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The Fury of Frank Fish: A True and Unsolved Mystery

Originally published on October 31, 2010 in Sierra Lodestar

Frank Fish

            On a low hill in the back of the Jackson cemetery is a forgotten grave. It’s bleak and unornamented — a long, cement slab erupting from the weeds and dirt; an obscure ending point; a lonely pauper’s resting place. And yet the bones beneath it belong to one of the most famous treasure hunters of the 1960s. He was a collector of skulls, a stalker of fortunes, a rescuer of artifacts, an author of books and a world traveler whose excursions were the stuff that Hollywood legends are made of.

            In many ways, Frank L. Fish was the real Indiana Jones. He had been detained by officials from Mexico to Costa Rica. He’d been threatened by rival treasure hunters. He’d been shot at in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. He had escaped enough close calls to know, instinctively, about the burning sensation of hairs shuttering up the back of one’s neck. However, in April of 1965, Fish was found dead in Amador City. The circumstances about his ending would be whispered about for years in the little hamlet, without ever determining the facts around the two most disturbing questions: Who killed Frank Fish? And who stole his treasures?

            When Frank Fish came to the Motherlode in 1958, Amador City was a half-eaten ghost town. Nevertheless, the treasure hunter was the quintessential “mysterious stranger” on its largely abandoned main street. Fish had owned of a popular Gold Rush museum in Costa Mesa. It was filled artifacts from the 1849 glitter boom he’d excavated around California. It was also, unbeknownst to many, filled with other things. More than twenty years of armature archeology in Mexico and Central America had made Fish a potentially rich man. Digging through muddy rainforests and forgotten ruins, he’d recovered gold and silver artifacts, burial urns, Spanish coins, Conquistador jewelry and several blue-jade idols from the ancient Costa Ricans. Proof that these treasures really existed, and were owned by Fish, appears to be documented photographically by his long-time (nowdeceased) friend, Erie Schaefer. 

            It was Schaefer and her husband, Bill, who first alerted Fish that an original Wells Fargo building from the Gold Rush was sitting empty along Highway 49 in Amador City. Obsessed with authenticity, Fish quickly moved his museum to the site. According to Schaefer’s memoirs, Fish planned to live out the twilight of his career educating tourists and running his beloved metal detector across the fair hills of the Motherlode.   

            But this wasn’t the image many in Amador City had of Fish. To them, cowboy hat-wearing recluse seemed paranoid, secretive and overtly bizarre.In a 2009 interview, Amador City resident Richard Lynch could still remember that Fish had “caged rattlesnakes and tarantulas” flanking his trailer behind the museum, and that Fish would “patrol the streets with a shot gun at night.” Such recollections were common. Schaefer’s own notes indicate that Fish usually carried a loaded pistol with him, claiming that he had reasons to fear for his life.

            Did he? In 1961 Fish published his first book, “Buried Treasure and Lost Mines,” which claimed to be a text of “authenticated lost treasures, still unfound, complete with approximate site maps.” While the book made Fish a cult figure in the underground world of international treasure hunting, it also brought what he felt was a dangerous notoriety. Business was never better at the museum, logging 38,000 visitors in 1962, but Fish began getting nefarious letters and phone calls from individuals consumed with gold fever. These were strange, unstable personalities who were sure Fish knew more than he was letting on about the untold riches alluded to in “Buried Treasures and Lost Mines.”

            Fish didn’t help matters by telling people that he had one of only two copies — in the entire world — of something he referred to in hushed tones as “The Peralta Map.” He was also fond of telling Gold Country confidants that he had direct knowledge of where Tuolumne bank robbery loot from 1850 was hidden. Whether these were truthful claims of or the wishful rants of former adventurer whose age was progressing and whose health was unbuckling under a serious case of diabetes, is impossible to know.

Frank's Grave

            What is known is that on Saturday night in April of 1965, a clandestine individual began calling the Amador Hotel, asking to speak with Fish, who evidently was refusing to answer his phone at the museum. At least two such calls were made to the hotel before midnight. Then, around 2 a.m. Sunday morning, the same unknown individual called the hotel yet again. A frustrated employee was told by the voice on the other end of the line that speaking with Fish was “a life or death matter.” Roused in his trailer by the employee, Fish made his way across Highway 49 into the Amador Hotel and took the call. According to witnesses, the old treasure hunter did very little of the talking as the muted conversation progressed. When call was over, Frank L. Fish moved across the bar with a ghostly pale expression on his face and stumbled outside into the blackness of the night.

            Later that morning, he was found dead in the museum from a gunshot to his head.

            Relying on a disturbed note that appeared to be in the dead man’s handwriting, the Amador County Coroner said the official cause of death was suicide. The note was addressed to Schaefer and read, “I do not feel I can go on. Erie, please have the water at my trailer tested for poison and an autopsy performed on my body.”

            Were these words the curious ramblings of man speared on the nexus between depression and dementia? Schaefer seems to have been convinced they were not. Arriving in Amador City seven hours after Fish’s body was discovered, she immediately claimed that Fish’s museum was “ransacked.” She and her husband wrote an extensive list of missing items, including old mining claims, rare coins, guns, artifacts and gold nuggets and gold dust that had been display cases for tourists to look at. She also pointed out that Fish was planning an expedition and had just purchased a new Jeep, camping refrigerator, two-way radio and $350 tape recorder. In the following months, Schaefer would report another eleven burglaries in the museum — resulting in much of Fish’s treasures being gone. This shocking accusation is preserved in a few extremely rare copies of Schaefer’s self-published account of Fish’s death in 1968.

            A treasure hunter named Ben T. Traywick, who wasfriends with Fish, also refused to believe the suicide claim. In today’s on-line world, one of the only traces that a man named Frank L. Fish ever existed is an essay Traywick wrote outlining why “one of the most famous and successful of the treasure hunters” never would have taken his own life. Among Traywick’s observations were that Fish made “no disposal of the 7,000 priceless items in his museum which he had spent his life collecting.” He also emphasized that buying into the suicide claimed meant accepting that the highly organized and meticulous Fish “made no provisions for his burial, as his body lies buried in the poorest section of the Jackson Cemetery, with only a small metal marker, supplied by the cemetery, as a means of identification.” In the end, Traywick concluded “the Frank Fish I knew would not intentionally take his life in such a manner.” 
            Traywick seems to have wondered if Fish’s supposed knowledge of the Columbia bank loot got him mixed up with desperate individuals.

            For her part, Schaefer had a much larger, more famous cache of gold in mind when it came to conspiracy theories around Fish’s untimely ending. According to the old treasure hunter’s stories, 30 years beforehe had heard rumbling in Mexico about an intriguing Holy Grail of sorts called “the Peralta Map.”Fish tracked down a cattle inspector named Erwin Ruth, who did indeed own a brittle map drafted in Spanish depicting the Superstitious Mountains in Arizona. The map purported to lead to a forgotten gold plunder called the Peralta Mines. Ruth warned Fish not to venture into the terrain because “men were still being killed” routinely there. Any idea Fish may have had that Ruth was paranoid was dispelled in 1931, when Ruth’s father, Adolph Ruth, was found murdered and decapitated in the Arizona sands. He’d been trying to use the map to locate the Peralta Mines.

            Adolf’s murder caused many treasure hunters and journalists across the nation to speculate that the Peralta Mines were actually the infamous Lost Dutchman’s Mine — a endless vein of pure gold discovered and concealed, until death, by German immigrant Jacob Waltz. 

            Meanwhile, hoping to succeed where Adolf had failed, Fish purchased what he believed was a copy of Peralta Map from surviving members of the Peralta family in Mexico. He took only one trip down Adolf’s footsteps through the hard, heated desert. He turned back after an unknown person shot at him from a brushy hill once occupied by the Apaches renegades. For decades, Fish told friends that he planned to go back.

            Was Fish murdered for his copy of the Peralta Map, which many in Amador City knew was stored inside the dank, stonewalls of his museum?

            Or, as others who knew Fish wondered, had he been driven mad in his later years by the curses he knew were thrown over his head: Aztec gods, Costa Rican mystics, the Apache thunder spirits? Fish had robbed them all. He had crossed into their sacred sanctuaries where white men were forbidden. Was it they, using Fish’s own trigger finger and imagination, that had exacted revenge?

The museum today

            No one can answer these questions; though there are some who undoubtedly do have answers to the other disturbing puzzle around the death of Frank Fish. It’s the question that would seemingly make the old treasure hunter roll about in his semi-anonymous grave: Who robbed Fish’s museum? Who took his gold? His artifacts? His blue-jade idols from the jungles? His life’s work?

            Today, on fall evenings, the calico mortar and stone of the vault that once held Fish’s dreams stands soundless against a rise of oaks, dead grass and midnight blue radiant light. Hundreds of bats pour in a blinking flutter from its roof, just before moonbeams caress its tired, slanted eve. In those rare moments when the highway is empty, whispers can echo down the town’s spiraled corridor of past centuries. But the bats flutter on — shooting out above the windows where no passerby will look, boiling into the night with a rapid onslaught, with a manic fury, like the fury of a forgotten man whose death remains an enigma, and whose treasures are gone, never to be seen again.