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Science of the Comstock - Scams

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Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, who spent several years as a reporter on the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, recorded in his book Roughing It:

"Assaying was a good business, and so some men engaged in it, occasionally, who were not strictly scientific and capable. One assayer got such rich results out of all specimens brought to him that in time he acquired almost a monopoly of the business. But like all men who achieve success, he became an object of envy and suspicion. The other assayers entered into a conspiracy against him, and let some prominent citizens into the secret in order to show that they meant fairly.Then they broke a little fragment off a carpenter's grindstone and got a stranger to take it to the popular scientist and get it assayed.In the course of an hour the result came, whereby it appeared that a ton of that rock would yield $1,284.40 in silver and $366.36 in gold! Due publication of the whole matter was made in the paper, and the popular assayer left town 'between two days'."

The lessons learned from this story are (1) make sure you know that your samples haven't been salted (whereby the crook puts gold or other material into your sample to make you think you have valuable ore, and (2) make sure you use reputable assay laboratories, and if the assay results look really good, double check the results by sending additional samples to different laboratories. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. See the Fire Assaying section for a description of this process.