“My mine is where the devil himself can’t find it. It’s in Death Valley in the mountains where no man can ever go — no man but Wallie Scott …I’m worth $1 million to $20 million and it’s all there in the mine.”
None of it was true.
“Death Valley Scotty” — whose real name was Walter Edward Perry Scott — was born in 1872 near Cynthiana, Ky., where his father made moonshine and raised horses. There were five children. After his mother died when he was only an infant, he was raised by a half-sister.
Wallie learned horsemanship at an early age, and at 14 ran away to join two of his brothers in Wells, Nev., and became a cowboy.
Sometime in the 1890s, he was hired as a stunt rider — though never a star — in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, performing April through October for 12 years across the U.S. and in Europe.
Between times, he’d work at ranching or mining.
In 1900 Scotty married Ella Josephine McCarthy Millius, a New York candy clerk. He called her “Jack.” Two years later, he had a scrap with Buffalo Bill and quit.
Scotty’s first big-time con was showing two high-grade gold ore samples — given to his wife by a mine superintendent — to Julian M. Gerard, a banker he had met at a Wild West Show five years earlier, claiming they were from a mine he and partner John Berryman owned in Death Valley.
Scotty was paid about $1,500 in a deal with Gerard, but blew it all back in California — much of it drinking in Barstow and Daggett saloons.
Gerard was an Ivy League graduate from Yale and a vice president of Knickerbocker Trust Co. in New York.
Encouraging letters from Scotty kept the money tap flowing. Gerard never made a dime back, yet he stubbornly kept hoping for the best and stayed in touch.
“Over the years Gerard hung onto Scotty with the tenacity worthy of a healthy wood tick,” wrote historian F. Holland Jr.
Scotty liked promoting his image as a rich man — flashing fat rolls of money, with the largest denominations on the outside, buying cigars with $100 bills, and telling newspapers that someone had stolen $12,000 worth of gold dust from him on a train — always bragging that “There’s plenty more where that came from.”
Not much fact-checking in those days.
Con games don’t last forever; eventually people catch on — including Gerard.
To Scotty’s rescue was Albert Mussey Johnson, wealthy owner and president of the National Life Insurance Co. in Chicago, and also an Ivy Leaguer — from Cornell University. He was quiet, didn’t drink, smoke or swear. He and his wife, Bessie, were devoted churchgoers.
Johnson and associate Edward A. Shedd invested $2,500 in Scotty’s “mine.”
In 1899, Johnson was severely injured in a train accident in which his father was killed. He suffered a broken back and multiple other injuries — some of them permanent. He also had asthma.
By contrast, Scotty was “flamboyant, irreligious, outgoing, profane, undisciplined, self-centered and eschewed work in the conventional sense.”
The long friendship that followed would make them an Old West “Odd Couple.”
In 1905 — ever looking for a self-promotion opportunity — Scotty told the public he’d beat the train speed record from Los Angeles to Chicago. For $5,500 (put up by Los Angeles Realtor E. Burden Gaylord who got nothing out of it) he hired an Acheson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway locomotive, sleeper car, baggage car and dining car.
He called it the “The Coyote Special.”
On board with him were his wife, Jack, F. N. Holman and Charles E. Van Loan, a writer for the Los Angeles Examiner.
Sometimes rocking along as fast as 106 MPH, they wined and dined their way over the 2,265-mile route in 44 hours and 54 minutes — easily beating the previous 52-hour-plus record.
“We got there so fast,” Scotty said, “we didn’t have time to sober up.”
He was front page news all over America, and soon known as “Death Valley Scotty.”
Even his old boss Buffalo Bill admired the stunt and reprised his role in the Wild West Show by hiring an impersonator to play him.
Waiting to greet Scotty in Chicago at the end of the record trip was the man he conned a year earlier — Albert Johnson — who rekindled his interest in Scotty’s mine.
Meanwhile Gerard was upset, having blown $10,000 on Scotty’s mining scam, so to get him of his back, Scotty sold him all rights to the fake “Knickerbocker mine” for $100.
Johnson and Bessie (they met at Cornell) visited Death Valley and fell in love with it.
Then in 1906 came the infamous “Battle of Wingate Pass.” Potential investor representatives from the East came to see Scotty’s mine, so he cooked up a fake ambush involving a legit miner friend, Bill Keyes. If anything went wrong, Scotty would take the easterners to Bill’s mine, claiming it was his.
Something did go wrong.
The ambushers got drunk before the visitors arrived, starting shooting too early, hit one man, and the whole ruse came to light. Charges were filed, but Scotty was already off to Seattle to appear in a stage play about himself called “Scotty, King of the Desert Mine.”
Lawmen soon caught up with him. At the end of a performance, Scotty was arrested on assorted charges of misleading investigators, but the charges were dropped on a technicality.
The publicity however exposed Scotty as the con man that he was.
Critics panned the play but urged the public to see it anyway because of its “preposterousness.”
On their early visits to Death Valley, the Johnsons lived in tents with their pal Scotty occupying a wooden shack. But Bessie soon complained about spiders, scorpions and snakes getting in, so they decided on building a “castle” retreat.
It would cost $1.5 to $2.5 million.
Construction began in 1922 on 1,500 acres they’d bought in Grapevine Canyon.
They hired skilled craftsmen, designers and workers, and bought tiles and other accoutrements from California, Mexico, Spain and Italy.
Shoshone and Paiute Indians were paid $3.50 a day to do the hard labor, paying for their own food. White skilled craftsmen were paid $5 to $11 a day, with room and board expenses deducted from their pay.
Work stopped in 1931 because of the Great Depression and they were forced to rent out rooms for income.
Working in the furnace conditions of Death Valley resulted in a revolving door for workers. Scotty would say it took three crews to work on the castle — one coming, one going, and one working.
To this day, the castle and its huge swimming pool remain unfinished, though most of it is completed.
The castle is not really a castle, but an impressive two-story Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival style villa, and is visited by 100,000 each year.
Brazenly, Scotty would tell everyone that he’d built the castle himself with money from his secret gold mines in Death Valley. The real owner didn’t mind and watched the charade with bemusement.
In 1929, Scotty was 57 and still hadn’t finished promoting himself. He told the world he’d set a new airplane speed record, break the bank at Monte Carlo and buy a string of polo ponies for his personal use at his Castle.
Despite flamboyantly driving a flashy new car around Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and the press calling him “America’s number one mystery man,” it never happened.
In the 1940s, both Bessie and Albert Johnson died, without any heirs. They left the estate to Gospel Foundation of California, which later sold it the National Park Service for $850,000.
Scotty had the right to live there for life.
He died in 1954 of cancer and is buried next to his dog, Windy, in a hillside gravesite overlooking his beloved “Scotty’s Castle.”
Even after concluding that Scotty was nothing more than a charming con man, Albert Johnson kept up their friendship, finding the relationship was good for his spirit and the Death Valley desert air good for his ailments.
Historian F. Holland Jr. said every story written about Scotty has a “kernel of truth in it.”
That’s probably why Death Valley Scotty will always be part of the American story.
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• • •?
The real Scotty…
“In the case of Death Valley Scotty, truth is an elusive thing — so elusive that one doubts it ever existed. Truth was tinsel, falseness, truth, lies, deceit, romance, fantasy, sham, pretentiousness, ostentation, boastfulness, and yes, adventure — albeit generally of less than a legal nature.”
— F. Holland Jr., historian
“I got four things to live by: Don’t say nothing that will hurt anybody. Don’t give advice — nobody will take it anyway. Don’t complain. Don’t explain.
— Death Valley Scotty
Life in Death Valley…
“Moonlight anywhere is a delight. But there’s no moonlight in the world that can compare with the moonlight in Grapevine Canyon, our desert canyon, where the Castle stands.”
— Bessie Johnson, “Death Valley Scotty by Mabel” (1932)
Man of his times…
“Scotty reveals a lot about the American character, and he does illuminate his times. He reveals the tinsel and gaudiness of show business, and to a great extent parallels Hollywood. Newspapermen exaggerated his wild tales, and the American public could take this con-man to heart and believe he had a gold mine, even though he three times swore in court that he didn’t.”
— F. Holland Jr., historian (1972)
Death Valley Scotty’s wife Ella Josephine (“Jack”) Millius stayed with him for years and they had a son Walter Perry Scott, but then became estranged. She tired of Scotty and the desert and moved to Reno, and later to Long Beach, Calif. Jack took Scotty to court to get child support but failed. Albert Johnson generously sent her money, which during one tough time during the Depression dropped to $50 a month. He also paid for Walter Jr. to attend a military academy. The boy later joined the Navy.