S.S. Sonoma was a passenger ship plying between Sydney and San Francisco in the 1920s. One hundred people boarding in Sydney in November 1921 were unaware that a very valuable cargo would accompany them to the United States.
The Sonoma was loaded with newly minted gold sovereigns, to be sold in the US by the Gold Producers Association. The organization was a collective of Australian miners and prospectors, and the only body permitted to export gold.
Loading of the bullion at Circular Quay was overseen by officials from the Commonwealth Bank. There were fifteen boxes, each containing 5,000 sovereigns. To increase security, the operation took place just twenty minutes before the Sonoma sailed. It was checked into the padlocked currency tanks in the presence of two bank officials, the ship’s captain and purser, and representatives of the shipping company. Each box weighed 94 pounds.
After stops at Pago Pago and Honolulu, the ship docked in San Francisco. There was total shock when it was found that five of the boxes were missing. How on earth could this have occurred?
At first the Americans suggested it must have been an inside job, and that the gold had been removed before the ship left port in Australia. Inspector Fowler, acting head of the detective force in Sydney, was quick to refute the idea. He said that the bullion had been stowed 30 feet below the main deck, ‘It would have taken some time to lift five boxes weighing nearly 100 pounds each, 30ft to the deck and carry them off.’ (Sunday Times, 27 November 1921.)
The answer to the mystery was provided in a piece published in The New York Times, written by their San Francisco correspondent. There had been an ingenious plan, carried out at sea;
NEW YORK, November 25 1921 – ‘….an investigation showed that the supposed burglar proof locks of the specie (currency) tanks had been filed off and the five strong boxes containing the bullion were removed, after which locks, exact duplicates of those removed, were snapped on the tanks. This precaution covered up the robbery until the Sonoma arrived, since each day, the ship’s officers made inspections of the vaults. The keys for the original locks fitted the substitutes exactly. How and when the locks and duplicate keys were made was never determined.
Investigating police discovered that two gold sovereigns had been changed in San Francisco, which led them to believe that the missing gold may still be on board. An intensive search began, which immediately turned up 450 bottles of ‘bootleg’ whiskey secreted in the Sonoma’s lifeboats. Perhaps the criminals had been planning a celebration! 😨 In reality the whiskey was part of a lucrative scheme, carried out on previous voyages. Prohibition had begun in the United States in 1920. Were the same criminals responsible for the contraband grog and the missing gold? Very likely.
It was the ship’s engineer, Karl Knudson who accidentally made the first breakthrough re the gold.. Checking a disabled ventilator he discovered it was blocked with 6,000 coins, wrapped in a fire hose. Soon afterwards, Detectives Murphy and Proll found three oil cans filled with sovereigns attached to 200 feet of rope behind the stern. Finally, a blocked drain pipe plugged with rags held another cache of loose coins.
The Sonoma’s Captain J. Trask said he found it difficult to believe that any of his crew would conspire to loot their ship, but he was wrong.
Four crew members were arrested, but the master mind of the operation, Placide Joseph Ducrest, escaped custody and fled on a motobike. He had been quartermaster aboard the ship.
It was not until July 1926 that thirty five year old Ducrest was arrested. He had been caught smuggling aliens into the United States from Mexico. His photo, handwriting and fingerprints matched those obtained four years earlier in San Francisco.
FOOTNOTE – At the time of the Sonoma gold robbery a man called Samuel Hammett was employed by the Pinkerton detective agency, which had an office in San Francisco. He resigned soon after the event and began writing detective novels using his middle name, Dashiell. Hammett always claimed to have assisted police in solving the Sonoma case. The agency was involved, but there is no evidence that the author himself had taken part. In Hammett’s most well known book The Maltese Falcon, the private eye Sam Spade solves the case of a jeweled figurine stolen on board the passenger ship La Paloma.