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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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