Monday, June 17, 2002

The Final Chapter in the Adolph Ruth Tragedy, Parts 1 and 2

June 17, 2002 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The rocky eastern slope of Black Top Mesa, a rugged black topped mountain within the Superstition Wilderness Area, holds the secret as to what happen[ed] to Adolph Ruth in the late spring of 1931. His skeletal remains were found on its slope on January 8, 1932, ending the mystery of Ruth’s disappearance.

The search party consisted of five men led by Jeff Adams and included William A. Barkley, Hosea Cline, Ace Gardner and Gabe Roblas. Ruth’s skull had been found on December 10, 1931, near the Three Red Hills. Ruth disappeared in the famous Superstition Mountains six months earlier while on a prospecting archaeological expedition sponsored by the Arizona Republic.

Ruth’s skeletal remains were found about three-quarters of a mile from the site where his skull was discovered almost a month earlier. The search party came up on the skeleton while making a systematic search of the canyons and ridges. The searchers had passed within 200 yards of the site a dozen times in previous searches but failed to see the remains.

The bones of the missing prospector had been scattered over an area of 50 to 100 square yards. Ruth’s clothing had been shredded and spread over the area by wild animals, but his personal belongings were intact.

The search posse found his penknife, a jackknife, a top of a thermos bottle, a tin matchbox containing six matches and Ruth’s gold case watch. All these items were found within a double fold of his pants pocket. A compass and hand-held lens for inspection of ore samples were found in his buttoned shirt pocket.

Ruth’s suspenders, gun, flashlight, pick axe, checkbook, thermos bottle and canvas leggings lay nearby. The leggings were wrapped as if he had been wearing them prior to taking them off. His revolver, a .44 caliber Smith & Wesson Russian, had not been fired and was fully loaded. His empty thermos bottle provided grim testimony as to what might have happened at the site in June 1931.

The skeleton was five miles as the crow flies from Ruth’s camp at Willow Springs in West Boulder Canyon. Adams proclaimed that, because of the rugged terrain, Ruth would have had to walk at least eight miles to reach his camp from the spot his remains were found. He wasn’t prepared for the distance, the heat or the exertion.

Law enforcement officials abandoned all murder theories in connection with Ruth’s disappearance after they were able to examine his remains. It was apparent to these veteran officers that Ruth had succumbed to the elements. They declared Ruth died from thirst, exhaustion and starvation. It was his struggle through the hot desert and his quest for a distant peak that had cost him his life. Ruth believed locating Weaver’s Needle would lead him to the fabulously rich Lost Dutchman Mine.

The law enforcement officers found several papers scattered around the site of Ruth’s remains, but they did not find an old Spanish map which Ruth was believed to be carrying. It was this alleged map that so many believe he was murdered for.

[Part II – June 24]

Reviewing some of the facts about the disappearance of Adolph Ruth might help clarify the story. Ruth, a Washington, D.C. treasure hunter, arrived at the Barkley’s Quarter Circle U Ranch on May 13, 1931. William A. Barkley discouraged Ruth from making a trip into the mountains because of the extreme heat and his physical condition. Almost a month later, Jack Keenan and Leroy Purnell packed Ruth into West Boulder Canyon and set up camp for him at Willow Springs. This was on June 13, 1931.

Ruth wrote a letter to his wife Clara and dated it June 14, 1931. When Barkley found out Keenan and Purnell had packed Ruth into West Boulder Canyon, he immediately rode in to check on Ruth. He didn’t find Ruth in camp or any sign of him. He then immediately reported Ruth missing on June 20, 1931.

The search for Ruth began the next day. Deputy Jeff Adams and Barkley found traces of Ruth at East Boulder and West Boulder Canyon on June 17, 1931. Both men were convinced that Ruth had walked down West Boulder Canyon to its confluence with East Boulder Canyon and then on to Needle Canyon. He then turned up Needle Canyon hiking toward Weaver’s Needle to the south. Considering the conditions, it is amazing that he made it as far as he did before being overcome by heat and exertion. Ruth sat down on the ground in what little shade he could find along a small tributary of Needle Canyon on the slope of Black Top Mesa. Here he died of exhaustion, heat stroke or maybe a heart attack.

There was one unofficial reported sighting of Ruth by a prospector on June 16, 1931. The man who saw Ruth reported him in fair condition. This was about 9:30 a.m. in the morning near West Boulder Canyon west of Brush Corral. It appears that Ruth died sometime between June 15 and June 17th.

Ruth’s skull was found on December 10, 1931, and Dr. Ales Hrdlicka examined it on December 19, 1931. Dr. Hrdlicka said on that day that he could not be positive the skull had bullet holes in it.

Irwin Ruth, Adolph Ruth’s son, was convinced his father had been murdered in the mountains. Hrdlicka listened to Irwin Ruth talk about possible foul play. Hrdlicka then changed his original statement and said murder was possible, but he never signed the original statement drawn up by Olive S. Taylor stating the possibility of foul play.

Dr. Hrdlicka was a physical anthropologist and not a forensic pathologist. He very much lacked the professional training to determine if the holes in Ruth’s skull were bullet holes.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Department had the skeletal remains examined by two doctors in Phoenix. Both doctors reported there were no signs of foul play. They did not examine the skull, but the doctors were convinced Ruth died from the extreme conditions he tried to endure in the desert.

There is one common denominator in this story that is lacking when told by others. This was an old man, in poor condition, and convinced he could find a lost gold mine under extreme summer conditions in the Sonoran Desert. He perished because of his lack of common sense and his ignorance of the prevailing conditions.

For more information about this case read Dr. James R. Kearney’s “A Death in the Superstitions,” The Journal of Arizona History, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer 1992, p.117, Arizona Historical Society, 949 East Second Street, Tucson, Arizona, 85719.