Jim Thompson was a master of reinvention. Beginning his life as the wealthy son of a wealthy man, he worked for a time as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services before moving to Thailand to start a new life as a silk merchant. Clearly, the man never stayed in one place for long. Was his unexplained disappearance one final act of reinvention or did something more sinister occur?
Jim Thompson was born in 1906. He spent most of his early life in Delaware, then attended the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture school. He did not complete his degree, but still managed to land a job designing homes in New York City—likely due to his wealthy father’s influence.
In 1943, Thompson married Patricia Thraves. Only six months later, the couple was separated by the war. Thompson had been recruited to serve in the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor of the modern-day CIA. He would spend the rest of World War II in northern Africa.
After the Allies defeated the fascist powers in Europe, Thompson was sent to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, to work to free the Thai people from Japanese occupation. This would change his life forever.
Although Thompson returned to the United States in 1946, he had become enthralled with Thailand. He had become close with Connie Mangskau, a translator, who would be one of his best friends for the rest of his life. He also made a number of contacts among the Free Thai and Free Laos movements. These contacts would later help him gather information that kept Thailand free.
Thompson was meant to redesign the hotel, but he and the other investors quickly began to butt heads over the final look. He gave up his shares and decided to move his interest to Thai silk, a local industry flagging due to competition from cheaper imported fabrics. In 1948, he and a partner, George Barrie, founded the Thai Silk Company Limited.
For three years, the company struggled along. But then, in 1951, the costume designer for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I, decided that Thai Silk Company Limited would be the perfect provider for their costumes. Thai Silk would also provide materials for the movie version, five years later.
Thompson found himself on top. With the money freely flowing, he could now curate the home of his dreams. In 1958, he began construction on the Jim Thompson House.
His compound consisted of six original Thai dwellings that had been built on his estate, attached by new staircases and pathways created by Thompson. Some of his touches to these homes were meant to add to the authenticity, like elevating all six of the houses one floor above the ground. Others, however, were concessions to practicality.
For instance, in traditional Thai dwellings, staircases were outdoors. Thompson preferred his stairs indoors. Also, traditionally, the intricately carved wooden panels of Thai homes faced outward to show passersby the owner’s wealth. Thompson had these panels facing inward so that visitors might admire the work. He also painted the outside of the house red, a distinctly American touch.
After years of hard work, Thompson had achieved all of his dreams. He lived on an estate of his own creation, surrounded by art from around the world as money continued to pour in from his Thai Silk enterprise. So what could have happened the day he mysteriously disappeared?
On Saturday, March 25, 1967, Thompson spent the day in Penang with Connie Mangskau, and a married couple with whom they were close. All four stayed at the Moonlight Bungalow, a part of the Thompson complex that night and attended Easter mass the next morning.
After returning from the services, all but Thompson decided to take a nap. Thompson, instead, went for a walk into the jungle. No one saw him again.
There are a number of theories about Thompson’s disappearance, but without a body or any confirmed sightings of the man after March 26th, they are impossible to confirm.
Some people believe that Thompson continued his work with the Office of Strategic Services, which, by the time of his disappearance, had become known as the CIA. They theorize that Thompson was against the Vietnam War and unwilling to assist the CIA with any work relating to the war. In retaliation, the CIA kidnapped Thompson or ended his life.
Others believe that Thompson, who had essentially seized the local Thai silk tradition to make his fortune, had enemies among his competitors. Perhaps someone who felt they had been double-crossed by a business dealing had a hand in Thompson’s disappearance.
Another intriguing wrinkle: According to one biographer of Thompson, by the time he went to visit Connie and friends, Thompson was nearly broke. He only had $50 in his bank account—everything else had been used to create his home and fund his art collection. Could Thompson have chosen to disappear rather than reckon with nearing bankruptcy?
It’s also possible that Thompson simply got lost in the woods. Thompson frequently trekked through the woods and enjoyed going off the beaten path. This was the initial theory, and led to a massive land hunt. More than 500 people searched the jungle by the Moonlight Bungalow for 11 days without any trace of Thompson.
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In a strange twist, Thompson’s sister, Katherine Thompson Wood was murdered less than six months later. Many people who grew up in the Thompsons’ hometown believe that the two incidents are somehow linked.
Katherine’s murder, like Thompson's disappearance, remains unsolved.
Today, you can visit Jim Thompson’s House and Museum to see the care he put into curating his world. While you’re there, ask a local or two about the mystery of Thompson’s disappearance—they may have more information about just what happened to him.
Featured photo: Alchetron