Walter Edward Perry Scott, better known as Death Valley Scotty was a prospector, performer, and con man who was made famous by his many scams involving gold mining and the iconic mansion in Death Valley, California known as Scotty’s Castle.
The youngest of six children, Walter Edward Perry Scott was was born in Cynthiana, Kentucky in 1872 and raised on a horse farm. At the age of eleven, he ran off to Nevada to join his two older brothers, Warner and Bill. His first job after arriving by train was as a water boy for a survey party along the California-Nevada state line, part of which ran close to Death Valley. When the survey was completed Scott found work with Harmony Borax Works.
Scott was an accomplished horseman and in 1888 a talent scout for Bill Cody discovered Scotty and hired him to work as a cowboy with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Although his engagement with the show lasted for 12 years, it was only seasonal employment. When not fully engaged with the show, Scott would return to Death Valley and pick up odd jobs. His connection with the area became so well known that eventually Death Valley Scotty became his nickname.
Scott left the Wild West Show after a disagreement with Buffalo Bill in 1900 and began a new profession that brought him even more fame and riches — gold prospecting. He convinced several wealthy businessmen that he had a claim to a fabulous gold mine in Death Valley. Scotty agreed to split the profits, provided they first offer money to extract the ore. Over the next few years, Scotty apparently had little luck prospecting in Death Valley.
Scotty’s “Battle” of Wingate Pass
In one of his most infamous cons, Walter Scott developed an elaborate ‘hoax’ against a mining engineer who was insisting on seeing his gold mine before making recommendations to investors back east. The famous incident, now called “Battle” of Wingate Pass, happened in 1906 when New England mining promoter A.Y. Pearl had gained the interest of some bankers and businessmen in Scotty’s gold properties. The investors insisted on having Daniel E. Owen, a respected Boston mining engineer, personally inspect the property.
Thus, that February, Owen, Pearl, and Scott prepared for their journey into Death Valley. Along with them were Albert M. Johnson, president of the National Life Insurance Company of Chicago, as well as Scotty’s brothers Bill and Warner Scott, Bill Keys, who had prospected with Walter Scott, Los Angeles miner A.W. DeLyle St. Clair, and a local character named Jack Brody.
The plan to keep the mining investors in the dark about Scotty not actually having a mine seemed simple enough. He hoped to scare away Daniel Owen by staging a shootout to disrupt the expedition. After being on the trail for a just a few days, Scotty instructed his brother Bill to stay at their campsite at Lone Willow Spring and told Bill Keys and Jack Brody to push on to look for any danger. Giving them a good head start, the rest of the party finally pushed on over Wingate Pass and down the wash toward the south end of the valley. As they were trying to establish a new camp for the night, shots were heard and a rider, an ex-deputy sheriff from Goldfield, Nevada, came to them with a story of being fired upon in an ambush that stampeded his pack train.
With Walter Scott’s assurances that he could fight off any outlaws, the party resumed their journey the next morning. When they reached the site of the earlier reported shooting, Scotty drew his rifle and fired a couple of shots, startling the mules pulling the lead wagon with his brother Warner and Daniel Owen, which resulted in Owen falling over backward. It was about this time that a shot from behind a stone breastwork on a cliff to the south hit Warner Scott in the groin. Scotty, realizing the seriousness of his brother’s wound, suddenly galloped toward the ambushers yelling at them to stop shooting. Walter Scott’s actions left plenty of doubt with Owen about the ambush’s authenticity. The party then headed back, with Bill Keys and Jack Brody never rejoining them. Warner, patched up, was put on a train for Los Angeles, and Albert Johnson left immediately back to Chicago.
The incident would result in arrest warrants for Walter Scott, Bill Keys and Jack Brody for assault with a deadly weapon. It would also put Scotty in and out of jail several times over the next months. Finally, six years later, Walter Scott confessed in a Los Angeles courtroom to long-term and full-scale fraud and deceit.
Meanwhile, after receiving no results from the fabled gold mine, all of his investors felt that they had been conned and began to back out of their investments. Scotty, however, started turning up at the finest hotels and saloons of California and Nevada and began what would become his legendary spending sprees.
Scotty and Albert Johnson
Scotty’s remaining investor was Chicago, Illinois insurance magnate Albert Mussey Johnson. The two men struck quite a contrast to one another when they met soon after the turn of the century. Mr. Johnson was a well respected and religious man, whereas Scotty was a rowdy and shady character. Convinced to invest in Scotty’s mine, Mr. Johnson gave thousands of dollars to Scotty over the next several years. Unfortunately, at least according to Scotty, a number of calamities prevented the delivery of the gold. Undaunted, Mr. Johnson finally decided to take a look at the gold mine on a personal tour of Death Valley.
Scotty took Mr. Johnson on a grueling trek by horseback through Death Valley. He figured a few days in the desert would be too much for the city slicker who was in ill health due to a near-fatal train accident in his youth. Surprisingly, Johnson loved Death Valley so much that he stayed nearly a month, and his health improved dramatically in the dry, sunny climate.
Although he never saw Scotty’s mine, endured the “Battle” of Wingate Pass, and was most certainly being swindled, Mr. Johnson did not seem to mind. He had found riches in the desert far greater than those that glitter. Besides, he had taken a liking to the eccentric desert rat. The two men began a lifelong friendship that would change the history of Death Valley forever.
Albert Johnson bought property in Grapevine Canyon and eventually built the Death Valley Ranch, which would later become better known as Scotty’s Castle. While Scott traveled frequently, he was regarded as a permanent resident of the castle. Nevertheless, it is evident that his participation in the project was far from direct.
Over the next ten winters, Albert Johnson often returned to Death Valley. His wife, Bessie Penniman Johnson, began to accompany him and Scotty on their desert expeditions. Mrs. Johnson suggested that they build something more comfortable for their vacations, so as to “get away from the rattlesnakes and scorpions.”
Early construction consisted of only box-like structures, which at the time were better than the canvas tents that Mrs. Johnson had been staying in. Later, after the concept plan was decided on, Death Valley Ranch began to take on some of its Spanish-Mediterranean design features.
Recognizing a good story, Scotty told everyone that he was building the two million dollar home with profits from his gold mine. When questioned by the droves of reporters who visited, Mr. Johnson agreed that Scotty owned the place, and simply said that he was “Scotty’s banker.” Construction was halted in 1931 when Mr. Johnson discovered that due to a surveying error, he was building his castle on federal land. The Great Depression was beginning to take hold and construction on the Castle was never restarted. Today the Castle remains as Albert left it – incomplete.
Towards the end of the Great Depression, the Johnson’s retired to Hollywood, California and often visited the Castle, which had become a popular hotel and tourist attraction due to the fame of Death Valley Scotty. Thousands of tourists, along with Hollywood movie stars and reporters from around the country, flocked to the Castle each year to see what they thought would be the dwelling of one of the world’s richest gold miners.
The Johnson’s died in the 1940s, and having no heirs, willed the Castle to a charitable organization called the Gospel Foundation of California. For various reasons, the Johnsons felt beneficent towards Scott, and in verbal agreements made specific provisions allowing Scott the right to live out the rest of his life at the castle. Walter Scott died in January of 1954 and was laid to rest on a hill overlooking the famous home that now bears his name.
In 1970, the Gospel Foundation sold the estate to the National Park Service, whose job is to protect and preserve the Castle for present and future generations to enjoy. Perhaps Death Valley Scotty had that in mind when he proclaimed: “The Hall of Fame is going up. We’re building a Castle that will last at least a thousand years. As long as there’s men on earth, likely, these walls will stand here.”