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9 Unsolved Mysteries of the Wild West

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The lore of the Old West—stories of gunslingers, tribal and territorial warfare, missing treasure—is undying. But are the historical records to be believed? I interviewed W.C. Jameson, the famed treasure hunter, hardcore Texas cowboy, and author of over 90 books on Old West history—including Unsolved Mysteries of the Old West and the Beyond the Grave series. He tends to approach the official record more like a single piece of evidence amongst a larger crime scene. “I look for the clues that are there and chase them down,” he says. As a result, he’s drawn some conclusions of his own.

1. Did Sheriff Pat Garrett Really Kill Billy the Kid in 1881?

After William H. Bonney escaped from Lincoln County Jail in New Mexico while awaiting hanging for the murder of Sheriff William Brady, the record will tell you that Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked the outlaw, better known as Billy the Kid (above, right), to a residence in Fort Sumner where he shot and killed him. Questions abound, however, as to Garrett’s trustworthiness and the reasons for the prompt disposal of the victim’s body. Even one of his deputies present for the shooting said that the man Garrett shot was not the fugitive they had been looking for.

When a man going by the name Brushy Bill Roberts (above, left) surfaced in Texas in 1950 seeking pardon for the crimes of Billy the Kid, the media took notice. His case was eventually thrown out by the governor of New Mexico, who agreed to meet with him. The Governor did not believe Roberts was Billy the Kid. Roberts died a short time later, reportedly ashamed by the media circus that followed his confession. Jameson, however, is one of many convinced that Roberts was the real deal. “We started out trying to prove Roberts was lying,” he says of his investigation. One by one, though, all of Roberts’ claims were eventually verified. A statistical facial recognition analysis comparing Roberts to known images of The Kid suggested that the two men were actually one and the same. Jameson says that he’s challenged the so-called “traditionalist academics” that hold to Garrett’s official account of The Kid’s death to debate him on the subject, but none have accepted thus far.

2. Where is the Head of Pancho Villa?

Wikimedia Commons

This bandit-turned-hero of the Mexican Revolution retired from the battlefield after negotiating terms of withdrawal with the Mexican government in 1920—only to be assassinated in an ambush three years later. In 1926, Villa's body was exhumed mysteriously in the dark of night and his head, among other things, was removed and taken from the gravesite.

Jameson says the “prevailing theory” was that a rival Mexican general had been behind the deed. Another story held that the head was on its way to be studied by neurologists in Chicago. Others claimed the infamous Yale fraternal organization known as Skull and Bones held the skull in their vault for use in ritual rites. Jameson says that the evidence behind all of these theories is scant. (Skull and Bones has also been legally implicated in the theft of Apache Chief Geronimo’s skull, though no evidence exists that Geronimo’s head is actually missing.)

3. Where is Ben Sublett’s Secret Gold Mine?

Wikimedia Commons

In his book Unsolved Mysteries of the Old West, Jameson asserts the claim that Ben Sublett found a rich crop of gold ore in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas in the 1880s has been verified. The location of this mine, though, has been a subject of debate since Sublett’s death in 1892. Sublett says he found a canyon amongst the limestone cliffs in the Texas desert where a simple “rake of the hand through the gravel” was sure to yield a fistful of near-pure gold nuggets. Sublett even showed the location of the mine to a number of people, though none were ever able to find it in subsequent searches.

4. What Is a Thunderbird and Where Are They Now?

Pterodactyl engraving via Wikimedia Commons

Multiple newspaper articles from California and Arizona in the late 1800s report sightings of a giant winged creature resembling what would likely be called a pterodactyl today. A photo of one such beast nailed to a barn in Tombstone is said to have been widely circulated (Jameson says he’s seen it), though nobody has ever been able to produce a copy of the image.

A Cherokee treasure hunter who was a peer of Jameson’s claims to have dug up several feathers—each over 18 inches long with quills “as big around as one of his fingers”—from a cave in Utah while looking for a long-lost cache of Spanish silver. Above the mouth of this cave was an ancient pictograph of an enormous horned bird. Jameson, who says he has one of the original feathers in his collection, asserts that the feathers have been examined by a number of ornithologists, but that the species responsible for producing them has yet to be identified.

5. Where Is the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine?

Wikimedia Commons

It's perhaps the most talked-about lost treasure in American history, but there seems to be more myth than fact surrounding the gold found in Arizona by German immigrant Jacob Waltz. A party of treasure hunters moved to the Superstition Mountains of Arizona in search of Waltz’s cache shortly after his death in 1891 and, still today, an estimated 8000 visitors travel to Lost Dutchman State Park each year in hopes of striking it rich. It was said that Waltz mined his claim in the Salt River Valley of Arizona every winter between 1868 and 1886, though the source of his ore was never found.

Jameson, who wrote about the missing mine in his book Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of Arizona, suggests that the Lost Dutchman’s Mine was probably not lost at all, but says, “the chances are that the Lost Dutchman Mine was just simply mined out.” So, if you’re planning on searching for a lost treasure of your own anytime soon, it may be best to start somewhere else first.

6. Did Butch Cassidy Return to the United States?

Wikimedia Commons

It has been said that Butch Cassidy and his accomplice Henry Alonzo Longabaugh ("the Sundance Kid") were the only outlaws who lived to see themselves portrayed on film. Though the record states—and Hollywood would have you believe—that the famous bank robbers were killed in a gunfight with the Bolivian military after fleeing the U.S., many of Cassidy’s friends and family members report that he actually visited them several times after he was said to have been killed.

To complicate matters, the man responsible for identifying the two victims of the shootout in South America was a loyal friend of Cassidy’s—perhaps loyal enough to bolster Cassidy’s odds of a successful escape by falsifying the ID. Another of Cassidy’s friends was asked to look at photographs of the bodies in question and confirmed the death of Longabaugh, but said the body previously identified as Cassidy was someone else entirely.

7. Did the U.S. Army Secretly Claim the Treasure at Victorio Peak for Their Own?

Wikimedia Commons

The legend of the Victorio Peak Treasure begins in the 1600s when a dying soldier stumbled into a New Mexico monastery and confessed his knowledge of a secret cache of gold ore in the mountains to a monk named Padre Felipe LaRue. LaRue put together a band that purportedly located the mine and successfully drew ore from it for three solid years. When the Mexican Army was sent to overtake LaRue’s operation, he ordered workers to close the entrance to the mine with a landslide and, soon thereafter, LaRue’s entire camp took information about the location with them to the grave at the hands of the soldiers.

A New Mexico couple named Ernest and Ova Noss were said to have stumbled upon a narrow entrance to this mine while hunting in 1937, and then returned several times to collect the heavy gold ingots from the secret location. When Ernest tried to open the mine further with a blast of TNT, it was inadvertently sealed despite repeated attempts to reopen it. When the White Sands Missile and Bombing Range was expanded in 1955 to include the land, Ova Noss supposedly sent a party to investigate and they reported that Army officials were seen digging near the site. Still, the Army never made any mention of the Victorio gold.

In 1977, ground-penetrating radar identified an open area underground near where the Noss’ claim might have been. In the 1990s, a locked steel door was said to have been found covering the site of the original shaft. Whatever the case, a reported 88 solid-gold ingots were brought forth from the mountains of New Mexico by the Noss couple, and it is unlikely the public will ever know exactly what became of the site and its associated treasure.

8. Did Outlaw Bill Longley Elude Execution?

Wikimedia Commons

Bloody Bill Longley had more than 30 killings to his name before he was hanged at the age of 27, suggesting that Longley was one of the most prolific and psychopathic gunslingers in the Wild West. But was he successfully executed and buried in Texas?

Longley’s acquaintances held that Bloody Bill escaped from prison before being hanged and lived out the remainder of his days as a Louisiana cotton farmer under the name John Calhoun Brown. Longley had escaped prison twice before his recorded execution in 1878. Did a third escape keep this notorious killer from the gallows indefinitely?

Although Smithsonian anthropologist Douglas Owsley claims to have proven through DNA analysis that the body buried in Giddings, Texas did in fact belong to the notorious outlaw, Jameson says “all that (DNA) proves is that (the body) was a Longley relative.” Skeptics are quick to point out that a number of Longley relatives are buried in the same cemetery and that poor records make accurate identification of the body in question difficult.

9. Where Is Cochise Buried?

Dragoon Mountains via Wikimedia Commons

The body of legendary Apache Chief Cochise is buried somewhere in the wilderness of his former Chiricahua stronghold southeast of Tucson, Arizona, but the exact location of his remains is unknown to this day. Cochise and his band of Apaches occupied the area near the former location of Fort Bowie for about 15 years, most of which were marked by extreme violence on both sides. Cochise died in 1874, presumably of natural causes, and his body was buried in a traditional ceremony along with his horse and dog somewhere near his homestead. The chief’s tribespeople took the location of the grave with them when they passed on themselves.

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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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