Lasseter: the man who found that fabled reef, a man from death returned
July 25, 2017 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Field-Marshal Sir William Birdwood wrote: " The annals of Central Australian exploration are tragic and heroic, but it is long indeed since I read a more moving story of endurance and heroism in the face of terrific odds than the epic which Mr. Ion Idriess has woven out of the last few months of the life of L. H. B. Lasseter." Lasseter's Last Ride was published in 1931, then turned into a folk song and a (possibly related) poem. This story mixes facts, half-truths, rumours, stories (PDF) — adds a twist of drama, waits 80 years and serves up a story nearly as reliable as Ulysses, wandering his own Mediterranean desert.

Lewis Hubert Lasseter was a man of many pursuits, from inventor and military man to (claimed) engineer, surveyor and prospector, mostly in Australia, but with a jaunt (and a marriage) in the United States. Lasseter changed his name to Harold Bell Lasseter following the publication of Harold Bell Wright's The Mine with the Iron Door (1923), which was a popular contemporary novel and photoplay, which also came after Simpson Newland's novel Blood Tracks of the Bush (1900), David Hennessey's An Australian Bush Track (1896) and Conrad Sayce's Golden Buckles (1920).

Those stories all tell of wonderful gold deposits, or reefs, in the (Australian) desert, and possibly inspired (Lewis) Harold Bell Lasseter to tell two different tales in 1929 and 1930 of discoveries of gold in a remote and desolate corner of central Australia. His biographer(s) on the Australian Dictionary of Biography are clearly skeptical of his skills and claims, and recounted his two tales of finding a gold reef as follows:
On 14 October 1929 Lasseter wrote to A. E. 'Texas' Green, Federal member for Kalgoorlie, outlining what he called an 'out of the ordinary suggestion' to develop the mining, pastoral and agricultural industries. He claimed that eighteen years previously he had discovered 'a vast gold bearing reef in Central Australia' which over fourteen miles assayed three ounces to the ton and which could be developed with an adequate water-supply and capital of £5 million.... The government decided to take no action.

'Expecting the bailiff', as he put it in February 1930, the following month Lasseter approached John Bailey of the Australian Workers' Union and told him of his find — this time thirty-three years previously, when he was 17! Travelling west from the MacDonnell Ranges his horses had died and he was rescued by a surveyor named Harding who took him to Carnarvon, Western Australia, whence they returned three years later and relocated the reef. Lasseter also told Bailey he was 'a qualified ship's captain' and that he had worked for years on coastal boats. In subsequent interviews with Fred Blakeley, Errol Coote, Charles Ulm and others the story varied in detail and aroused suspicion; nevertheless, the lure of gold in a time of economic depression led to the formation of a company to send out a search expedition for the reef.
Lasseter's daughter Lillian Agnes (Ruby) Hodgetts nee Lasseter told a different tale of a man who tried to make life work for him and his family, but "habits found during the war years were too strong and he kept my mother continually short of money while he used to visit Melbourne and squander it on his women friends." Her story goes on and she said he went back to "find his gold reef when he hoped to be able to make up to my mother for some of the heart-ache he had caused her," only to fall in with "a dubious crowd" and then go off "with a dingo shooter named Johns" who had gotten in a disagreement with her father, and he had "shot and disabled my father's left arm and left him with some water and food and two camels" and then Lasseter found that the reef was considered sacred ground the native people who weren't fond of him digging.

Either way, Lasseter's personal story ends the same way: dead in the desert, without any proof that his discovery was real. But his story had caught regional, if not national, attention as the Commonwealth repaid the Central Australia Gold Exploration Company for its searches by Royal Australian Air Force aeroplanes for lost airmen (unrelated to Lasseter's quest) and Mr. Lasseter.

But the interest in Lasseter's Reef have stayed with the national imagination, initially with the government debating new investments into discovering gold deposits shortly after discovering his body, in part to boost the local economy during the Great Depression in Australia. Longer term interest has been fed in part by Lasseter's diary, which was originally purchased by Ion Idriess who included a transcription in his book Lasseter's Last Ride, published by Angus & Robertson in 1931. The diary with fragments is now digitized and hosted by the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. These resources and myths have fostered a new generation of gold hunters, including the man who founded Darwin's Beer Can Regatta, Darwin businessman Lutz Frankenfeld, who was going to try and mine his discovery in 2007, but that was one of many failures, as Jeff Harris and three mates were due to set off on a boys' own adventure, informed by the diary and Google Earth ... in 2012.

If you really want to dig into the stories, myths, legends and details of "Australia's El Dorado," you want to refer to Lasseteria, the Lasseter encyclopedia, which appears dated but has been updated within the past months, despite the copyright currently reading © R.Ross. 1999-2006. Note: this isn't an encyclopedia in the traditional terms, but rather an alphabetical listing of blog-like topical articles. For example, instead of being listed under Bob Buck, the entry is titled Reluctant Witness, as
Bob Buck was reluctant to sign any papers or statements relating to Lasseter's death, and the inference has grown over the years that all was not as it seemed with Bucks account of his discovery and burial of Lasseter's body.
The article, and the rest of the site, continues in such a way, but I'll let you piece the puzzle together.

OK, a few more pieces that don't yet seem to be on Lasseteria: Lasseter's Reef solved? Canberra historian Chris Clark's new book unearths home truths, written by Tim the Yowie Man for Canberra Times on March 20, 2015, and Lasseter really was looking for Johanson’s Reef! Clarification from Chris Clark about what he thought actual mystery was:
The only element of the mystery that remained to be solved, in my view, was who the “Johannsen” from Ion Idriess’ book Lasseter’s Last Ride really was and what became of him – both questions which my book finally and comprehensively answered. It has, however, only belatedly dawned on me that the mystery surrounding the 1930 expedition actually has also been put to rest in the process.
... Or has it?
posted by filthy light thief (8 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

This is awesome, filthy light thief, I have so much reading to do now. When I was about 10 there was a big article in Australian Geographic about Lasseter's Reef and I was obsessed. I wonder if that magazine is still on the shelf at my parent's place, I'd like to read it again.
posted by kitten magic at 3:54 PM on July 25, 2017

... in later years Kitten Magic often spoke of that magazine, and the fabled article on Lasseter's Reef which it contained. Many expeditions set out in search of it, basing them on the clues in Kitten Magic's description. A new documentary theorises that "the shelf" Kitten Magic alluded to was not one of the shelves on the living room bookcase, but a hitherto unidentified shelf of special cultural significance to the local inhabitants, strictly used for old phone directories, a copy of the Guinness Book of Records, and half-completed Sudoku games ...
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:27 PM on July 25, 2017 [8 favorites]

Hahaha, Joe, you have clearly met my family.

"The shelf" also contains a 1970s set of World Book encyclopedias.
posted by kitten magic at 6:16 PM on July 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Fabulous post. Spent much of the last couple of hours working through the links. Lost treasure - or just stories about it - will always captivate people. As do stories about people like Lasseter. Well done, FLT!
posted by martin q blank at 8:11 PM on July 25, 2017

Here's another hour pr two for you!
- The lure of Lasseter's Reef -- In 1932 Harold "Canonball" Baker flew two mining men in a DH50 to find this Reef. Engine trouble forced a landing on a dry salt lake. This is the story.

- Expedition Unknown: Lasseter's Gold

- The Mystery of Lasseter's Reef - Warren Brown -- audio recording from ABC Radio

+ Finding Gold with Doc: what's a quartz reef?
posted by filthy light thief at 5:01 AM on July 26, 2017

I have to admit, after listening to Warren Brown talk about Lasseter, there's a lot more to this story than I covered in the post. Even the goofy, sensationalist Expedition Unknown episode threw some more uncertainty into the mix. I should have checked those out before making the post.

More details from those programs: Lasseter was in the US for a while, became a Mormon, and obtained mail-order type certifications (that may have been signed with writing looking suspiciously like his own). He also claimed to be in England at the same time that he first came across the great gold reef, so maybe the story was actually someone else's, or maybe it was simply inspired by fantastic tales of gold discoveries in the vast expanses of the never never (where Herbert Hoover made some of his fortune, before becoming president of the U.S.). Lasseter was married three times (and never divorced?), and wrote to important people in such a way as to imply he was simply and casually continuing a prior conversation, and wrote with an air of authority.

His case for a gold reef was plausible enough the Australian government thought it might be worth supporting, but instead it got passed to Ballot Box Bailey (Google books preview), the unscrupulous head of the Australian Workers' Union who made ballot-boxes with secret panels and screws for controlling elections. Bailey apparently skimmed a significant amount of Union money and "invested" it into the most advanced gold-finding expedition of its day, but one that was deeply flawed (beyond being lead by someone who had no idea where the gold actually was) -- they had an unlicensed pilot flying an unlicensed craft (that crashed early in the expedition), and an impressive-looking six-wheeled Thornycroft truck-type vehicle that promptly got stuck in the sand, then the tires were full of spikes from local flora. Oh, and the portable radio was not too useful, as the speaker and several valves were missing -- it could only receive, but not transmit. Lasseter himself was supposed to be in charge of that gear, which is another mark against the man who spoke so highly of his own skills.

Still, folks are certain that Lasseter was on to something. Some say that most people are looking the wrong direction from Alice Springs, and Expedition Unknown's Josh Gates found a flake of gold to the east of Alice Springs in a huge quartz reef, so there's something out there.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:01 AM on August 1, 2017

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