Great Diamond Hoax: Harpending, a swindler or entrepreneur?

One of the most fantastic incidents in the history of the west was the "Great Diamond Swindle" of the early 1870's. Several members of the Caldwell County Middle School Historical Society were impressed with this infamous event and its connection to Princeton. After researching the subject, club members wrote essays about what they discovered.

The great diamond swindle and Princeton are two things that you may think are completely unrelated. However, one man, Asbury Harpending, is the connecting link.

Harpending was born in southwestern Kentucky in 1846. In 1857, after Harpending turned 16*, he went to San Francisco. There also the diamond swindle coincidentally took place.

Harpending is accused of being the "brain" that conceived the "diamond swindle." The swindle, allegedly happended as follows:

In 1871, on a sunny summer day, late in the afternoon, the great scam of San Francisco was begun. Two men, Philip Arnold and John Slack, stepped up to a teller window of the Bank of California. They claimed to have discovered a diamond field.

The news soon spread and Henry Janin, the main mining authroity, was hired to examine and diamond field. After being led blindfolded to and from the mining site, Janin verified the strike as genuine. To supprot Janin's judgement even further, Charles Lewis Tiffany examinded the stones and pronounced them to be precious.

After this finding, the diamond field was bought from Arnold and Slack for $700,000. Soon a mining company was formed with Harpending as chief promoter. However, it wasn't long before the scam was exposed.

Allen D. Wilson was the irst to suspect that the strike was a hoax. Wilson was traveling through southern Wyoming, making a topographical survey of teh Fourteenth Parallel for the United States Geological Survey. AFter returning from the expeditoin, Wilson heard that a diamond field had recently been discovered in southern Wyoming. However, he had not seen any diamonds or geological formations in which diamonds would occur.

Wilson then told Clarence King, the geologist in charge, of his suspicions. Wilson King, a German immigrant and third geologist formed a search team and set out for the so-called diamond field.

On Nov. 2, 1872, King and his team discovered the field was man-made. Several things led to this conclusion. The first was when King kicked over a "glistening" anthill and found it had not been constructed by ants.

After King reported the evidence, an investigation was made. The investigation revealed that Arnold and Slack punched holes into the ground, dropped jewels in each hole, and then covered the holes with dirt. Rain then destroyed all evidence of tampering.

They also sprinkled diamond and emerald dust over the anthills and pressed gems into rock crevices. however, by the tiem the discovery was made, Arnold and Slack were long gone.

Slack dropped entirely out of sight; it seems that he was used only for "atmosphere." Arnold returned to his home in Elizabethtown. So, with Arnold and Slack gone, the blame was shifted to Harpending's shoulders. he consistently claimed though, that he was innocent and that he had lost over $400,000 in the scheme.

In 1873, Harpending, at age 31*, returned from San Francisco to Princeton with his wife, Ira Anna, and his children, Lucille and Mary Genevieve. In 1874, Gertrude was born. When Harpending, at age 31, moved back to Princeton, his account was worth $1.5 million. He bought an 800 acre tract of land which he built a $100,000 mansion.

The house was built to form a "T." Living rooms, parlors, and bedrooms formed the top and the kitchen and pantries formed the "upright leg." A porch wrapped around the house and the second floor was converted to a chapel. Plus, to make the ohuse even more extravagant, each bedroom had a lavatory and running water, and the house had a gas heating and lighting system.

The house had also had amazing exterior features such as a swimming pool, fish ponds, three fountains and a green house.

However, Harpending and his family lived in their beautiful home for only three years. During that time two of his children sickened and died. Plus, Harpending still faced many accusations. Although there were several trials, Harpending was never charged with a crime (in the swindle).

In 1876, Harpending, his wife and remaining daughter mysteriously left Princeton, the mansion, and many stories for the townspeople to tell for years. to come.

--Laura Wurts


Asbury Harpending, Jr., the age of 16, ...set out to find his fortune and made his way down the Mississippi River. When he left the only things he had with him were a revolver and $5 in gold coins.

On the ferry boat he was on, going to Florida, he bought a crate of various fruits which he sold for a profit. Food was scarce, so he made several thousands of dellars selling them! A friend of his that was also on the ship advised him to invest his money in a mining company in California.

By the age of 17 he had made $60,000, and by the age of 20 he had made $250,000 more (in cash) and had a mine that was worth at least a million more.

In 1871, Harpending had settled in London and was running a newspaper and floating mining securities. He was only 32 and had already made a fortune. however, back in San Francisco, Cal., two prospectors deposited precious gems, such as rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and diamonds into the San Francisco Bank...

...Harpending was soon asked to get involved in the searching for the rest of these gems since he was such a great miner. He and several others were taken, blindfolded, to the place where the jewels had been found. There they found large amounts of diamonds. Soon they were pronounced of great value by Charles Lewis Tiffany, of Tiffany and Company. Then the diamond field was bought from them for a large amount of money...

...Asbury Harpending came back to Princeton (because there wasn't much proof he was in on the trouble) with his wife and five children...

...They built a large house ...about five miles south of Princeton. ...It was the first house in this part of western Kentucky to have an installed bath tub. It is said that the house also had an underground tunnel underneath it.

...It was said that they used the underground tunnel to get away, and also that when the authorities came to arrest them after they found out who they were, that they had gone, but there was a meal on the table-- STILL WARM!

--Rhiannon Cooper


The Asbury Harpending episode in Caldwell County history was a favorite essay topic for Caldwell County Middle School students involved in the school's junior historical society. These exerpts from a recent essay project offer other nuggets of information and different viewpoints about Asbury Harpending and the scandalous diamond swindle scandal that tainted his life.

...While members of this ordeal were successful and excited, Arnold and Slack laid back, did no digging and appeared bored with the whole thing.

...Later William C. Ralston (the had of the Bank of California) and his fellow people decided to get rid of Arnold and Slack agreed to leave, willing to give up their discovery. This would normally appear suspicious, but everyone was too occupied with their own greed to notice.

...Ralston eventually over-ruled Harpending who owned at least half of the project. Harpending remained in the background.

...He (the German cook) searched for his own diamonds, and when, in excitement, he showed King his treasure, King noticed marks of a lapidary's tool. It was now obvious that the field was salted. They believe Arnold and Slack salted the mine by first buying fake diamonds in England. It was confirmed that these had been purchased there.

...Ralston's exploiting company discontinued work and he and Harpending assumed responsibility. Once they paid waht was required of them, Harpendig left California. He was made to be the villain of it all, but he claims he lost four hundred thousand dollars.

...Harpending returned to Caldwell County and lived Millville**, the land that had been deeded to him by his father.

...Asbury then left the state to be a broker on Wall Street.

In 1876, he deeded Millville Farms to his sister. He had left Caldwell County, never to return. He wrote a book about the hoax in 1913. Asbury Harpending was 83 years old when he died in 1923 in New York.

...The old Harpending house...was torn down a few years ago after being vacant for twentry years. It was said that the spirit of a young woman was seen in the window of the room which Asbury's eldest sister died.*** No one was ever brave enough to enter the house because they believed that the spirit of a Harpending family member comes from the spirit land to revisit the old house.

...Asbury Harpending claimed until the day he died that he was tricked in the Great Diamond Hoax.

--Sarah Hurley


...Before (age) twenty, he (Harpending) had accumualed a figure of $2,000,000 (in) abortive attempts to aid the Confederacy.

...In 1860, he was the guiding spirit and principle financial backer of a conspiracy to overthrow the federal government in California and establish the republic of the Pacific.

...Three years later he spent several years in prison for attempting, with two other men, to fit out a pioneer in San Francisco and capture shipments of gold that regularly left the port. His money dropped from $2,000,000 to $8.50.

--Melissa Mullen


...His fortune went to $8.50, but he soon made a lucky strike in the mines and became a millionare. at the age of thirty-two in London floating American mining securites, he was running a financial newspaper.

--James Grove


NOTES: *-The numbers really don't add up there, but I'm strictly typing what the article says.
**-Perhaps "lived on Millville"?
***-Perhaps "eldest sister died in"?

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