February 2012

Death Valley Scotty

Con man of the California desert

By Correy Baldwin

In February 1906, a prospector known as Death Valley Scotty set out into the California desert with several businessmen who wanted to see his gold mine before investing. This trip, however, was the last thing Scotty wanted. The truth was, there was no gold mine – he was running a scam.

Scotty had a plan to keep from being found out. He arranged for some friends to fake an ambush on his wagons in the middle of the desert in order to frighten away the investors. When the gang attacked, their drunken gunfire accidentally hit Scotty’s brother, seriously injuring him. When Scotty raced towards the “attackers,” yelling at them to stop shooting, the ruse was up.

Death Valley Scotty got through this predicament, as he did so many others. He was a natural storyteller and performer, and a master of charm, deception and persuasion. Armed with these skills and plenty of ingenuity, he had made a career out of conning investors to invest in his fake Death Valley Scotty Gold Mining Company.

Prospecting was active in the Death Valley in 1900 and wealthy businessmen were jumping to invest in the region’s untold riches. Scotty capitalized on this, securing the backing of a New York businessman by claiming that he had a gold mine.

His attempts at prospecting were unsuccessful, but that did not stop him from swindling his patron out of $5,000 over two years – without once sending any proof that the mine existed. When his benefactor became suspicious, Scotty took a train to New York promising to bring $12,000 worth of gold dust. As luck would have it, it was “stolen” during the trip. The investor finally pulled out, but Scotty soon found others, including a Chicago millionaire named Albert Johnson, whose $4,000 investment allowed the con man to live extravagantly.

Scotty had a weakness for public attention. In 1905, he broke the L.A.-to-Chicago train speed record. Reporters flocked to the story, and Johnson met Scotty at the station at the end of the journey, clearly impressed with the largerthan- life gold miner and adventurer. Johnson happily handed over another $2,500.

It was in the following year that Scotty planned his illfated fake ambush in the desert, for which he was arrested. All charges against him were dropped on a technicality, but he had been outed as a fraud.

Even though Johnson was one of those “ambushed,” he stayed on as an investor, being endlessly intrigued, impressed and amused by the eccentric man. When Johnson again visited Death Valley in 1909, Scotty planned to deter the millionaire, who was in poor health, by putting him through a few grueling days in the desert. It had the opposite effect: Johnson’s health improved and he stuck around for a month.

By now Scotty’s scam was obvious, but Johnson did not seem to mind – he had not just taken to Death Valley, but to Death Valley Scotty as well. A strange thing had happened: the two had become lifelong friends.

Johnson and his wife Bessie spent the next 10 winters visiting Scotty, eventually building a vacation home in the desert – an extravagant and vast Spanish-style villa. Scotty spread the story that the $2 million home was his, built with money from his fabled gold mine. When Johnson heard this story, he thought it was genius and he willingly played along, claiming he was merely Scotty’s banker.

Johnson did indeed dedicate rooms for Scotty and also built a ranch home for him not far away. The villa, where Scotty entertained guests with his wild stories, became known as Scotty’s Castle, where he lived until his death in 1954. He is buried on a hill overlooking his castle.
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