Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Extracting Gold From Sand

(This story was originally written and recorded for Podcast #68, released on December 1, 2013.)

It was reported on March 24, 1960, that Fred L. Markley, a resident of Pullman, Washington, and an electrician at Washington State University, had obtained some sand from the Kooskia, Idaho area and he believed that he contained gold.

Instead of panning it or using some other laborious method, Markley decided to do a bit of home chemistry.  He obtained some mercury, most likely from the mercury thermometers that were so common back then, and mixed the sand and the mercury over the flame in an attempt to get the gold to stick to the mercury.

When a neighbor stopped by the next night to see how things were going, she was shocked by what she found.  She said, “When I walked in Mrs. Markley was gasping and in a near coma and the two boys were turning green.”

Clearly, Mr. Markley had planned to extract ample amounts of gold from his sand but had not anticipated producing ample amounts of toxic mercury fumes.

They were rushed to the hospital and given British Anti-Lewisite, which removes heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, and lead from the body.  

At the time that the story was reported, the Markleys were expected to make a full recovery, but the city health department was trying to figure out how to decontaminate their home.

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