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
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
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
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
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.