“Hope springs infernal” (Diamond curse)


Often times, that which is opulent or long-hidden will be said to carry some type of misfortune. Examples include select 19th Century manors, King Tut’s tomb, and the Hope Diamond. The latter is huge chunk of cerulean rock, a 45-carat eye-popper worth about $250 million, although its current owner, the Smithsonian Institution,  is neither willing nor able to sell it.

The diamond takes it names from one of its former owners, British banker William Hope, who acquired the massive gem in 1839. It made its way to Simon Frankel, who found the blue beauty to be a white elephant. You might have a Honus Wagner baseball card valued at $800,000 that you are trying to sell, but it’s only worth that to you if you can find a buyer. Frankel was having the same liquidity issues with the Hope Diamond. So he spun a wildly improbably tale, based in zero reality, that the jewel carried a curse.  His hope, so to speak, was that this would help him locate a purchaser who would paradoxically find the curse both unsettling but intriguing.  Frankel eventually sold it to Selim Habib, though it’s unclear whether the supposed curse influenced Habib or if he even knew about it.

The next year, the Times of London ran a satirical story which mocked Frankel, but which has come to be taken as truth, a forerunner of today’s fake news epidemic. The anonymous author told how the diamond once belonged to a Russian prince who gave it to a famous actress before shooting her on stage, after which angry patrons stabbed the monarch to death. Another owner committed suicide and the next recipient fell over a cliff to his grisly death. Later, assassins took out a young Turk royal wearing the diamond and a Hindu priest swiped it before succumbing to an unspecified agonizing death. This was all make-believe and wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously, but was instead needling Frankel for his curse claims.

Taking this ludicrous legend to new heights, The New York Times followed with a nonsense article that purported to catalog what had happened to previous holders. It reported that Habib and the diamond had been lost at sea near Singapore. Now, there had been a Selim Habib who went down in that shipwreck, but he merely shared his name with the Hope Diamond owner. Another ill-fated keeper, a cohort of King Louis XIV, is said to have been mauled to death by wild dogs. The monarch’s eventual beheading, along with that of Marie Antoinette, have also been cited as curse-related. Besides murders and suicides, there were rumors of insanity and bankrupt former multimillionaires among those who had procured the diamond.

While some of the owners did die horrific deaths, Marie Antoinette being the most prominent example, these bloody endings are explicable without invoking a curse. A revolution, for example, finishes off regime leaders whether or not they possess a specific gem.  

When misfortunes have occurred, deducing that this means there is a curse attached to the Hope Diamond requires cherry picking. Tragedies are highlighted, while any good fortune bestowed on the owners is ignored. For example, the Smithsonian has housed the diamond longer than any owner ever possessed it and the Institution has yet to suffer for this.

Furthermore, some of the tragedies afflicted not the owners, but their family members, and counting these instances as part of the curse greatly increases the pool of potential victims.

Most of the tragedies were made-up, often not even having a name associated with them. And the genuine instances are explicable through the Law of Truly Large Numbers.

It could be argued that the idea of a Hope Diamond curse is a morality tale about greed. In the lesson, someone who is already extremely affluent suffers when he or she tries to become even wealthier instead of using their substantial holdings for charity, alms, and the public good.

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