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Borderland: America's Amazing Alchemist - Gaddis
AMERICA'S AMAZING ALCHEMIST
by Vincent H. Gaddis
Did Dr. Stephen H. Emmens find the key to the dreams of the medieval
alchemists, or was he a clever imposter? The question remains
unanswered. But there is no doubt that he did produce gold from some
source which he sold to the United States Mint. Moreover, another
scientist, by following his instructions, attained partial success. Dr.
Emmens, however, like the fabulous sorcerers of legend, carried to the
grave his fundamental secrets.
If Dr. Emmens was truly a modern Rosicrucian, the re-discovery of his
methods may threaten the gold standards of world markets. On the other
hand, if he was a fraud, his scheme of disposing of gold was probably the
most ingenious ever devised. The facts in the story, however, indicate
that Emmens did find a way for artificially increasing the gold content of
First, Emmens was a scientist whose discoveries cannot be lightly
dismissed. His name ranks high in the development of explosives; and he
invented "Emmensite," a high-explosive officially accepted by the U.S.
government. He was a member of the U.S. Board of Ordnance, the
American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Mining Engineers, the
U.S. Naval Institute, and the U.S. Military Service Institute. His reputation
as a chemist was international in the scientific world. He was the author of
a number of books on a wide variety of topics.
Second, when the famous English physicist, Sir William Crookes,
duplicated the Emmens experiment, he succeeded in gaining a gold
content in silver amounting to almost 27 percent.
Dr. Emmens, a large, well-built man with a walrus mustache, started his
experiments about the year 1895. While making some geological studies,
he noticed a curious fact -- that gold is found in greenstone that has made
its way from the interior of the earth under conditions permitting very slow
cooling. He also observed that gold is not found in ordinary lava flows
where the heat has been quickly dissipated. Since lava and greenstone
are composed of similar elements, he decided that "a non-auriferous
limestone, subjected to the same natural laboratory treatment as an
auriferous greenstone, is capable of producing gold by the transmutation
of some of its own constituent particles."
Likewise, Dr. Emmens believed that a relationship existed between gold
and silver, since both were geologically associated with each other. He
suggested that in the course of natural chemical evolution silver becomes
transmuted into gold, or gold into silver, "or that some third substance
exists which changes partly into gold and partly into silver." This third
immediate substance he called "argentaurum."
Experiments were started in his New York laboratory. Several years later
Dr. Emmens claimed to have produced argentaurum by a method which he
kept secret, although he revealed the general principles involved in the
process. He used as his material Mexican silver dollars, certified by the
U.S. Mint as containing less than one part in ten thousand of gold.
First, there was a mechanical treatment. The silver was subjected to
continuous hammering at very low temperatures in a special cylinder. He
called the apparatus a "force=engine," and it seems to have a combination
riveter and hydraulic press. A special arrangement rapidly carried away
the heat generated by the hammering.
Next, there was a process of fluxing and granulation. This action, Dr.
Emmens wrote, rendered the "molecular aggregates susceptible of
displacement and rearrangement." The mechanical treatment was again
applied to the silver, followed by a chemical process in which modified
nitric acid was used. The final step was refining. It was necessary that the
silver contain at least a trace of gold, and the Emmens process served to
increase this gold content.
In 1897 Dr. Emmens started selling his gold to the U.S. Mint. Official
figures for the amounts of "argentaurum gold" purchased by the assay
office in 1897 reveal a fineness of gold ranging from .305 to .751. A year
later the content varied from .313 to .997 -- the latter being almost pure
gold. It is obvious that the results of the process were not consistent. The
ingots contained an alloy of silver and gold, with occasional traces of other
Public knowledge of this modern alchemy did not come until early in 1899
when the New York Herald printed a feature article on the Emmens
discovery. A storm of discussion and controversy immediately followed.
James Gordon Bennett, the publisher, issued a challenge to Emmens to
present a demonstration of his process before a committee of scientists.
The inventor immediately accepted. However, the famous publisher found
it impossible to form a committee. He invited a number of scientific
experts, including Nikola Tesla, to witness a demonstration, but they all
refused. Again, it was found that the cost of the demonstration would be no
small matter. The expense of equipping a new laboratory was estimated
at $10,000. On the other hand, if the experiment was made in the
inventor's own laboratory, the cost would be even greater. Emmens
pointed out that the fraud-suspecting committee would demand that one
floor be torn up and all his other equipment dismantled.
As a result the New York Herald withdrew its challenge, claiming that the
conditions for a demonstration could not be arranged. Meanwhile,
Emmens quietly continued his work of apparently manufacturing gold and
selling it to the Mint. During one nine-months period his sales of gold to
the government amounted to $8,000.
Rumors of Dr. Emmens alchemy had circulated throughout the scientific
world before it reached the public. In May, 1897, Sir William Crookes
wrote to Emmens from England inquiring about his experiments, and their
correspondence continued for about a year. Almost from the beginning,
however, the personalities of the two men came into conflict, and their
relationship ended in bitterness and controversy.
Sir William was a scientist -- placing the acquisition of knowledge above
all other considerations. But Dr. Emmens was first an inventor, and he
demanded that his work bring a financial return. In one letter he wrote:
"The gold-producing work in our Argentaurum laboratory is a case of pure
Mammon-seeking. It is not being carried on for the sake of science or in a
proselytizing spirit. No disciples are desired, and no believers are asked
Sir William questioned the theory of argentaurum as an immediate
substance between silver and gold. In reply, Dr. Emmens outlined his
general method, but he never revealed all the details of his process.
He told the English scientist to take a Mexican dollar, and "dispose it in an
apparatus which will prevent expansion or flow. Then subject it to heavy,
rapid, and continuous beatings under conditions of cold such as to prevent
even a temporary rise of temperature when the blows are struck. Test the
material from hour to hour, and at length you will find more than the trace
(less than one part in ten thousand) of gold which the dollar originally
In duplicating the experiment, Sir William used a steel mortar with a close-
fitting piston. The piston had a weight of twenty-eight pounds, and was
raised and dropped a foot sixty times a minute by means of a cam on a
rotating shaft. The mortar was enclosed in a coil of pipes containing liquid
carbonic acid, and immersed in solid ice. The hammering process
covered a period of forty hours. As a result the gold content of the silver
was raised from .062 to .075 -- a difference of 20.9 per cent. It should be
pointed out that no chemical processing followed the mechanical
Dr. Emmens considered this experiment a valuable independent testimony
on the truth of his theory. Without asking Crookes' permissions, he
published an account of the results, and the English physicist never
forgave him for taking this liberty. Sir William complained bitterly that
Emmens had betrayed a confidence, and had placed an importance on the
experiment that it did not deserve.
Later Crookes made a second experiment that resulted in total failure. In
this attempt, however, the physicist used chemically-pure silver. Emmens
had previously stated that the silver must contain at least a trace of gold in
its composition for the "force-engine" to produce more gold. But Sir
William had either forgotten this statement or regarded it as unimportant.
In March, 1898, Emmens wrote the following paragraph in a letter to
Crookes: "You have made two experiments. In one you employed metal
from a normal Mexican dollar and obtained an increase of nearly 21 per
cent in the contained gold. In the other you employed abnormal Mexican
dollars, and obtained no gold. It seems to me that your duty is to
dispassionately announce both experiments."
But the English scientist apparently had no desire to have his name linked
with modern alchemy. Moreover, Sir William made a second unfortunate
mistake. He asked Emmens to send him "a small piece of the gold you
have made." Emmens sent him a sample of the product he was selling to
the U.S. Mint, which, naturally did not contain "argentaurum," a substance
which Emmens considered a temporary one in his process.
However, Crookes called the sample "a specimen of argentaurum," and
published a detailed analysis of its composition in a British scientific
periodical. He pointed out that it contained only well-known elements, and
that the spectrograph revealed "no lines belonging to any other known
element, and no unknown lines were detected."
By this time the correspondence between the two men had been strained
to the breaking point. Sir William had spent a lot of money on his
experiments, and the refusal of Emmens to go into exact details regarding
his process was an added source of irritation. He, likewise, felt that
Emmens had violated his confidence by publishing parts of his private
The inventor, on the other hand, was annoyed by the Englishman's
suspicions, and his refusal to continue or publicly report his experiments.
In May, 1898, he wrote his final letter to Crookes: "Really, don't you think it
poor sport to ride the horse of grievance? You and I are growing old, and
we may surely turn our time to better account than in exchanging complaint
and repartee over such a trifling matter as the whether an experiment with
a bit of metal should or should not be treated as a weighty secret?"
The English scientist never replied.
A year later Emmens published a book entitled Argentaurana, or Some
Contributions to the History of Science. It contained a general outline of
his methods, together with his correspondence on the subject with Sir
William Crookes. Shortly later he exhibited his process at the Greater
Did Dr. Emmens actually created artificial gold which he sold to the U.S.
Mint? In one assay report of "argentaurum gold" made by the government,
it was stated that the ingots contained impurities of a kind "constantly
present in old jewelry." In referring to this report some twenty years ago,
the British writer Lieut.-Commander Rupert T. Gould, R.N., stated that this
"was as neat a way of calling Emmens a 'fence' as could be imagined."
On the other hand, the same impurities -- traces of copper, platinum, lead,
zinc and iron -- are to be found in coined Mexican dollars.
Dr. Stephen H. Emmens died shortly after the turn of the century, and his
secret died with him. No evidence of fraud has ever been found to
discredit America's only alchemist. And his mysterious argentaurum gold,
in coins and in bars buried below Fort Knox, is now a part of the wealth that
supports the monetary system of the United States.
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