What is Indiana’s connection to one of Europe’s greatest unsolved mysteries: the whereabouts of Russia’s lost crown jewels? While some of the historic diadems are now back on display in Moscow, in the 1920s many were considered missing. Some are still unaccounted for. (One of the most credible stories claims that these famous gems lie buried in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.)
In 1922, former Indiana governor James P. Goodrich was allowed to take an unexpected peek at the elusive Romanov treasures when he went to the Soviet Union on a humanitarian aid mission. And what he saw in Moscow bedazzled him.
Goodrich, a native of Winchester, Indiana, was governor during World War I. A lifelong Republican, he is best known for signing statewide Prohibition into law in 1917. (He was also governor when women won the right to vote and when Indiana’s state park system was founded.) As a banker with a knack for investments, Goodrich was well-known for his success at marketing war bonds in Indiana, where sales skyrocketed. Yet the governor himself barely the survived the war years. In 1917, he contracted typhoid fever while visiting a northern Indiana prison. Then, a year later, Goodrich — like Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 — was struck by a streetcar, an accident that nearly killed him and left him walking with a cane for the rest of his life.
The Hoosier governor ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, losing to Warren Harding. Yet once Goodrich was out of the governor’s office in 1921, President Harding persuaded the banker to accept a humanitarian post in the new Soviet Union.
Tsarist Russia had collapsed during World War I. During the Russian Revolution, Tsar Nicholas and his family were executed — reportedly while wearing hidden gems sown into their clothing — and the country engaged in a bloody civil war. Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks came out on top in 1922, the year Goodrich arrived in Russia. Yet by then, the combined effects of war, revolution, and famine had killed, and were still killing, millions.
Americans had already gotten involved in bringing humanitarian relief to hungry, war-ravaged Europe. In addition to the work of American Mennonites, Jews, and Quakers, future U.S. president Herbert Hoover was directing the new American Relief Association (ARA).
Hoover, a geologist and Quaker from Iowa who had spent years living overseas, where he managed mining operations in Australia, China and Russia, was also a successful businessman. During World War I, he managed food drives to help war-torn Belgium. As director of various food initiatives, Hoover — known as “The Great Humanitarian” and “Master of Emergencies” — worked with the American Friends Service Committee and other groups to bring aid to millions of desperately hungry Europeans, including Russians, who soon found themselves caught in one of the deadliest famines in human history.
Herbert Hoover was a friend to Russians, but not to communism. He wanted Russians to see Americans’ generosity, and America to see the results of communist cruelty. When James Goodrich and his wife Cora left Winchester, Indiana, in 1921, sailing aboard the SS Kroonland for Europe, this was partly so that the former Hoosier governor could witness “what the real difficulties of this foolish economic system [Communism] are.” Goodrich agreed to come and learn “the truth about Russia,” which turned out to be more horrifying than he bargained for. He would spend two years there, off and on, as an ARA commissioner. Yet ten years before the U.S. finally recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, Goodrich urged opening up diplomatic relations — partly because he saw the USSR as an unavoidable fact and partly because the survival of millions of humans might be found to rely on American aid.
Almost as soon as Goodrich got to Russia, he began to witness signs of a massive, mostly man-made disaster. Like most famines, the one that killed six million Russians in the early 1920s was almost completely avoidable. Nature wasn’t the biggest culprit. The real killers were politics, greed, war, and deliberate human cruelty.
As early as 1919, Hoover’s food administration had offered help to Russia on the condition that Western relief agencies be given control of Russian railroads. This was to make sure that food reached the people who needed it. Lenin turned down that offer. During the Russian Civil War, armies used food as a weapon, stealing it from peasant farmers. Russian peasants didn’t often support the Communists, and when they saw their food being stolen, many farmers cut their production back. Other peasants, especially wealthier ones, were accused of hoarding food. By 1921, Lenin — whom Governor Goodrich met — was ordering that food be deliberately taken away from peasants to crush their resistance to the revolution.
As he toured parts of the rural Volga region, Goodrich saw almost no dogs. Dogs had been turned into sausages. He found small children shivering and crying in sheds, abandoned or orphaned and living off cabbage leaves. Many Russians were on the edge of death. One winter, he saw a man eating green bread. Asked what it was, the man told him this was “camel’s dung mixed with grass.”
Though Goodrich saw mass graves, he was spared some of the worst sights, which involved cannibalism. Yet his testimony about the Russian famine helped double the amount of relief authorized by Congress. He encouraged American cooperation in rebuilding Russia, which, he suggested, would partly require the export of American tractors.
At the height of the famine, it is estimated that the American Relief Administration was feeding about 10 million people a day. This was only possible after Lenin finally agreed to let Western aid groups feed his own people.
So where do the crown jewels come in?
Although the Bolshevik government rejected capitalism, it needed more than just Western food. It needed Western money. As in Ireland during the Famine of the 1840s, Lenin’s government was exporting grain for cash while millions starved at home. Money from abroad was to be used to build up Soviet industry. Yet in addition to money from grain, the Bolsheviks also looked for outright loans from the West.
As collateral, Lenin was willing to use the most valuable items the Communists could get their hands on — the imperial Russian crown jewels.
The American press was full of wild stories about these gems in the 1920s. As the South Bend News-Times told Hoosiers with disgust the Romanov dynasty’s orbs, scepters, crowns, and dazzling pearls were thought to be worth about 60 billion dollars, “equal to all the money that will be earned this year by all Americans combined,” the editors thought. The Hoosier paper considered the allure and value attached to those fabled gemstones “preposterously ridiculous” — especially when so many humans were dead or dying of hunger.
To keep their treasures safe, the Romanov family had broken up the jewel collection, sending some of it to a monastery in Siberia. According to a 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times, another pile of the gems was clandestinely buried in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert when a Russian aristocrat who was hauling them to China got attacked by bandits. He later fled to America, married an American silver heiress, and never made it back to dig up the jewels.
Though Lenin’s government had confiscated some of the stones and was offering them as collateral on foreign loans, the only Western country that took up the offer was the new Republic of Ireland. After photographs were taken in Moscow in 1922, the Russian imperial crown traveled to New York City, where it was given to Irish revolutionaries in exchange for a loan of just $25,000. Almost forgotten, the Tsars’ crown stayed in Dublin until 1950, when the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin finally repaid the loan and got the crown back.
On a trip to Russia in June 1922, Goodrich had an unusual experience. One morning he was approached by a Soviet official and asked if he wanted to see some unnamed government property. Goodrich was annoyed, thinking this was probably going to be a pile of furs in a warehouse. When he and his wife Cora arrived, however, they were introduced to a jeweler, who started showing them a book full of photos of rare gems.
To the Goodriches’ surprise, the jeweler then had three iron chests brought out. Once the latches were broken open in the presence of “Red Guards,” the former Hoosier governor and first lady found themselves staring directly at the dazzling Russian crown jewels.
On June 14, 1922, Goodrich recorded in his diary:
It was a perfectly marvelous collection. The old Czar’s crown, the crowns of the Czarina and the various members of the royal family, with diamonds varying from one to 200 carats, all of the purest water, and wonderful color. Crowns of diamonds, of diamonds and pearls, emeralds, rubies and amethysts; collars, bracelets, necklaces. The scene beggared description. I never saw anything like it; it did not seem possible there could be so many jewels in the world.
He looked at the gems “until my eyes were weary with the blaze of light.”
When this news got back to America, the press jumped on the story about the Hoosier governor’s encounter with the “royal toys.”
The South Bend News-Times stated that “Mrs. Goodrich wore a crown worth $4,000,000 which had belonged to the Empress Elizabeth. . . The governor remarked he didn’t want to see Mrs. Goodrich become accustomed to wearing $4,000,000 hats.”
Details about which jewels they saw are sketchy, but the crowns may have once been owned by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Among the greatest gems in the collection is the famous Orloff diamond. An ancient stone first mentioned almost 2,000 years ago in India, that diamond had been stolen from a Hindu temple in the 1700s by a French soldier and later came into the hands of Catherine the Great as a gift from her lover.
Governor Goodrich wasn’t entirely sure why Lenin’s representatives showed him the crown jewels. He guessed it was so he could go home and assure the U.S. government that the Soviets hadn’t broken up the hugely valuable collection. Even communist countries needed capital, yet diamonds and pearls were useless to the Communists unless they could be exchanged for money. Used as a guarantee on loans, the Romanov gems would, it was hoped, help the USSR develop industrially.
The American government wasn’t interested in the jewels, but the press and public definitely were. Stories started to crop up. In January 1923, a special agent from the U.S. Treasury Department told the New York Times that the crown jewels are “hardy perennials and bloom the year round. We count the day lost when we don’t get a report about them.”
In Brooklyn that month, a rumor was going around that James Jones, an African American seaman who had sailed on a vessel out of Vladivostok, Siberia, was actively smuggling jewels for Soviet agents. In 1920, Jones mysteriously died at sea off the coast of Gibraltar. His embalmed body was sealed up in a metal coffin — alongside the crown jewels, so the story went.
Federal officials from the Treasury Department dismissed the tale at first. But by February 1923, reports of suspicious activity around Jones’ grave at a military cemetery in Brooklyn forced the War Department to station an armed guard there. To save expense on the guard, the coffin was exhumed, as heavily-armed soldiers stood by. No crown jewels were found inside, but “reports” continued to come in.
James Goodrich lived in Winchester until his death in 1940. Though he never approved of Communism and insisted that Russia’s new government was no better than “cheap east side politicians and shopkeepers,” it was said that the only time he ever approved of a Democratic politician’s actions was when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized the USSR in 1933.
In June 1923, when the news came out that Lenin’s government was still exporting grain — even as millions of tons of it came in from American farmers — Herbert Hoover’s ARA shut down its aid operations in Russia. The Soviet government took over the feeding of its own people, but had to work for years to undermine the good impressions that American relief workers had made. Yet when Stalin came to power in the 1930s, “execution by hunger” continued. In 1932-33, a decade after the first famine, another six million people in the USSR were starved to death in the name of revolution.
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