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The Fish Papers

Originally published in Sierra Lodestar on October 31, 2011


Frank Fish

           On a dark, starless Saturday night in the Gold Country in 1963, one of America’s most famous treasure hunters sat alone at the bar of the Imperial Hotel in Amador City. He had been summoned from his trailer behind the Wells Fargo building after phone calls began coming into the bar at midnight, demanding to speak to the town’s most celebrated and eccentric resident. Today, all that is known for sure is that employees roused the old adventurer from his slumber and brought him to Arditto’s Bar to answer the hostile voice that kept calling about “a life and death matter.” The treasure hunter picked up the phone and, in front of witnesses, grew increasingly pale as he listened to the caller on the other end of the line. Around 2 a.m., the man slammed the phone down and wandered back into the long, steel-blue shadows breaking on the hills. At 11 the next morning he was found dead in his trailer from a gunshot through his mouth.

           Last October, I published an article in Sierra Lodestar called “The Fury of Frank Fish: a true and unsolved mystery.” The piece was the result of exhaustive research into the life and death of Frank L. Fish, author of the cult classic on amateur archeology, “Buried Treasure and Lost Mines” and curator of the Gold Rush Museum, which was housed in the original stone Wells Fargo building on the old Highway 49 Corridor.

           For those who grew up in Amador City, the memory of Fish creaking up and down planks of the jagged boardwalk, a double-barrel shotgun clasped in his battered, puffy knuckles, still invokes midnight images and a few disturbing questions. Such recollections of Fish’s “night patrols,” his human skulls, his pet rattlesnakes, are true and can be verified through photographs of him that still exist. Nevertheless, the photos play into the treasure hunter’s larger-than-life reputation, which now makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction; an issue that is critical to studying the question of whether his shocking death on April 7, 1963 was the result of suicide or undetected murder.

           Fish was close with Amador City personalities John Moore and James Jippett. From them and others we know that he claimed to possess gold relics excavated from Costa Rica and one of two existing copies of the Peralta Map, which the international treasure hunting community felt was connected to the Lost Dutchman’s Mine in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. Fish always carried a silver handgun, vagauly referencing unidentified people he feared were out to take his map and artifacts.

           Fish’s behavior played out over time as a human enigma. But what is verifiable about Frank Lawrence Fish? He hailed from Oklahoma and was the brother of Walter J. Fish and the father of John Fish. Existing photographs prove at least some of Fish’s claims about traveling throughout the western United States and countries in Central America. The photos also appear to establish that Fish owned an assortment of Mayan and American Indian jewelry and artifacts

           Numerous articles were written about Fish during the 1950s in a variety of publications, though most pieces were authored by the same journalist: Lieutenant Harry E. Rieseberg. The lieutenant was an expert at deep-sea salvage and underwater treasure recovery. He was also a great admirer of Fish’s terrestrial relic sleuthing. Rieseberg wrote 30 different news stories about Fish in one year alone, a shotgun exposure that helped “Buried Treasure and Lost Mines” sell thousands of copies and attract some 38,000 visitors to Amador City in 1961.

           Then, on April 8, 1963 Fish was found dead in his trailer from a single gunshot wound into the back of his mouth. A note was found next to his body that read, in part, “I just could not stand the uncertainty, and the pain in my neck and brain.” Relying on the message, the Amador County Coroner quickly ruled Fish’s death a suicide triggered by a worsening case of diabetes.
           But when Fish was discovered that morning around 11 people in Amador City were immediately suspicious, primarily because witnesses at the Amador Hotel had observed the perplexing telephone saga play out the night before. Then Fish’s closest friend, Lake Erie Schaefer, confirmed that the Gold Rush Museum had been ransacked and half-looted, either the same night Fish died, or in the early hours before his body was found.

           Over the course of the next month, according to Schaefer, the museum was burglarized nine separate times, leading to a collective vanishing of all of Fish’s artifacts, gold pieces, maps and collectables. Schafer’s theory was that Fish was either killed over his alleged map to the Lost Dutchman’s Mine, or because criminals believed he had unearthed a bonanza of gold bars hidden in Tuolumne County the previous year. She also went to her grave believing residents of Amador City were partly to blame for plundering Fish’s belongings in the wake of his death.

           Famed treasure hunter Ben Traywick later weighed in on the controversy, making it clear that Fish would never have killed himself. Traywick seemed firmly in the camp that believed Fish was a murder victim.

           I recently obtained a copy of Frank Fish’s official corner’s report compiled by the Amador County Coroner’s Office in April of 1963. In it, a letter from Fish’s adult son, John Fish, strongly challenges the finding of suicide. John Fish points out that the sheriff’s office took no photographs of his father’s body inside the trailer. He challenges no ballistics tests were ever conducted to establish whether his father’s .38 Colt pistol was the same gun that inflicted the fatal shot. He complains that no “paraffin test” was conducted on his father’s hands to see if he’d actually fired a gun. He expressed outrage that no autopsy was performed to verify the physical decline that the coroner and sheriff suggested prompted Fish to end his life.

           John Fish concluded his letter with a direct suggestion of foul play: “Who were the two persons who were witnessed as being in the trailer the night of Sat the 6th of April 1963?” he demanded of the coroner. Fish’s son went on to claim in no uncertain terms that he’d hired a handwriting expert to examine his father’s supposed suicide note, and that the expert determined it “was a forgery.”  

           Fish’s coroner report does not reference any “persons who were witnessed” being in his trailer on the night of his death; though his neighbor, John Moore, told investigators he had visited Fish in the evening and headed home around 9:50 p.m. Moore said goodnight to his friend two hours before an employee from the Imperial Hotel arrived at the chrome, cloud-shaped trailer, alerting Fish to the strange phone calls that were coming in to Arditto’s Bar. The narrative of Fish’s coroner’s report, comprised of just four short paragraphs, also makes no mention of the unknown caller insisting and then demanding to speak with Fish.     

           It is unknown why John Fish believed mysterious individuals had been sighted in his father’s trailer on the night April 6. Rieseberg makes no such assertions in his letter to the coroner’s office, and, more significantly, Erie Schaefer makes no mention of it in her lengthy memoir on Fish. Moreover, the coroner’s file suggests Fish’s son may have had his own reasons for wanting to believe a murder had transpired. On the morning Fish’s body was discovered, John Moore told the Sheriff’s Office that Fish had been complaining that his son never visited. If the controversial “Fish suicide note” is real, then it offers a resonating note of depression in the aged treasure hunter around his sense of abandonment. “To my son, John,” the top of the note reads, “who didn’t even come to see if I was alive or dead! Leave sum of $5 only.”        

           Skeptics may find it easy to attribute John Fish’s reports of clandestine people being sighted on April 6, or his insistence that a handwriting expert had deemed the suicide note a fake, to acute guilt around the relationship he had with his father; but at least one accusation from the grieving son appears indisputable. Among John Fish’s many pointed questions to the Amador County Coroner, he demanded to know where a $20 gold neckpiece that friends had seen on his father’s body had gone.

           The coroner wrote a quick note back to him. The letter answered none of his questions about death-scene photos, ballistic tests, paraffin tests or autopsy procedures, but did say that the gold neckpiece had suddenly been located and would be sent to Fish’s family immediately.

           What is the truth behind the death of Frank Fish? While it seems hard to believe that a treasure hunter was covertly murdered for a map to the Lost Dutchman’s Mine, the revelation of Fish’s coroner’s report does cast doubt on how seriously, and competently, his death was investigated by authorities in 1963. Few answers were sought to the most basic questions around Fish’s demise, and ever fewer answers were sought to how his priceless collection of artifacts vanished in the days and weeks following the discovery of his body. Yet another reason Fish will likely remain a permanent riddle in the darkest corners of the Mother Lode’s psyche.