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 impostor? 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 coined silver.
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 metals.
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 for.”
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 contained.”
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 treatment.
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 letters.
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 Britain Exhibition.
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.
- Emmens, Stephen H. Argentaurana, Or, Some Contributions to the History of Science. Bristol: G. du Boistel, 1899. Print.
- Gould, Rupert Thomas. Enigmas: Another Book of Unexplained Facts. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1929. Print. <http://amzn.to/1AAjFF6> [Re-ed., 1965: <http://amzn.to/1FQMou4>