By Tom Kollenborn
The Superstition Wilderness Area can be a confusing maze of deep canyons and lofty mountain spires to the novice. A new explorer can easily be disoriented in this rugged terrain. Did Adolph Ruth become disoriented in June of 1931? Researchers continue to disagree and speculate about this bizarre case.
Adolph Ruth was first reported missing on June 18, 1931, by William A. “Tex” Barkley. A search of the region around Willow Springs was started on June 19, 1931, but to no avail. Ruth remained missing for almost six months before the first real clue to his disappearance surfaced.
Richie Lewis and George “Brownie” Holmes were guiding an archaeological expedition into the Superstition Mountains on December 10, 1931. Near the “Spanish Racetrack,” at the north end of Bluff Springs Mountain, one of Lewis’ dogs began to bark and bay. At first, Holmes and Lewis thought the hound had picked up the scent of a lion. The night before it had rained heavy and usually scent was best at this time. As George “Brownie” Holmes, Lewis’ co-guide, rode over closer to the baying hound, he immediately saw what the hound was barking at. Under a small Palo Verde tree, on the moist ground, laid a human skull. Brownie dismounted so he could closely examine the skull and the site. Immediately Odds Halseth, an archaeologist, called out not to touch or disturb the skull.
Brownie noticed the previous rain had erased all sign, so he reached down and picked up the skull at the ire of two of the expedition members. He immediately noticed two large circular holes in the temporal regions of the skull and commented to the others in the group that it looked like this poor fellow must have been shot in the head.
Odds Halseth and another member of the expedition, wanted to examine the skull. Halseth studied the skull momentarily. He declared the skull appeared very old and was probably Native American. Brownie could not understand how Halseth could make such a determination when pieces of dried skin tissue still clung to the skull. It was Brownie, who announced to the group, he believed they had found the skull of Adolph Ruth, the missing prospector. Brownie later claimed he made the statement because he recognized a ridge on the top of the skull that was similar to the ridge on the forehead of Adolph Ruth, whom he had met at Barkley’s Ranch almost six months earlier. Halseth denied the fact this skull could be that of the aging treasurer hunter, who had been missing since June 15, 1931. E.D. Newcomer, a free-lance photographer for the Arizona Republic, asked Holmes to cradle the skull in his hands so he could take a photograph of it.
Controversy soon developed between the members of the expedition over what they should do since the discovery of the skull. Some wanted to continue the expedition while others wanted to return to Phoenix. Harvey Mott, staff writer for the Arizona Republic, wanted to return immediately to First Water. Richie Lewis explained to the members of the expedition what two or three more days would do if they continued into the mountains. Lewis believed whomever belonged to the skull would never know the difference. Finally, it was decided to continue on to Charlebois Spring and spend the night.
Holmes and Lewis set up the expedition’s camp at Charlebois Spring. All the while camp was being set up, Halseth fretted about the security of the skull. He was afraid coyotes might steal into camp and carry off the skull. Finally Lewis solved the problem for Halseth. Lewis tied a piece of baling wire through the skull’s gaping holes and hung it in one of the Sycamore trees high above the ground. Ruth’s skull dangled from the tree casting an eerie spell over the camp. The night of December 10th was extremely damp and cold. A ground fog completely hid the skull high in the tree at dawn. As the ground fog slowly lifted, the skull was revealed, suspended in the air, dangling by a piece of baling wire. The expedition members would never forget the ghostly site that morning.
Most of the expedition’s participants wanted to return to Phoenix that morning. Mott and Newcomer had a story, Halseth thought he had found an Indian skull and Richie Lewis, along with Holmes, was sure they had found part of “old man Ruth.” It was soon decided that the expedition would return to Phoenix. They would then confirm their find.
The archaeological expedition was well on its way by 10:00 a.m. They arrived at First Water Ranch about 3:00 p.m. The trip from First Water to Phoenix was about seventy miles. The members of the expedition finally made their way into the city editor’s room of the Arizona Republic around 10:00 p.m., December 11, 1931. It was too late in the evening to have a pathologist examine the skull to determine if, in fact, it did belong to Adolph Ruth.
It was on December 12, 1931, Dr. Orville H. Brown examined the skull and pointed out many characteristics that agreed with the photos they had of Ruth.
Dr. James J. Lasalle corroborated Dr. Brown’s opinion. Dr. Claude M. Moore, a dental surgeon, felt sure the skull was that of an aged white man who had worn dentures.
Odds Halseth continued to disagree with the three doctors, and therefore claimed the skull. He immediately planned to ship it to the National Museum of Anthropology in Washington D.C. and have it examined by an expert. Halseth sent a telegram to the Science Service, Washington D.C. at 6:43 a.m. on the morning of December 13, 1931, claiming the skull could be a Native American or an old Caucasian. Halseth also claimed the skull had tissue, odor, and attracted flies. Halseth further said he was out of funds and offered the story to the Science Service. They replied by turning his story down and refusing to become involved. Halseth at first was very disappointed with the news media.
When Halseth received his answer from the Science Service Bureau, the Arizona Republic Sunday’s front page read, “SKULL BELIEVED THAT OF MISSING PROSPECTOR FOUND IN THE MOUNTAINS.” Halseth received a telegram from Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, anthropologist and pathologist for the National Museum stating, “Skull unquestionably that of aged white man, recently shot possibly.” The Arizona Republic had gambled on the skull and had won. Dr. Ales Hrdlicka said, “recently shot possibly.”
They didn’t need Halseth or his story, for they had their own. The National Wire Service picked up the story, and it began to appear in newspapers all over the United States. Ruth had put the Superstition Mountains on the map, but he had died tragically during the summer of 1931 to do so.
Upon the discovery of Ruth’s skull, the search for his remains was once again undertaken. Jeff Adams and William A. “Tex’ Barkley found Ruth’s other remains on January 8, 1932, in a small tributary canyon on the eastern slope of Black Top Mesa. The map Ruth had was eventually published in the Arizona Republic. This finally ended the mysterious disappearance of Adolph Ruth in the Superstition Wilderness.
The search for Adolph Ruth concluded, his remains found, still there were those who believed he was murdered for a map to a lost gold mine. Erwin Ruth, Adolph’s son, was a very melodramatic individual. He continued for the rest of his life to believe his father was murdered for a lost gold mine map. Erwin worked hard to convince people of these events and often changed them to fit his story of that hot summer of 1931.
In 1978, Dr. Thomas Jarvis, forensic pathologist for Maricopa County, studied close-wwup photos of Ruth’s skull and said he was not shot. The shatter pattern didn’t fit a bullet impact zone. Dr. Jarvis never actually examined the skull, but did discuss it with other professional forensic pathologists, and they concurred with him.
Much of this information came from a personal interview by me with George “Brownie” Holmes in 1979, a year before his death. Some information came from journal notes kept of the incident by Harvey Mott, editor of the Arizona Republican. Also personal information my father passed on to me about the incident.