The Legend of Grabbett’s Gold

On your left we have a section of the hull of a ship that dates to 1849. It was unearthed at a construction site on Folsom near Spear Street. At the height of the Gold Rush thousands of ships found their way to San Francisco, and as fortunes ebbed and flowed these ships were abandoned in the muck, too costly to remove, too dangerous to burn. Mind you the water line at the time came right up to where you’re standing; all of this is landfill. There are probably hundreds of ships decomposing under your feet as I speak. They’re probably the only solid ground in San Francisco! Get it?

Speaking of earthquakes, who can tell me why the real estate slump hit California so hard? Because the bottom is always dropping out of the market, houses are leveling off, and the people are forgiving to a fault!

Ha, ha. Eh. Thanks. Don’t touch that.

Here on your right—gather ‘round here now, people—that’s it—here on your right is one of my favorite pieces in the whole collection at the Agart B. Hannifly Museum of the California Gold Rush. Pardon? Yes, it does look like a Franklin stove, good eye! In fact, it was made from parts of a Franklin stove. But it’s not a stove. No-siree. This here is the only tangible remnant of one of the greatest hoaxes of the Gold Rush, possibly in all history, perpetrated by one Seymour Grabbett—now how’s that for a name!

We know it was a hoax in hindsight, but a lot of people were caught up in gold fever, and believed in Grabbett’s machine. You see, this contraption you’re looking at—called the Spagyrofaeciachryso-poeiamatic Engine —more commonly called Grabbett’s Contraption—was supposed to do just one thing: take small deposits of human fecal matter and transform it into pure gold.

In reality, Grabbett had designed the machine for a single, far more devious purpose: to separate people from their wallets.

In 1853, a prospector from Kentucky by the name of Seymour Grabbett had decided he had had enough of panning and sluicing for gold up in the Sierra Foothills near D____ Camp. It was back-breaking labor. Most of the river gold was tapped out at that point anyway, and the only serious yield was from deep veins claimed by mining companies from the East Coast that had the machinery and the manpower and the financing to do the job. But a few rugged prospectors still remained, committed to the belief that “there’s gold in them thar hills.”

Now, Grabbett didn’t start out a charlatan. He had a wife and three kids back in Kentucky, according to what historians have been able to piece together from public records. He was a rancher, and you know, left his family and everything behind in ’49 after the Gold Rush hit. Historians have been able to piece together little of his first three years or so in California. Like most prospectors, he came with very little, probably on a wagon in a large party, and left little impact on his surroundings. He didn’t leave a journal or any correspondence, as he was most likely illiterate. He may well have spent the rest of his life in obscurity and poverty, if it weren’t for this machine you see here before you.

But we do know that Grabbett’s log cabin, in which he built the Contraption, was constructed no later than the winter of ’52-‘53. That was when Grabbett, thinking he’d had enough of the harsh life of a Forty-niner, decided to change course. Perhaps he realized that another unforgiving Sierra Nevada winter lurked just around the corner. Maybe he missed his family back in Kentucky. If he hadn’t made his fortune by now using the conventional methods, he would try the, ah, convectional ones.

Grabbett built his cabin for privacy, about three miles north of D____ Camp on Fernseher Creek. He must’ve known his plans at point, because why else would he build a cabin so far from other people? Mind you, three miles in that terrain is huge distance, and there weren’t trails to speak of back then. He wouldn’t have ready access to food, to supplies, or companionship unless he trekked an entire day back into camp. So he must’ve known by autumn of 1852 that he was going to build his Contraption, and that it would either make him a fortune, get him jailed, or get him hanged.

In February of ‘53 our story gets a bit clearer. We know that on February 8, a deposit was made by one “S. Grabet” at the Helvetia Bank of San Francisco in the amount of eight hundred and fifty-four dollars—that’s about twenty-five thousand dollars in current dollars—entirely in gold nugget. His name was spelled a bit differently on the ledger, but Grabbett may not have known how to spell his own name, and besides it was written in the hand of Swiss banker Diedrich Pichkenchoz.

Diedrich had never recorded a deposit of that size by an individual prospector, not even in the heyday of the Gold Rush, and naturally was curious about the authenticity and origin of the gold. It wasn’t like it came from a reliable source. No doubt Grabbett had walked into the bank after a weeklong slog down the mountain, through late winter snow and rain, through the muddy streets of San Francisco, looking like a cross between a nightmare and a grizzly bear. I mean, would you take such a character seriously? I wouldn’t.

But Diedrich’s skepticism didn’t go too deep: his first move was to have a witness verify his right to set up and manage the account of his new customer, securing his own interest in Grabbett’s fortunes. Bankers at Helvetia Bank of San Francisco by default managed the accounts they set up, but Diedrich saw an investment opportunity in the small fortune and didn’t want to see his stake trampled by more powerful interests.

He then went to find Grabbett again. It wasn’t hard to do. What’s a man do, who’s been working hard for nearly four years nonstop in the woods with a deep, constant rumbling in his belly and hardly any human connection for the past six months? A spending spree of course, at several of the inns, brothels, and gambling parlors of the Barbary Coast. Within a week, rumors of the bearded Grabbett and his newfound wealth had spread up and down the waterfront, and he wasn’t hard to locate.

What’s that?

Excellent question, I’m glad you asked. The question is, how did Grabbett have all that money to spread around if it was all a hoax? Very true. If it wasn’t real, how did he have the money? How could there have been rumors of wealth? Simple: he didn’t need it, because he didn’t pay. When he made the deposit at Helvetia Bank of San Francisco, he had Diedrich write up a stack of chits—essentially bank notes, an alternative to state-issued currency—which was commonplace at the time. It was a note guaranteeing that the bank would pay the amount on the note when it was brought in. The hotels accepted them—heck, half of them were owned by the banks!

You see, all Grabbett needed was the initial pile. Pardon?

How did he get that initial pile? Another excellent question, my friend, though I’m afraid that one is subject entirely to speculation for now. Most likely he stole it in small amounts over the course of the winter while he built his cabin and then his Contraption. But it’s also possible that he legitimately found it and hoarded it. One theory goes that he knew what he was going to do the minute he set foot in California. According to this theory, Grabbett hoarded every speck of gold dust he found, from 1849 until February 8, 1853. And it took him that long to amass a pile that would be large enough to get the attention of serious investors.

So here’s Diedrich back at the Helvetia Bank, scheming in his own mind but totally ignorant of the scheme being perpetrated on him. He found Grabbett at an inn on Jackson Street, not far from here, just sitting there at the bar with a whiskey, showered and clean but still bearded and scruffy with the same mud-stained boots and greasy wool clothes. Diedrich demanded an explanation, and Grabbett quite simply offered to show him where the gold came from. That is, only if he could get some serious investors. That’s right: Grabbett offered to show him the money, as it were, but only if Diedrich brought with him a group of investors—something that was in Diedrich’s own interest to do! You see, if Diedrich brought in a single investor, his finder’s fee would depend on the whim of one person. A group however would be less likely to stiff him, since the percentage each investor would owe would be smaller and would chafe less at their greed.

It didn’t take long for Diedrich to form an ad hoc exploratory group with some pretty big names, including three of the “Big Four” tycoons who would later become the key investors in the Central Pacific Railroad. Leland Stanford. Mark Hopkins. Colis P. Huntington. As well as James Lick, the entrepreneur and real estate mogul, and the lesser known Everett Mahoney, a San Francisco industrialist and coffee czar who made a fortune on buying and selling the rights to the tin can.

In early March 1853, the five investors plus Diedrich Pichkenchoz followed Grabbett up first to Sacramento for supplies, then on to D___ Camp, to Grabbett’s cabin and his Contraption.

It was there that Grabbett made his demonstration. We know of this from Mahoney’s journal, where he wrote, and I quote, “Grabbett excused himself from our presence to a shed no larger than an outhouse and certainly no more ornate. We heard some grunts, followed soon after by the clanging and clanking of machinery. After a period of absence in which the gathered grew exceedingly impatient and near to mutinous departure, Grabbett re-appeared in the doorway, holding a Hessian sack weighted with some indeterminate product.”

According to Mahoney, Grabbett then goes on unfold the cloth and demonstrate several large nuggets of solid gold, one of which was passed around so that each man could test it by biting it—real gold is soft, you see, so it gives when you bite it. If it were fool’s gold, it’d probably chip your tooth.

Grabbett then took the men out to the shed. Until then, see, the investors were expecting to see a claim—a mine, a cave, a river, some operation that fit in with their experience and understanding of how gold was gotten. So when Grabbett lifted the latch of the creaky door and revealed a small room with a bench with a hole cut in it leading to a chute that dispensed its product into a small drawer in the side of the bench, they were utterly confounded. But here’s the beauty part of it: Grabbett opens the drawer and, using a kerchief from his pocket, withdraws an actual stool, which he then takes out to the stove behind the cabin.

The investors are clearly confused and alarmed, but intensely curious and not about to head home without an answer, so they follow Grabbett to the cabin and the stove. Except it isn’t a stove, exactly. See—?

That’s right, get a good look. What you’re looking at is Grabbett’s Contraption. Here, let me slide open the display glass. You see, you put the deposit in here—this latch sometimes sticks…ah, there it goes—and then you light the incinerator here…then…voila! Out of here will tumble your finished gold.

Yes, yes. They immediately demanded a demonstration. As for the production of the stool, the assembled group forewent the demonstration as it was a process they were already familiar with and uneager to watch. The odor was evidence enough of the raw product, and Mahoney describes in detail watching Grabbett shake the contents of his sack gingerly into this compartment right here, then lighting the fire. The men all held their breath—whether for the foul odor or the thrill of expectation Mahoney doesn’t say—as the Contraption rumbled, belched and clanged to life. A hiss followed, and a burp of black smoke escaped the vertical vent—that would have been right about here—and then, a clink-clink, clink as three soot-covered but inarguably golden nuggets the size of the top knuckle of your thumb fell into the drawer tray.

And so the bidding began. The men began arguing with one another and with Diedrich, and Diedrich waved the papers of his entitlement and began organizing the bid, until Grabbett shut them up with his one and only offer: ten thousand dollars, split whatever way they desired, in cash. In exchange, Grabbett would part with the machine and surrender any and all rights thereto. It was a huge sum. Ten thousand dollars in 1853 wages is worth about three-point-six mil now, but the investors had the long slog back to San Francisco to figure it out.

And figure it out they did. No records were kept of the transaction, and the men were sworn to secrecy—Mahoney refers to as much, but then is scant on details thereafter—and historians have found in various bank ledgers debits in the amount of two thousand dollars from accounts held by each of the investors, all dated the third week of March, 1853. We know that years later, in 1883, Diedrich Pichkenchoz died very rich indeed, his funeral attended by most of the original group.

We don’t know what happened to Seymour Grabbett. The record gets a bit murky again on that score. He got his ten thousand dollars, and then seems to have disappeared. He made good on his promise, or we wouldn’t have this contraption here today. But were they able to get it to work? That depends on how you look at it. Did the Contraption turn excrement into gold? My guess is no, or we’d be living in a different world. But did it generate wealth and power? You betcha.

See, the investors had a dud on their hands the minute Grabbett left town. But they had ten thousand dollars riding on it and personal reputations and public images to maintain. None was willing to admit it was a hoax; it wasn’t even a question of that. The question wasn’t “it doesn’t work, let’s go after Grabbett,” it was more like, “dammit, Grabbett’s gone and he didn’t leave us instructions on how to work the thing.”

Sure they sent after him, but he was gone. Who knows where he went? Maybe he went back to Kentucky, but my thought is, if he was able to get by for four years without visiting his family, he could get by all right a while longer without ‘em, too. That’s the easiest place to trace him, anyway. My guess is he went incognito. Shaved his beard, bought himself some nice clothes, and invented a new life for himself somewhere else. Point is, the investors couldn’t find him, and they couldn’t press charges on account of the secrecy and their reputations to protect, even if it crossed their mind that it was a hoax to begin with, which as I said probably hadn’t.

No, it seems apparent from the historic record that the men had a grander scheme in mind: they were set on figuring out how the machine worked, building and using hundreds or even thousands of their own Grabbett’s Contraptions to build a foundation for perpetual wealth beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. How do we know these men—these founding fathers and railroad barons of inconceivable ambition—were convinced that Grabbett’s Contraption actually worked?

See, within weeks of Grabbett’s departure, several funny things happened.

First, there was the bill submitted and passed hastily in the California Assembly by Grover Spillington of Calaveras, a friend and confidant of Hopkins, which provided a general fund for municipalities to collect human waste and refuse from communities and remove it to a safe location for “proper treatment and disposal.” You see, the state’s first trash collectors were actually hired to go around the towns and cities of the fledgling state and collect sacks of Hessian cloth—what we now call burlap—filled with people’s digestive output. Ostensibly this was for sanitary purposes, and the bill coincided with recent outcries over sanitation in cities. And if you look here just to the right of Grabbett’s Contraption, you will see a burlap sack and a wooden pole with a gaff at one end, designed by the first basureros, or garbage collectors, of the booming southern California town of Los Angeles.

OK, maybe just a coincidence. But that same week, in early April 1853, at a meeting in a candle-lit room on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, attended by only a small handful of men, the California Academy of Sciences was founded. Sure, it’s public purpose was to serve as the West Coast’s premier research center for geology and natural history, but the private questions it was convened to answer—indeed, the only question it was meant to answer, was to reverse-engineer Grabbett’s Contraption. Or, failing that, to discover the scientific mechanisms by which it worked.

Nor was that the only effort to create an academic institution devoted to this purpose. I’m tellin’ ya, you want to hear about vast conspiracies! Under the guise of service to a burgeoning population, Mahoney—a deeply religious man—encouraged his friend Henry Durant, recently arrived from Massachusetts, to establish a school on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay, with the purpose of divining the alchemical underpinnings of Grabbett’s Contraption. It was Mahoney who coined the term “Spagyrofaeciachrysopoeiamatic Engine.” No, I don’t know what all the parts of that mean, but I know it has to do with the ancient art of alchemy, the mystical method of turning lead into gold.

The idea was to establish a parochial school that would provide cover for Durant and his staff to research the spiritual components of the Contraption that Mahoney was sure were the missing piece. The Contra Costa Academy, as it was known, was situated in Oakland. It later became the College of California and moved to the bucolic pastures north of Oakland, where it eventually evolved into what is now the University of California, Berkeley. Go Bears.

The money that flowed into the state on account of its scientific and educational offerings were huge compared to the money generated by gold claims alone. Civilized people started moved “out west.” Cities sprang up out of whole cloth on account of the clean streets and well-established infrastructure that in short order bypassed the “frontier” states—what was quickly becoming relegated to the lowly term “Midwest.” Now, it’s common knowledge that people didn’t make a lot money off of gold during the gold rush—not directly. It was the merchants, the middlemen, who made off like bandits. But what happened when the miners went away? When the gold dried up? Why didn’t California dry up and become a backwards state, like the desert it actually is? Simple! Ask the middlemen! There was never much gold to begin with, only the idea of gold, and that was better currency than anything else being traded at the time. You hear about the irrational exuberance of speculative bubbles, about Wall Street sharks earning fortunes off of so-called derivatives. What are derivatives? They’re nothing! They’re a rumor based on innuendo rooted in suggestion derived from the speculation of a fact. And lord, are they shinier and more powerful than any little nugget you could pull out of the ground—think of it! Fortunes feed on greed. Fish only grow by inches in the ocean—they grow by feet in the warm waters of hearsay! So powerful is the notion of gold that it had intelligent men, grown men, smart men, businessmen, looking at people’s posteriors and seeing dollar signs. An entire state grew out of this pond of gossip. A state that to this day is more about the idea of itself than any practical political application of the people’s will, et cetera.


Yessiree. This. This thing. Right here. Grabbett’s Contraption. This here’s my favorite item in the whole collection. Ah, now over here…

—Tacoma, April 2010

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