C.J. Chivers
Nov 24, 2015 · 3 min read

Danger! Do Not Open! Red Mercury Inside.

Since last week, when The New York Times Magazine posted the on-line version of The Doomsday Scam, an article about the enduring red-mercury-as-W.M.D. meme, several peers from varied beats and news organizations have contacted me about their own encounters over the years with red-mercury scams. One of the exchanges is worth distilling and sharing here, as it included a set of photographs that can be added to the red-mercury record.

Have a look of the pix below, which were shared (with permission to post) by Jennifer Janisch, an investigative reporter for CBS News.

These pretend to show the very dangerous (and, no need for spoiler alert) utterly fictional substance known as red mercury. Perhaps this is what red mercury would look like if distributed by a maker of bowling tournament trophies. But what is interesting here is not the laugh. It’s the text on the container. If you look closely, you’ll see some of it appears lifted from an equally unconvincing vessel of red mercury purportedly confiscated during a HAZMAT operation in 2004 in a bunker in Iraq. (cf, below.)

Here is how Ms. Janisch (thank you for sharing) said the upper two images came to her possession this summer, while she was investigating antiquities trafficking in the region.

These images were sent to me in August via Whatsapp by a Syrian smuggler who said he was based in Mersin, Turkey. I had contacted him through a source as I was investigating the illegal trade of Syrian and Iraqi antiquities. He sent me a few photos of artifacts — many of which were fake, according to experts who reviewed them — and he also sent me these photos of red mercury.

Remember: Red mercury is a hoax, and in certain circumstances the pursuit of it (as in southern Africa, where according to local urban legend it can be found within landmines and other conventional ordnance items) can be fatal. Please feel free to recirculate word of the scam, and the upper two images, to help spread awareness about the perils of a persistent myth.


By Boris Pelcer, for The New York Times Magazine.

Written by

Reporter, @nytimes & @NYTmag.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade