Gunslingers, shootouts, and outlaws – it’s no wonder that the era of the Wild West has so many great stories.
However, between all the stories of cowboys, Native Americans, and criminals brought to justice, there are mysteries that we can’t solve even a hundred years later. From unlucky cards to a ship that heralds death, we unpack five of the most mysterious tales from the Wild West below.
The Legend of the Dead Man’s Hand
A dead man’s hand (otherwise known as two pair of black aces and black eights) is an unlucky hand in poker – but why? This story starts in South Dakota, in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon – the site of the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, one of the most prolific outlaws in the history of the wild West. According to Global Poker, Wild Bill was playing poker with a man called Jack McCall. McCall lost every cent he had in the game, but Wild Bill decided to pay off his debts but left him with a warning – “don’t play again until you can cover your losses.” McCall was insulted and planned to take his revenge on Wild Bill for the perceived slight. McCall came back to the saloon the next day, found Wild Bill at the poker table, and promptly shot him in the back of the head, killing the outlaw instantly. While McCall got away with the murder initially, he bragged about it and was subsequently arrested and hanged for the crime.
What does this have to do with the dead man’s hand? Legend has it that after the shooting, someone checked Wild Bill’s cards, and he had two pairs of black aces and eights. This story inspired the dead man’s hand, and most modern players who draw this specific combination will fold their cards immediately – or suffer the consequences.
The Lost Dutchman’s Mine
The Superstition Mountain Range is aptly named – it’s the site of some of the most chilling stories that the West offers. The Superstition Mountains’ most famous story is the Lost Dutchman’s Mine. According to western experts at World Footprints, the tale begins with the Peralta family. The family had struck gold in the Superstition Mountains and owned a very lucrative mine. However, on the family’s way back home to Mexico, they were ambushed by members of the Apache tribe. The only survivors of the attack returned home to Mexico, but legend has it that they left behind a map carved into stones sharing the location of the gold.
Several treasure hunters claim to have found the mine – however, all of these treasure hunters have met gruesome ends right after their revelation.
The Mystery of Etta Place
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are two of the most beloved outlaws in western folklore – but did you know that they had a companion, a woman by the name of Etta Place? Etta, known as the ‘Queen of the Wild Bunch’, was the lookout for pair – sounding the alarm when the sheriff was near. Etta travelled with the pair to South America. While most historians agree that Etta died along with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in a shootout in Bolivia, some scholars aren’t sure. According to True West, many rumours circulated about sightings after the alleged shootout – Butch Cassidy’s sister, Lula Parker Betenson, told the Los Angeles Times that Etta returned to America long before the shootout happened. Others suggest that Etta married and worked as a schoolteacher in Oregon, and still others said that she was murdered years after leaving the wild West behind.
The truth of the matter? We may never know what became of the ‘Queen of the Wild Bunch’, but the mystery remains.
The Treasure of Victorio Peak
This tale of Victorio Peak begins in the 1600s when a dying soldier arrived in a New Mexico monastery. With his last breaths, the soldier told monk Padre Felipe LaRue about a secret gold mine in the mountains. LaRue located the mine, and for three years, all was well. Finally, LaRue closed the mine after the Mexican Army took over the monastery, taking the location of the gold to the grave.
However, that’s not the end of the story. According to Mental Floss, a couple named Ernest and Ova Noss found the mine during a hunting trip in 1937 and brought home treasure in the form of large gold nuggets several times. Mental Floss’ experts say: “Ernest tried to open the mine further with a blast of TNT, it was inadvertently sealed despite repeated attempts to reopen it. When the White Sands Missile and Bombing Range was expanded in 1955 to include the land, Ova Noss supposedly sent a party to investigate, and they reported that Army officials were seen digging near the site. Still, the Army never made any mention of the Victorio gold.”
Conspiracy theory or robbery of the American people – what do you think?
Wyoming’s Ship of Death
Wyoming is full of ghost stories, but one of the less well-known legends is the Ship of Death. According to Only in Your State, “a death ship has been seen on [Wyoming’s] Platte River about every 25 years or so. Each time, the sighting has foreshadowed the death of someone known to the witness who has had the misfortune to spot the eerie vessel.”
The first sighting of the ship was over 100 years ago when a trapper sailing the river saw an enormous fog bank. The trapper, frightened, ran to the shore and threw a rock at the fog – prompting the clouds to take the shape of a ship, complete with masts, sails, and sailors. The trapper noticed that the cloud sailors were “…crowded around something lying on the ship’s deck. When they stepped away, affording him a clear view, he was stunned to see it was the corpse of a girl they’d been looking at. Looking closer, the trapper recognized her as his fiancée.” When the trapper returned home a month later, he learned that his fiancée had died. The same story happened again 25 years later – a cattleman was herding his cows near the river when the same ghost ship appeared, and he saw his dead wife on the deck of the vessel. Frightened, the rancher raced home only to find it burned to the ground and his wife dead just a few yards away.
No official reports have been filed, but the legend of the ship in the mist remains.
It’s easy to see why the Wild West fascinates Americans. Now the real question is – which of these mysteries do you think is true? Let us know in the comments below.