Filmmaker and archeologist Nicholas Clapp reconstructs the troubled life and mysterious demise of gold-prospector Chester Pray, who was found dead at his claim in California’s aptly named Death Valley in June of 1913. His claim was potentially rich, some of his business associates and investors in the Monte Crisco mine were distinctly shady, and Chester himself, although well-liked and hard-working, was not a poster-child for good mental health. It can be fairly argued that those men who willingly took part in the very last (and almost unknown) western gold were all good candidates for a round of psychotropic drugs and twelve-step support groups. The gold-prospectors’ life in Death Valley early in the 20th century was particularly brutal, due to conditions in the Valley itself. Some of the most well-known gold strikes in the valley between the Panamint mountains and the aptly named Funeral Range were illusory – the work of clever scoundrels like Death Valley Scotty, known as the “fastest con in the West”. But Chester Pray’s mine was as close to the real deal as a rich strike ever got… and it undoubtedly cost him his life.

The author meticulously researched not just Chester Prays’ life – the son of a well-to-do California pioneer, he was particularly desperate for success and self-respect – but the lives of his friends and associates in the last of the gold-rush towns, places like Goldfield and Rhyolite. When we think ‘gold rush’ we are used to thinking of the 19th century. This gold rush took place a few hours journey by train from Los Angeles, with streetcars and department stores, nickelodeon movie theaters and automobiles. Many of the participants survived to mid-century, in all their eccentric glory, to add their own accounts of those events to those which Nicholas Clapp has used to such excellent effect. This book is also illustrated with many candid or posed photos of Chester Pray, his associates, and locations involved which add considerably to this very readable and engrossing account. Mr Clapp’s conclusion is suitably guarded – one must be pretty careful when second-guessing events 90 years in the past and the motivations of people long-dead. Based on the known character and possible motivations of the people closest to him at the time of his death, he makes an excellent case for his conclusion regarding the death of Chester Pray.

Who Killed Chester Pray is available from the publisher, La Frontera Publishing, and from Amazon.com

Sgt. Mom is a freelance writer who lives in San Antonio and blogs at The Daily Brief. Her own latest book is “To Truckee’s Trail” – which similarly reconstructs a relatively unknown incident in California history. More about her other books is at her website, www.celiahayes.com

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