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The Curse of Bodie: Legacy of Ghost-Town Ghosts?

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 27.6, November / December 2003

Today, the ghost town of Bodie, California, is one of the most authentic abandoned gold- mining towns of the Old West (figure 1). It is also reputed to be a “ghost” town in another sense: Some claim, according to a TV documentary, that Bodie is inhabited by ghosts who guard the town against pilferers (Beyond 2000). Supposedly, a visitor who dares to remove any artifact can be plagued by the dreaded “curse of Bodie.”

Boom Town

The 1849 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the western Sierra foothills lured men and women to California from across the United States and indeed the world. Prospectors equipped with picks, shovels, and the ubiquitous gold pans searched for placer deposits-loose flakes and nuggets that have eroded and washed into streams.

These deposits were searched for by “panning” (an art I once learned in the Yukon) in which the lighter dirt is deftly washed out, leaving behind the flakes of “color” that are collectively called “gold dust.” The discovery of sufficient placer deposits sparked quests for the “mother lode,” involving hardrock mines laboriously dug, blasted, and shored up with timber (Williams 1992, 5; Smith 1925).

A decade after the gold rush began at Sutter’s Mill, four prospectors made a rich strike on the opposite side of the Sierras-that is, in the eastern foothills. They agreed to keep the discovery secret until the following spring, but one, W.S. Bodey, returned with another man, a half-Cherokee named “Black” Taylor. Having traveled to Monoville for supplies, the pair were returning to their cabin when they were caught in a blizzard and Bodey perished.

Named for its discoverer, camp Bodey was soon rechristened “Bodie” when (according to local lore) a sign painter misspelled the word and the new version was preferred (Bodie 2001; Misspelling 2003). At first Bodie was largely neglected due to other strikes in the area. Mark Twain was among the gold seekers who rushed to nearby Aurora, Nevada, for instance.

However, Bodie eventually boomed. In 1876, a freak mine cave-in exposed a valuable body of gold, and the Standard Consolidated Mining Company responded with a large investment in equipment and lumber. Another rich strike followed in 1878 in the Bodie Mine, which, in just six weeks, shipped gold bullion worth a million dollars. Meanwhile, Bodie grew rapidly, with boarding houses, restaurants, saloons, and other enterprises springing up (Williams 1992, 9-10).

Camps like Bodie attracted a breed of adventurous types:

Besides the business and professional men, mine-operators, miners, etc., there were hundreds of saloon-keepers, hundreds of gamblers, hundreds of prostitutes, many Chinese, a considerable number of Mexicans, and an unusual number of what we used to call “Bad men"-desperate, violent characters from everywhere, who lived by gambling, gun-fighting, stage robbing, and other questionable means. The “Bad man from Bodie” was a current phrase of the time throughout the west. In its day, Bodie was more widely known for its lawlessness than for its riches. (Smith 1925)

There were other perils and hardships, including the savage winter of 1878-1879 in which hundreds died of exposure and disease, and mining accidents that claimed victims by falling timber, the explosion of a powder magazine, and other means (Smith 1925; Bodie Cemetery n.d.).

Given Bodie’s reputation, it is perhaps not surprising that one little girl, whose family was moving to the mining town, reportedly prayed: “Goodbye God! We are going to Bodie” (Smith 1925).

Decline

Hardships and violence aside, Bodie was a thriving, bustling place, containing some 600 to 800 buildings and a population that reached over 10,000 (Williams 1992, 10; Johnson and Johnson 1967, 20). As it appeared about 1880,

The traffic in the streets was continuous and enlivening. There were trains of huge, white-topped “prairie-schooners,” bringing freight from the railroad, each drawn by twenty or more horses or mules, and pulling one or two large, four-wheeled “trailers"; ore wagons, hauling ore down the canyon to the mills; wood wagons bringing huge loads of pine-nut from long distances, for the mines and mills and for general use; hay wagons, lumber wagons, prospecting outfits, nondescript teams of all descriptions, spanking teams driven by mine superintendents’ horses ridden by everybody, and most exciting of all, the daily stages that came tearing into town and went rushing out; the outgoing stages often carrying bars of bullion, guarded by stern, silent men, armed with sawed-off shotguns loaded with buckshot. . . . (Smith 1925)

However, like other boom towns, Bodie’s period of glory was brief, lasting from 1879 to 1882. The decline was slow, with the two major mines-the Bodie and the Standard-merging in 1887 and operating successfully for the next two decades. A disastrous fire struck in 1892 and-with a steady decline in the interim, including additional mine closings and abandonment of the Bodie Railway in 1917-another devastating fire destroyed much of the town in 1932 (Johnson and Johnson 1967, 20-21). Although Bodie was already dying, further decline having resulted from Prohibition and the Depression, some mining continued. However, there were no new strikes and companies eked out only minor profits, largely by using the cyanide process to extract gold from old tailings (i.e., mine refuse). By the 1950s even this recovery operation ceased and Bodie became a ghost town. Explains one writer: “When people were leaving Bodie, there were no moving companies in the area. People simply packed what they could on one wagon or truck and left the rest behind.” He adds, “That is why many of Bodie’s buildings still contain belongings that were left here years ago” (Williams 1992, 36).

In 1962, after years of neglect, Bodie became a State Historic Park, and two years later the Ghost Town of Bodie was dedicated as a California Historic Site. It has also been designated a National Historic Site. Bodie is maintained in a state of what is termed “arrested decay,” which means the buildings are protected but not restored (Johnson and Johnson 1967, 21; Bodie 2001, 3).

Ghost Town, 'Ghost' Town

Old, deserted places inspire the romantic and the superstitious to think of ghosts, and Bodie is no exception. It represents an entire townful of potentially haunted houses and other premises-168 remaining structures-as well as the Bodie cemetery. It is, gushes one ghost-hustling writer, “A ghost town that is really a ghost town” (Myers 1990).

However, the reports of ghostly activity tend to fall into categories of familiar, well-understood phenomena. Consider, for example, occurrences at the J.S. Cain House at the corner of Green and Park streets. Once the home of a prominent businessman and then the residence of caretakers’ families, it is supposedly haunted by the specter of a Chinese woman, possibly a maid who worked for the Cains (Hauck 1996).

Reportedly, this “heavy set” Chinese lady appeared to children in their second-floor bedroom. Also, a ranger’s wife stated:

I was lying in bed with my husband in the lower bedroom and I felt a pressure on me, as though someone was on top of me. I began fighting. I fought so hard I ended up on the floor. It really frightened me. Another ranger who had lived there, Gary Walters, had the same experience, in the same room, except that he also saw the door open and felt a presence and a kind of suffocation. (Myers 1990)

All of these effects are well known and may occur when one’s consciousness shifts into a state between being fully asleep and fully awake. In this condition, seemingly realistic “waking dreams” often occur, involving ghosts, aliens, or other beings. Also in this interim state one may experience “sleep paralysis” in which, although the mind is awake, the body is still in the sleep mode. The sensation of being held or strapped down is a typical consequence (Nickell 2001).

Some apparitional or auditory experiences such as those reported at Bodie-for example “a woman peering from an upstairs window in the Dechambeau House” or “the sound of children’s laughter . . . heard outside the Mendocini House” (Myers 1990)-may be similarly explained. These typically occur when the experiencer is relaxed or performing routine work. Such a mental state may allow images or sounds to spring up from the subconscious and thus be superimposed upon the consciousness (Nickell 2001).

One man visiting the Bodie cemetery with his little girl noticed her giggling and apparently playing with an unseen entity. This was supposed to be “The Angel of Bodie,” a child who was killed when she was accidentally hit in the head by a miner’s pick (Myers 1990). Actually the dead child was Evelyn, the three-year-old daughter of Albert and Fannie Myers, who died in 1897. Her grave is surmounted by the figure of a child angel, sculpted of white marble (Bodie Cemetery n.d., 5)-an ideal model for a little girl’s imaginary playmate (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Investigator Vaughn Rees examines the tombstone of “The Angel of Bodie,” reportedly one of the resident ghosts.

Figure 2: Investigator Vaughn Rees examines the tombstone of “The Angel of Bodie,” reportedly one of the resident ghosts.

I have found that some people seem especially susceptible to ghosts-because they are more inclined to believe or because they are especially imaginative. I continue to use a questionnaire that helps me analyze reported ghost encounters, and thus far I find a good correlation between those experiences and the number of traits associated with fantasy proneness (Nickell 2001).

This correlation continued with my research at Bodie, although colleague Vaughn Rees and I obtained only four completed questionnaires there. (A ranger stopped the project since I had not obtained official permission, something I usually try to avoid to keep employees from being told what to say.) Nevertheless, even with this limited sample, the highest ghost-experiences score was matched by a high fantasy score, and similar results were obtained with six questionnaires we obtained at another California ghost town, Calico.

In addition to perceived phenomena, photographs represent another form of "evidence” for alleged ghosts at Bodie. Again, however, there are familiar patterns. For example, streaks of light in some photos (Lundegaard 2002) are consistent with the camera’s flash rebounding from something-such as the wrist strap-in front of the lens (Nickell 2001).

Bodie Curse

Yet, if some people are to be believed, there are not only ghosts in the windswept town but, purportedly, spirits who are responsible for protecting its treasures by implementing the “Curse of Bodie.” Explains the narrator of one television documentary:

Bodie’s inhabitants were of hardy stock, fiercely possessive of what they had built in this barren desert, and it is said that the long-dead spirits want to ensure that what they left behind remains intact. According to legend, anyone who removes anything-large or small-from the town is cursed with a string of bad luck. Misfortune and tragedy are heaped upon the victim until the stolen item is returned. Some claim that the ghosts of Bodie patrol the crumbling ruins to guard against thieves. (Beyond 2000)

According to park ranger J. Brad Sturdivant, “The curse still exists today.” Spooked former visitors often return old nails and other souvenirs taken from Bodie. While “Most of it comes back in an unmarked box,” the ranger states, "We still get letters . . . from people saying, 'I'm sorry I took this, hoping my luck will change'” (Beyond 2000).

The earliest use I have found of the phrase “The curse of Bodie” appears in the 1925 reminiscence of a former resident. However, he was speaking of something entirely different, namely what had befallen Bodie and caused its decline. As he wrote: “the curse of Bodie, as it was of 'The Comstock,' was the stock market, which was manipulated by stock gamblers in San Francisco for their own profit, regardless of the merits of the mines, and without thought for the thousands that found their ruin in the unholy game . . .” (Smith 1925).

The notion of a quite different Bodie curse-one that does not harm the town but instead defends it from pillagers-is of much more recent vintage. Not surprisingly, it appears to follow efforts to preserve Bodie as a historic site. Obviously the “curse” is being officially promoted today when a ranger encourages the idea on a television program and the museum/gift shop displays an album of letters from those believing themselves accursed.

Although these letters may be only a selection and three are undated, the earliest of the remaining twelve was sent in 1992. Having taken a nail from Bodie, the writer states: “Life since then has been a steady downward slide. It’s possible that all the unpleasant events of the past nine months are a coincidence, but just in case the Bodie curse is real I am returning the nail.” Another letter, from 1994, is addressed, “Dear Bodie Spirits”:

I am SORRY! One year ago around the 4th of July I was visiting the Ghost Town. I had been there many times before but had always followed the regulations about collecting. This trip was different, I collected some items here and there and brought them home. I was a visitor again this year, and while I was in the museum I read the letters of others who had collected things and had “bad luck.” I started to think about the car accident, the lost [sic] of my job, my continuing illness and other bad things that have “haunted” me for the past year since my visit and violation. I am generally not superstitious but . . . Please find enclosed the collectibles I “just couldn't live without,” and ask the spirits to see my regret.

This was signed, “One with a very guilty conscience.”

On the TV series Beyond Bizarre (2000), a German man related how his uncle had removed a small bottle from Bodie and two days later had a car accident on the Autobahn. The next day his son took the bottle to school to show classmates and on the way home had a bicycle accident. Said the man, “Yes, I do believe in the curse of Bodie.”

Figure 3: Artifacts from Bodie - especially ones pilfered from there, like this old fork - supposedly attract the fearsome “curse.”

Figure 3: Artifacts from Bodie - especially ones pilfered from there, like this old fork - supposedly attract the fearsome “curse.”

Belief aside, such anecdotal evidence does not prove the existence of a “curse” (or “hex” or “jinx”)-an alleged paranormal attack. Indeed, belief in curses is merely a superstition, a form of magical thinking. Once the idea takes hold, there is a tendency for any harmful occurrence to be counted as evidence for the belief, while beneficial events are ignored. Through the power of suggestion, the magical conviction spreads from person to superstitious person, until many believe, say, in a King Tut’s curse, a Hope Diamond jinx, or a Kennedy family propensity for misfortune (Nickell 1999).

A different mindset allows one to shrug off such nonsense. Skeptics sometimes hold “Superstition Bashes” during which they break mirrors and challenge other superstitions without fear of consequence. In attendance may be a resident spokesperson (such as myself), identified as a friggatriskaidekaphobiologist-that is, one who studies the fear of Friday the Thirteenth and, by extension, other supposed causes of bad luck.

I have even specifically challenged the Curse of Bodie-not by pilfering items from the site, which is appropriately illegal-but by collecting artifacts that have come from there. As shown in figure 3, these include an 1879 check, drawn on the Bodie Bank, and two 1882 issues of the newspaper, The Bodie Evening Miner. If it be argued that these were not pilfered from Bodie, the other item, an old fork, reportedly was: I bought it from an antiques dealer who said she picked it up herself at Bodie several years ago without apparent consequence.

I would like to donate these items to Bodie. I am only waiting for the time when the town’s custodians officially cease promoting superstition and disclaim the existence of any Bodie curse.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to CFI Librarian Tim Binga, SI managing editor Ben Radford, and intern Dawn Peterson for research assistance, and to Paul Loynes for his professional word processing.

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.