A golden thread runs through the American imagination from Hernán Cortés to Joseph Smith to George Warren Shufelt of Los Angeles. In our imagination, fabulous wealth lies hidden by time or sorcery under some hill somewhere, left by Aztecs or men from Mu, and waiting for a lucky someone to seize it. It even runs through California's motto - Eureka, Greek for "I have found it."
Glen Creason, the Los Angeles Public Library's map librarian, reminded us the other day of Shufelt's "eureka" on Fort Moore Hill (touched on in these pages by Nathan Masters and Hadley Meares.). Shufelt, a mining engineer and an inventor with a mysterious "radio X-ray" device, claimed to have found treasure catacombs under Fort Moore Hill in 1933.
According to Rex McCreery and Ray Martin, who spoke of an ancient map they had, Shufelt's find was a vault of Spanish gold. Or perhaps it was Aztec. It wasn't clear. In early 1933, the three treasure hunters convinced the county Board of Supervisors that they should be authorized to dig. They offered an even split of the riches with the county.
It seemed like a good idea in the worst year of the Great Depression.
By March, a crew of volunteer diggers (hoping for a cut of the gold) had driven a 28-foot shaft into the hilltop. They found nothing but rocks and mud. Strangely, the treasure shaft was directly over an excavation for the new Broadway tunnel. The tunnel workers boring through the hill hadn't found any Spanish or Aztec gold either.
In September, the disappointed gold seekers let their county permit lapse. Alfred Scott took up the search, promising the Board of Supervisors that he could reach the treasure vault with his own pick and shovel. He may have dug, but if he did, he didn't find anything.
Shufelt and his "radio X-ray" returned in January 1934 with an even better story. It combined every pulp fiction trope of super science and thrilling adventure: Native American legends, a doomed civilization of Lizard People from 5000 years ago, unknown technological marvels, and vast caverns filled with wondrous revelations. It wasn't Spanish or even Aztec gold that lay under "the old Banning property," the Los Angeles Times soberly reported, but the wealth of the Lizard empire.
Shufelt had gone back to Arizona and got the whole story directly from Chief Green Leaf (otherwise referred to as L. Macklin in the Times account). The Lizard People weren't actually lizards, it turned out, but refugees from a West Coast version of Atlantis. It was meteors that did in the Lizard People, according to Macklin's scrambled version of Native American mythology.
Shufelt, with Macklin's guidance and a county permit, began a new excavation on Fort Moore Hill in early 1934, hoping to tap the maze of tunnels and vaults the Lizard People had bored by means of an unknown chemical solution. Shufelt's exploratory shaft eventually reached a depth of 250 feet when the attention of the Times ran out and mud and water began pouring in.
If Shufelt and the other treasure hunters of Fort Moore Hill were running a confidence scam, their victims were remarkably quiet after being burned. Perhaps investors were so convinced by the story ... or stories ... that their losses were accounted bad luck. If there were any investors at all, maybe they were simply embarrassed.
Others kept on looking for a golden "eureka" of lost wealth, including these guys.
Shufelt stayed on, too, dying in North Hollywood in 1957. By then, the Lizard People of Los Angeles had seemingly disappeared, except as textbook examples of "bizarre Los Angeles."
But they had gone to populate a darker narrative of forgotten worlds and unknown races in which the golden thread of the American imagination leads not to unearned riches but to ancient UFOs, sinister aliens, and sometimes paranoia.