Posted by: Stenros | August 4, 2010

The Greatest Treasure Hunt on Record

I ran into a piece of treasure hunt history I was previously not aware of. Apparently in 1904 London sufferend from “Treasure hunt riots”! Sunday newspaper the Weekly Dispatch launched what they called The Greatest Treasure Hunt on Record in its January 3, 1904, edition. They had buried medallions that could be exchanged for £50 at the newspaper offices. Paul Slade has written a great piece about the case (he has covered other pervasive stuff as well).

Of course, what happened was that treasure hunters disregarded the disclaimer mentioned in the paper saying that one did not need tools to find the treasure and that it was buried in a public place. Instead, the crowds started using shovels and the like to go through private gardens!

Thomas Wright, a West London barrister, came home from his Lincoln’s Inn chambers one evening in January 1904 to find a mob of treasure hunters wrecking his front garden. One of them had already dug down to the base of the garden railings and was busy trying to dislodge them to see if a £50 medallion had been buried beneath. Glancing up and down Westbourne Terrace, Wright could see that many of his neighbours’ gardens had been invaded too. This had been going on for four days.

Many of the treasure hunters were fined, but for about a month the courts were unable to connect the newspaper to the events. Finally there was an injunction from London County Council’s parks committee backed by the Attorney General which ended the fun. Naturally, the editors of the magazine were disappointed.

“The interest taken in the treasure hunt has far surpassed the most optimistic expectations,” the paper reported. “Our offices were besieged by crowds waiting to obtain early copies, and in the provinces hundreds of people waited at the railway stations in order to secure a copy of the Dispatch the moment the newspaper train arrived. In our printing works, extra machines had to be kept running for long hours to produce the enormous issues demanded by the public and we have again and again found it necessary to reprint the various editions. The result has been to raise the circulation of the Dispatch to nearly a million copies weekly.
“It is not by the wish of the proprietors that the treasure hunt has now reached its close. This has been entirely due to the fact that in certain quarters enthusiastic seekers for medallions have not followed or heeded our repeated and urgent warnings against causing annoyance or doing damage. As a natural result of this complaints have reached us and serious representations have been made to us by the authorities. Such representations we could only treat with the consideration and respect that they deserved, and we accordingly decided to bring the matter to a close on Friday last” (19).

Of course, this was not the only treasure hunt organized by a newspaper – the succes was copied aroun Europe. Nor was it the first one. According to Slade that honor falls on a weekly magazine called Tib-Bits. Theirs was a more intellectual one and as the one run by Weekly Dispatch was prompting unwanted interest from the authorities, they decided to make their puzzles less pervasive.

Readers would get another serialised story full of clues to hidden booty, but this time be asked to mark its location on a printed map. The first reader to send in a map marked in the right place would get his prize through the post. […] Real-world treasure hunts, the paper had concluded, caused too many headaches.

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