The Curious Case of Jim Thompson, Thai Silk King

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 11, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

"On Easter Day, 1967, American businessman and founder of the modern Thai silk industry James H.W. Thompson disappeared while supposedly on a stroll in the jungle-clad Cameron Highlands, central Malaysia." Thus runs the blurb of William Warren's compelling and even eerie book Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery, which appears to be the definitive account of the man's life and the theories swirling around his presumed death. The main ones are that Thompson a) got lost in the jungle, b) was abducted for reasons of ransom or politics, or c) committed suicide. Unfortunately none of these theories has a shred of evidence to substantiate it; Thompson might just as well have vanished into thin air, and his disappearance holds much the same fascination for idle people of Bangkok as does the JFK assassination for idle people everywhere.

Warren distinguishes two legends: that of the man, and that of his strange exit. The legend of the man is well-known. Grandson to a man who had traveled through China and published Travels in the Middle Kingdom, Thompson graduated from Princeton and served for the OSS (precursor to the CIA) during World War II. It was in this capacity that he first visited Thailand, in whose capital Bangkok he was for a time OSS station chief. Enchanted by the kingdom and dumped by his American wife, Thompson decided to make a new life for himself in the country he preferred to call Siam. And among the many Thai articles he had begun to collect was some silk. This led him to found the Thai Silk Company, which would almost single-handedly rejuvenate the dying art of silk-weaving in Thailand. Later he built a compound consisting of more or less traditional Thai houses packed with Thai objets d'art, a compound that today ranks among the obligatory stops on any tourist's visit to Bangkok. Simply put, the name Jim Thompson is Thai silk, and the man has become one of the most famous foreigners to have ever lived in Thailand if not the whole of Southeast Asia.

Which makes all the more puzzling that so very little -- nothing, you might say -- is known about his ultimate fate. Warren patiently demolishes each theory, beginning with the theory that he died in the jungle, either as a result of disorientation, an animal trap, a sudden health problem, or what have you. A reasonably thorough search was made in the area and turned up nothing whatsoever, and a fellow named Noone who was tight with the jungle's aboriginal peoples believed their story that Thompson was not there. On the other hand, if he left with the intention of returning, then why did he, a heavy smoker, leave his cigarettes behind? So was he kidnapped for ransom? If so, then why was no ransom ever demanded by anybody? And then there is the theory that he was abducted for reasons related either to his former affiliation with the OSS or his rather exaggerated friendship with Thai statesman Pridi Phanomyong, who had been forced into exile from Thailand because of his involvement in a botched coup attempt in 1949. In the first case, the implication is that Thompson had continued to carry on with intelligence work, which would certainly be plausible were it not that, given his almost superhuman schedule for the Thai Silk Company, he had no time left over for spying. And, take this as you please, the CIA denies that Thompson was working for them. (They say he had become too "liberal".) And in that case, it is not at all clear why he might have been useful to Pridi or any other political figure or group, particularly the Communists, who are often named as a possible culprit. And as for suicide, his only motives for this would have been boredom with his life in Bangkok or frustration over his failing health. But people who knew him said that to kill himself unannounced would have been out of character, and those who were with him just before he vanished noticed no warning signs of impending self-destruction.

These are the prevailing theories but they are from being the only ones, as stymied investigators were willing to pursue virtually any lead, no matter how far-fetched. They even consulted supposed visionaries, both local and foreign, some of whom seemed to agree that Thompson had been abducted and taken to Cambodia. But Cambodia at the time was not on good terms with either the United States or Thailand, so on only one occasion was a search party sent there -- and in vain. One acquaintance claimed to have seen Thompson in Tahiti; a prostitute claimed that his abductors had brought him, drugged, to her brothel; one eyewitness in Malaysia reported that a caravan of menacing vehicles had headed up to the house where Thompson was last seen; another said that he was standing by himself when he "just vanished". Practically the only theory that was not floated was that Thompson had been carried off by fashion-conscious aliens.

The case became even weirder when one of Thompson's sisters was found bludgeoned to death in her home in America. The assailant was never found, and later her son would commit suicide. People supposed that there might be a connection between the events, and that it might have something to do with Thompson's last will and testament. Its first version had bequeathed the Thompson estate to the Siam Society, a research organization based in Bangkok; but when Thompson and the Society had a falling out he wrote up a second, which gave everything to one of his relatives. But though the second will had been witnessed, no copy was extant, so until it turned up some time later the estate was up for grabs. But why Thompson's sister would be implicated in the dispute was never explained. Nor was her murder, which had taken place despite her reputedly vicious guard dogs.

Warren, who as Thompson's biographer has the advantage of having also been his friend, has very little patience with the charlatans and opportunists and conspiracy theorists who have at various times concerned themselves with the Thompson case. But even in his first-person afterword, he doesn't propose his own hunch, if indeed he has one. At any rate it can safely be assumed that Thompson is now dead, having been born in 1906. My own suspicion, attractive only perhaps because it makes for the best story, is that Thompson simply ran away in order to start a new life elsewhere, which he had done in a far less dramatic fashion by abandoning America for Thailand decades before. As he grew older he grew more interested in the art of other Southeast Asian nations, so he might have made for one of them. And his training in the OSS had taught him jungle survival skills, so it is at least possible that he made his escape with the clothes on his back. I like to imagine the ex-spook lounging around Vientiane or Rangoon, perhaps with some native lady on his arm. Or gentleman: some believe that Thompson was homosexual. Warren doesn't. In any case, to think of him laughing over the hysterical headlines concerning him is a great deal more romantic than imagining him coming out of the other end of a tiger, or slipping off a cliff.

In the process of telling Thompson's story, Warren relates a number of intriguing facts about the region, for example that it was Thompson's friend and colleague (and ex-OSS man) Alexander MacDonald who founded Thailand's premier English daily, the Bangkok Post. Or that lifetimes in Thailand are divided into twelve-year cycles. This perhaps explains why one's 25th year is traditionally seen as pivotal; Thompson himself was 61 (5 X 12 + 1) when he went missing. Also interesting is that some well-educated Thais believe that Burma's current misery is a karmic consequence of the sacking of Ayutthaya by the Burmese -- in 1767.

As for Lord Jim, as some have called Thompson, the world may never know his last resting place, even though it continues to benefit from his silken legacy. Without him, I might not have been able to buy several pairs of silk boxer shorts made, almost needless to say, in Thailand. And the country as a whole would be much diminished. Whether or not he was a quiet American in the sense of being a secret agent, he was quiet in the literal sense of the word. And the rest, as Shakespeare said, is silence.

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Review of William Warren's Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery, Archipelago Press, 1998.

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