? How much farther can we take it before there is some sort of disaster that destroys what we have built up?”

Prescott had no definite answer to give at that moment.

“I am really surprised at what you are saying to me, Charles. We must not act precipitously, not at all. Give me time to think it all out. We have to accumulate as much as we possibly can before we put an end to our project here. Yes, let’s take time to work out with care how we are going to finish up with all that you and I have already started.”

No more was said on that specific question then or in the next several days.

Prescott was surprised one morning by an alarming fact: the accumulator boxes at the sea water factory were devoid of the usual flakes of gold. What was wrong? Where was Charles, and why had he failed to seed the small amounts of precious metal the previous night?

The perplexed partner found an envelope sitting on his desk at the mill, and an alarming note from his best friend inside it.

“I am leaving Lubec and ending my work with the accumulators, Charles.”

Prescott, stunned and disoriented, realized that their money-making system was now finished.

His wife was in Boston, as was the company office. He had to hurry there as fast as possible in order to salvage as much as he could from the soon-to-be ruined Electrolytic Marine Salts Company.

The amount of the funds that Prescott Jernegan took with him to Canada, then to England, was enormous but never completely determined. He finally went to the Philippine Islands as a teacher, eventually writing travel books about his new homeland.

Charles Fisher disappeared without a trace, having first helped himself to company founds at the main office in Boston.

Sea water gold went down in New England and Maine history as a long-remembered financial scandal.


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