Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Urban Legends of Niles Canyon, California

Photo originally published in
Township Register Newspaper between 1947-1950

For those who grew up in the bay area of Northern California, specifically around Hayward or Fremont, tales and urban legends surrounding the area known as Niles Canyon are widely circulated. Many often wonder where or how these urban legends started, and if they were actually based on real events?  Believe it or not, just like the road through Niles Canyon, the urban legends surrounding it has some pretty exciting twists and turns.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker

“Many years ago, on the twenty-sixth of February, a young girl was killed in the canyon. Every year, on that day, she appears on the roadside, begging to be taken to her home in San Francisco. Invariably, when her kind deliverers reach the Dumbarton Bridge toll gate, she is gone. Drivers who go on to her San Francisco address are told that the same thing happens each year. Credence ranges from those who openly scoff to those who fear to drive through the canyon on February twenty-sixth.”— History of Washington Township, 1950

The urban legend of the local vanishing hitchhiker  has been going around for nearly 75 years or longer, so the stories say. According to information published by American Folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey in the 1940s, they had come across 79 different, yet similar accounts of this vanishing hitchhiker all across the United States.   In 1941, the Orson Welles show aired a debut broadcast of Lucille Fletcher’s The Hitch-Hiker. In that story, both the driver and the hitchhiker were ghosts. In the 1960s, The Twilight Zone used a similar adaptation of that story for one of their episodes.

The earliest documentation I could find regarding the story in Niles Canyon, besides the mention in the History of Washington Township, was the articles in various newspapers of the time.  Bay area radio personality, Mel Vetner had also aired a program on KQW radio in 1947, mentioning the story in detail which spread the legend even further.

By February 24, 1950, the story popped up in the Township Register in Niles, although other newspapers mention the Register having ran the story every year since 1947.  The Healdsburg Tribune, dated May 5, 1950, also mentions this, and adds that on February 27, 1950, a local boy decided to head out to the canyon to play a prank on unsuspecting drivers which faired badly for him when the police showed up. After hearing of the story, 19-year-old Clarence Chivers decided to dress in his best white sheet and roam the trestle near the road in Niles Canyon pretending to be the ghost. After several cars passed by witnessing this faux entity,  many nervous and frightened people telephoned the police, who were then called to investigate the scene.

Upon arriving, the officers were met by several carloads of people stopped near the railroad trestle looking up.  One of the officers fired a warning shot, scaring Chivers enough to drop the sheet and come down off the trestle.  Although it was meant to be a harmless prank, this sparked more interest in the story than ever before, and within the next few years students from the Fremont area, especially those from Washington High School, would flock to the canyon every February 26th, trying to catch a glimpse of the alleged apparition.

I have been researching the tales of Niles Canyon for a few years now, after first hearing about it from Roland Boulware.  Roland grew up in Hayward, and being a local to the area, he was very much aware of the urban legends and folklore surrounding Niles Canyon.

“I grew up with these stories, “ Roland recalls. “I heard many stories about those of the older generation who claimed to have had their very own experiences out there back in the 1930s and 1940s.”

According to Roland, a family friend, Evangeline, told him many times that her brother claimed to have given a girl a ride in Niles Canyon back in the late 1930's.  When he noticed a young woman wandering on the road, he pulled his truck over to the side and asked her if she needed a ride. She politely accepted and hopped  into the cab of his truck. He claimed that during the middle of a friendly conversation while driving, she just vanished.   Evangeline stated that her brother talked about his experience for years, as he could not wrap his head around the fact that a young woman he believed was flesh and blood, could simply vanish into thin air.

The Woman in White 

Then there is an even older tale of the woman in white, said to have fallen off of her carriage and was run over by buggies or an early version of automobile on her way to or from a wedding. This version claims she wanders the road at night.  Both stories have all the ingredients of the standard urban legends that have been popular in western folklore for over a century. Some of the earliest stories involving such types of tales in the United States started after the Civil War, and continued on with each generation, adapting and adding things according to the time period. Of course, these sorts of stories often mirror earlier myths and legends famous in European countries for centuries, such as "Las Dames Blanches."

The question that persists is, “what if some of the origins of the stories came from real events?”

In the older version of the story, in which the woman is run over by cars, many times the last name Lowery is thrown into the mix.  This addition of the name seems to have been started by an old caretaker at the cemetery in Pleasanton. Many times he had told the story to visitors at the cemetery, as well as being quoted in a local paper that the woman’s name was Lucinda Lowery, and that she had died many years ago after being run over by cars.  The Pleasanton Memorial Gardens Cemetery index cites a "Lucinda Lowery" who purchased deed # 61, in Lot: 178, at the cemetery on September 24, 1895. It also showed that either the date of death or date of burial was September 24, 1895, the same day she purchased the plot. Something else stood out in the index, the wording, "killed by cars."
After further research I found that the asterisk near her name on the list meant that cemetery employees added her name to the "deceased" years later. This meant her first name was not in the original book, it only showed Lucinda as the purchaser of the plot, not necessarily the one buried there, meaning that the person buried there might not be Lucinda after all. Still, I wanted to know for sure.

For the record, besides the cemetery plot/deed index mentioning Lucinda Lowery's name and a cause of death notation under it, I had not found any records that show a lady with the last name Lowery (Lowerey, Lowrie, Lowry, etc.) having died in the area.  Let me add though that just because I haven't found it, doesn't mean it didn't happen, but the likelihood of two people with the same last name having a similar tragedy in the same local area sounds a bit far fetched.

So who was Ms. or Mrs. Lowery? Well, I kept trying to search for her in Alameda County records, to no avail.  Then I found a Mr. John Lowrie who had a large ranch near Niles in the mid 1850s.  He was a prominent man who had a lot of farm land in Niles, Centerville and Newark.  Interestingly, he and a business partner Samuel Marston, took their ship "Lady Anne" up to Alaska in 1882, where they struck gold while mining. Unfortunately on their way home their ship sank, taking not only their newfound treasure, but also their lives. According to historical write-ups, they were never heard from again.

John Lowrie Home, 1878 Atlas of Alameda County

When I saw the drawing of Mr. Lowrie's home, I was instantly pulled into the picture. I imagined perhaps this girl in the urban legends, "Ms. Lowery", could have lived there. Maybe she was his daughter? Maybe she was the girl standing on the porch in this picture? Unfortunately, that was not the case.  According to records, John didn't have a daughter named Lucinda. 

After searching the index of deaths in Alameda, I came across another person with the same last name who died in 1895. Could this be a coincidence? A man named Samuel Lowry was killed on September 4, 1895,  by the 91 train near Pleasanton when he was run over by the rail cars. His wife’s name was Lucinda. According to the September 7, 1895, issue of the San Francisco Call, it stated that he was working as a farm hand for John D. Smith. The next issue of the San Francisco Call answered some more questions.

"The Coroner's jury in the case of Samuel Lowery [Sic], the man killed by a train near Pleasanton, were unable to determine whether it was a case of suicide or not. Coroner Baldwin has received a dispatch from the wife of the deceased, who is at Ballard, Washington., stating that she has no money and asking that the remains be buried here."--- 9/8/1895- S.F. Call

What I think happened was either (a) someone in town paid for Samuel to be buried at Pleasanton Memorial Gardens and put Lucinda's name as the deed holder, or (b) she had to pay directly or even perhaps travel down to California and purchase the plot herself, thus the gap in time between Samuel's death and his burialIn reality, Lucinda didn't meet her demise in Niles Canyon, Pleasanton, Sunol or anywhere else in Alameda.

When Samuel died, Lucinda was pregnant with her first and only child. I believe that Samuel had come to California to work, perhaps in order to save for his pending family. Unfortunately, he was never able to see his son born or be reunited with his wife. Lucinda was now a 28-year-old, penniless widow with a baby on the way. I can only imagine the fear, grief and shock she must have felt to be put in that position at such a time in her life, and during that era. As the years went by, city directories show her living at a boarding house on 3rd Avenue in Ballard, Washington.

The 1910 Census shows her working as a cook, raising her son Alfred, who by that time is now a young man. By 1920, she is still a cook and Alfred is now working as a logger, helping to contribute to the household. On July 11, 1924, at the age of 57 years, Lucinda Lowry, left this world and passed on. She was buried in Section 6; Lot 38; Grave 7-A, at Bayview Cemetery in Bellingham, Washington.

So if Lucinda Lowry did not die in the canyon, then who? Over the decades, there have been numerous deaths in the Niles Canyon & Sunol area.  I have yet to find documentation of an event that quite matches either of the urban legends, but I found more deaths that are worth mentioning.

Creek in Niles Canyon (Copyright, Roland Boulware Photography)

More Deaths in Niles Canyon (or surrounding areas)

The Sacramento Daily Union dated On May 30, 1877, shows that James Sheehan, the son of P.R. Sheehan of Oakland, was killed after being run over by train cars in Niles Canyon.  Sheehan had been traveling on the late train to Stockton to attend a fireman’s picnic, when the accident occurred. He and his comrades were riding on the top of the train and while hopping from one car to the next, he slipped and fell in between the cars, immediately causing death.

On January 4, 1879, Patrick Fitzgerald, who had been missing since New Year’s Eve, was found dead in Niles Canyon. The Coroner’s inquest found that he had fallen off of a cliff 160 feet high.  Another story  thirteen years later was about Ephraim Tyson who was thrown from his wagon and run over. He died in the town of Niles back on June 9, 1892.

The San Francisco Call mentions another tragic death that occurred on July 3, 1898. Alfred Sartorius, 18, drowned while on a camping trip with friends. He was a resident of 1346 Howard Street in San Francisco. By the turn of the century there were even more stories. One mentions an unidentified Indian (Native-American) woman who was run over by the Sacramento local train, just two miles between Pleasanton and Sunol on May 10, 1900.

 “Her injuries were such that she died before she reached here, where she was brought for medical assistance. The fireman saw the woman on the track, but not in time to prevent the accident.”— Los Angeles Herald, May 11, 1900.

The stories do not stop there.  Next was a tragic story involving another sudden death of a woman in Niles Canyon.  On July 2, 1905,  a young lady by the name of Julia McQuaid lost her life while camping in Niles Canyon. The circumstances of her death were so sudden and so tragic, that it made a larger than usual headline in the newspapers.
July 3. - Death suddenly sealed the lips of Miss Julia McQuaid last evening while she was blithely singing in a company of friends who were in camp at Niles Canyon. The distressing occurrence was the more shocking because of the attending circumstances. Miss McQuaid had been lolling in a hammock trolling a merry ditty to the enjoyment of the gay party of which she was a member. In the midst of her song, without an instant’s warning, the young woman’s voice broke with a gasp, her notes ceased and she fell from the hammock, dead into the arms of Mrs. L. G. Malloy, one of the camping company.

For a little while the stricken campers were in confusion from the shock. Efforts were made to revive their friend, but the labor was fruitless. Members of the party hastened to Niles for physicians, but they could be of no service. Nothing was left to be done except to notify the Coroner. Deputy Francis of Centerville took charge of the remains. Heart disease is supposed to have been the cause of death.  Miss McQuaid, who was 26 years old, was one of a number of young people from San Francisco who had established a summer camp at Niles Canyon, naming it “Camp Frisco.” The party has abandoned its outing on account of the sad occurrence.”— San Francisco Call, July 4, 1905

San Francisco Call, July 4, 1905

Julia McQuaid was the daughter of Julia and John McQuaid of Virginia City.  Julia was born on October 1, 1876, in Virginia City, Nevada.  Her last place of residence was at 60 Harriett Street in San Francisco.  According to funeral records, her funeral took place at St. Roses Church and interment at the Holy Cross Cemetery.  The cause of death noted on the record states “Valvular Heart Disease.”  She was 28 years, 8 months and 4 days old. 

I have often wondered if somehow the story of Julia McQuaid’s sudden and shocking death in Niles Canyon could have initially inspired the tragic story of the ‘lady in white’ over the years? Even despite the fact she did not die from being run over from cars as the legend puts it,  Julia’s death was still a terrible tragedy, and one I am certain was spoken about for a long time in the local area.

On May 23, 1906, Stockton resident, William Harris died from his injuries after falling off a trestle in Niles Canyon late that previous evening after inspecting his daily work with his lantern before planning to retire for the night. All the other members of the surveying party had gone to bed, so no one knew he had gone missing until they found him the next morning. He had fallen 30 feet and lay there until he was found and later died.  He was an employee of Western Pacific Railroad.

Just a year later, two men were killed when the five mile tunnel of the Western Pacific near Niles Canyon had a cave-in. Pete Colozzi, 50, and Nick Neanravioch, 40, suffocated from noxious gases underground when the tunnel caved in around them on October 26, 1907.  

By February of 1910, another shocking death occurred when a Western Union lineman, Michael Farrelly was electrocuted while strapped at the top of a pole in Niles Canyon.  After making physical contact with what was usually a harmless wire, but when the current hit it, it ran through him causing death. 

The newspaper described his last seconds, “for a few moments Farrelly’s body writhed and swayed in the air, then fell limply alongside the pole.”  His body was taken to the parlors of J.C. O’Connor & Co, at 770 Turk Street. A “requiem mass” was held at  Mission Delores Church, and then his body was taken to the Holy Cross Cemetery for interment.  Michael Andrew Farrelly was 36 years old, and a native of Athlone, County Westmeath, Ireland. Then there was the sudden death of Alfred Fletcher, who was only 14 years old at the time. During a family camping trip, Alfred tumbled off of a rock in the canyon and sustained internal injuries. He lingered for two hours before finally taking his last breath on the evening of August 17, 1922.

With all the deaths I found in Niles and the surrounding areas, I also found several non-fatal accidents that took place.  First to note, a lady by the name of Annie Londonderry who was injured on April 11, 1895, during a bicycling accident in Niles Canyon after being hit by a horse drawn carriage.  Although she was hurt, she did not die from her injuries.

Years later in 1927, the newspapers reported a couple who crashed their vehicle at the “four corners.” Mr. and Mrs. Peter Mallegol of Livermore, were on their way to vacation in Santa Cruz when their vehicle  overturned while rounding the turn near Sunol. Mr. Mallegol was trapped under the car, suffering from a broken collar bone when he felt burning liquid hitting his face. It was battery acid that was pouring from the car and into his eyes.  Thankfully the couple was saved by passing motorists who stopped to offer assistance. Both were taken to Judson Hospital. The newspapers stated that they were expected to make a full recovery. The physician treating Mr. Mallegol, Dr. W.E. Judson, claimed that he was not expected to be permanently blinded from the accident.

Of course there were plenty more accidents involving deaths and non-fatal injuries but I simply could not list all of them.  The last one I will mention though, happened on November 30, 1931, in Niles Canyon.  The headline read, “Man Escapes From Freak Automobile Accident,” and the story itself was something that you would expect from a highly suspenseful movie.  According to the Livermore Journal dated December 3, 1931, a  man named Charles Ellington narrowly escaped death after his car skidded over the wet pavement along the road in Niles Canyon. Ellington, a cook in a local Niles restaurant, was traveling through the canyon when he lost control of his vehicle and slid off the road and down the 25 foot embankment, rolling his vehicle not once, but three times.
Murphy’s Law was certainly going to have its way with Mr. Ellington that night because his vehicle landed on the worst possible spot,  the north end of the Western Pacific tunnel No.1,  right on top of the railroad tracks. By nothing short of a miracle, the newspaper reported that Ellington managed to exit the vehicle uninjured and leapt out of the car “just a minute or so before an on-coming freight crashed into the car.” The vehicle was pushed through the tunnel with the train completely demolishing it. The car was then thrown to the side upon the train’s exit out of the tunnel.  When it was all said and done, Ellington claimed that he knew it was a miracle that he survived at all that day.
Going back to the legend, The Argus, a newspaper in Fremont, published an article back on February 26, 1976, mentioning several accounts and reiterating the old local folklore.  One such account that stood out in my mind was that of a man from Centerville named Fred Rogers.  His experience was not on the road, but near the creek in Niles Canyon. He claimed that on a “cold February morning” he “saw a girl in a white gown, combing her long, black  hair.” He mentioned that she was sitting on a rock near the creek and that when he decided to walk in her direction to get a closer look, she just disappeared. He was very adamant about his experience, and also stated that he could “pick her out of a crowd” if he ever saw her again.

The same article mentions Robert Townsley, Ph.D., who was said to be from the California Society for Physical Study, and who conducted a research about this story back in 1968. Dr. Townsley claimed the entire thing was just a “publicity stunt.”  He believed that the story centered in Niles Canyon was actually much older than most expected, and that it may have actually originated on a road from Oakland to San Jose, and not in Niles Canyon at all.  As he claimed, the story was either “adapted” or was simply made up to coincide with the present area. 

There have been reports of sightings of a ‘lady in white’ along Redwood Road in Castro Valley, which runs  North to the Oakland area. Could that be the road in which all the legends originated?

I do believe that these urban legends had some type of origin. Whoever started the Niles Canyon story must have been influenced by a legend he or she had heard, perhaps from there or even another town or area, with similar details. Most stories come from some fact based account, and over the years it develops into larger than life tales. Whether it be heard around a bonfire while camping or told as a bedtime story while you are tucked away in a warm bed on a dark stormy night, these stories intrigue and instill fear.

Unfortunately, the direct origins of the vanishing hitchhiker or the lady in white stories attached to Niles Canyon continue to remain just out of our grasp, for now.  With that being said,  I hope that by highlighting the real stories that took place there, and by shedding light on those people who tragically lost their lives in Niles Canyon and the surrounding areas, that those individuals will never be forgotten again.  --- Chapter 18, of "Stories of the Forgotten: Infamous, Famous & Unremembered," by J'aime Rubio (Copyright 2016)

To read more stories like this one, please check out my book "Stories of the Forgotten," available on Amazon. 

Path in Niles Canyon - (Copyright, Roland Boulware Photography)


U.S. Census Records, 1910, 1920; Seattle Directory, 1897, 1899; “History of Washington Township,” authored by the Country Club of Washington Township, Second Edition, 1950; “California Folklore Quarterly,” (Vol. I, No.4, Vol. II, No. 1, Vol. II, No. 4), Richard Beardsley and Rosalie, Hankley;  Pleasanton Memorial Gardens, Deeds and Burial Records, page 39; 1878 Atlas of Alameda County; Township Register (1947-1950); Healdsburg Tribune, May 5, 1950, August 18, 1922; “Haunted San Francisco: Ghost Stories From The City’s Past,”- Rand Richards; “Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings,”- Jan Harold Brunvand; “Around Sunol,”- Victoria Christian, February 26, 2007; “Niles Canyon Ghost Revealed,”- David Mostardi, February 26, 2012; Find-a-grave; The Fremont Argus, February 26, 1976;  San Francisco Call, (6/1/1877, 9/7/1895, 9/8/1895, 4/12/1898, 7/4/1898, 7/4/1905, 7/5/1905, 5//24/1906, 10/26/1907, 5/15/1909, 2/6/1910, 2/7/1910); Sac Daily Union, January 6, 1879, August 7, 1879; Sacramento Union, May 27, 1906, October 27, 1907, February 6, 1910; Daily Alta California, June 1, 1877; Marin County Tocsin, June 18, 1892; Los Angeles Herald, May 11, 1900; Livermore Journal, June 15, 1927, December 3, 1931; Interview with Roland Boulware.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Suicides At Pythian Castle - What Really Happened?

Photo from Springfield-Greene County Library District; R0010 

Recently, my fiancé and I tuned into an episode of Ghost Adventures for the hell of it. He finds their program to be more funny than it is informative, plus we enjoy the locations they visit. For the record, I am not a fan of the show. Reluctantly, I sat through the episode. In this particular show, they visited the Pythian Home in Springfield, Missouri. I had no prior knowledge to the location, so I just sat there and listened to what was presented on the program, knowing all too well that everything they say has to be taken with a grain of salt, because most of the time their research is shoddy (to put it mildly). 

When the subject matter came up in regards to the suicides at the "castle," I was intrigued, especially since they claimed to have a bunch of death records. They mentioned that over 100 people died there, and they made it seem as if all these deaths that occurred on the property were either suspicious, violent suicides, or even a possible murder. They also insinuate that a spirit could be causing residents to kill themselves, given the fact that one of the tour guides lost her brother to suicide shortly after his stay there.

After watching the episode I felt compelled to find out the truth about the home so that others could learn the facts surrounding the deaths at Pythian Castle, especially the suicides that took place on the property. As I had suspected, a lot of misinformation has been sensationalized to make the property seem scarier than it is. Let's look at some of the early history before we get to the deaths at the property.

History of the Home

According to the Mexico Weekly Ledger (Mexico, Missouri), the Pythian Home was proposed and approved in August of 1909, at a board meeting held in Kansas City. 

"The site for the proposed $100,000 home for the Missouri Pythians, which was selected by the board of managers at a meeting held in Kansas City Saturday, is a tract of land comprising fifty-three acres, three blocks east of the eastern limits of Springfield. The tract is high and rolling and fully half of it is covered with native forest trees. The land cost $15,000. Springfield's offer for the Home included a free site extension of water, gas mains to the home and free water for a period of one year." --(9/2/1909)

By October of 1911, the Marshall Republican reported that J.H. Sutton & Company had been awarded the contract for constructing the castle, while the design was left to the architectural firm Smith, Rea and Lovitt. 

"Awarding the contract for the Missouri Pythian Home, to be built in Springfield, to J.H. Sutton & Company of Bethany, Mo., for $100,000 the Board of Managers of the Missouri Pythians Grand Lodge in the annual meeting in Kansas City last week, concluded what it feels to be one of the most important steps ever inaugurated by any similar fraternal organization in the state. It is a matter which will mean much to the residents of Springfield, in as much as the new structure, which is to be one of the finest homes ever built by a fraternal organization, will also be one of the handsomest structures ever erected in Springfield." -- (11/2/1911)

The groundbreaking was started on November 22, 1911. The cornerstone was laid in  May of 1912, and the structure was finished by 1913. On June 1, 1914, it officially opened as a rest home for elderly Knights of the Pythias, their widows and orphans of former members. This sort of facility was also commonplace with other fraternal organizations such as the Masons. Back in those days there were no special rest homes and no sort of Social Security, so if you were elderly and did not have family to care for you, or some sort of lasting pension or independent wealth to hire some sort of caretaker, you were out of luck. With the Knights of the Pythias, they wanted to care for their own. 

They also wanted to care for the orphans of their former members instead sending them to a typical orphanage. I have found some articles online mentioning that some of the people who stayed there as children hated living there and that some ran away because of what they felt was harsh treatment.  Since most of the people at the property were elderly, they were probably very strict, so young children and teenagers might have disliked their stay there, but without actual witness accounts proving that there was actual abuse there, I am not going to make any insinuations against anyone. 

During the time that the home was in operation under the charge of the Knights of the Pythias, the home never had more than 50 people living there at any given time. It was open from 1914 up until the end of March, 1942, which is when the Army moved onto the property and the residents of the Pythian Home moved to 629 Campbell Street, Springfield, which was a much smaller location. 

Deaths On The Property

Since the "Home" was mainly for the elderly, as expected there would be a large number of deaths on the property. This is not strange and this is not scary. It just is what it is. If you have ever worked at a rest home you would know that it is a sad revolving door of the older ones passing away, and newer ones moving in. My sister worked at an assisted living facility for many years, and she grew attached to some of the older ones. So it was very hard for her when they would pass on. I have known many people who have also worked at facilities that care for the elderly and every person told me they chose other job opportunities because it really took an emotional toll on them over time.

The facts are, the Pythian Home would have had many deaths there, but most of the death records I found show that the elderly ones died from things like: chronic rheumatism, liver cancer, old age (yes it said that!), apoplexy, arteriosclerosis, myocarditis, pneumonia, stomach cancer, etc.....and the list goes on and on. Basically, the people who died there, died of natural causes for the most part. There isn't anything spooky about that. Unfortunately, it is the natural cycle of life.

The National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for the Pythian Home of Missouri states that "over the years, there would be 105 burials - 103 elderly and two children, both 14 years of age." In a footnote it states, "Many of the deaths, including the home's two suicides, occurred on site - one in 1940 and the other in 1942."

At the present date, I have not been able to locate the names or dates of the two adolescents who perished on the property, but I was able to locate the history of the two suicides (both who were elderly). Yes, there have only been two suicides. That's it. 

1st Suicide - Jess Rey

Jess Rey was a tough one for me to find. I didn't hear anyone mention his name on the Ghost Adventure's show, only that a man shot himself in the head with a .22 long rifle. They didn't say much more about that, but insinuated that it would have been difficult for him to kill himself as if perhaps he didn't take his life at all. Well, before we go jumping to conclusions, let's look into just who Jess Rey was. 

Like I said, he was not easy to find. I only knew a nameless man died in January of 1940, by a gunshot wound to the head. I had pulled Census records of the property for 1940 and started there with each and every name listed. I then went over to the Missouri Death Records site and started searching but since I didn't have a name I had to search every person who died in Greene County in 1940. After sifting through the lists of names, I finally found the right guy.  

Jess Rey's Death Certificate

Jess Rey was born on December 15, 1861, in Switzerland. He immigrated to the United States in 1882 and worked as a miner. He married a French immigrant, Ismer sometime prior to 1891, because their first daughter, Emma was born sometime in 1891. Their second daughter listed on the 1900 Census is named Clara who at the time was three, meaning she was born around 1897, while their youngest, Julia was born around 1899.  The Census records also indicate that he had moved around quite a bit, from Kansas to Missouri, to Alabama and then of course we know he eventually came back to Missouri because that is where he died later on in 1940.  His death certificate mentions he was still married, so where his wife or adult daughters were at the time is unknown. The informant on his death record was English Gay, the man in charge of the Pythian Home.

So why did Mr. Rey choose to end his life? And why a gunshot to the head? Well, what Ghost Adventures chose to leave out of the story is that poor Mr. Rey was suffering from "carcinoma lip & metastasis" meaning he had cancer on his face and it had spread, and was killing him. No doubt he didn't want to suffer a long, agonizing death, and perhaps he was becoming disfigured by the cancer on his face to the point that he just couldn't handle it anymore. He probably didn't want to be a bigger burden on anyone else than he had to be, and so the idea of ending it as quick as possible is the likely story here.

Then the question comes to mind, would Mr. Rey have been able to shoot himself with a .22 long rifle, given the size of the gun? And also, is it strange that he would have a gun like that at place like that? 

To answer those questions I contacted gun expert and author Bob Shell, whom I have consulted with in past investigations for forensic insight. According to Bob, "Yes, a .22 long rifle round is very capable of killing someone. In fact they have been used to kill large animals including bears. If he stuck it in his mouth & pointed it upwards, it would instantly kill him if the brain was hit. It would have to be maneuvered in order to place the gun in his mouth so the bullet went straight up." Shell went on to elaborate that if the bullet did not penetrate the brain it would not instantly kill the victim, and the suffering would be prolonged, but that death would still more than likely occur. So the first answer is, yes, it is possible for a person to use a .22 long rifle to commit suicide.

As far as an old man having a long rifle in his room at an elderly care home in 1940? Bob Shell weighed in on this, too: "In the 1940's, guns were not regarded as evil as they are today. They taught gun safety in schools and used real guns for that purpose. So someone having a gun there 75 years ago would not have been a big deal. I can remember when I was a kid, teachers would bring their hunting guns to school so they could deer hunt after school let out for the day. They were kept in lockers and no one cared." 

Times have changed over the years, so things were not so strict back then as far as standards with guns or weapons, meaning that any one of those old timers could have had their guns with them in their rooms and it would never have crossed anyone's mind as being odd or inappropriate. Only today people think about those things, so no, I do not think him having a .22 long rifle among his belongings was suspicious at all.

In Mr. Rey's case, again, I think he chose to take his own life because he was dying of cancer, and perhaps a bullet to the head sounded a little less terrible than a slow, painful death. Could you blame him?

His death certificate stated that he was to be buried at East Lawn Cemetery in Springfield; However, it appears at the last minute it was decided that he be interred at Hazelwood Cemetery instead. 

(Photo Courtesy of Judy Young) 

2nd Suicide - William Renzenbrink

Now we are at the 2nd and last suicide at the Pythian Castle. William Renzenbrink ended his life on February 8, 1942, by slitting his throat with a razor. Mr. Renzenbrink was born on October 19, 1867 in Germany. By the time he was 17 years old he immigrated to the United States. According to his death certificate it claims that his previous employment had been as a laborer/contractor. What I found really interesting is that in the 1940 Census, which he is listed as a resident at the Pythian Home, at the very bottom of the page it states that his previous job was "veterinarian."  Why he listed that as a former occupation is anyone's guess, since his highest level of education listed was only 6 years of schooling. Still, I felt that was worth noting. 

On William's death record, it does not give us a lot of information besides his date of birth and date of death. It mentions he was divorced and there is a # 3 next to it, so I am assuming it means he divorced three times? Or perhaps that was a typo on the part of the person filling out the certificate. 

William Renzenbrink's Death Certificate

Another thing worth noting since one of my readers mentioned the fact that this location was also visited by another paranormal show that claimed an object belonging to William was causing the haunting there. Allegedly, this object was a German medallion from the Franco-Prussian war and I guess they tried to insinuate it was his medal? 

Well, there are two holes in that theory:

1. William was born in 1867 and the Franco-Prussian war happened 1870 and 1871, so unless William was the youngest soldier in history, serving at the age of 3 years old, that is not possible! (Yes, I am being a smart ass here, but come on!) 

2. The 1940 Census also adds that William was not a veteran of any war and never served in the military.

Bottom line is that the "medallion" found by John Zaffis and his team on the episode of "The Haunted Collector" did not belong to William.  There have been so many people in and out of that place for so long, there is no way to trace where it came from unless there was a name on it, like what you find on the back of a Purple Heart medal. 

What we do know is that on the evening of February 8, 1942, William Renzenbrink ended his life in a very gruesome manner. So the question now is, why?

Well, I think I may have an answer for you. You see, an article dated December 30, 1941, in the Springfield Leader and Press mentions that the Army was taking over the building. This was due to WWII. At that point they offered the Grand Lodge of the Pythias about a third of what the property was worth, but it was still going to be taken by eminent domain regardless, so the Lodge had no other choice but to accept the offer. They had 90 days to find another place to move. When William killed himself they only had a little over a month and a half left there, and perhaps he just couldn't bring himself to leave. Maybe change was difficult for him in his old age. It is possible he just couldn't handle being uprooted to another place. 

Why he chose that particular method to end his life (by cutting his throat) is a question none of us will ever be able to answer. Maybe he didn't have access to a gun?  We could theorize till the cows come home but some things we just will never know definitively.  

William Renzenbrink was buried at Hazelwood Cemetery, just like Jess Rey and many of the other elderly residents who passed away at the Pythian Home over the years.

(Photo Courtesy Judy Young)


In ending, I do not believe that the Pythian Castle is ominous or evil, nor do I think it has entities trying to cause people to commit suicide as the Ghost Adventures show seemed to insinuate. All logical conclusions seem indicate that these two deaths were just simply suicides. There is no proof whatsoever that points to them being anything other than that. 

Do I think the place haunted? Who knows. I am not going to say either way. What I will say is that this place is full of history, from its early beginnings to its time used by the Army as O'Reilly's Service Club, which I haven't even touched on. I will save that for another time.

What I set out to do with this blog was to uncover the stories and the names of the two men who committed suicide here, and I am happy that I was able to do just that. Let us never forget William Renzenbrink and Jess Rey, as well as all of the people who stepped through those doors of the Pythian Home over the years, who have all now passed on. Each person's life is worth honoring and remembering, no matter how they died. 

(Copyright 2017- J'aime Rubio, )

Thanks to Bob Shell for his forensic insight.
Thank you to Judy Young for the photos of the graves.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Haunted By History - A Well Written Trip Back In Time

(Copyright: Craig Owens)

Every once in a while I get the urge to write a review of another author's works because I am compelled to share it with the world. This will be one of several blog posts that include my new favorite authors and their books. For my first review and interview post, I chose to cover Craig Owens' newest book, "Haunted By History, Volume 1."

This is not your traditional haunted history book by any means! In fact, the unique design and format of this book seems to be what caught my eye from the start. For one, the book is printed on some of the finest quality paper. It is truly a coffee table book you can keep forever, and trust me, you'll want to. Author, Craig Owens' choice of locations for his first volume of this series is nothing short of amazing.

It is clear that Owens' research on each hotel within his one book surpasses most, if not all other books that individually cover each one. The book is 393 pages of thoroughly vetted historical research, intriguing stories of paranormal experiences and best of all, incredibly ingenious photography.

Besides being a skilled storyteller, Owens is also a very accomplished photographer. Not only do you feel like you are pulled into each history with his writing, but you also feel as if you are peeking through a window into the past with each turn of the page, by viewing every photo still published within.

The eight hotels and inns covered within the book are as follows:

  1. The Hotel Del Coronado
  2. The Victorian Rose Bed and Breakfast
  3. The Julian Gold Rush Hotel
  4. The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa
  5. The Alexandra Hotel
  6. The Wyndham Garden Ventura Pierpont Inn
  7. The Banning House Lodge
  8. The Glen Tavern Inn

"Spooky Night" at Glen Tavern Inn, Copyright: Craig Owens.

Recently was able to speak to Craig Owens directly and he was kind enough to answer a few interview questions I had for him about "Haunted By History, Volume 1." 

J'aime (Q):  Craig, when did you decide to write "Haunted By History?"

Craig (A):  "The book project unofficially started in 2009, while I was doing a vintage photo shoot at the Mission Inn. Although I had heard that the Inn was haunted, I wasn't there to ghost hunt. I did, however bring a couple of audio recorders just in case something odd happened during my four-day stay there. Well, as you might have guessed, a few odd things did indeed happen. On my second day at the Mission Inn, I recorded a woman's voice inside my suite after hearing the sound of heels clacking in the upper loft area. Because I was alone at the time, the sounds startled me. But the most unsettling experience occurred after midnight on my last night there. As I walked across the courtyard on the fourth floor in front of the Inn's Alhambra Suite, I saw a short, two-dimensional, inky black shadow dressed in some kind of a cowl peeking around a corner from an adjacent hallway. At first, I thought it was a shadow, until it suddenly darted out of sight from the corner. Having never seen a ghost before, I tried to find a logical explanation for it, but I couldn't. It shook me up and after I returned home, I slept with the lights on for the next ten days. I also became very curious about the Inn's history apart from the information found on the Internet.

But my fascination with the paranormal isn't the sole reason for writing the book. I had non-paranormal reasons for writing it, too, such as my love for historic hotels. In 2006, Los Angeles had already lost the Ambassador Hotel. Thanks to the Great Recession a few years later, other hotels fell into dire straits.  In late 2010, a bank foreclosed on the Aztec Hotel in Monrovia. Around this time, another bank foreclosed on the Pierpont Inn in Ventura, California. 

So in 2011, I decided to create a coffee table book that called attention to a handful of these existing hotels and beds and breakfasts, and I wanted to celebrate each one for what they are: great places to travel back in time using the ol' imagination. But I didn't want HAUNTED BY HISTORY to be a rehash of information found in other books. I wanted to fact-check everything while conveying a sense of fun and history in a unique, unusual way." 

J'aime (Q): Which location's history was your favorite?

Craig (A): "My favorite is the Alexandria Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Not only was it the city's first five-star hotel when it opened in 1906, but it later became the main social center of the West Coast motion picture film colony from 1914 to 1921. Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton all partied there. And yet, despite all its glamour and gaiety, wealthy people also checked into the hotel to carry out very unusual suicides."

J'aime (Q): So what are your plans for the future? Is there a Volume 2 in the works?

Craig (A): "Yes, I am working on a Volume 2, which covers the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, Culver Hotel, Aztec Hotel, Zane Grey Pueblo, Bella Maggiore Inn, Grand Colonial Hotel, Palomar  Inn and the Queen Mary. Obviously, I would love to continue with the series. There are plenty of photos to take, people to meet, research to conduct, and urban legends to expose. But the future of Haunted by History really depends on the audience. Do readers really  want to know the history of the place? Do they want to know if the ghost legends are real or are they cooked up for marketing? Do readers like my photos and do they conjure up a sense of fun and make people want to visit these hotels for themselves? Because Haunted by History requires a lot of research, and eye-catching photography, its future depends on those who love history, and the paranormal."

It is easy to see how passionate Craig Owens is with keeping the history accurate by his impeccable research. At the same time he still manages to keep his audience engaged with palatable writing and exquisite photography. My own opinion is that Haunted By History is a fantastic read from cover to cover.  The book itself is massive, so it will take you some time to read it all, but that is the best part of it.  The first night I began to read it, I read two chapters and put it down to enjoy on another evening. It took me almost two weeks to finish the book, but I enjoyed every minute of it. It is like a delightful box of chocolates that you want to hold on to and savor a little bit at a time. 

To purchase your copy of "Haunted By History, Volume 1," please head on over to Bizarre L.A.'s website or you can pick up a copy on Amazon, too.

(Copyright 2017- J'aime Rubio,

Photos: Copyright, Craig Owens, Sad Hill, LLC. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The murder of B.R.C. Johnson -Calaveras County History

Several years ago, as I was searching through archived records for one of my blogs, I stumbled across another story. This story was about the murder of a man known as Mr. Johnson.  I was so taken aback by the brutality of this crime, and the details behind the killing that I saved all the information I could find on it and set it aside so I could put all my attention on investigating it thoroughly in the future. Well, time passed by, and after working on other stories and projects, including publishing two new books in the last two years, I finally decided to dig through my files and cover Mr. Johnson's story so that he will no longer be forgotten from the annals of history.

B.R.C. Johnson, also known as Baptistine Roche Charles Johnson was born around 1821. It is unknown when he arrived in Calaveras County, but what is known is that he was the proprietor of his store/saloon along the Calaveras River somewhere between Valley Springs and San Andreas. I have been able to pinpoint a closer idea of where the store was located, since it is mentioned that it was west of Greasertown, and Greasertown was 4 miles west of San Andreas. I am thinking that his store was probably closer to Double Springs, but I have not been able to tie down an exact spot.

The Crime

On September 27, 1866, 45-year-old  B.R.C. Johnson was brutally murdered inside his store. Just after dusk, three men (one Mexican male- Jesus Miranda; one African-American male- John B. Ferguson; and one Chinese male- Ah Ching) entered his store acting like normal patrons. They ordered drinks at the bar and all seemed okay. Then during a short conversation with Mr. Johnson, Jesus Miranda suddenly drew his pistol and shot Johnson at point blank range.  In all Johnson was shot three times and then, as if that wasn't enough, the Chinese assailant took an axe and used it to penetrate Johnson's skull. There was not much taken from the store, only $30 and a few guns. Johnson's clerk survived out of pure luck when Ah Ching's revolver got jammed, giving the clerk ample time to run away.  By the time he had alerted someone for help, the murderers were long gone.

(Drawing is purely for example; Credit: Book: The Old West-The Gunfighters)

The Arrest

After the murder was committed, Miranda and Ferguson headed up to West Point to meet up with someone named Manuel Manoa. Ah Ching had parted ways with the two men at San Andreas and was never seen or heard from again.  After getting paid, Miranda eventually left for Southern California, while Ferguson remained in West Point, where he was captured only a few days after the killing. For Miranda, it was almost a year later when Deputy Sheriff Lee Matthews apprehended him in Los Angeles and brought him back up to Mokelumne Hill to stand trial.  In February of 1868, both men were convicted of the murder of Johnson and sentenced, by the Hon. S.W. Brockway of the District Court, to be hanged until dead on February 28, 1868.

The Great Escape

On a dark and stormy night in Mokelumne Hill, Ferguson and Miranda along with another African-American prisoner named Brian Fallon, who was in jail for the murder of Mr. McKisson at Rich Gulch, made their escape under the cover of darkness. The three prisoners successfully cut their way out of their cells from the ceiling which was composed of boards without covering. The men managed to break free from their shackles, pile buckets on top of one another along with an old chair and Ferguson reached the ceiling and cut his way out with a sharp pointed instrument  which the newspapers assumed was a three-cornered file.

While he was cutting away, the other inmates were singing, clanking chains, dancing and making noise to distract the jailer from hearing Ferguson breaking the boards apart.  Joe Douglass, who worked at the jail in the front room was totally unaware of what was going on in the back. When Douglass finally took a break to get dinner, the prisoners escaped.  At one point it looked as though the men might have contemplated committing another murder, as they would have had to climb over a partition into the front room where Douglass worked, and had he returned during the escape, he might have been attacked from above. But since there was a ventilation system, the inmates decided to crawl out of the building through there, and jumped to the ground. They eventually climbed their way over the jail-yard fencing area and ran down the hill to the river.

A witness saw the men running in the dark and alerted Douglass, who had returned from dinner. Sheriff James Oliphant and Deputies Matthews, Bates and Colton took off on the hunt for the three men but the weather was so bad, they had to return early and wait until the storm cleared in the morning to continue the manhunt.  Ferguson made it all the way to Clinton in Amador County before he was captured, and Miranda was caught shortly thereafter.

The Motive

Records I found via indicate that B.R.C. Johnson married Cisira Nandino on January 8, 1863 in Calaveras County.  According to information obtained by Maureen Elliot, she states that Mr. Johnson's wife deserted him around 1866, and would not allow him to see their daughter, Victorina A. Johnson, whom the couple had parented during their short  marriage.

As it turned out although she had left Mr. Johnson, his estranged wife still had plans for her husband, and the dying confession of John B. Ferguson let the cat out of the bag.  The web of deception grew larger and larger when the facts were revealed that although Miranda had conspired with Ferguson and Ah Ching at Garry's Saloon to commit a murder, Miranda had been propositioned earlier by someone representing Mrs. Johnson herself. It appears all fingers inevitably pointed to Cisira Nandino Johnson, as the one who wanted the dastardly deed done. 

John B. Ferguson, 20 years old and from Beardstown, Illinois, had been residing in Calaveras County with his parents for several  years prior to his involvement in Johnson's  murder. When he gave his full confession, he requested Reverend Cassidy and Walsh to visit him and asked forgiveness of his sins prior to his execution.

"On the Saturday prior to the murder of Johnson, I  met Jesus Miranda on China Street, in San Andreas, near Garry's Saloon. (Corner of Main and St. Charles Streets). He asked me if I would go with him and a Chinaman on Sunday evening to Johnson's store. I asked him why he wanted me to go and he answered, "to kill Johnson.." I told him I would go with him, but would not help kill Johnson. He said there is money in it and Manuel Manoa, Mrs. Johnson and a Mexican, who peddled fruit for Manoa, would pay him $500 or $600 to kill Johnson and he knew Johnson had in his store $800 or $1000, which we could get. I then consented to go with him.

On Sunday about noon, I met Miranda at the same place as before and told him I would not go with him on Sunday, but would go on Monday.  On Monday, a little after noon, I met Miranda at his cabin, back of China Street, in San Andreas; he put on his knife and pistol and we started for Johnson's store. I had no weapon with me. On the hill near Latimer's store, we met the Chinaman, who was armed with a revolver. We traveled together through Greasertown. We sat down on the road for some time, and I refused to go any further with him, but after a good deal of persuasion I consented to go along. We arrived at Johnsons's store just at dusk. He was standing on the porch in front of the store. We went in and Miranda asked us up to the bar to take a drink. We drank together and sat down. Miranda entered into conversation with Johnson, but I do not know what they were talking about. Shortly Miranda asked us up to drink again. About that time Johnson's clerk, Sturgnickle, who had been present since our arrival, left the store and went to the back room or kitchen.

While Johnson was in the act of passing the bottle of liquor on the bar, Miranda shot him. I then ran out of the door toward the barn. Miranda called to me to come back. Johnson was not dead when I got back, and was lying behind the counter, where he fell when first shot. Miranda then shot him twice more, and then cut his throat with his knife, and the Chinaman struck him on the head with an axe or hatchet. The understanding was that the Chinaman was to kill Sturgnickle, the clerk, and the reason he did not kill him when he come into the store from the kitchen, when the pistol was discharged by Miranda, was because his pistol would not go off. I then ran out to the corral, near the house; Miranda came after me and gave me Johnson's shotgun, returned to the store and brought me a revolver, after which he went back to the store, and with the Chinaman, search it for money and other valuables. The found only $30 in coin.

We then all went to San Andreas together. Miranda complained of the Chinaman for not killing Sturgnickle. Miranda and myself then started for West Point, leaving the Chinaman at San Andreas, and I have never seen him since; do not know where he is. Miranda told me he had made 3 or 4 efforts to kill Johnson within the month previous to the murder, but could not on account of the presence of too many persons at the store.The evidence as given by Sturgnickle, Johnson's clerk, in court was all true. I was the person he met as he came out of the kitchen, when the Chinaman was in pursuit of him. There was no agreement between Miranda and myself as to the amount I was to receive, but it was understood between us that I was to receive a part of the sum paid him.

After we arrived at West Point, Miranda met with Manoa's fruit peddler, who I think is a brother-in-law of Mrs. Johnson, and had a conversation with him, the purport of which I do not know, as I did not listen to it. I wish my parents, sisters and brother to be informed of the statement I have made and that my brother may take warning by  my fate and profit by it."--- Confession of John B. Ferguson.

The Outcome

On March 4, 1868, John B. Ferguson and Jesus Miranda were hanged on the old  hangman's tree in Mokelumne Hill, which was once located behind the courthouse (now behind the Hotel Leger). The first try for Ferguson failed when the rope was not properly adjusted and the knot slipped, causing him to fall to the ground. He then stated, "May God take care my soul," as he mounted the scaffold for the second time. At 12:45 the drop fell and Ferguson passed on. The newspapers seemed somewhat sympathetic to Ferguson probably because of his claim that he did not actually physically take part in the murder, but neither the County nor the press had any interest in Miranda's backstory. Besides the short mention that both men were hanged, there was not one detail about Miranda's execution either.

Although the newspapers indicate that Cisira was implicated, as well as Manuel Manoa and his "fruit peddler," I could not find any further record whether or not the authorities followed through to hold anyone else accountable for the crimes. In the end it was only Miranda and Ferguson who hanged for the murder, as Ah Ching was never apprehended.

This entire story bothered me to my core. From Miranda's complete disregard for a human beings life just for an easy payday, to Ah Ching's brutal over-kill by using an axe to finish off an already dead man. And don't let me get started on Johnson's estranged wife! She was another sick and twisted part of this story, and the fact she was able to manipulate men to do her dirty work just disgusted me. I see that Ferguson said he was repentant of his involvement but so many criminals say they are sorry after they are caught and facing serious consequences. Perhaps he was just a young man who got involved with the wrong people and made bad choices, but he knew the plan was to kill someone-- a perfect stranger, for money.  Unfortunately the punishment fit the crime for both Jesus Miranda and John Ferguson. I have often wondered about the other murderer, Ah Ching and how he conveniently disappeared. Did he take off and live his life free from the consequences of his actions, or did Miranda kill him too? Who knows really....perhaps a 50/50 cut between Miranda and Ferguson seemed like a better choice than cutting their money three ways. That is always a thought to ponder....remember there is no honor among thieves, so I wouldn't have put it past Miranda, and I doubt Ferguson would have been willing to admit another murder on his hands.

The whereabouts of Mr. Johnson's grave is unknown at the present time, but I am hoping maybe one day someone out there might have a missing piece of this story, so I can visit his grave and pay him my respects. He was the real victim in this story, a story that for far too long has been lost. 

Rest In Peace, Mr. Johnson -- You are not forgotten.

(Visit his Find-a-Grave memorial here.)

(J'aime Rubio - Copyright 2017,


Sacramento Daily Union, 3/2/1868
Daily Alta California, 1/27/1868, 9/15/1867
Sonoma Democrat, 2/1/1868
Stockton Daily Independent, 3/4/1868
Calaveras Chronicle 2/29/1868