The story of how ‘Cyanide Charlie’ got his nickname

Let me start out by saying that this column is not about a murderer — I know some of you are shocked by how often I write about gruesome murders and other darkness associated with human nature. I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed to learn that “Cyanide Charlie” had nothing to do with a serial killer who utilized cyanide poisoning to complete his deadly deeds, but you must keep in mind that I am currently working through the Hercule Poirot series by Agatha Christie … 

Anyways, getting back on track: I came across information about Charles Washington Merrill, our friend who earns the nickname “Cyanide Charlie” later in his life for his work related to mining, in Vol. 35, No. 2 of South Dakota History, in the “Dakota Images” article by Janet Daley.

Merrill, “an engineer and metallurgist, gained fame for his work in the Homestake Mining Company, where he instituted an innovative cyanide process to extract gold and silver from ore waste concentrates,” Daley writes. The technique involves dissolving gold and silver in a dilute solution of sodium cyanide or potassium cyanide to extract the precious metal from its ore, versus the smelting process of applying heat to ore in order to extract a base metal.

Born in New Hampshire in 1869, Merrill moved to San Francisco, Calif., with his family and eventually graduated from the College of Mines at the University of California in 1891, specializing in the study of the cyanide process. Following his graduation, he spend the next years testing his theories at gold miles across the west, in California, Arizona, and Montana.

He would first be connected to Homestake in 1898, “when he helped the company develop more efficient methods for treating its waste concentrates, or tailings,” Daley writes. “Merrill and his new bride, Clara Scott Robinson, visited Homestake headquarters in Lead in early 1899 and returned to San Francisco where he conducted laboratory experiments. Merrill believed so enthusiastically in the efficacy of his process over Homestake’s traditional smelting method that he volunteered to work without pay until his cyanide process proved profitable.”

The Homestake manager at the time, Thomas J. Grier, was willing to take a chance on Merrill’s theories, agreeing to build an experimental plant for processing crushed gold-ore sand in June 1899, and a second plant was constructed in 1901. “Before long, the new plant was recovering forty thousand dollars a month in gold from what had been waste,” Daley describes. Grier’s belief in Merrill paid off – and “Merrill later developed a second process to extract more gold from the muddy slime that remained after ores had been treated.”

Birds of a feather flock together, they say, and Merrill kept company with other innovative engineers, including John Van Nostrand Dorr, “who became famous for his inventions used in ore milling,” Daley writes. “Merrill quickly adopted one of Dorr’s innovations, a thickener that allowed more water to be recovered in the slime process than his own filter presses had achieved.”

After 10 years working for Homestake and earning the nickname “Cyanide Charlie,” as he was known around the Black Hills, Merrill moved back to California in 1908 with his family, Daley explains. “There, he used the fortune his successful operations at the Homestake had garnered to establish the Merrill Company and several subsidiaries. The father of four children, he died on 6 February 1956 at the age of eighty-seven,” the article concludes.

OK – even without poisoning anyone, Merrill’s story and his impact to the Homestake Mine are fascinating, and I bet even Hercule Poirot and his “little gray cells” would agree.

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