Murders Mysteries & Misadventures

The Disappearance of the Silk King

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As I worked on the post intended for this week: a catalog of all the du Pont mansions, they call this area of the Brandywine “Chateau Country” after all, the post began to grow longer and longer. Too long. The rich really do like to build houses. And then it was so long the post began to feel a bit clunky. I don’t want just a catalog of the houses, I want to know the interesting things about them. So I’ve saved that post and maybe I’ll come back to it later with fresh eyes.

But first, while researching the 70 some du Pont houses (you see? I told you it was getting too long!) I became distracted by a little footnote at the back of a book about one of the architects working on Applecross, a du Pont estate. The footnote said he was noted for his work in silk and for mysteriously disappearing. That was it. Curiosity piqued.

*Photos accompanying this story are actually from Longwood Gardens, I’ve never been to Thailand 😉

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Quiet men make good spies

Born in the Brandywine Valley in 1906, Jim was rubbing shoulders with the du Ponts because he too came from a wealthy family. His father was a successful textile manufacturer and his mother had history on her side: she was the daughter of Civil War Union General James Harrison Wilson. General Wilson’s men captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Henry Wirz the overseer of the Andersonville Prison (and by the way, he was one of the the very last living Union generals from the war when he died in 1925 at 87 years old). General Wilson was also the only Civil War general to have served a major role in the Spanish-American War and the Boxer Rebellion, 30 years after the end of the Civil War. So the Thompson’s had money and history, just like the du Ponts. Of course they would run in the same circles.

Jim studied architecture in school but he never did finish his degree, he couldn’t quite get through the required calculus course, but that didn’t stop him from working as an architect. Certified architects at the firm would sign off and review all of his blueprints. One of those blueprints belonged to was Donald and Wilhemina du Pont Ross’ house Applecross*.

*Applecross was sold off after the Ross’ death. The house has since been razed. Since I haven’t been to Thailand where our story will soon take us these are photos from Longwood Gardens (Pierre du Pont’s house). They are what the last of summer has to offer us.

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When Wilhemina Ross donated Applecross she listed the houses original architect as James “Jim” Thompson, with Victorine and Samuel Homsey as the architects of the addition. Wilhemina had grown up with Jim and they were friends.

During WWII Jim heard the call to service and joined the Delaware National Guard before being recruited to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS later evolved into the CIA.

 

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At first Jim worked in Europe and Africa, picking up allied fliers who had been shot down. Then Victory Day in 1945 ended the war. Jim was sent to work with the Free Thai Movement, the Japanese were occupying Thailand, but then Japan surrendered too. Jim set up a Bangkok office for the OSS anyway, there were still many tensions on the Thai borders.

While there he worked with the US Minister to Thailand and an American missionary whose wife was Margaret Landon, the author of Anna and the King of Siam. The next year, Jim returned to America for his army discharge and to divorce his wife Patricia (some resources say he left, other says she did the leaving). Once that was complete he returned to Thailand with an armful of investors seeking to buy a hotel in Bangkok. Instead he focused on the silk industry.

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Jim used better looms and modern dyes to create unique brightly patterned silks in jewel colors. And he did so with a cottage-based business model: Thai women worked for the Thai Silk Company in their homes weaving the silk. Jim’s company lifted thousands of destitute Thai people out of poverty. Business exploded when in 1956 the designers for the film The King and I used Jim’s silks.

With all his success Jim began to collect Asian and Thai antiques. In fact, he spent almost all of his money on antiques. So he built a large home to showcase his collection. (His home in Bangkok, built from six reassembled old homes connected with walkways, is a museum now and open to the public).

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EASTER SUNDAY

It was Easter Sunday in 1967 at around 3 p.m. Jim was vacationing with friends in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. His friend, Dr. Ling, heard footsteps outside his room. Jim was going for a walk probably, he would return for tea. Except he didn’t.

When it was clear that there was trouble, Dr. Ling immediately went to the police to report his friend missing. The famous Silk King had disappeared.

A large 400 person search party was organized. It included helicopters, the Malaysian police and soldiers, some US army pals of Jim’s and even some British troops. They searched for over a week. But they didn’t find The Silk King. Not a trace of him, not even a clue.

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Outlandish and credible theories alike began to crop up furiously; everyone had an opinion (that happens when there’s $30,000 reward money on the table). He was eaten by a tiger, he had an accident, he was sick and committed suicide, he made himself disappear with jungle survival skills learned in the OSS, the Thai government did it, the CIA assassinated him, he was still a spy, he was a double agent, the Communists did it, he’d been kidnapped.

The large search team was able to dispel a few of the theories as much as one can. If he had committed suicide, surely such a large group would have spotted him eventually or found some clue. As for being kidnapped, no one had (or has) received a ransom note or any proof. But he’d also left everything behind in his room including his cigarettes even though he was a heavy smoker and his pills for his gallstone pain. Surely this wasn’t someone planning his own disappearance. Dr. Ling had heard the footsteps and assumed they were Jim’s. Really, no one had seen him after their lunch together around 1:30 p.m.

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Theories that he had never left spying behind were countered by an army friend who said neither the CIA or Thompson ever disputed the belief that he was a secret agent in the CIA because it “took the heat off the real agents in Bangkok.” Or so they say, who knows? The CIA did help search for him after his disappearance. Former CIA analyst and writer Francine Mathews suggested that Jim may have been still running agents for the CIA on occasion during his time in Thailand. His position in Asia was awfully convenient after all.

To add fuel to the fire of those theorists, a few months after Jim’s disappearance, on August 30th to be exact, Jim’s older sister was found bludgeoned to death in her home in Pennsylvania.

The official explanation was that it was a botched burglary attempt, the Thompson’s came from money remember and she was a known socialite. Curiously nothing was stolen, she had two large security dogs who hadn’t attacked and the scene was not even disturbed. Police believed these clues meant she had known her attacker. When she was murdered she was awake and she hadn’t attempted to fight off the murderer: her light was on, her radio playing and the only skin under her fingernails was her own – she had probably grabbed her head to ward off the fatal blow about to be bestowed.

The case was never solved, no motive was found. Their macabre fates were never linked. To cap off a sad story, her son shot himself to death four years later in Pennsylvania. It brought everyone’s tragic fate back into the news but no more credible leads on Jim appeared.

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ANTIQUE FIGHT

Jim’s priceless antiques provided a fresh topic for those feverishly discussing the Silk King’s fate (and by the way, they say they are still discussing it. At least in Thailand. I guess it is like in America and the endless speculation about JFK’s assassination). Family, business associates and the Thai government all had set their sights on the antique collection Jim had amassed. Unpleasant litigation and lawsuits duly followed.

Jim’s first will left everything to the Siam Society in Bangkok but when they had a falling out he wrote a second will, one that was witnessed but no copy could be found. In 1962 Jim had purchased some Buddha heads from his art dealer, pieces that were stolen property. When the Thai police (angrily) visited him he handed over the art without fuss but the Siam Society had failed to help him. He decided against leaving them his property, at the time of his death he was already locked in a heated dispute with the government over the fate of his antiques.

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The will was said to leave everything to his family. It cast an even shadier glower onto the court proceedings, especially after his sister’s death. The will was later found and it did leave everything to a nephew. The government took the antiques anyway, the nephew received a trust.

It was also suggested by theorists that Jim had attempted to use some forceful negotiating tactics to regain control over his estate. He would reveal information he knew about Thailand, collected from his OSS days. Information that may have been the identity of the person who had shot the young king of Thailand, Rama the Eighth in 1946. His death had resulted in an authoritarian coup. Maybe Jim had been silenced?

Or maybe it was simpler, he’d fallen down a cliff perhaps. No matter, the Thai government appropriated all of his antiques, pieces that tell the history of Thailand, and they took control over his house too turning it into a museum. The outsider who had acquired such a vast collection of their history (many items that Jim had found in junk shops undiscovered or left in abandoned caves and temples ready to decay). Now the outsider no longer owned them.

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STILL MISSING

It was been 48 years since Jim Thompson disappeared. He is still well known in Asia, his name is used for many silk shops and restaurants. His mysterious disappearance is just as well known too. But what really happened isn’t. It remains a mystery as much today as it did in 1967.

Though he disappeared when he was 61 years old in 1967, Jim Thompson was not legally declared dead in America or Thailand until 1974. His disappearance is still the best known legend in Southeast Asia. His CIA file is still classified.

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p.s.: You can see great photos of his house turned museum and educational arts center (run by the Siam Society) by visiting Trip Advisor’s website, here. It looks incredible!

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14