How to Hide Gold from Ottoman Officials and Roving Brigands

How to Hide Gold from Ottoman Officials and Roving Brigands

To pay for food, clothing, materials to create industries, transportation, labour—and bribes—the Near East Relief workers needed money. The one kind of currency whose value did not fluctuate wildly at the time was gold. Each NER station had a safe, and in the safe was a lot of the stuff. Lee Vrooman reported in May 1919 that the head of the Harpoot unit, Rev. Harry Riggs, “has come in from Constantinople, bringing with him the equivalent of $85,000 in gold ($1 million today). It weighed over three hundred pounds; some cash, I’ll tell the world!” Hopefully Lee did not tell the world because Turkey was a fairly lawless place in 1919. Roving bands of brigands robbed anyone they could, making travel extremely dangerous. But back in 1917 when the United States entered WWI, and the Ottoman Empire ousted American citizens, some local Ottoman officials, depending on the region, seized the opportunity to make themselves rich. Dana K. Getchell, treasurer of Anatolia College in Marsovan, demonstrated how to hide gold from Ottoman officials and roving brigands.

Expulsion of Americans from Marsovan

On May 10, 1917, the compound of the ABCFM Marsovan station was “surrounded by twenty or more police and gendarmes, and the guard of the college gate was removed. The governor of the city, with his staff, took possession of the college president’s office and summoned all Americans to meet him. … He demanded the keys to all buildings and to the safe, and declared the schools closed. The Americans were informed that they must go to the city inn that night, and be ready for an early start to Constantinople the next day! The Americans declared they could not leave on such short notice, and so their immediate departure was postponed.”

Three days later the governor informed Dana that he wanted to count the money in the safe. In the Treasurer’s office were the governor, a few of his staff and guests, and a few Americans, “the safe was opened and the bags of gold were one by one deposited on the table, around which sat the fat, sleek officers, all most jubilant at the sight of gold. The governor carefully handled each separate gold piece, then passed the bag on to the commander of the gendarmes, who in turn experienced the pleasure of handling the same.”

The safe also contained “numerous small deposits belonging to mission friends of different nationalities.” Dana felt that these small bags “must not pass into the hands of greedy officers.” He decided that, because of his large size, he could “perform a bit of sleight-of-hand, so that as the right hand reached for the bag of gold which was to be placed on the table, the left might fill his own inside pockets with the smaller deposits.” Pretty soon his size increased considerably. One of his colleagues noticed and “exclaimed in a stage whisper, ‘Man alive! What are you doing?’ The abnormal appearance of the treasurer was, however, unnoticed by the officials, whose eyes and attention were wholly upon the larger bags of gold; and so these smaller precious packages were saved from inspection, and were later returned to their grateful owners.”

Fortunately the Americans had anticipated that something like this might happen. They had previously distributed bags of gold around the place, outside of the safe. In the closet of the president’s office was a hod, the top half full of coal and the bottom half full of a bag of gold worth about $2,200. Another bag was “buried in the cellar of the president’s house; and still other sums were hidden in attics and secluded places.”

Surprising to Dana, it turned out the governor was an honest man. He simply wanted to enjoy the feel of gold. He “returned the key to the safe; he had repented himself, and had not removed a lira!”

Hiding Gold from Roving Brigands

In those days it took eight days to travel to Constantinople. “The roads were infested with robbers, and to carry gold in large or small quantities was dangerous!” The Americans discussed how to do this safely, and finally agreed “that each member of the party should in some way conceal a small amount on his person, even the children in the party having their share in this ‘burden bearing’.” Dana felt that, as “the strongest and most able-bodied … he could carry a good load, if only someone could invent a method of packing so that it would not stick out in bunches all over his body.” Susan Getchell came up a solution. “Why not a quilted vest to be worn beneath the outer clothing?” his wife suggested. It worked.

“In spite of the wicked gendarmes who were sent to escort the party, and in spite of the rumors that came thick and fast that a plan was on foot to rob and murder the whole party just outside of the city limits, no one was molested during that long eight days, and the funds were finally safely deposited with the mission treasurer in Constantinople.”

Interestingly, the governor had used his authority a little too liberally. After almost two months of “constant beseeching” of various government officials, several Americans, including Dana, were allowed to return to Marsovan. “They received from Talaat Bey a paper giving them permission to return, and ordered them to leave Constantinople on a certain day. Talaat, although perhaps one of the most brutal of the Turks in power, had also a certain largeness in carrying out a favor after he had once granted it.”

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