If you’re one of the many that have binged S-Town, the hit podcast from the producers of This American Life and Serial that dropped last week, you will have noticed that gold plays a central role in the story. John B. McLemore, the main character of the podcast, practices fire-guilding (a process that melts mercury and gold together to restore clocks), and it is rumored that there are gold bars hidden in, under, and around his house, which is situated on a large wooded property in Woodstock, Alabama. But the fate of this supposedly stashed precious metal still remains a mystery.
Caution: There are S-Town spoilers ahead.
At the end of the second episode of the seven-part series, we learn John B. McLemore has committed suicide by drinking potassium cyanide. He left a lengthy and harrowing suicide note on his computer, but there was reportedly no will.
It’s first important to note that McLemore was unbanked. He was ferociously skeptical of institutions and spoke openly about stashing money, specifically gold — in the freezer, buried in the hedge maze, or somewhere else on the property. There was definitely some gold in his workshop, as it’s part of the process of fire-gilding — a practice practically extinct as it causes mercury poisoning and could’ve potentially caused his depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s also key to know that McLemore mentions bequeathing some of his wealth to his dear friend, Tyler Goodson, many, many times throughout his conversations with producer Brian Reed.
Goodson struggles with law enforcement, Mary Grace (McLemore’s mother), and Rita (McLemore’s cousin) as he attempts to collect items he had allegedly been promised and even some property he said he already owned — including McLemore’s secret treasure. Undeterred by trespass warnings, Goodson stalked the property at night for weeks with a metal detector, telling reporter Brian Reed that the land eventually looked like a scene from the movie Holes.
It wasn’t necessarily a bad plan: Metal detectors, after all, make sense as a tool. But metal detectors can also set off false positives in response to any small piece of metallic material in the soil — natural or human-made. Hence McLemore’s pockmarked forest, and Goodson’s fruitless efforts. Goodson, to be fair, did well to follow the clues he had, including a set of coordinates that led to a spot near the hedge maze, which set off the metal detector — but turned up only old bottles.
But Goodson might have been able to avoid the random hacking into the soil if he’d tried LIDAR first.
LIDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is like sonar or radar but with lasers. The LIDAR device shoots lasers out over a surface and then measures the time that it takes to hit an object and bounce back. That data, when analyzed, provides a detailed 3D map of any solid surfaces.
LIDAR scanners are commonly mounted to aircraft or vehicles. Scans from the air have become a lot cheaper thanks to drone technology, and treasure hunters of various sorts are warming to the potential applications.
You can’t see what’s under the surface with LIDAR, but you can get a very good map of that surface, which holds clues to what’s below. For example, archeologists recently mapped a hidden megacity around the ancient Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat with LIDAR. The scans showed a pattern of shallow depressions where houses had once stood. These are difficult to detect and expensive to map using traditional ground surveys, but lasers made quick work of it.
Another benefit of LIDAR is that, through computer analysis, the data can be scrubbed so that all the forest canopy and shrubbery is removed, leaving only a clean picture of the earth’s surface. If Goodson had a LIDAR map of McLemore’s property, it’s possible that surface disturbances might be revealed that would otherwise be hard to see. This may or may not have led him to treasure, but in conjunction with his metal detector it certainly would have helped narrow the field and push the odds in his favor.
S- Town never reveals what becomes of McLemore’s gold, although it’s vaguely hinted that Goodson may have found some of it. The podcast ends with Goodson awaiting trial on trespassing and theft charges related to buses removed from the property.
But McLemore doesn’t seem like the type to hide all his treasures in one place, and certainly his property has mysteries left to reveal. Lasers just might be the key to unlocking some of them.