03 October 2015

Lasseter's Gold: fool's errand or con artistry?

Simon Caterson’s book Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds examined different hoaxes planned during the decades of Australian history; he analysed the events, publications and cultural ephemera that were later unveiled as elaborate hoaxes. Clearly, thought Caterson, the history of Australia must have always been marked by falsified accounts. My personal favourites all relied on literary trickiness eg as found in the Ern Malley affair, and the Norma Khouri and Helen Demidenko scandals. So Caterson was the perfect writer to review a book about a grand hoax.

Of all the great Australian hoaxes, none seemed more darkly absurd than the Lasseter’s Reef Legend. And the timing is perfect - the book Lasseter’s Gold was written by Warren Brown and published by Hachette Australia in 2015.

In 1897 a teenage Harold Bell Lasseter (1880-?1950s) staggered out of the desert almost dead, his pockets bulging with gold, claiming to have found a 15 kilometre gold reef. Not long after the find, his horses died; he became lost and would have perished but for the intervention of an Afghan camel rider and surveyor named Harding.

In 1929, Lasseter wrote to Government ministers about “his” fabulously rich reef of gold in Central Australia, but this attempt to gain funding was unsuccessful. Next he asked the Australian Workers’ Union to fund his project. In Depression-blighted Australia, the resulting expedition in 1930 was the best equipped gold-seeking exploration in Australia’s history.

However, it was a failure in all regards. The terrain was unsuitable for trucks, and the airplane he employed crashed; its replacement was unsuitable. There was dissension between Lasseter and the project leader, Fred Blakeley, about Lasseter’s credibility. In fact Lasseter refused to divulge the exact location of the reef, saying merely that it was “somewhere near the MacDonnell Ranges”.

Following the abandonment of the motorised expedition, Lasseter decided to venture out with a dingo trapper, Paul Johns. Again there was dissent, and Lasseter decided to go it alone, perhaps reaching as far west as Lake Christopher in Western Australia. On his return trip the camels bolted, leaving him stranded in the Petermann Ranges where he died, despite nurturing by the local Aboriginal people.


A well equipped expedition, 1930
Team leader Fred Blakeley and the biplane (top photo)
Harold Lasseter on top of the Thornycroft truck (bottom photo)

Caterson believed the author did a brilliant job in piecing together a coherent and convincing narrative from the welter of first-person accounts, some less reliable than others. Brown also drew on the often puzzling documentary record. It seems almost everyone who became involved in the search for Lasseter’s Reef had an agenda, and indeed greed and paranoia flourished under the desert sun.

Given the sheer isolation, the physical difficulty of moving through the mulga country with its soaring temperatures, and Lasseter’s vagueness about the location of the gold (which meant the 1930 expedition had no clear direction to follow), it is a wonder the whole enterprise did not disintegrate much earlier than it did.

Several key people involved in the expedition seemed to have been duplicitous if not downright malevolent in intent. Brown left open the question that Lasseter was lying about the existence of a fab­ulous reef of gold. Furthermore he may have been murdered by Paul Johns, a somewhat sinister German bushman later deported from Australia and interned in Britain during WW2 as a Nazi sympathiser.

At the bitter end, it seems that Lasseter had been left deliberately by Johns to die in a desert cave. He was found by Aboriginal trackers and buried near where he died. The body was later exhumed and interred in the Alice Springs cemetery in June 1958. Or perhaps Lasseter faked his own death and fled overseas. In any case, no official investigation of the ill-fated expedition to find the reef was ever carried out, apparently because it would have revealed the sheer ineptitude and deceptive conduct at the heart of the doomed enterprise.

Newspaper headline, 
the Sydney Mirror, 
April 1931

In Lasseter’s Gold, the author focused on the hardware the searchers used and the conditions they faced. The main vehicle used to traverse the treacherous mulga country and shifting desert sands was a huge six-wheeled truck imp­orted from England called the Thornycroft. It was a state-of-the-art all-terrain vehicle, having a portable radio transmitter that was capable of sending messages from the most remote locat­ion. The expedition also had aerial support in the form of a biplane.

As things turned out, the Thornycroft was a fire hazard as well as being difficult to handle, the radio did not work and the aeroplane tended to crash on landing. So the expedition party made mind-numbingly slow progress.

The journey to find the reef was conducted by the grandly named Central Australia Gold Exploration Company. And it was the largest inland expedition in Australia since Burke and Wills left Melbourne for the north in August 1860. In fact, Brown argued that the project proved to be a folly as big as that of those ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills, though without the heroic element.

With a remarkable set of archival photos, the book gave a compelling account of the weird outback adventure that was the unsuccessful original search to locate the Australian El Dorado. The book provided an excellent companion piece to Luke Walker’s superb recent docum­ent­ary Lasseter’s Bones, which concentrated on the ongoing efforts by Lasseter’s 90-year-old son to find his father’s reef.

It was unfortunate for Lasseter that he was already known as a sailor, prospector, bigamist, fantasy-based story teller, con man and attention-seeker. Lasseter’s Gold has been the gripping story of an outback legend for decades and just “might” have been true. But nowadays most people are certain there was no massive gold reef out there, just waiting to be discovered.

 Lasseter's body was reinterred in Alice Springs cemetery
in June 1958.
But was it really Lasseter's body buried here in 1958?





12 comments:

Deb said...

No official investigation ever? How stupid. We have to guess that with all those resources and man power, some police or coroner would have wanted to know what happened.

Joe said...

Financiers raised the equivalent of $1 million in today's money in half an hour to form the Central Australian Gold Exloration Company and organised the expedition. Depression or no Depression, investors wanted to climb on board quickly.

Hels said...

Deb

It is all very mysterious. Lasseter and the team left from Townsville in 1930 and it came to grief in Western Australia, so why on earth didn't the State Governments of Queensland or Western Australia demand an inquest? What did they have to hide? What about the Australian Workers’ Union or the Central Australia Gold Exploration Company? If I was them, I would have been demanding an investigation.

Hels said...

Joe

Warren Brown's book described the first meeting of the Central Australia Gold Exploration Co. which sounded very shonky.

John Bailey appointed himself company chairman, saying there would be no payments for himself or the other directors.

He appointed his own son Ern as company secretary.

And as Arthur Blakeley was the Federal Minister for Central Australia, Bailey appointed Blakeley's brother Fred as leader of the expedition.

Finally the Australian manager for Thornycroft trucks told the meeting how Australians loyal to the British crown HAD to invest, to lead both nations out of the horrible Depression.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, America has more than its share of hoaxes, including lost gold mines and hidden pirate treasure, so one is used to approaching these stories with a high degree of wariness. However, in this case, I wonder what was the scam--Lasseter almost died on the first trip, so what was the point of the second expedition if he knew the mine was a fake--was he just planning to drain the assets of the exploration company, or sell future shares in the increasingly nebulous treasure?
--Jim

Andrew said...

Every so often someone will stir the pot about Lasseter's Reef and once again people will be sucked into the vortex. I've not heard any more about the Nazi gold train buried in a Polish railway tunnel. It may well have the same status as Lasseter's Reef.

Hels said...

Parnassus

I too have heard of many hoaxes, perpetrated to con other people or because some people like to see their name in print, year after year. Lasseter's real life was very ordinary, a sailor who did not make enough money to live off and a father with children on two continents that he didn't support. For 30 years Lasseter wrote to Government ministers about his gold find, but of course no-one believed his very vague stories.

Thus it seems his hoax was to make himself important and famous across the continent.

Hels said...

Andrew

it is more than "every so often" that someone will stir up the story of Lasseter's Reef. Harold's son, the very elderly Bob, has spent his adult life trying to clean up his father's reputation by proving that dad's reef did exist! Just thinking of Bob alone, there have been 30 well organised and funded expeditions.

Plus heaps of other geologists, scientists and nuts have gone looking for the gold. In 2011 the entrepreneur Dick Smith conducted his own search, based on an original Lasseter map.

Family Man said...

Everyone loves their dad and wants his reputation to be reestablished nicely, but Bob Lasseter has not been thinking clearly. Get over it. Dad Harold was never a wealthy gold prospector.

Hels said...

Family Man

Bob Lasseter, who was born in 1925 and was only 6 when he last saw his dad, must have been obsessed with finding the gold and vindicating his father.

"Lasseter, the Man, the Legend, the Gold" described Bob Lasseter's expedition to Papunya in the late 1970s. And as recently as 2013, Luke Walker's documentary "Lasseter's Bones" explored the legend and followed the very elderly Bob on his ? last desert expedition. Who paid for and equipped all these projects?

Joseph said...

The history is so garbled. I don't believe a word. Inside History (Nov-Dec 2015) says Lasseter was:
Born in 1880,
sent to a reformatory in 1896,
escaped in 1897,
walked to the Western Australian goldfields in 1897,
discovered the gold in the Central Australian desert in 1897,
in the Navy in 1899,
discharged in 1901,
married in the USA in 1903,
living in NSW in 1911,
moved to Melbourne,
enlisted in 1916, discharged in the same year,
enlisted in 1917, discharged in the same year,
married in Melbourne in 1924....

But no records of any of these events were found.

Hels said...

Joseph

The records do not seem to be consistent even on his Christian name - Lewis, Hubert, Harold, Bell Lasseter or some combination of the above names. Let alone walking from a Victorian reformatory to the West Australian goldfields to Central Australia all in late 1897.

But he wouldn't be the first person to rewrite his own history to make it more colourful and intriguing.