In Phoenix is a building remarkable in itself, but even more interesting is the story behind it. Mystery Castle stands in the foothills of South Mountain Park; once alone in the desert, Phoenix is now rushing up to meet it.
It was the work of Seattle advertising man, Boyce Luther Gulley, who, in 1929, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The best hope of a cure then relied upon being in a warm, dry climate, so he moved to Arizona. The only problem was, he didn’t tell his wife, Frances, or his 5-year-old daughter, Mary Lou, where he was going. He simply said he wanted to pursue a life as an artist and drove off in his new Stutz Bearcat. They would never see him again.
It’s thought that Gulley did indeed believe that he had just six months to live and didn’t want to put his family though any suffering (although simply deserting them doesn’t seem to be much of an alternative). Six months passed and then another and he hadn’t died. So it was then that he started upon his life’s work; staking a claim on land close to the South Mountains, he began building what would become an incredible, meandering house with 18 rooms, 13 fireplaces, a chapel and a dungeon. It was built of all types of recycled material – adobe, stone, railroad tracks, telegraph poles, even parts of the Stutz Bearcat when it ceased to be of use – held together with cement, mortar, calcum and goat milk. Gulley, who had had basic architectural training, bartered for materials and also laboured and sold shoes when he needed cash.
And for the next 16 years the house grew and grew. However, even with his tuberculosis cured, at no point did Gulley send for his family. Some stories say they believed he was dead, but it seems likely that he did send the occasional letter to Seattle in later years, although without saying exactly where he was (other family members, however, did visit the house, as did many of Gulley’s friends). Then, in 1945, Boyce Gulley died, not of TB but cancer. He left the house to his wife and daughter, along with a mysterious locked trap door and the stipulation that they had to live there for three years before it could be opened.
Life magazine covered the opening of the locked compartment, as well as dubbing the place Mystery Castle, although it contained just two $500 bills, some gold nuggets and a Valentine’s card Mary Lou had made for her father when she was a child. Mary Lou stayed on and in fact lived in the house until her death in 2010, although it had no plumbing or electricity until 1992. The accepted story is that this was a labour of love for her on her father’s part, to build her the castle she had always wanted as a little girl. However, I suspect much of this may have been embroidered by Mary Lou to excuse why her father had deserted her; Boyce Gulley seems to have been a selfish albeit talented man who, even after his death, continued to manipulate his family. Mystery Castle is an amazing place, but also a rather sad one; that Mary Lou continued to live in the building seems to be the act of a sad little girl clinging onto an idealised image of her father. I can’t help thinking that, rather than some fantasy building in the desert, she would have much preferred to have her father in her life.
What a fascinating story of love and insanity. As they say, “You can’t write this stuff.”
I always wonder where you find all these interesting information … great stuff Blue. Really love to read your articles.
Thank you so much!
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Very interesting, as always. Thanks for bringing the story to us.
So what has become of the place? Who owns it now?
It’s now maintained by the The Mystery Castle Foundation, a 501c3 (or non-profit) organisation. Mary Lou left it to the Mystery Castle Foundation on her death in 2010. It’s only open from autumn to spring as it gets so hot out there during the summer.
I just found your blog yesterday and have been absorbing content for hours! Your writing brings me into the sites and stories. Lucky for me, there is more I have yet to read.
I just moved from Phoenix area and the feeling I got from the mystery house was as you described. I was in Phoenix when Mary Lou would give tours, but never got to go then myself. It was recently vandalized with “extensive damage” in March. I am sure the foundation will fix it and reopen. It is very well loved by Phoenicians.
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Thank you such much for a lovely comment?
Thank you so much for your kind comment, Christen! I didn’t know about the vandalism – who on earth would do that.