Lost Treasure: The Hunt for Hopson's Diamonds

One of the greatest treasure hunts in Pennsylvania history took place in October of 1928, after airmail pilot "Wild Bill" Hopson suffered a fatal crash near the village of Polk in Venango County. Hopson had been transporting more than $50,000 worth of diamonds (a treasure worth nearly $720,000 in today's currency), and although more than 300 diamonds were eventually recovered, it is believed that nearly one hundred of the valuable gemstones are still out there waiting to be found.

On Thursday, October 18, 1928, the luck of veteran aviator William C. Hopson finally ran out. Hopson, known to friends as "Wild Bill", had been a night flyer for eight years, delivering mail between New York and Cleveland. He had flown the famously dangerous Bellefonte-Cleveland route over the Allegheny Mountains countless times without incident, though many of his colleagues had not been so lucky. And so, when a shipment of 900 pounds of mail and a fortune in jewels had to be delivered to Cleveland, Hopson was chosen for the mission.

Wild Bill, however, failed to reach his destination.

Shortly before 7 o'clock on the morning of October 18 Hopson's body, charred and mangled beyond recognition, was located by Polk residents J.C. Hays, Ross Perry and Russ McKissick. The pilot was discovered inside the wreckage of his plane, on a rocky slope overlooking Bear Hollow, approximately three miles south of Polk.

It was Ross Perry who had heard the plane . Although he was not an aviation expert, it was painfully obvious from the sound that something wasn't right. He looked up to the sky and saw the emergency flare that Hopson had dropped, but thought little of it, so he went to bed. However, in the morning he happened to catch a radio report on WLBW about the missing plane, and so he rounded up his friends and ventured to the spot where he had seen the flare.

It was a sickening sight that greeted the three men; the aircraft was broken in two, with much of the twisted, blackened, still-smoldering wreckage clinging to the coniferous trees like gruesome Christmas ornaments. The plane's engine was embedded deep into the rocky soil, while struts and other chunks of the aircraft were strewn across the ground, along with the plane's cargo. It was evident that Hopson's plane had smashed into the hillside nose first; Wild Bill had been killed instantly.

Just as the men reached the crash site, they heard search planes overhead. One landed atop Gurney Hill, while another circled overhead. This plane was piloted by Wesley Smith, superintendent of the Bellefonte-Cleveland division, who had joined the search from the Clarion airport. Unbeknownst to Ross Perry and his friends, the fliers weren't just interested in recovering Hopson's body, but the valuable treasure he had been transporting.

On Friday morning, hundreds of local residents braved the rugged terrain of Bear Hollow to get to the crash site. Somehow or another it had been leaked that Hopson was delivering a shipment of jewels from a New York firm, and by afternoon these rumors were confirmed when a woman managed to dig up a handful of small diamonds. News of this discovery spread like wildfire; the October 20, 1928 edition of the Franklin News-Herald stated: As a result, the line of cars on the highway at Polk was almost without precedent, while other scores of people sought among the ruins of the burned plane for some trophy of value.

Superintendent Smith, in an attempt to disperse the gem-crazed mob of treasure seekers, told reporters that the rumors of diamonds were false. But, by this time, the woman who had dug up 14 of the gems was already in Polk trying to sell them, and the hunger for unearned wealth had been so great that it caused one ghoulish fiend to steal the wedding ring from the dead pilot's finger before his remains could be removed from the crash site. It was now obvious to Smith that the federal government needed to step in and restore order.

Postal Inspector William Tafel, of Erie, issued a statement threatening severe fines and criminal charges for anyone who was found to be in possession of Hopson's diamonds. By the following Tuesday more than 300 of the diamonds had been turned over to authorities. The police also made a list of 87 persons who were believed to be in possession of the missing diamonds, and these individuals were given 24 hours to turn over the stones. Many of the treasure hunters complied, handing over not just their diamonds, but also Federal Reserve notes, negotiable securities and other loot they had plundered from the site. However, subsequent reports indicate that only 3/4 of the diamonds were ever recovered.