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The Adventures of Death Valley Scotty and Albert Johnson

December 21, 2016


When pistolaros appeared out of a cloud of dust, hopped off their horses and started shooting, Albert M. Johnson wasn't actually frightened. In fact, the Chicago multi-millionaire was, in a rather perverse way, excited and enthused. Bandits! A real Western gun fight! He felt helpless, though. Now, he was really mad that Scotty talked him out of buying a Colt six-shooter when they were in Las Vegas. "You won't need it," Scotty had erroneously insisted.

Johnson struggled down off the wagon as agilely as his crippled back permitted and took shelter with the other passengers. Scotty and his brother, Warren, fired their revolvers at the banditos. There was a lot of noise, smoke and the smell of gunpowder. One bullet nicked off a wagon wheel spoke and sent splinters flying but, other than that, nobody seemed to be hitting anything.

Johnson knew the Death Valley area of California and Nevada was still the Wild West, but it was 1906! He certainly hadn't expected an ambush by outlaws, even though he and the his friends were there to inspect a gold mine. Johnson, his partner Edward Shedd and a couple of other businessmen were questioning their investment in Scotty's secret mine and took a train out from the Windy City to have a firsthand look at the situation. The gunfight was a total surprise. Johnson couldn't help smiling when he saw the other 'dudes' cowered behind the wagon box with panicked looks on their faces.

Johnson had always been enamored with the West; with both the stunning scenery and the exciting legends of yester-year. He watched the gun battle with thrilled interest. He felt like he was living out a scene in The Virginian or a Hopalong Cassidy magazine story. Scotty fit perfectly Johnson's image of the true Cowboy. He was downright heroic; showing no panic, not even ducking for cover, while reloading his pistol. The circumstances were surreal: a hot, barren desert setting, puffs of smoke in the distance, bullets zinging through the air. Johnson was thoroughly aroused.


            Hopalong Cassidy

Suddenly, Johnson was snapped back to reality. He heard a dull 'thump' and Warren Scott cried out, "Jesus Christ! I'm shot!" He grabbed his leg just below the knee. Blood soaked his pant leg and trickled out from between his fingers. "Walter!" the wounded man screamed. "For God's sake, I'm hit! Make them stop shooting!"

Scotty rushed to his brother, inspected the wound then, with complete disregard for the danger, ran out into the open in front of the wagon. He frantically waved his arms and shouted, "Stop shooting! For Christ's sake, stop shooting! You hit Warren!" The gunfire immediately ceased. Half a dozen bandits came out from their hiding places, holstered their guns and trotted toward the wagon. "You idiots!" Scotty yelled. "You shot Warren!"


          Death Valley, Near the 'Mine'

The dusty, rugged cowboys crouched around the wounded man. They cut open Warren's pants and quickly bandaged his leg. "This is serious. We've got to get him to a doctor," one outlaw said. They confiscated Scotty's wagon, leaving only enough horses for the others to ride back to town on, then whipped up the team and rumbled off in a cloud of dust.

"What the hell is going on here!" Ed Shedd demanded, smelling a rat. Scotty hung his head, didn't say anything.

Albert Johnson clapped his hands and laughed. "I get it, now! There is no mine, is there?" Scotty just looked at him. "Great show! Great show, Mister Scott!" Johnson, sporting a broad grin, shook his head and slapped Scotty on the back. Wincing from the pain in his own bad back, Johnson gingerly climbed up onto a horse. "Come on, then. Let's get back to town. Drinks are on me."

Thus ended The Battle of Wingate Pass. . . and began a lifelong friendship between con-man Walter E. Scott and millionaire businessman Albert Mussey Johnson.



   Albert Mussey Johnson

Albert Mussey Johnson was born in Oberlin, Ohio on May 31, 1872, into a long-prominent and extremely wealthy family. His mother was the former Rebecca A. Jenkins. His father, Albert Harrison Johnson, owned several banks, a utility company and a couple of stone quarries. He was also president of the Arkansas Midland Railroad Co. Albert M. had a very affluent and religious upbringing. There's debate if he was raised a Quaker or a Presbyterian. Regardless, he lived a devout lifestyle.

After one year at Oberlin College, young Albert  transferred to Cornell University in NY, to study civil engineering. At Cornell he met Bessie Penniman. She was the daughter of a wealthy fruit and nut rancher in Walnut Creek, California. When Johnson graduated in 1895, he and Bessie were married.

Soon after, the young couple borrowed $40,000 from Albert's father and invested it in a lead-zinc mine in Missouri. It was a fantastically profitable venture. Throughout his youth, Johnson had been fascinated by dime novels and stories of the Wild West. Now successful and wealthy in his own right, he convinced his father to join him in a western trip to inspect mining claims for possible investment.

It was a tragic, fateful trip. In December, 1899, while traveling on the Denver and Rio Grande rail line near Salida, Colorado, the Johnsons were in a serious wreck. Their train was rear-ended by another. Albert Sr. was instantly killed. Albert Jr. suffered a broken back. The initial prognosis was "certain and imminent death", or at least permanent paralysis below the waist. Johnson refused to accept that diagnosis. His health was never again 100%, but he made a miraculous recovery. Within eighteen months he'd regained his ability to walk, albeit with a pronounced limp.

In 1902, Johnson moved to Chicago and joined his father's former business partner, Edward A. Shedd. He took over his father's interests and developed new ones of his own. He and Shedd purchased the National Life Insurance Company, with Johnson acquiring 90% of the public stock. As president of the company, Johnson received a salary of $1 million a year, in addition to income from his various other interests.

In 1904, Johnson and Shedd were approached by Obadiah Sands who was acting as representative for Walter E. Scott, also known as Death Valley Scotty.  Scott claimed to have rediscovered an old gold mine in Death Valley. For an investment of only $2,500, Scott offered Johnson and Shedd two-thirds interest in any mines he could develop in Death Valley. Scott previously offered Sands 20% interest for acting as his intermediary, leaving a suspiciously small 'cut' for the mine operator.

Johnson's infatuation with the West undoubtedly played a role in his eagerness to close the deal; and, by 1906, he and Shedd were noticing a serious lack of return on the investment. They, and a few more of Scott's disappointed investors, hopped a train for Nevada to check out the Death Valley mining operations for themselves.



            Walter E. Scott

Walter Edward Perry Scott was born September 20, 1872 in Cynthiana, Kentucky, to George E. Scott and Anna Calhoun (or, debatably, Elizabeth Perry). Walter spent his childhood traveling the harness racing circuit with his family. At eleven, he ran away from 'home' and joined his two brothers at a ranch near Wells, Nevada, where he developed 'cowboy skills'. As a young teen, he made his first trip into Death Valley as part of a crew surveying the California-Nevada border. At 16, Walter Scott joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show as a stunt rider and, for the next dozen years, toured the United States and Europe with them.


Walter Scott Riding in the Wild West Show

When Scott married Ella Josephine Milius (who he called 'Jack') in New York City in 1900, he ended his association with Buffalo Bill. The couple moved to Cripple Creek, Colorado, where Scott unsuccessfully tried to start a gold mining operation. When the venture failed he returned to NY and re-applied to the Wild West show, but wasn't hired. While in the city, he conned a wealthy businessman into backing a fictitious gold mine he alleged to have claim to.

For two years Scott reported back to his patron about the mine's operation, but never shipped any ore. By the time the investor had poured over $5000 into the mine, Scott felt the mounting pressure and boarded a train for the East. He was purportedly carrying a bag of gold dust worth $12,000. Unfortunately (and suspiciously), he was robbed before he reached his destination. The 'tragic tale' was picked up by the NY newspapers, His patron was seen as a victim of the lawless frontier and Scott became a minor celebrity, expounding his tales of the Wild West across the city. In 1904, Scott shifted his attention to Chicago and convinced Albert Johnson and Edward Shedd to back another mining operation.

In a scheme to increase his publicity and acquire more investors, in 1905 Scott declared he would break the cross-country train speed record. On July 9th, he and a writer for the Los Angeles Examiner boarded the "Scott Special", which consisted of an engine, sleeper, and baggage and dining car. They made the run from L.A. to Chicago in 44 hours, 54 minutes, breaking the old record by over 9 hours. The 'stunt' put Scott back on the front pages and inspired Buffalo Bill to hire, not Scott himself, but a man to impersonate Scott in his shows.

By that time Scott was a skilled 'mining endeavor' con man and used many ruses to evade investigations by investors. On March 11, 1906, a stage play about 'entrepreneur' Walter  Scott opened in Seattle. It stared Scott as himself and opened to a standing room only crowd. When the show closed, Scott was immediately arrested on assorted charges involving fraudulent investment schemes he'd perpetrated up and down the west coast. Scott admitted nothing and the charges were eventually dropped on a technicality.

The Truth Comes to Light

Somehow, Scott managed to keep Albert Johnson interested in his Death Valley gold mine. One investor was sent to investigate and reported back that there was no mine. Since Johnson had seen no gold from Scott, he decided to visit himself. Things were getting a little hot for Death Valley Scotty. His bluff was being called.

Scotty enlisted his brother Warren and some of his friends into a scheme to deceive Albert Johnson. They planned to stage a robbery. Warren and Walter would pick up the visitors and drive them out to Wingate Pass. The confederates would attack the wagon, shooting high over the 'victims'' heads. Scott would declare it too dangerous to go out to the mine and hope the disgruntled investors would just go home.

Unfortunately, Scotty's friends spent the two days they'd waited in the desert drinking whiskey. They thought it would be more realistic if they shot at the wagon wheels rather than over everybody's head. Consequently, the only casualty in The Battle of Wingate Pass was suffered. 'We has met the enemy, and they is us!'


 Amigos! Albert Johnson and Walter Scott

Irate over the dangerous and unprofitable scheme, all the investors but Johnson pulled out. The lost money was a pittance to him and he appreciated Scotty's gumption and ingenuity. Also, he wasn't convinced Scotty's true scheme wasn't to hide the gold mine's true value. On his return to Chicago, Johnson hired a man to go to Death Valley, to keep a close eye on Scotty and to find out if he really had a mine. The man ultimately telegrammed Johnson that Scotty truly was a fraudulent scoundrel.

About that time, Scotty began 'fencing' high grade ore that he'd steal from mines in the area. He leased a mine in the Humboldt Mountains to serve as a front for the operation. It's not clear if Johnson knew of the scheme or thought Scotty finally did have a valuable mine. When he returned to Death Valley claiming to have sold his mine for $12 million, bilked investors came out of the woodwork with law suits and Scotty ended up in jail.

Albert Johnson, a phenomenally successful businessman, certainly realized that Scotty was a con artist but, beginning in 1909, he started making regular trips to Death Valley to visit him. Johnson enjoyed the desert and appreciated Scotty's company. He ultimately purchased a ranch in Grapevine Canyon, Death Valley, and later developed Lower Vine Ranch about five miles away, growing alfalfa on the property for awhile so he could legally claim it under the Homestead Act.


 Scotty's Castle in Death Valley National Park

On his ranch, Johnson built a cabin for Scotty and several outbuildings for Scotty's beloved mules. In 1922, Johnson began construction on the buildings what would eventually be called Scotty's Castle (a popular site in Death Valley National Park). The scale of the project raised speculations and Scotty was soon spreading more rumors about another mine. Scotty claimed he built the 'castle' for himself, though it was prominently named Johnson's Death Valley Ranch. Johnson did nothing to discourage the rumors. He was endlessly amused by his friend's scheming, braggadocios personality.


               The Johnsons and Scotty

Johnson's insurance company suffered bankruptcy in 1933 and a Nevada property line dispute took years to clear up, so "Scotty's Castle" was never completed. Ultimately, the 1,500 acre ranch was willed to a religious organization, with the provision that Scotty could live there as long as he wanted to.

Scotty's wife "Jack" and his son, Walter Perry Scott (b. 1914), remained separated from the disreputable Scott. The Johnsons, on the other hand, made efforts to help Scotty's family. At one point, they took young Walter into their home and offered to adopt him. They bought Jack a house in Reno and paid her $100-$150 a month to help support her child. They eventually paid for the boy to attend a military academy. Later, he joined the navy and Jack moved to Long Beach, California. After the 1929 stock market crash Jack's stipend was reduced to $50 a month.

In 1937, after living in poverty for many years, Jack sued Scotty. She demanded $1000 a month, citing her husband's interest in the Death Valley ranch and Scotty's Castle, and the gold mine she still believed he owned. Scotty had no interest in the property and certainly had no gold mine. Jack, in turn, sued Albert Johnson, claiming he was helping Scotty hide his resources. Both cases failed. Out of the goodness of his heart, Johnson increased to $75 a month the money he sent her, and continued to do so until his death.

Albert Mussey Johnson, eccentric millionaire, lover of Western lore, survivor of a train wreck and The Battle of Wingate Pass, died in 1948 in Chicago at the age of 75. His good friend, Walter Edward Perry Scott, Death Valley Scotty, flamboyant, legendary con-man, continued to live at the never completed Scotty's Castle until his death in 1954. He was 81. Scotty is buried there, in Death Valley National Park.

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