While researching the book Olof’s Suitcase: Lasseter’s Reef mystery solved, I could hardly avoid being drawn into examining the personal history of Lewis Harold Bell Lasseter (real name Lewis Hubert Lasseter), the man who claimed to have once discovered a rich gold reef ‘nine miles long’ in Central Australia and in 1930 prompted the mounting of a hugely expensive expedition to relocate it. My purpose had nothing to do with satisfying myself whether Lasseter’s claims were bogus or true, rather than to establish precisely what was the connection between him and my Swedish grandfather, Olof Emanuel Johanson, which appeared to have caused Olof to play a subsidiary role in the events of 1930.
By the time I concluded my research I had accumulated more information than I needed or wanted for my book. Moreover, whenever I tried writing about Lasseter’s complicated life story and the details of his constantly changing claims of discovery, I found that the figure of Lasseter began overwhelming the narrative I was trying to put together, which was intended to focus on my grandfather and his Australian-born daughter (my mother). I consequently made the decision to leave the question of Lasseter’s truthfulness and credibility out of the book entirely, even though I had reached a personal view which matched the conclusion expressed by Fred Blakeley, the leader of the failed expedition, that Lasseter had been ‘a liar and a fraud’ all along.
What troubled me about Blakeley’s judgement, however, was that it seemed too simplistic and incomplete in answering important questions. What could have prompted Lasseter to create such a fiction in the first place, and then maintain it right up to the tormented death he endured in god-awful country near the south-west corner of the Northern Territory in the first months of 1931? In particular, the ground-breaking research that journalist Murray Hubbard conducted nearly 30 years ago, later published in his 1993 book The Search for Harold Lasseter, demonstrated that Lasseter’s personal story was far more complicated and complex than anybody could have imagined of someone who appeared, superficially, so ordinary and unimportant.
Some of Hubbard’s findings particularly rang inner alarm bells for me. As I have said several times while giving public talks on the Lasseter’s Reef story, there are episodes in the man’s past which I feel sure would receive a medical or psychiatric label if Lasseter’s case history was ever examined by a competent authority. Episodes in 1896 (when he was arrested at age 16 for an armed night-time store burglary in Colac, Victoria), about 1900 (when he contacted his sister from America saying that he had been ill, lost his memory, and came to his senses in France using the name Harry Houston) and in 1917 (when he was discharged from the AIF after a medical board considered him ‘mentally deficient’ because he suffered ‘marked hallucinations’) all point to someone with persistent mental health or psychological issues.
When taken with other evidence of Lasseter changing identities (most notably the adoption of his famous alter ego in 1924, almost certainly to conceal a bigamous marriage after abandoning his first family but also inspired, according to his sister, by his love of popular adventure novels by American author Harold Bell Wright – including a 1923 ‘romance’ about a lost gold mine in the mountains of Arizona), inventing office holdings and professional qualifications, and claiming military service as a returned soldier (although he twice enlisted, he actually never got beyond training camps and never left Australia), it became clear that throughout his lifetime Lasseter had serious difficulty staying in the world of reality rather than fantasy. Moreover, matching dates and locations of where he was at various stages of his life showed conclusively that he could not have made the discovery in Central Australia that he claimed he had – indeed, he had never been in that part of the country before 1930.
It was while recently reading somewhere about a remarkable individual who was described as a ‘malignant narcissist’ that it suddenly caught my attention that there were elements in this person’s behaviour that seemed to match with Lasseter’s. Further reading on narcissism revealed that this personality disorder ranges along a spectrum, and that while Lasseter could not be classified as ‘malignant’ (the most extreme form – think Donald Trump!) he would certainly qualify as a ‘neurotic narcissist’. Such people typically exhibit low self-esteem rather than a monstrous ego, often as a result of an abusive childhood such as Lasseter suffered, and as adults seek recognition and validation by inventing grandiose stories in which they are the central figure.
Lasseter, c.1909 — not mad or delusional, but always inventing stories about himself.
So, there is a plausible explanation for why “Harry” Lasseter began spinning his fantastic tale about stumbling on a reef of gold while supposedly trying to traverse the continent from east to west in 1897 – the year in which he actually absconded from the boy’s reformatory to which he had been sent after his Colac escapade! He had been peddling his reef story harmlessly while he worked as a carpenter at Canberra in 1926-27, and then as “manager” of a disabled veterans’ pottery at Redfern in Sydney. What changed by late 1929 was that he was unemployed and broke, trying to find someone in government to give him a job surveying a pipeline to bring water inland from the WA coast to work the gold reef he claimed to have found! By 1 March 1930 he was so desperate that he advertised for someone to give him £150 cash in return for equity in his Kogarah home, to keep the bailiffs from his door; it was just a few days later that he walked into Jack Bailey’s office at the AWU. But Lasseter was not mad or delusional – he always knew that his reef tale was entirely made-up and existed only in his imagination.
What, then, did Lasseter think he was doing when he got out into Central Australia in July 1930, under contract to guide the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company’s expedition to the location of his fabulous reef? I will be having more to say on that score in a further blog that I will post on this website shortly, based on a re-interpretation of the information in Olof’s Suitcase and much more besides. Keep watching for it. This will come closest to truly solving the Lasseter’s Reef mystery once and for all.
For information on where to purchase copies of Olof’s Suitcase, go to: https://www.echobooks.com.au/biography/olofs-suitcase