The Curse of the Ship of Gold
How a brilliant scientist went from discovering a mother lode of treasure at the bottom of the sea to fleeing from authorities with suitcases full of cash.
The tragic OceanGate expedition to the wreck of the Titanic got me thinking about Tommy Thompson again. The protagonist of this Narratively Classic, originally published in June 2019, Tommy is infamous for going on the run with a stash of allegedly stolen gold. But before all of his legal drama, he was hailed as a legitimate American inventor, explorer, and hero for building his own submersible and discovering a legendary shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean. Similar to Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate, the life of Tommy Thompson, fugitive scientist, is at once sad and fascinating. So it was important to me to balance the narrative of Tommy’s criminal troubles with the scope of his remarkable achievements and the unrelenting legal pressure that upended his extremely promising career. Currently, there is some movement toward redemption for Tommy, and I hope that someday he’ll be cured of the “plague of gold” that has infected him for the better part of his life. It’s time he’s able to use his immense brainpower on something new.
In November 2018, a 66-year-old man named Tommy Thompson was wheeled into Judge Laurel Beatty Blunt’s courtroom in Columbus, Ohio, clad in a dark blue suit and looking like he had just served four years in federal prison. Thompson’s hair, once thick black curls, had given way to a bald pate, and with a long white beard and piercing eyes, he looked like a slightly hairier Christopher Lee, the actor who played the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.
Throughout the trial, Judge Blunt interrupted Thompson’s testimony to reprimand him for veering wildly off course. Thompson had long insisted that he suffers from neurological problems and chronic fatigue syndrome, which impairs his memory, and that his meandering explanations were a symptom of the distress foisted upon him.
But Judge Blunt, like other officials who’d presided over civil and criminal cases against Thompson, claimed that his malingering was the maneuvering of a hyper-intelligent con man. Indeed, Thompson’s legs were shackled as he sat through his trial. As everyone knew, he’d already fled from authorities once.
Thompson was genuinely sickened and overwhelmed, however, and he found it extremely frustrating that nobody seemed to take his condition seriously. He’d been living a hectic life for almost 30 years, and he tried to make the jury understand the unique stress that had put him in such a weak state. His problems had all begun when he’d discovered one of the largest caches of gold in human history, a lost treasure at the bottom of the sea. In the 30 years since, the weight of the find had upended partnerships, ended his marriage, and set loose the specter of greed. What began as a valiant mission of science turned into something else entirely.
On September 11, 1988, about 7,500 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, a set of glowing orbs moved smoothly through the darkness and illuminated the mysterious world below. That far down there are few currents, the water is close to freezing, and it is almost pitch black. The only light typically comes from the bioluminescent creatures that float by like ghosts, but in this case the lights were from a six-ton, unmanned vessel. The Nemo, looking like an industrial freezer with two robotic arms, made a small adjustment to its thrusters and hovered above the scattered remains of a sunken ship. Video of the wreckage was relayed to a vessel bobbing above, giving the crew — and the world — the first look at a ship whose location had stymied treasure hunters for generations. It was the SS Central America, a massive side-wheel steamship that sank in a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina in 1857.
The find was remarkable for many reasons. The Nemo’s technology, designed and built by a ragtag group of engineers from Ohio, led by Thompson, allowed scientists to explore deeper than anyone had ever gone before. The artifacts eventually recovered from the ship were a window into a bygone era and gave voice to the hundreds of people who were pulled into the abyss.
But the discovery was also a spectacular victory for pocketbooks — the ship was carrying gold when it sank, and lots of it: coins, bars and nuggets of every size surrounded the wreck and covered its decks and rotting masts. And that was only what the crew could see — somewhere in the remains were said to be between 3 and 21 tons of gold, a haul some experts valued at close to half a billion dollars. For Thompson, the Edisonian genius who masterminded the expedition, the discovery was the first salvo of what looked to be a long, impressive career. He became an American hero, a mix of brains and daring in the tradition of the scientist-adventurers of yore. “I can imagine him becoming as well known and famous as Cousteau,” one investor told Gary Kinder, whose 1998 book Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea chronicles the Central America mission.
But Thompson was subjected to a legal hell storm as soon as he set foot on shore. Numerous people and companies were vying for their share of the gold, and the unending litigation was compounded by the lawsuits filed by investors who claimed Thompson had ripped them off. In 2012, long after the litigation had sidetracked his calling, Thompson went underground, allegedly taking with him suitcases full of cash and gold.
It was a strange turn of events that Thompson’s friends and foes alike have tried to figure out: Was he a pirate corrupted by his own discovery, or a hardworking genius exploited by powerful men lusting after his gold?
Months later, Thompson was staying under an assumed name at a hotel in Boca Raton, Florida, trying to keep his faculties in check. He was unkempt, unwell and barely left his hotel room, as he had been on the run from federal authorities for the past two and a half years. His journey had taken him from Columbus boardrooms to the depths of the sea to a Hoarders-esque mansion, and would culminate with a police raid that eventually led to Judge Blunt’s courtroom.
From the witness stand in Columbus, Thompson disclosed startling information in a story already laden with tragedy and fortunes lost — and shed light on the mystery of millions in still-missing gold.
The pressure 8,000 feet below the sea is 250 times greater than on the surface, and Tommy Thompson was squeezed by something even more intense for the better part of 30 years.