The Vague and Mysterious Death of Frank Fish

On a low hill in the back of the Jackson City cemetery is a nearly forgotten grave. And yet the bones beneath its plain marker shows it belongs to one of the most famous treasure hunters of the 1960s.

Frank L. Fish was very successful at finding treasure, but his contribution to the history of Amador, California, has been practicality obscured following his death. An Internet search of the Fleehart Building, that once housed Fish’s Gold Rush Trading Post & Museum, with its 10,000-plus artifacts and antiques is free of his mention.

You’ll find that the Fleehart Building, built around 1855 by Wells Fargo Agent William Fleehart, and that it suffered a fire in 1878. Then, you’ll see that it’s purchase by Jerrold Whitney in 1983, who established the Amador-Whitney Museum about women of the gold country, but the time period in which Fish was the owner of the building is absent.

Filled with artifacts from the 1849 gold rush period, that he excavated from around California, the museum also housed more than twenty years of finds from Mexico and Central America. Fish recovered gold and silver artifacts, burial urns, Spanish coins, Conquistador jewelry and several blue-jade idols, all which were photographically documented by Erie Schaefer.

The Fish family relocated to a Oklahoma farm shortly after the birth of Frank Lawrence Fish in Illinois on September 18, 1900. His parents, John T. and Mary, had an older son, John Walter Fish. While brother John took over the family farm, Frank took off to art school in Kansas City.

By 1958, Fish had a collection large enough that he opened up the Gold Rush Museum at the Buffalo Ranch in Costa Mesa. The following year, Schaefer suggested he move his collection into the Fleehart Wells Fargo building in Amador and ever obsessed with authenticity, Fish quickly moved to the site beside Highway 49, setting up a silver trailer behind the building, where he lived.

In 1961 Fish published his first book, “Buried Treasure and Lost Mines.” And while the book made Fish popular in the world of international treasure hunting, it also brought a dangerous notoriety, because while business at the museum was good, logging 38,000 visitors in 1962, Fish began getting nefarious letters and phone calls from individuals consumed with gold fever.

Between 1962 and early 1963, Fish said that he had a good lead on a $600-thousand treasure in Columbia, California, and that Fish had found positive evidence that another possibly larger and more important treasure had been hidden in the vicinity of Columbia, California.

In 1855, four men and a team of mules left Columbia with this huge load of gold pieces to be distributed to the miners. The men spoke with several riders a short distance outside of Columbia, then disappeared never to be seen again.

In Fish’s possession were letters and other papers that indicated someone had ambushed the men, stolen the wagon, mules, and  the gold coins and the four bodies hidden. During his extensive search of Columbia, Fish also uncovered evidence of an 1600-era English settlement not before known to historians.

The night before his death, a series of phone calls came into the Amador Hotel. Fish had not been answering at his museum so an employee at the bar, tired of all the phone calls, walked to Fish’s trailer at two in the morning.

Fish walk across 49, to the bar, where he sat and listened to the caller, speaking very little, hung up, and walked back to his trailer. It would be the last time he’d be seen alive.

A gun shot wound through the back of his mouth and a shaky suicide note suicide (since declared a forgery) reading: “I do not feel I can go on. Erie, please have the water at my trailer tested for poison and an autopsy performed on my body.” At the top of the note, it read, “To my son, John, who didn’t even come to see if I was alive or dead! Leave sum of $5 only.”

John Fish wrote a letter to the coroner complaining that investigators failed to photograph his father’s body in his trailer, run a ballistics test, check for gunshot residue on the dead man’s hands, or even perform an autopsy. Further, the coroner’s report doesn’t mention the phone calls, nor of the two unknown individuals seen in Fish’s trailer earlier that night.

John also asked for his dad’s gold piece, on a chain that he always wore. Initially, it wasn’t listed among the belongs collected from the body.

At first, the coroner ignored the younger Fish’s requests, but later replied that the necklace had resurfaced and they’d send it to him. No word on whether this happened or not.

Erie Schaefer arrived in Amador seven hours after the discovery of Fish’s death. Having extensively photographed his collection prior, Schaefer knew what was missing from the museum, including old mining claims, rare coins, guns, artifacts and gold nuggets and gold dust that had been display cases for tourists to look at.

In months that followed Fish’s death, Schaefer would report another eleven burglaries in the museum — resulting in much of his treasures disappearing. Schaefer also documented this fact in her self-published 1968 account of Fish’s death, speculating that Fish was murdered for his copy of the Peralta Map.

Years earlier, Fish tracked down a man named Erwin Ruth, who owned a map drafted in Spanish depicting the Superstitious Mountains in Arizona. The map supposedly to lead to the overlooked Peralta Mines.

Ruth warned Fish not to go looking for the mine because men were still being killed over the treasure. In fact, in 1931, when Ruth’s father, Adolph, was found murdered and decapitated while using the map to find the Peralta Mines.

Regardless of the dangers, Fish purchased a copy of the map. He headed out into the desert, but turned back after someone shot at him, vowing to return again one day.

In October 2011, the ‘Sierra Lodestar’ newspaper published two articles, including, “The Fish Papers,” which studied the official Amador County findings around Fish’s death in 1963. To many, the coroner’s report raised more questions than it provided answers, including: who robbed Fish’s museum, stealing his gold, his blue-jade idols and other artifacts and his life’s work?

More importantly – did Fish really die by his own hand or was he actually murdered? But like his vague history within Amador, Fish’s death remains a vague mystery.

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