The Case of the Missing Thai Silk King
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everyone loves a good mystery, and we all get swept up in conspiracy theories now and then.
By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin
The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has engaged a search effort by people around the world — and spawned more than one conspiracy theory. The ongoing mystery of the missing plane puts us in mind of another disappearance, also tied to Malaysia, which also drew in searchers from around the globe.
Imagine this: In a small town in the U.S., a middle-aged man goes for a hike in the woods and doesn’t come back. There’s an extensive search, but he’s never found. Most people assume he had an accident or was lost in the woods. For a time, there’s plenty of coverage in the local media, but the story eventually fades and everyone, except those closest to him, forgets all about it.
Time Magazine suggested that Thompson was likely “the abducted victim of some international intrigue.”
But add a few key details — fame, money, an exotic setting and a dose of political intrigue — and the story becomes much more intriguing.
On Easter Sunday 1967, in the lush Cameron Highlands of central Malaysia, a 61-year-old American millionaire went for a walk in the jungle and never returned. His name was Jim Thompson and at the time he was one of the best-known Americans in Asia, having almost single-handedly revived Thailand’s dwindling silk industry. He was also famous for his antique collection, one of the most extensive in Asia, and the traditional Thai house he designed himself – so striking that it remains one of Bangkok’s most-popular tourist attractions.
With such a ready supply of personal and political juice, it’s unsurprising that the Thompson case has inspired countless conspiracy theories in the 47 years since the “Thai Silk King” went for his fateful afternoon stroll.During World War II Thompson served with the Office of Strategic Services and in the years that followed he stayed in informal contact with the organization that succeeded it: the CIA. When the former intelligence operative disappeared, the chilliest decade of the Cold War was drawing to a close. America was fighting to stem communism in Southeast Asia and the forests of the Cameron Highlands had a reputation for being a hangout for communist guerrillas.
The beauty of the case was that it was so marvelously flexible; it could be adjusted to meet almost any theoretical need.
Within days of his disappearance, a huge Malaysian manhunt was under way, involving the Malay police, CIA operatives, indigenous people from the surrounding jungle, a British officer, scores of mystics, psychics, witchdoctors, and an endless stream of reward-hungry locals and international scam artists.
International media closely watched the search and, before even a month had passed, Time Magazine suggested that Thompson was likely “the abducted victim of some international intrigue.”
In the decades since, it has been posited — with no firm evidence — that Thompson killed himself, or was murdered by the CIA, kidnapped by communists, eaten by a tiger, skipping out on his taxes, afraid of being exposed as gay or bewitched by a love-sick indigenous woman in the jungle. As William Warren puts it in his book about Thompson , “the beauty of the case was that it was so marvelously flexible; it could be adjusted to meet almost any theoretical need.”
Thompson probably got lost in the jungle, just as Amelia Earhart probably crashed somewhere in the Pacific and Elvis Presley probably died in 1977, but conspiracy theorists rarely shave with Occam’s razor.
And in this case, they may have a point. A leader of the search team, who went into the area and consulted with indigenous tribes with intimate knowledge of the jungle, declared that he was “fully convinced that Mr. Thompson [was] not lost in the jungle.” His stance was supported by the fact that, despite months of exhaustive searching, not a trace of Thompson was ever found, which is highly unusual even in such a dense landscape.
On the first anniversary of Thompson’s disappearance, William Warren wrote in The New York Times that he had left behind “a tangle of intrigue and speculation that, a year later, shows no signs of giving up.”
Today the case of the missing Thai Silk King remains as exotic and open-ended as ever, and many are still searching for answers. The most recent book on the mystery was published in 2012 and Thompson even appears on Wikileaks, which published an email from an intelligence analyst stating that “there are still two or three people alive that probably know what happened to him.”
Whether or not the mystery gets solved, the tragedy elevated the Thai Silk Company to new heights. The legend surrounding the company became even more intriguing following Thompson’s disappearance, and the company responded by rebranding itself as simply ”Jim Thompson,” putting its enigmatic founder front and center.
From its humble beginnings in 1940s Bangkok, by the 2000s Jim Thompson had annual turnover of close to $80 million. Today, it is the biggest producer of handmade fabrics in the world, operating in 30 countries with more than 3,000 employees.
Losing your founder in the jungle is an extreme form of marketing, but nothing sells better than gossip and intrigue.
- Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin, OZY AuthorContact Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin