Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Suicides At Pythian Castle - What Really Happened?

Photo from Springfield-Greene County Library District; R0010 

Recently, my fiancĂ© 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,  www.jaimerubiowriter.com )

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, www.jaimerubiowriter.com)

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 FamilySearch.com 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,  www.jaimerubiowriter.com)


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

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Remembering Nat Cecil

During my line of work I have uncovered some really tragic stories of murder, accidental deaths, suicides and unsolved mysteries. But despite the fact that most of the stories I cover veer towards unexpected or untimely deaths, I have always believed that everyone's story deserves to be remembered. Whether a life was cut short by a dramatic ending or one's life was as happy and trouble-free as possible every life is worth remembering, good or bad, tragic or epic. It is with that thought that I am pleased to give you a short but hopefully enduring account of a man named "Nat." No, he didn't make a huge dent in history, and no, he didn't build bridges, skyscrapers, solve crime or invent the automobile. But he did live his life to the fullest and he had one heck of a "western" life in California's historic past.

I had been contacted by a dear friend of mine, Jeadene Solberg who had been drawn to Nat's story for many years. I researched his life the best I could and created his Find-a-Grave memorial for him, but I felt that he needed more than that. As a gift to my friend Jeadene, this is my tribute to Nathaniel Cecil for everyone to remember him by.

Nathaniel Cecil was born somewhere between 1835-1838 in Missouri (despite what his grave marker states). When he passed away the townsfolk were never completely sure of his birth year, but by way of Census records that became available so many decades later, we can create a more accurate timeline of his life.

When Nat was born, he was born a slave. And being so, he was considered the property of  S.G. Cecil, who brought him with his family from Missouri. S.G. Cecil also lived in Ione with his wife and seven children on their own farm. Census records indicate that Nat had to have been freed by S.G. Cecil sometime after arriving in California in 1857, because by 1860, he is no longer living or working for Cecil. As you will read later on, his obituary mentions that Nat worked to pay for his freedom at the cost of $1,500.00, and how he did that was through his next employer, Mr. Martin. 

By the 1860 Census, Nat is listed as working for James P. Martin in Ione on Martin's farm.
Nat was not the only "laborer" listed working and living on Martin's farm, but he is the only African-American laborer listed. In total there were six men listed: James Surface, Vol Richter, William Richter, Isaac Bunton, William Swearegan and Nat Cecil. 

I believe that at some point Nat stopped working on Martin's farm and eventually was offered the job working for Smith & Martin in their lumber camps (as also mentioned in his obit, however I think the newspaper mixed up the order of employment). Perhaps James Martin was the "Martin" in Smith & Martin, or maybe a relative. The Amador County Directories listed an A.C. Martin working as a Lumber Merchant during the 1870s-1880s. 

By the 1870 Census, Nat is no longer in Ione, but now he is in Township 3.  According to Amador County Maps, Township 3 spanned from just west of Pine Grove and Volcano, to all the way east past Buckhorn, and as far north as Shakeridge areas. Here it appears that Nat was bunking with twelve other working men, possibly at a boarding house. Nat is listed as 28 years old at the time, and working as a "Teamster."  

His "boarding buddies" or possible co-workers were listed as:
Jules Ferret, 56 – France  (Lumberman)
Henrique Ferret, 58 – France  (Miner)
Henry Barton,21  –Ohio (Lumberman)
Nathan Wright, 36 – Illinois (Lumberman)
Henry Rose, 39 - New York (Sawman at Mill)
Benjamin Thomas, 17 - Indiana (Sawman at Mill)
Nathaniel Cecil, 28 – Missouri (Teamster)
Oliver Boggswell, 39 – Connecticut (Teamster)
John Lance, 24 - Indiana (Lumberman)
Alonzo Parker, 39- Ohio  (Lumberman)
Frank Allard, 50- Canada (Lumberman)
John McCurdy, 26 – Australia (Engineer)

By 1880, Nat is back in Ione (Township 2) working as a "hearder" for Frank Frates' farm.
He is one of thirteen laborers listed which included: 8 Caucasians, 4 Chinese, and 1 African American. Finally, the 1900 Census is the first time that 63 year old Nat is listed as the head of his own household, however he was living in the same dwelling as the Rice family (John, Martha and John,Jr.). Perhaps he was renting a room from them, or on their property, but the census marked that he was living in the same dwelling as the Rice's. The coolest part of this census is that Nat is listed as a "Vaquero." A vaquero was considered a cattle-driver or cowboy. 

On January 25, 1907, Nathaniel Cecil passed away. His friends buried him in a small grave at the Ione Public Cemetery. A man who was born a slave, traveled across the country, was given the opportunity to earn his freedom and worked in the days of California's old west, he certainly led an exciting and interesting life. A life worth remembering. 

Obituary for Nathaniel Cecil --  ( death: January 25, 1907)

"Passing of a Colored Landmark"-- 

"On Friday last Nat. Cecil, the old colored man who had been such a familiar figure about lone, passed away at the Obermeyer home in the Grant. That had been his home for many years. The funeral took place at the lone cemetery Sunday afternoon, being conducted by Rev. F. P. Flegal. The obsequies were attended by a large assemblage, as old Nat was well liked by everybody who knew him. The remains were laid at rest in lone cemetery. Nathaniel Cecil was- born in Missouri and was about 70' years old. He was born a slave and was the property of S. J. Cecil, who- brought him to this state in 1857. Nat went to work for Smith & Martin in their lumber camps and with the first $1500 he earned, bought his freedom from his master. He then went to work tor J. P. Martin, riding after cattle, and later worked for the Rio Seco Grant. He had been riding continuously for 35 years and was an expert stockman. He has never married and left no kinfolks."
Amador Ledger, Feb 1, 1907

Nathaniel Cecil's Grave, Ione Public Cemetery

(Copyright 2017-- J'aime Rubio,  www.jaimerubiowriter.com)

Photos: Ione Cemetery- by J'aime Rubio (copyright)
Nat Cecil's Obituary - Amador Ledger (2/1/1907)
Nat Cecil's grave- by Jeadene Solberg (copyright)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

History of the Argonaut and Kennedy Mines - Amador County

While traveling down historic highway 49 through Jackson you cannot miss the rusty remnants of the old Kennedy mine off in the distance. It is also impossible to ignore the towering shell of what is left of the Argonaut mine on the side of the hill as you drive down into Jackson as well.  Both mines share some pretty interesting and also tragic history. Here is just some of the history I have dug up over the years about these two amazing historic landmarks in Amador County. Enjoy!



The Argonaut Mine, which was originally known as the Pioneer Mine, was discovered around 1850, by James Hager and William Tudor, who according to the 1860 Census show were freed slaves living among the Chinese in Township 1, Amador County.  At some point around 1857, the property was acquired by George Stasal, Frank Hoffman, Peter Laubersima, William Slaughter, Charles Weller, Otto Walter and Louis Mentzlen to form the Pioneer Mining Company. It would later become The Argonaut Mining Company in 1893.

Infamous Robbery

December 1st, 1921--- According to the Sacramento Union newspaper, at approximately 1:30 a.m. the Argonaut Mining Company was robbed after bandits overpowered the two night watchmen, James Podesto and Reese Williams, blew the company safe and escaped with nearly $100,000 ($50,000 of which was in gold). The robbers wore red bandana hankerchiefs over their faces and carried pistols and shot guns.

“The mill safe then was wheeled to the convenient point and the bandits leisurely drilled a hole in the door, filled it with nitro-glycerin and blew it open. After removing all the gold inside they escaped in a waiting automobile…..Upon investigation it was found that the bandits had cut the telephone lines leading directly into the mill….The wheel tracks of a large car were plainly visible in the road to Ione, 12 miles distant. Rain began falling early, however, and when the posse reached that point it was forced to turn back.  Sheriff Lucot stated the robbery evidently had been planned by someone familiar with the methods employed by the company.”

It was believed that it was an inside job, and involved possibly eight men who worked at or were familiar with the mine. Two men were eventually arrested and at least one of men, Hiram Baker, was acquitted of the crime.  At that point Argonaut Consolidated Mining Company was owned by John T. Smith of New York, who was President, along with co-owners  E. A. Stent of S.F. and John Raggio of Stockton.

Mine Disaster

On August 27, 1922, the worst mine disaster in California history took place, when a toxic mix of gas and fumes caused a fatal fire 4,650 feet deep, trapping the miners below. There had been rumors that the fire could have been started by arson, from a rival employee at the Kennedy Mine, but there has never been any proof to substantiate the claim.  The fire lasted for 2 days, and rescue efforts lasted for weeks. All but one of the miner’s bodies were recovered and they were buried at the Jackson Cemetery. The 47th miner was not found until over a year later, when the mine shaft was being flushed out, the remains were accidentally discovered. It was the body of the man who wrote the message on the wall “3 o’clock, gas getting strong, Fessel.” The man was Edward William Fessel, and he was finally buried next to the other fallen miners. The fatalities of this disaster were Amador County residents, of Italian, Serbian and Spanish ancestry.

It was surveying work done years prior by Kennedy Mining Engineer, Walter Ephraim Downs that directed the rescuers to dig through to the Argonaut mine shaft in an attempt to rescue the trapped miners in 1922.  Although the effort was futile, his work gained national attention for giving the rescuers a fighting chance to reach the Argonaut shafts.  On another note,  Mr. Downs was the son of Robert Carleton Downs’ the superintendent of the Union Mine (later Lincoln Mine) in Sutter Creek and owner of the Hanford & Down’s stores which were located in Sutter Creek, Jackson and Volcano.  Walter Ephraim Downs’ brother, Fred, was the one who tragically drowned in the Preston Reservoir in Ione, in 1902.

Wife of Argonaut Mine Disaster Victim Attempts Suicide

The widow of miner Charles Fitzgerald, attempted to take her own life on September 18, 1922, when she swallowed poison.  Amador County Physician, Edwin Eugene Endicott came to her aid and successfully saved her life.

Sac Union, 9/19/1922

Another Tragic Death – “The ill-fated Argonaut Mine, scene in 1922 of the disaster in which 47 men were killed, today claimed the life of another. Claude Smith, 22, was instantly killed when a dynamite cap he had set blew up prematurely because of a defective fuse. A companion, Harvey Jones, was badly injured.” – Healdsburg Tribune, March 17, 1930.


According to Amador County history, the Kennedy Mine started in January of 1860, when Andrew Kennedy filed a mining claim along with four other men who were associated with the Oneida mine, to the north. Kennedy had dug a prospecting shaft approximately 100 feet deep, using a bucket attached to a winch. Within a year or so, Kennedy sold his interest in the mine for $5,000, due to the fact it wasn’t doing very well.  By 1869, the mine was sold to eleven businessman from Jackson in the amount of one dollar. The men formed the Kennedy Mining Company. 

“So named from its discoverer was developed by John Fullen, James Fleming and James Bergon, working the rock at the Oneida Mine. In 1871, it was taken by a joint-stock company, the Richlings being large owners. The mine has hardly been a success, and in 1880 it was closed down. The vein is close to the foot-wall and has pitched rapidly to the east, following a pitch of nearly forty-five degrees, which is considered very flat. It is believed that it will eventually join a vein about six hundred feet to the east, called the “volunteer.” The lode does not follow the rift of the slate and consequently is not a true fissure vein.” – Page 149 “History of Amador County” by Jesse Mason

July 1872- In a record 9 days, the Kennedy Mine made nine thousand dollars (equivalent to about $170,000 today). The mine made over $300,000 between 1870 and 1878.

“September 18, 1874 – Boarding House at the Kennedy Mine was destroyed by fire.” –History of Amador County, 1881.

The mine was sold in 1886, for $97,500 to bay area investors, and the company changed its name to “Kennedy Mining and Milling Company.” The mine operated until 1942, when all mines were closed by the U.S. Government to support the war effort. At that time, the Kennedy Mine was listed as the deepest gold mine in all of North America, with a vertical distance measured at 5,912 feet, and 50 miles of underground excavations. In 1961, Sybil Arata purchased the property to live out her retirement. She resided in the Manager’s Residence “Bunkhouse” for the rest of her life.  Her final wishes for her property were to keep the area open for wildlife to roam, and for the mine to be preserved for historical posterity.

An interesting tidbit -- In 1904, an escaped ward, Dan Gillette, from the Preston School of Industry made his way up to the Kennedy Mine property and tried to fit in with the employees there at the new boarding house. He managed to get himself a free meal and hide out for a while, and just as he was going to head down into the mine along with the other miners, Constable Kelly from Ione, who was hot on his trail, arrested him.

Deaths at the Kennedy Mine

Obviously this is not a list of every man who died at the Kennedy Mine, but here is a list of the few stories I have been able to dig out of the archived newspapers of the time period. 

On March 15, 1902, miner David De Ricci made a misstep, falling backward down into the east shaft 2,600 feet. “In his descent, his arms, legs, the back portion of his head and every vestige of clothes were torn from his body.”—

May 26, 1902 -- "A miner named Francisco Giovanoni [SIC] lost his life at the Kennedy Mine shortly after midnight on the night of May 26. The fatality was purely accidental. It occurred at the 2300 foot level of the north shaft. There were from fifteen to twenty men around there at the time. A plank 18 inches wide was in position for the men to walk to and from the shaft, and below this was a chasm thirty feet deep, made by the excavation of ore. Deceased was in the act of carrying the lunch bucket to the station when he was seen to make the fatal step off the planking, and fell to the bottom of the chute.”—Amador Ledger, May 30, 1902.

June 12, 1902 - 30 year old Walter Williams was instantly killed when about 200 feet from the top of the shaft, his body came in contact with a shaft timber. He was caught on it and dragged out of the skip. His head and body were crushed between the skip and timbers. His companions C. Parker and B. Allison could not explain how the accident happened because the shaft was so dark. Williams had only worked at the mine three weeks and was new to the area. No one knew where he came from and he had no family to contact. All that was known was that he was a member of the Knights of the Pythias and was living with Henry Osborne at Kennedy Flat.

March 6, 1905 – Edward Hallam was killed at the Kennedy Mine today. He was descending a shaft from the 2400 foot level when a skip came down in another compartment. It is believed he got scared and let go his hold. He fell, breaking his neck.” – Los Angeles Herald, March 7, 1905

December 7, 1909, Italian immigrant Luigi Reviera was crushed to death by several tons of rock falling on him while working at the 3,150 level of the mine with Fred Hicks. Engaged in placing a butt cap in the hanging wall above the tunnel timbers, the rocks gave way and a huge slab came down on him, killing him instantly.

February 27, 1911- James Baldwin was crushed to death while working at the 3400 level of the mine.  Baldwin and his co-workers were told to be careful working in the area that had been blasted earlier. While cleaning out the loose dirt a large mass of rock fell from above, crushing him.  Baldwin’s helper claimed he could hear Baldwin hollering that he was stuck, but given the massive amount of rock and dirt that covered him, the coroner felt death was almost instantaneous.

November 17, 1913 – Miners, Maksim Rupar and Jako Acimovich died from a premature explosion while in the mine shaft. 

On December 20, 1915, the timber boss William Harvey and A. Targo both met their death when they fell down the main shaft of the mine, a total of 3,900 feet.  According to the newspaper accounts, Harvey had been working in compartment 37 since 8 o’clock in the morning. As he was descending a ladder at the entrance of the shaft he became dizzy and slipped, falling. As his body was going down the shaft, just below was A. Targo, who was standing on the edge of the shaft. Harvey’s body smacked Targo’s knocking him off the edge and down the shaft with Harvey. Both died and their bodies were “badly mangled.”

June 12, 1916 - Mike Vijovich also died after falling 300 feet down a shaft. After straightening a mine can that had fallen on its side, he lost his footing and slipped.

You can find some of the men mentioned above in the Jackson City Cemetery, St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cemetery or the Catholic Cemetery in Jackson.

J’aime Rubio, Copyright 2017 – (www.jaimerubiowriter.com)

Some of my sources
History of Amador County, - Jesse Mason, 1881.
History of Amador County, - Federation of Amador County Women’s Clubs, April 1927
Los Angeles Herald, March 16, 1902
Amador Ledger, May 30, 1902
Amador Ledger, June 13, 1902
Los Angeles Herald, March 7, 1905
Amador Ledger, December 10, 1909
Amador Ledger, March 3, 1911
Sacramento Union, May 2, 1914
Press Democrat, December 21, 1915
Sacramento Union, June 14, 1916
Sacramento Union, September 19, 1922
Sacramento Union, December 2, 1921
Los Angeles Herald, December 7, 1921
Sacramento Union, December 9, 1921
Sacramento Union, April 20, 1922
Sacramento Union, May 13, 1922
Sacramento Union, August 29, 1922
Sacramento Union, September 19, 1922
Healdsburg Tribune, March 17, 1930
Amador Ledger, April 22, 1904
Amador Ledger, April 29, 1904