Our Town

The Trial of Death Valley Scotty

A rare photo of Death Valley Scotty at his cabin in 1936 flanked by Flo Parent (l) and Jeannette Parent If the details seem fuzzy that is just the way that Scotty preferred it.  - Photo courtesy Jeannette Cameron
A rare photo of Death Valley Scotty at his cabin in 1936 flanked by Flo Parent (l) and Jeannette Parent If the details seem fuzzy that is just the way that Scotty preferred it.
— image credit: Photo courtesy Jeannette Cameron

Jim Cameron

He lived alone, up in the hills behind Lumberton near Palmer Creek, the waterway that once carried gold nuggets down the mountain to Palmer Bar where they were eagerly sought by the prospectors of the day. Years later he carried on the search for gold, living in a sturdy log cabin he built himself to see him through the short summers and long winters.

His youth long behind him, he was still in good health and seemed content with his life. Although solitary by both nature and profession, he enjoyed company from time to time and was always happy to boil up a pot of tea and tell a few stories to any who cared to listen. He was an old-time prospector, the last of a dying breed.

His name — well, it's not known what his real name was, but throughout the area he was known as Death Valley Scotty and, for a short time at least, he was famous.

Now let's get a few facts straight: There was only one real "Death Valley Scotty." His name was Walter Edward Scott and he was born Sept. 20, 1872, in Cynthiana, Kentucky. He took to horses at a young age and later spent 12 years with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Along the way he realized that he was as clever and daring a con man as he ever was a stunt rider and thus began a long and profitable career bilking unsuspecting  businessmen by offering to locate gold on their behalf, generally in the area of Death Valley, Nevada. By 1930, Death Valley Scotty was a name known throughout North America. It took a long time for the truth to come out and even then some of those who he had fleeced came back for more — he was likable guy.

The fellow who became our local Death Valley Scotty appeared at the Calgary Stampede in 1930 whereupon, flashing some press clippings and weaving a good yarn, he was taken to be the Death Valley Scotty and treated as a celebrity, a role he happily and apparently convincingly filled. He was so believable that a group of Calgary investors persuaded him to travel to the East Kootenay to call upon his legendary magic and find some gold. A story appeared In the Dec. 4, 1930, issue of the Cranbrook Herald under the title: "Death Valley Scotty lives in the East Kootenay — Picturesque figure known the world over — Prospector and miner who made and spent several fortunes now makes his home in Cranbrook."

The article went on to state: "Believe it or not, but "Death Valley Scotty," world famous character, who has furnished material for many a front page newspaper story by his exploits, now lives in East Kootenay and is seen frequently in Cranbrook. In fact he was in town this week. He is interested in a placer mining proposition ... west of Lumberton and spends a good deal of his time there ... He has been in the district for several months, and while he was known as Walter Scott and never denied being the original "Death Valley Scotty," most people somehow could not bring themselves to believe that this was the same man. Then last week's Saturday Evening Post carried a story and a couple of good pictures of the man. People saw the resemblance. Of course these pictures were taken back in 1905, when Scotty was in the heyday of his career."

And thus, it would appear, the legendary Death Valley Scotty became a local fixture. Sadly, he failed to come up with a gold strike and in time the investors became concerned and then angered. They approached the local police and charged him with fraud.

This time the headline read: "DEATH VALLEY SCOTTY MAY BE AN IMPOSTER."  In fact, when the story hit the streets on July 2, 1931, Scotty was sitting in the local lockup, awaiting trial the following week, much to the dismay of many within the community.

In "one of the most interesting cases heard in a long time," Cranbrook's Death Valley Scotty was found not guilty by local judge Thompson. In summing up, His Honor stated that "the accused might not be the man he claimed to be, but he could find no intent to defraud.

"The man had greatness thrust upon him and was willing to submit to the burden ... Scotty did not impose himself on his associates but, on the other hand, these men did press their acquaintance on the mysterious prospector and were only too anxious to deal with him."

Neither did the judge condone the defendant's action in masquerading under an assumed name.

"This man hasn't played the game. The old timer in the hills was a square shooter. This man isn't. He is a disgrace to the old time prospector."

There was a notable demonstration of approval in the court room when the judge gave his not-guilty decision.

There are always those attracted to the rich and famous in the hopes of some of it rubbing off and are willing to suspend common sense to achieve their ends. The irony in this case is that those who believed him to be the real Death Valley Scotty were led a merry chase in the same manner as they would have been if doing business with the man himself. It was a unique case of an imposter impersonating an imposter.

Scotty was none the worse for the affair. Reputation in hand, he returned home and carried on as usual until his death a few years later. His real story remains as elusive as the gold he sought.

www.janusthenandnow.ca

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