"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Vanished Silk King



James Thompson gained worldwide fame and enormous wealth by becoming the “Silk King” of Thailand. When he went out for a walk on a warm April day and was never seen again, he became a legend.

Thompson led a quiet, privileged life in America until his life changed during World War Two. As a member of the Office of Strategic Services, he headed a unit sent to Thailand with the intention of helping to overthrow the country’s pro-Japan government. However, before he and his men reached the country, they learned of the Japanese surrender. His task in Thailand now was to establish an American consulate.

Thompson fell hopelessly in love with the country at first sight, and he quickly determined that it would be his new permanent home. After his discharge from the OSS, he helped found a hotel in Bangkok, the Oriental. The real focus of his attentions, though, became Thailand’s dormant silk industry. He started the Thai Silk Company, convinced he could simultaneously rescue a once-vital part of his adopted land’s culture and make himself a great deal of money.

He was right. He focused on Thailand’s tourists, showing these visitors his brightly colored, and, to foreign eyes, irresistibly exotic fabrics. His silks quickly became an international sensation, and Thompson gained worldwide fame. The charming, affable Silk King became something of a local attraction, the host to visiting politicians, royals, celebrities, and the rest of the traveling jet-set. He was by far the most well-known American expatriate in Asia.

By 1967, however, Thompson was tired and in poor health. He went on holiday in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, a popular resort spot. He stayed with Dr. Ling Tien G and his wife Helen, who had been his hosts on previous visits. It was not an ideal vacation, however. He had been uncharacteristically preoccupied and bad-tempered before and during the journey to Malaysia, and the idyllic surroundings did not appear to improve his mood. Unfortunately, he kept whatever was troubling him to himself.

On Easter Sunday, 1967, his foul mood was especially apparent to the Lings and Connie Mangskau, a friend who had accompanied him to Malaysia. All that day, he was clearly agitated about something, leaving his companions both puzzled and worried.

That afternoon, as was the custom in these tropical areas, Mangskau and the Lings went to their rooms for a siesta before dinnertime. Thompson remained on the veranda, still silently wrestling with his mysterious troubles. A short time later, Mrs. Ling heard his footsteps walking down the driveway.

Later that afternoon, a cook at the nearby Lutheran Mission saw Thompson strolling through the bungalow’s garden. Around the same time, a servant at the Overseas Missionary Fellowship observed Thompson standing on a plateau facing the estate. He was next spotted in the vicinity of the Eastern Hotel, walking on a path leading to the golf course. It was the last time anyone is known for certain to have set eyes on James Thompson.

The bungalow where James Thompson was staying when he disappeared, via Wikipedia.


When Thompson’s housemates eventually emerged from their rooms, they saw no sign of him. He was fond of going off on walks by himself, so they thought little of his absence at first. When he did not return by evening, however, they became concerned enough to go to the police.

The search for Thompson began the next morning, and wound up becoming the largest manhunt in the country’s history. It seemed like everyone in Malaysia was prowling the area for some sign of the missing Silk King.

No sign was ever found. Everyone’s first assumptions about his disappearance—that he had either fallen into a ravine or wound up the loser in an encounter with a tiger—were soon abandoned when they failed to discover any trace of his body, or even of a struggle. It seemed equally unlikely that he had left voluntarily. Thompson chain-smoked and often had to take pills for a painful gallstone disorder. He left both his cigarettes and his medication at the cottage, indicating that he was not planning any long absence. The question of what did happen to him remained and still remains a mystery.

Every high-profile disappearance inspires wild theorizing, but the Thompson case brought out a particularly rich and varied crop. Some think he was kidnapped, pointing to unconfirmed reports that on the day he vanished, several unfamiliar cars was seen in the normally extremely quiet area around his cottage. According to some of these accounts, Thompson was seen in one of them.  However, foreigners were not usually targeted by kidnappers, and no ransom note was ever sent. Neither did anyone try to claim the reward offered for information about Thompson’s disappearance.

A variation of the kidnapping theory is that he was taken by Communists wanting to coerce him into denouncing America’s involvement in Vietnam, but no evidence for that rather exotic proposal has ever surfaced. Psychic Peter Hurkos declared that Thompson was the prisoner of Communist terrorists in Cambodia. A mission actually went into Cambodia to investigate, but found no trace of Thompson.

Or, others mused, did he actually defect to the Communists? This was not as outlandish a notion as one might think. Thompson sympathized with the Indochinese nationalists and opposed America’s Vietnam policy. He often met with Indochinese Communists and was rumored to be friends with Ho Chi Minh. He was known to be on bad terms with the current Thai government, leading some to wonder if he had joined up with the Communists in order to help overthrow the regime. Or, then again, was he a double agent secretly working against the Communists?

Did he stage his own disappearance?  A businessman named Edward Pollitz, who knew Thompson personally, claimed that shortly after Thompson vanished, he saw the Silk King leave a hotel in Tahiti.  Thompson then got in a taxi and left for parts unknown.  If this sighting is accurate, it would indicate that Thompson did leave voluntarily, but does nothing to explain why.

Or did the Chinese take him—voluntarily or not--to their country to manage their silk industry?

Was he on a secret mission for the CIA?

Was he on a secret mission for Thai royalty?

Or did the royalty—or the Viet Cong—or his own company’s employees—have him killed? Or did he kill himself?

Was he murdered by robbers who then hid the body?

Or—my own favorite theory—did he wind up a prisoner in a Tahitian brothel?

Compounding the puzzle is the fact that five months after Thompson vanished, the body of his 74-year-old sister, Mrs. Katherine Thompson Wood, was found in her Pennsylvania home.  She had been bludgeoned to death.  Her murder was never solved.  Were the police in error when they dismissed speculation that her death was somehow tied to her brother's disappearance? No one knows.

Only one possible clue has ever emerged regarding Thompson’s fate. In 1985, some bone fragments were found in the Cameron Highlands. It has been speculated they might be from the body of the vanished Silk King, but to date, there has been no forensic examination of these fragments.

Whatever became of Thompson, his legacy lives on. The beautiful home he built in Bangkok to showcase his extensive art and antiques collection is now a museum. It is one of Thailand's most popular tourist attractions, with about 40,000 visitors a year.

1 comment:

  1. Considering Thompson's opposition to American involvement in the Indochinese War, and his influence, it may be possible that the American government had him killed. The disposal of a body would have been easy given the U.S.'s resources in Thailand at the time and that country's alliance with the U.S. It would also explain Thompson's sister's murder: perhaps he had confided suspicions to her. A less sophisticated killing, by robbers or the North Vietnamese, would not have created such a mystery.

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