Death Valley swindler

Walter E. Scott performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, scammed thousands of dollars with a fake gold mine, set a cross-country train speed record, and claimed to be building a castle in the midst of Death Valley.

Weathervane on top of Scotty's Castle
Tahoenathan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Walter E. Scott (known as Scotty) had an instinct for spectacle. His showmanship first went on display in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. He was a horse-riding stuntman in the show for twelve years before leaving to get married, and also to set up his first big scam: a fake gold mine.

It was a pretty simple con. Investors sent seed money to Scotty and he sent back reports on his progress. The mine was producing gold! I’ll accumulate a good pile and then I’ll bring it straight to you! Look, I’m getting on a train with a huge bag of gold dust! Expect me in a few days! Oh no, someone stole the gold dust! What a calamity! Somebody call the newspapers!

In one notorious incident, skeptical investors actually came out to visit Scotty’s non-existent mine. Not to be deterred, the scam artist and his friends staged a fake bandit attack to scare them away. But Scotty’s brother was accidentally shot and Scotty blew his cover by running at the “bandits” telling them to stop shooting.

One of Scotty’s most storied achievements was a great publicity stunt: he would travel from Chicago to Los Angeles faster than anyone ever had. The “Scott Special” train was a regular passenger train commissioned for this feat. And, for once, Scotty was true to his word. The train broke the record, getting across the continent in under forty-five hours.

Scott Special
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwile, at least one of the gold mine investors kept the faith. Albert Mussey Johnson, despite being a victim of the fake bandit attack, stayed in contact with Scotty. They became friends, and when Johnson acquired some land in Death Valley he built a home for Scotty on it. In 1922 Johnson began constructing a castle on the land, and Scotty gleefully claimed that the castle was his. (I don’t mean he squatted there, he simply pretended to be the owner to build up his eccentric image.)

Scotty's Castle
Dona Yu, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After Johnson’s death a religious foundation inherited the castle; Scotty lived on its grounds until his own death in 1954. In 1970 the National Park Service bought “Scotty’s Castle” and turned it into a tourist destination.

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