During the early 1980s, advanced sonar technology achieved high-resolution capabilities of scanning large areas deep in the ocean floor.

The device was often mounted on remotely operated recovery vehicles for archeological research.

Simultaneous development in computers, robotics, and fiber optics had practically made manned submersibles obsolete for the purpose, at least during the scanning phase.

Moreover, the underwater drone was (still is) much safer, easier, and more economically feasible compared to sending people to scavenge artifacts at the bottom of the sea.

In addition to the educational value, sophisticated sonar introduced a new opportunity for the more financially-driven adventurers of the seas: treasure hunters targeting shipwrecks loaded with fortune.

Among the most famous modern treasure hunters is Thomas G. Thompson, who successfully recovered a fraction of the wealth from the SS Central America.

The ship was carrying gold coins and bars worth an estimated $400 million when it sank off the Carolinas in 1857.

While Thompson made around $50 million from that, he is jailed for failing to distribute the money appropriately to the parties who contributed to the search.

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10 /10 Sank Steamship

The SS Central America, also known as the Ship of Gold, set sail on September 3, 1857, from the port of Colon in Panama for New York City under the command of William Lewis Herndon.

Onboard the ship were 578 people, including 101 crews and at least 13 tons of gold. Off the Carolinas coast on September 9, the boat caught up with a Category 2 hurricane.

After a few days of struggling to get through heavy seas and winds, the SS Central America sank, taking 425 people and the gold to the bottom of the ocean.

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9 /10 Richest Shipwreck

The sinking of the SS Central America stands today as the worst peacetime passenger ship disaster in the US.

Among the gold carried inside the ship, three tons prospected during the California Gold Rush.

Some would say the passengers collectively brought an equal amount. Rumors were suggesting that the ship also carried 15 tons of gold inside the secret Army cargo.

No one knows the exact amount of gold or how much money they are worth today, but for sure, SS Central America has been called the richest shipwreck ever.


8 /10 Recovery Limited

In the summer of 1985, shipwreck enthusiast Thomas G. Thompson, founder, and director of Columbus-America Discovery Group, made his way around to pitch his idea of treasure hunting in the shipwreck.

He managed to persuade 161 people to invest a total of $12.7 million in the venture.

He used the money to create Recovery Limited, making all the investors limited partners. Thompson bought ships, hired crews, and headed out to the Carolinas in search of a lost fortune.

Each of the investors was promised to receive a return appropriate to the contribution when the ship was found, if ever.

7 /10 SeaMARC 1A

One of the most instrumental partners was Mike Williamson, a geophysicist. He was 40 back in 1986.

Mike invested $1 million to develop and purchase a sonar device called the SeaMARC 1A built-in Redmond. The only other of its kind was at Columbia University.

Thompson did not want to borrow it from the university because it would turn into an archeological expedition for educational purposes.

The results would be made public. He wanted to find treasures for the fame and riches, so Mike’s sonar was the only viable option.


6 /10 Shipwreck Found

With a crew consisting of engineers and technicians on board a ship equipped with the most sophisticated sonar technology, Thompson made his way onto the off cost of the Carolinas.

After several years of searching, they found just another potential location of the shipwreck. On September 11, 1988, the crew launched an underwater drone to confirm the discovery.

And there it was: the SS Central America some 160 miles off the coast and 7,200 feet down.

Another drone was sent to recover artifacts and, of course, gold. But just like in movies, treasure hunting came with troubles.

5 /10 Legal Issues

Since the discovery of the shipwreck and recovery of gold, it took almost 30 years of litigation and mounting legal documents before the investors could receive their fair share of the treasure.

Once the gold was found, insurance companies filed a lawsuit against the partnership, claiming the treasure had always been theirs since the ship sank.

Thompson was served papers from 39 insurance companies. Insurers argued they owned everything contained in the wreck because they had paid claims on it shortly after the sinking.

4 /10 Tied Up In Court

For almost a decade after the discovery of the shipwreck, the treasure had been practically out of anybody’s reach, not even Thompson’s.

Finally, in 1996, the court determined that Thompson and his partners would retain a whopping 92 percent of the recovered fortune.

The remaining amount was to be divided among the insurers. Now that insurance companies were out of the way, investors began to see a glimpse of their newly acquired wealth.

However, that was not the case. As it turned out, Thompson didn’t want to share.

3 /10 California Gold Marketing Group

Before a fair return on investment was settled, Thompson took the liberty to sell thousands of coins and hundreds of gold bars to the California Gold Marketing Group.

He reportedly made $50 million from the sale. In the meantime, investors expected their return.

By 2005, all 161 of them had not been paid. One by one, they filed a lawsuit against Thompson, demanding some proceeds as promised.

The man went into seclusion, hiding in Gracewood mansion in Vero Beach, Florida, Facing legal troubles. He became a fugitive of the law, hunted by the US Marshals.

Delaware County Sheriffs Office

2 /10 Growing Reclusive

Agent Brad Fleming believed Thompson was not likely out of the country. However, he asserted that the fugitive might be out in the seas considering his sailing experience.

On the other hand, his family didn’t seem to be much bothered about the legal troubles; they only hoped that Thompson enjoyed his freedom regardless of where he was.

Eventually, the authorities tracked him down in 2015 while staying in a hotel room in Florida. Thompson has been in jail since. As of December 2020, the man owes around $1.8 million in fines.


1 /10 Key To Freedom

In November 2018, Thompson told a judge he didn’t know where the coins were during a hearing.

He claimed to have put the gold in an offshore trust, meaning the trustee was the only person capable of giving the information everybody wanted to hear.

He is now housed at a minimum-security federal prison in Ohio. Thompson once said he could have been free if only he had told the judge the location of the gold; the problem was that he had no information as to where the trustee kept it.

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