THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE APACHE DEATH CAVE

Gladwell Grady ‘Toney’ Richardson. Everything we know about the Apache Death Cave comes from this man.

In 1926 the tiny settlement of Two Guns, Arizona, was rocked by the killing of Earl Cundiff by Harry ‘Indian’ Miller. That episode is well documented but an enduring myth associated with Two Guns is far more nebulous and less easy to prove. That legend concerns the so-called Apache Death Cave.

As the story goes, in 1878, Apaches had raided two Navajo camps, killing everyone but three girls who were kidnapped. Other Navajo warriors attempted to follow the Apaches but were mystified when they appeared to vanish into thin air. Then, while scouting along the edge of Canyon Diablo, they noticed voices from beneath them and warm air coming up from a fissure in the ground. They quickly realised they were above a cave in which the Apaches, their horses and possibly the three Navajo girls were hidden.

Looking across to the famous cave.

They found the mouth of the cave and lit a fire intending to smoke out their enemies. Those who tried to escape were killed and when it was found that the Navajo girls were already dead, it was decided to kill all the Apaches in the cave in revenge. After those trapped in the cave had used all their water in an attempt to put out the flames, they cut the throats of their horses to use the blood to douse the fire. But, as the corpses of their horses piled up against the opening and the Navajo continued to fuel the flames with sagebrush, some forty-two Apaches are said to have died in the cave.

Harry ‘Indian’ Miller – unfairly blamed for the Apache Death Cave story?

Did it happen? At this length of time there is really no way of telling and there is considerable doubt as to how much the tale has been rewritten, exaggerated and embellished. What is clear is that Harry Indian Miller has been unfairly tarnished in many accounts and histories of Route 66 with starting and promulgating the myth of the ‘Apache Death Cave’. While it is true that Miller used the cave as a tourist attraction, he advertised it as ‘Underground Dwellings’ and probably fitted out the cave with suitable stage dressings to entertain visitors. However, there’s no evidence that the cave was ever used as a dwelling, which casts doubt on the idea of it being regular living quarters for the Apache.

A postcard of the Apache caves from the 1930s. Note no mention of death.

All photographs that exist of Two Guns during Miller’s tenure show the attraction advertised as the APACHE CAVES or the MYSTERY CAVE. Many accounts accuse Miller of clearing out the caves and selling Apache skulls but there is one fact which goes against this idea; Miller claimed to have Apache blood (whether full blood or half blood depends on which account you read) and while that claim is perhaps a little tenuous, as such he would have been unlikely to sell the bones of his ancestors. In late 1926, he and his friend and fellow trader Joe Secakuku announced a plan to build a dance floor in the cave, although this never came to pass. It would be forty feet by fifteen feet and for the use and entertainment of not only tourists but local Winslow residents. Had Miller believed – or even known – of the existence of the Death Cave story would he have turned the cave into first a tacky tourist attraction and secondly a dance hall? And even if he had been prepared to compromise his claimed heritage, would Chief Joe, a full blood Hopi, have gone along with the plan?

A later postcard, also with no mention of any death caves.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence towards the story of the Apache Death Cave being an exaggerated and embroidered (if not invented) story is that the facts emanate from one source; Gladwell Grady Richardson.

Thanks to the work of Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s state historian, one Richardson tale has already been debunked. For years, people have spoken in awe of Canyon Diablo, a town on the edge of the canyon from which it took its name and a mile or so from Two Guns.

Originally a railroad camp, Canyon Diablo had a main street called Hell Street, fourteen saloons, ten gambling houses, four brothels and two dance halls, many of which stayed open twenty-four hours a day. It was said to be a lawless and dangerous place with a Boot Hill cemetery which was filled within a year with those who had suffered a violent demise. Six town marshals died in quick succession, the first lasting just four hours, the longest serving surviving a month. It was a place that made Tombstone seem like the most sedentary of suburbs.

There’s only one problem with this picture of Canyon Diablo: It never existed.

It was virtually all the imagination of Gladwell Richardson. In a time where very few documents existed – there is, for example, no record of a Canyon Diablo newspaper in the railroad camp – Richardson somehow magically managed to not only know how many saloons and brothels there were in the town, but was able to name them, too. “Nearly everything you’ve read is fiction,” says George Shaw, an archivist at the Arizona State Railroad Museum. “Never happened.” Richardson was a prolific author of Western stories which he penned under a variety of pseudonyms and it’s all too likely that his ability for conjuring up stories spilled over into his so-called narrative of Canyon Diablo.

Richardson also had a personal connection with Two Guns. He had worked in trading posts since he was a young boy and, in 1950, when his father SI Richardson, bought Two Guns, Gladwell and his wife Millie ran the place for several years and it was while living and working at the trading post that Richardson began writing a small book called Two Guns, Arizona. Published in 1968 and long out of print, this small tome appears to be from where the legend of Canyon Diablo and the embellished story of the cave originate. In his book, Richardson writes of Canyon Diablo; ‘For the brief span of its vicious life, more famous places like Abilene, Virginia City and Tombstone could not hold a candle to the evil of this end-of-the-railroad’s depravity. Murder on the street was common. Holdups were almost hourly occurrences, newcomers being slugged on mere suspicion that they carried valuables.’

The truth was that the town, like most railroad camps, was a place where people worked hard, perhaps had a little too much to drink on a Saturday night, but were too careful of their jobs to participate in much mayhem or murder. However, that doesn’t make for quite such an exciting story! By the time that Richardson wrote his version of history, the town had been gone for almost eighty years, meaning that there would have been very few people who had experienced Canyon Diablo first-hand, and so his account became universally accepted.

Richardson’s book also appears to be the source for the much-repeated story that, during the winter of 1879, the canyon was a hideout for Billy the Kid and his gang. Once again, it’s a great tale but the likelihood of it being true is extremely low. Robert M Uttley in his definitive biography of William H Bonney has The Kid in his home territory of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, throughout the time that Richardson claimed he was hiding stolen horses in the canyon.

Two Guns, Arizona also provides an exciting and entertaining narrative of the events of the Apache Death Cave, containing facts that can be found nowhere else. Indeed, it appears to be the sole history of the events of June 1878 for every subsequent retelling has drawn upon either the facts published in this book or in a longer article which appeared in Big West Magazine in 1967. The author of this piece was Maurice Kildare – and Maurice Kildare was one of Richardson’s many pseudonyms.

Although he was regarded as an expert on Western history – a notion promulgated by his many Western novels and by Richardson himself – Two Guns, Arizona was only one of two works of non-fiction that he wrote in his lifetime. The other was a work which Richardson clearly preferred to forget.

On 23rd April 1923, special officer JS Sullivan of the Arizona Eastern railroad arrested a young man in a boxcar at the Phoenix railroad yards early in the morning. It was a common enough incident and Sullivan had no cause to suspect the man of anything other than vagrancy. But a search at the police station of the man’s meagre possessions uncovered a diary in which the vagrant, who was identified as Gladwell Grady Richardson, had written a vivid first hand narrative of how he had killed a rabbi in a San Francisco hotel and then deserted the navy.

Richardson claimed it was simply a story he had been writing to keep himself amused which might have been more believable had Phoenix officers, upon investigation, not discovered that, on 3rd April 1923, a Rabbi Alfred G Lafee had indeed been beaten to death in the Gates Hotel on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. The details of the slaying corresponded to Richardson’s account in every way.

The Gates Hotel where Richardson killed Rabbi Lafee.

Nonetheless, Phoenix officers appear to have believed Richardson’s explanation that the diary was just a story. He stuck so consistently to this that Phoenix Chief of Police, Oscar Roberts, publicly stated that he felt the diary was a figment of the nineteen-year-old deserter’s imagination and he was an unfortunate victim of circumstance. It must have been embarrassing for the police chief when, the following day after this statement, Richardson changed his tune and made a full confession, waiving his right to be extradited to California.

Two days later he told his story before a grand jury. On 3rd April, Richardson had gone ashore from the USS Vigilante to Golden Gate Park where he had met a stranger to whom he referred to his diary as “the Jew”. His diary spoke of the man as “kind of nervous for some unknown cause”; the young Richardson may have been very naïve – or wished to appear so – for he accepted the stranger’s invite to take in a show and then spend the night at a local hotel.

The Gates Hotel today, renamed as the Fusion although basically unchanged on the exterior.

Richardson wrote in his account: “After the show we went to the Gates Hotel but he registered as Mr Lane. About 3.30am I was suddenly awakened by the Jew, my hand fell off the bed coming into contact with a cuspidor. I turned it on its side and emptied it. I swung the cuspidor and struck the Jew on the head. The Jew swung with his fist and hit me on the jaw. I then swung the cuspidor twice in rapid succession. The blood on my hands was bloody. I got up and turned the lights on. As I did my left hand left a print on a wall. The Jew was unconscious. At first I thought he was dead. He was breathing heavily and his head was between the bars of the head of the bedstead. I washed the blood from my arms and hands, put on my clothes, opened the door and walked out. The clerk was there so I lit a cigarette and asked him something about the weather. My voice sounded kind of queer, that was the only emotion I had

Back on the USS Vigilante, Richardson learned two days later that not only was the man a rabbi, but he was now a dead rabbi. He told a couple of people what he had done, a friend called Frank and a woman called Alice with whom he had had dinner two nights later and then he decided to go on the run from Goat Island Naval Training Station. As his diary relates, this action caused him more angst than the murder. In the entry of April 7th, he wrote: “The rabbi is dead. So now in the eyes of the law I am a murderer. Can’t say I feel like one. I’m also a deserter from the navy, that’s what I’m worried about. Wired dad to send $75. Discarded my bright, new uniform yesterday for a pair of overalls, shirt and sweater. I look like a bum now.”

Pleading self-defence as the victim of an ‘unnatural attack’, Richardson went through his story again in front of the grand jury and, on 15th May 1923, that grand jury refused to indict him on a charge of murder, holding that he was justified in defending himself under the circumstances. This should have automatically closed the case but Richardson was referred to the Superior Court which, on 29th June 1923, confirmed the grand jury’s decision and dismissed the charge of murder on the grounds, quite amazingly, of insufficient evidence.

As a deserter, Richardson should have been placed under immediate arrest by a naval guard but, according to contemporary newspaper reports he was allowed to leave the court on his own and voluntarily surrender to a naval assembling station on Yerba Buena island. It’s to be presumed that he did this; although that naval career appears to have ended a few months later, the foreword of Navajo Trader stating that he remained on active duty until 1924 and then was recalled into military service after Pearl Harbour, serving in Arizona, Indiana and the South Pacific. Then again, that same foreword also contains no whisper of his troubles in San Francisco in 1923.

In fact, Richardson appears to have successfully expunged any mention of the murder of Rabbi Lafee from his subsequent life, going on to be an organiser of the Flagstaff Indian Pow Wow and author of almost three hundred works of fiction. The tourists that he did welcome to Two Guns were generally those who were seeking out their favourite author and he continued to run the trading post until 1962 when he sold the business to Ida Ferne Jacobs Rawlinson who, just a year later, sold up to Benjamin F Dreher. Richardson dedicated his book to Dreher; it may have been a genuine desire on Richardson’s part to record the history of the place as he saw it, or it may have been commissioned by Dreher as publicity for the redevelopment of Two Guns. The fact is that book published in 1968 and an article written under one of his many pseudonyms, are the sole source of information on the now much-repeated story. And the first time that anyone had heard of the Apache Death Cave…

Gladwell Grady ‘Toney’ Richardson. Unreliable witness?

THE LITTLE ORPHANS OF ROUTE 66

The Welch boys. L-R: Tommy, Billy, Jimmy, Johnny.

There are many stories born on Route 66 that tug at the heart, but perhaps one more than any other when, in June 1961, the lives of four little boys were changed forever.

James Dolphus (‘JD’) and Utha Marie Welch were a typical American couple in their early thirties. JD, a burly six-footer and 200lbs, was a truck driver for Trans-Con, while Utha was a housewife and stay at home mother for their four sons. Jimmy, 12; Billy, 9: Tommy, 8 and 5-year-old Johnny. (There had been another son, born between Jimmy and Billy, but Noble – named after Utha’s father – was a sickly child from birth and died in infancy.) This, however, didn’t stop both parents being involved in many local activities in their hometown of Spencer, Oklahoma.

JD and Utha Marie Welch.

Most of JD’s family lived in California and, in June 1961, the family set out from Oklahoma to drive to Tulare, California to see JD’s mother before she went in for surgery. Then they intended to return to Oklahoma via Colorado Springs. The boys were keen to camp during the trip and JD and Utha agreed they could take their Boy Scouts pup tent. On Thursday 8th June, a day into the trip, the family left Amarillo in the morning. It was late at night by the time they stopped for gas in Ash Fork, Arizona and enquired about a motel room. The owner would tell police that JD had thought the room too expensive and left. As the motel owner never spoke about the incident publicly (despite being the last person outside of the family and their murderer to see the Welches alive), one wonders whether, glancing at the family’s shiny two-year-old Oldsmobile – JD had only bought it two weeks earlier – and calculating the lateness of the hour and the small boys, quoted a price higher than normal.

Looking north-east across the Aubrey valley, close to where the Welch family made camp. [Image courtesy of Google Maps]

No-one will ever know why the family didn’t then stop in Seligman where there were more motels. It may have been cost or it may have been that the boys were nagging their parents to camp. But eventually, around midnight, JD pulled into the side of the road around 13 miles west of Seligman. Even now, it’s a bleak and barren stretch of road, the plain of the Aubrey Valley stretching for miles around. The only cover were two large piles of rubble and it was beside one of these that JD pitched his sons’ tent while he and his wife slept in the Oldsmobile.

The next morning, little Johnny was the first boy awake. He went over to the car where his parents were sleeping and tried to wake them. Confused, he ran back to his brothers, saying there was something on mommy’s face. Going to check, Jimmy found his mother’s face covered with blood. He lifted his father’s head and found that he too had been shot several times in the head. The little boys tried desperately to flag down help, but several cars would speed past before salesmen and race drivers, Jere Eagle and Dan Cramer from California, stopped and realised the horror of the situation.

The boys’ pup tent beside the Oldsmobile. Despite being so close, none of the boys heard the shots that killed their parents.

Highway Patrolman Dan Birdino and Deputy Sheriff Perry Blankenship were first to arrive on the scene, Blankenship having been notified by his wife, Bertie Lee, after a driver stopped at Johnson’s Café on the east end of Seligman where she worked as a waitress. Bertie would have a bigger role in this story than she could have imagined at the time. 

Although around $60 had been taken from JD’s wallet, Utha’s purse, which contained $147, and her expensive jewellery was untouched. Despite a few promising leads – a Greyhound bus had stopped at the same place although this turned out to be some hours after the murders – clues quickly dried up. The best that the local police had was a statement from Bertie Blankenship about a young man she had served late the previous night. He only had a nickel on him, not enough for a cup of coffee, but there was something about him that spooked Bertie so much she gave him the coffee for free. A few hours later, the same man returned to the all-night diner and this time ordered a full meal with tomato juice, paying for it with a $20 note and professing not to recognise Bertie.

However, a suspect did flag up on the law enforcement radar almost immediately. James Abner Bentley lived in Gilbert, Arizona. However, his mother and estranged wife claimed that he had been in Fresno, California, with them on the night of the murders. Arrested for the robbery and attempted murder of a Phoenix gas station attendant in late June, it transpired that Bentley had been in Fresno – but a month earlier, when he had killed the owner of a liquor store.

Shown a photo of Bentley by Sheriff Jim Cramer, Bertie Blankenship identifies him as the man who visited the diner twice. [Photo by Bill Nixon, Arizona Republic]

So, James Abner Bentley was already suspected of the Welches’ murders just days after they happened and local Seligman police had a mug shot of Bentley. For whatever reason, no-one thought to show that photo to Bertie Blankenship. Bertie didn’t see a photo of Bentley until a year later after a cellmate of the condemned prisoner had revealed that Bentley alluded to the murders, proudly saying he’d left the children alive. When Bertie was shown an image of Bentley, she immediately identified him as the stranger who had come to the diner – once poor and once with money in his pocket – the night of the murders.

James Abner Bentley. he would be described as a ‘mad dog’ by a boy who witnessed his attempted murder of a Phoenix gas station worker.

James Abner Bentley was charged with the murders of JD and Utha Welch while on death row in San Quentin, convicted of the murder of the Fresno liquor store owner. Had his death sentence been commuted – and that was a definite possibility at the time as Pat Brown, then Governor of California, was a firm opponent of the death penalty – then Arizona would have proceeded with the prosecution for both the Welch murders and the robbery and attempted murder charge in Phoenix. But, on 23rd January 1963, just after 10am, Bentley went to the gas chamber. It was little consolation to the four small boys (although Jim was, unsurprisingly, a lifelong supporter of the death penalty) whose childhood ended so brutally on the side of Route 66.