Skip to main content

Would You Believe Salted Salt Water?

March 2023
3min read

There is, as everyone knows, more than one kind of fish in the sea. And, as some bunco artists will tell some poor fish, there is more than fish in sea water.

Near the turn of the present century, Prescott Ford Jernegan, a respected Baptist minister from Edgartown, Massachusetts, claimed that a dream had revealed to him the way to extract gold from the ocean. The process involved passing an electrical current through a submerged, zinc-lined wooden box (an “accumulator”) containing chemically treated quicksilver. The gold was supposedly absorbed by the mercury.

A pair of wealthy parishioners, A. B. Ryan and A. N. Pierson, had a box constructed to Jernegan’s specifications. Jernegan hired Charles Fisher, a deepsea diver who later became his partner, to submerge and connect the device for preliminary testing. Then, on a cold February night in 1897, Ryan and Pierson themselves lowered the box into Narragansett Bay. After a full running of the tide they hauled it up. Government assayers found five dollars’ worth of pure gold—not sensational but promising, promising.

Ryan, Pierson, Jernegan, and two others put up $20,000 for a more extensive test at a remote inlet near Lubec, Maine. Some of the investors were sure they had another Klondike. In December of 1897 they formed the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company, capitalized at ten million dollars. “Mining” operations were centered at Lubec, but the company’s headquarters were set up in Boston. Wealthy eastern Baptists bought most of the first 350,000 shares. Within six months another 350,000 were issued and snapped up. There were now 250 accumulators yielding $1,250 on each turn of the tide. The firm made well-publicized shipments of gold every week to New York City.

Jernegan declined to get a patent, maintaining, among other things, that sea water was public domain. He preferred to rely on secrecy: only he and Fisher, who remained in charge at Lubec, knew the formula.

There were skeptics, but even the press was guarded in its comments. Gold was known to be in suspension in sea water, and others had worked to try to get it out. Maybe Jernegan had hit on the right method.

The clincher came when a dubious Boston investment counselor named Tibbetts hired a chemist, one Dr. Carmichael, to investigate. Picking an accumulator at random, Carmichael demanded that salt water be scooped up at a spot he designated. Jernegan said that the process required a continual flow. “Use your hand to stir the water,” said Carmichael, “and keep it open .” The clergyman complied. At his laboratory, Carmichael analyzed the contents and found gold.

Lubec boomed. The firm now had 700 workmen; the goal was 10,000 accumulators and an annual potential of $17,500,000.

But there were hitches and suspicions. A workman was found murdered. Then, one day in July of 1898, the accumulators were found damaged and disconnected—and Fisher had vanished. Jernegan said he thought Fisher had fled to Europe to open his own plant. He offered to go after him.

Jernegan’s share in the operation was forty-five per cent of the proceeds from the sale of the stock. Soon after he left, it was discovered that he had withdrawn most of some $300,000 he had stashed in various banks and that he had carefully paid his debts. There was one man, however, who claimed that Jernegan owed him money, and he gave his story to the press.

William Phelan said that he had been hired to help Fisher, who, he said, had salted the boxes with scrap gold that travelled a continuous triangle—from the accumulators to New York to a secret room in Fisher’s house and back to the accumulators. As public skepticism had waned, said Phelan, it had been necessary to salt just a few boxes, to meet unpredictable investigations.

Hoping to maintain a surprisingly unshaken public confidence, Jernegan sent $85,000 from Paris to help repair the boxes and resume operations, but when letters between him and Fisher were uncovered, the hoax was confirmed and Phelan’s story substantiated.

Jernegan returned to America, and a court case held that the returned $85,000 had left him with only the forty-five per cent of stock sales he was entitled to. He was free, but his reputation was ruined—and he was apparently broke. He disappeared and eventually died in Manila. Fisher’s obituary appeared in an Australian newspaper in 1900. Some thought he had written and planted it himself. The Lubec plant was sold (it became a cannery producing Klondyke brand finnan haddie); Electrolytic stockholders got thirty-five cents on the dollar.

Again and again Tibbetts and Carmichael went over the hoax. Where had they been tripped up? Finally Tibbetts had a thought: When Jernegan stirred the water, had he been wearing a ring? Come to think of it, he had—a gold ring, traces of which had dissolved in the mercury.

But what of the money Jernegan had taken to Europe? While there, as he later confided to his family, he had heard of a similar gold-from-sea-water scheme in England. He had invested everything he had in it—and had been swindled.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "April 1968"

Authored by: Thomas Fleming

Hardly had the dust settled at Monmouth when a major general was court-martialled for misbehavior in action. And something else was at stake: George Washington’s prestige

Authored by: Andrew C. Nahne

Our first Korean war, in 1871, was fought to open the Hermit Kingdom to Western trade. But the hermits wanted very much to be left alone

Authored by: Richard Schickel

Some Americans may have trouble listing the fifty united states. Some may be vague about who represents them in Congress. But it’s a sure bet that every one of us—over the age of three— can identify the nation’s most prominent rodent

Authored by: William Cotter Murray

The wheels of westering settlers moved through an ocean of grass. It was a rich natural heritage, but within a century we almost destroyed it

Authored by: Francis Russell

For nearly fifty years, in one way or another, Ben Butler courted the favor of his state and the nation. He way not have been a bona fide Beauty, but there were times when his traditional nickname did not seem quite fair either

Authored by: John H. Ackerman

Tourists who ride the famous cog railway up the precipitous slopes of Mount Washington often feel the sky itself is their destination. Overcoming many obstacles—including a recent serious accident—the little locomotives with their tilted boilers have been huffing and puffing people to New England’s highest summit for nearly a century

Authored by: Janet Stevenson

Fanny Kemble should have known that a beautiful, brilliant, vivacious British actress never, never marries the Butler—especially an American slaveholding Butler with a narrow vision of a wife’s role

Authored by: Virginia Van Der Veer

President Roosevelt had failed to “pack” a hostile Supreme Court, and now the first New Dealer he named to that high bench stood accused of being a lifetime member of the infamous Ku Klux Klan

Authored by: David Lavender

In the mining country of the Old West some men struck it rich without touching a shovel. All it took was a little legerdemain—and a sucker
bitten by the gold bug

Featured Articles

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.