When the discovery of the 1879 story in the “Mountain Democrat” regarding Dr. Loerder Von Herbst and his reviving of a 1,000 year old Indian mummy was brought to the attention of the newspaper’s editor in 1981, reporter Hal Silliman was assigned to write about it. His story, which is in two parts, looks at the facts leading up to the story’s discovery by local historian George Peabody and many issues of the story itself. Here is part one.
“The Mountain Democrat-Times – Placerville, CA Wednesday, July 22, 1981
102-year-old mystery: resurrection of a mummy
By HAL SILLIMAN, Staff writer
A centuries-old man-made cave, a mummy brought back to life by an eccentric German doctor — an imitation of Frankenstein?
These were the facts according to a series of articles printed 102 years ago in the Mountain Democrat.
“The “Squaw Hollow Sensation,” as it was called at the time, is a historical mystery of sorts which begs to be solved. Lack of information frustrates attempts to do so, however.
Squaw Hollow is the name of a creek in Pleasant Valley flowing through the Victory Mine area. It was here that Dr. Loerder Von Herbst supposedly discovered a granite-tooled cave and inside a lower chamber — which was filled with nitrogen gas — lay numerous mummies.
During the summer of 1879, a series of “Letters to the Editor” and supporting articles told the story of how the German doctor resurrected a 1,000-year-old Indian mummy found in the cave and brought it to a hotel in Ringold — a long-gone settlement in Pleasant Valley. The mystery of reviving the body lay in writings of the Egyptians, the doctor wrote.
This incredible story came to light recently when George Peabody, an amateur historian, was researching history for the Pleasant Valley Area Plan. He said the county Planning Department wanted a historical perspective of the area.
Peabody, who lives near Hanks Exchange in Pleasant Valley, worked on gathering the history over a period of two years. After he was through compiling information for the area plan, he said, “I couldn’t quit. I was hung up on the project and I kept on writing, using old Democrat micro-film files.” He found the accounts of a Dr. Von Herbst in seven articles printed between May and July 1879.
“I thought (the story) was so entertaining I thought I would add it as a suffix to the historical perspective exactly as the Democrat had printed it,” recounted the retired industrial engineer for Lockheed Aircraft Corp.
Copies of the articles have been published in a booklet on Pleasant Valley History by the El Dorado County Historical Society. The booklet is being used to raise money for the society’s publications fund.
The story begins on May 31, 1879 with a small article titled “MYSTERIOUS.” In the article — not a letter to the editor — the Democrat tells of Von Herbst, “a wealthy and eccentric savan(t) of Berlin” who has been “engaged in testing an interesting theory as to an assumed connection between our Indian tribes…with the ancient Egyptians.”
Herbst reportedly worked the then-current county coroner and a former incumbent of that office. The three of them made a “number of mysterious trips, generally at night, to a dark gorge on Squaw Hollow” where the doctor has made some extraordinary discoveries, of great (scientific) interest…which will shortly be made public.”
Two weeks later, on June 14, 1879, an article headlined “THE MYSTERY SOLVED” appeared in the Democrat. The newspaper said it was devoting a large amount of space to a letter written by Herbst telling of his experiments and adventure in Squaw Hollow.
“These facts are so startling that we should, as we are confident many of our readers will, doubt their authenticity,” the newspaper wrote, “but no one who has become acquainted with Dr. Von Herbst, during his sojourn among us, will for a moment believe him capable of any willful imposition or misrepresentation.” The first letter was headlined, “A START LING DISCLOSURE. Buried for Centuries and Restored to Life!”
In that issue and newspapers of June 28, July 12, July 19 and July 26, 1879 appeared lengthy accounts — one even in German — of the doctor’s resurrection of the Indian “Sethos” and his attempts at communicating with the being using “psycho-telegraphy.”
“Gully-wash,” you say. “A fabricated story. Lies.”
Peabody, writing in a foreword to the reprinted articles suggested that “at the time the…..series was published the prevailing impression was that it was a hoax.”
However he added “As you read and judge for yourself notice that these more than 100 year old articles express surprisingly sophisticated insights of psychological medical surgical and electro-neurological concepts.”
The historian further noted that “the choice of local setting the exciting theme the unexpected complexity of the plot which weaves its way through ancient history the involvement of public officials and the open faced presentation all tend to stem suspicion and provide a credibility which cries for acceptance.”
The Democrat made many attempts to alert readers to be wary of the doctor s story but at the same time presented facts that would make the tale believable.
An examination of all the articles — including those that the Democrat wrote of the incident and the letters attributed to the pen of Dr. Von Herbst —seems to indicate that the newspaper was leaving the verdict up to the reader and provided enough facts to say, “I told you so!” if the Squaw Hollow Sensation was found either a truth or a hoax The newspaper — smartly enough — covered its tail both ways.
In its own explanatory articles, the Democrat put forth as previously mentioned, that facts of the incident are so incredible that they and the good doctor should be doubted. Additionally the paper in the June 14 article said that Dr Von Herbst s “recital has been largely corroborated by collateral incidents and circumstances.”
Further the paper said that “within a fortnight a large number of persons including the leading physicians of this place…the editors of the Republican and Democrat, will be offered free transportation to the neighboring town of Ringold where Dr. Von Herbst’s interesting patient is in quarters at the Continental Hotel.”
An invitation to visit and inspect “the wonderful cave” was also made the article said “The result of these visits will be laid before our readers in faithful and truthful detail,” the paper concluded in its June 14, 1879 article explaining the published account by the doctor.
In the June 28, 1879 article written by the newspaper it was noted that the majority of the people invited to witness the live “Sethos”… “shared the prevailing impression that the account we published was a hoax The names of the eight people who actually went and saw the doctor and his 1,000- year-old patient, however, were withheld from publication “until the doctor shall have fulfilled his intention of delivering a series of public lectures, in which he will exhibit his restored subject.”
The newspaper, in the same article reported that “Sethos is fast recovering the faculties and powers which for so long a period had lain dormant. His first attempts at locomotion were comically like those of an infant.” And it was written that “Sethos’ articulation was a cooing sound.
“To those with whom he has been brought into personal contact,” continued the newspaper’s description of Sethos, “he has manifested a strange intelligence and power that have inspired a mixture of wonder and of terror both during such intercourse and afterwards.”
Following the June 28, 1879 article was one printed July 12, 1879. This is the one written in the native tongue of Dr. Von Herbst. In an editor’s note the newspaper explained that the “linguist on its staff had taken ill and a translation of the doctor’s correspondence was not possible leaving our German patrons to communicate its contents to their non-Teutonic neighbors.”
On June 19 the Democrat reprinted a news item from the “Carson Tribune.” The article alluded to early day settlers of El Dorado County who were now living in Carson City and who would latch on to any news of their former home and retell it with a certain amount of exaggeration. The article reads in part, “We were more than ordinarily amused yesterday evening while listening to the tongues of the old codgers elaborately dissecting the late El Dorado Squaw Hollow sensation created by the eccentric experiments of Professor Von Herbst. Some were included to express a disbelief of the stated fact that Sethos had been made to breathe toddle and coo after having laid in a comotoes (sic) state for several centuries while others were some what careful in asserting their disbelief of anything that they could hear as coming from that famous locality Squaw Hollow.
Some suggested that perhaps Sethos was the same notorious dried up Indian squaw that the Coroner of El Dorado carted from one locality of the county to another for the accumulation of fees for holding inquests in the good old Democratic days of El Dorado.”
The reprinting of such an article by the Democrat can be taken several ways. It was a common practice in those days to publish what other newspapers had to say about the hometown. But also it might have been to really point out that the story of Dr Von Herbst was indeed false.
In the same issue of the Democrat an article headlined “SETHOS AND PSYCHO TELEGRAPHY” appeared. In this story the German doctor tells how he communicates with Sethos using what is know today as mental telepathy. The letter Dr. Von Herbst writes is perhaps more unbelievable than the rest of the story. He is able to know Sethos’s thoughts by touching a wire protruding from the Indian’s head.
The last article, printed July 26, 1879, is a continuation of what appeared the week before Dr. Von Herbst ends his letter with thanking the editor of the Democrat for allowing him so much space in the newspaper to print his writing. He promised that when the book he was going to write was published the editor would receive one of the first copies.
“The Mountain Democrat-Times – Placerville, CA. Wednesday, August 5, 1981
Unanswered questions The mystery behind the ‘Squaw Hollow Sensation’
Editor’s note: this is the other half of the series on the 102-year-old historical mystery of a German doctor reviving and Indian mummy found near Pleasant Valley. In the summer of 1879, the Mountain Democrat published several articles about the incident. It printed several “Letters to the Editor” penned by Dr. Loerder Von Herbst. In those letters, he told his story of resurrecting the Indian named Sethos. In this article, some perspective is given to the “Squaw Hollow Sensation,” which thrilled El Dorado County residents in 1879.
By HAL SILLIMAN Staff writer
George Peabody, the amateur historian from Pleasant Valley who recently rediscovered the “Squaw Hollow Sensation,” has tried to find references to Dr. Loerder Von Herbst, the eccentric doctor who supposedly resurrected a 1,000-year-old Indian named Sethos.
Alas, Peabody, working through the California State Library in Sacramento has found no mention of Von Herbst or the Royal Society of Berlin, the organization which the good doctor purportedly represented.
“The fact that the information is not in the California State Library doesn’t preclude the possibility of its existence,” Peabody noted.
Further, Peabody could not find a book by Dr. Von Loerder which he had said he would be writing about his scientific experiments leading to the reviving of the mummy found in a Pleasant Valley cave.
In his last letter published July 26, 1879 in the Mountain Democrat, the doctor said he would be authoring the book and sending a copy back to the editor of the newspaper.
Peabody is convinced the article was published purely for entertainment. The existence then of a Dr. Von Herbst is improbable. However, what remains perplexing is the naming by the letter writer of two “real” people in the adventure — Dr. J. J. Lawyer of Coloma, the incumbent county coroner and the Honorable Fred Collins of Placerville, the former county coroner.
Von Herbst writes that both men aided him. The doctor and the two coroners discovered the cave in Squaw Hollow. Both men assisted Dr. Von Herbst in resurrecting Sethos. Interestingly, the Democrat itself never gave the names of Collins and Lawyer in the articles it wrote about Dr. Von Herbst.
Why would two public officials allow their names to be used in an apparent hoax? Could it be because they both ran for the office of coroner soon after the last letter appeared?
Their nomination to the office appeared in the June 28, 1879 issue of the Democrat. The two men [and the publisher of the paper] were both members of the county Democratic Central Committee. And the Democrat in 1879 was as partisan as its name indicated.
Was this story some way of getting the two men’s names in print? Yet, this would seem illogical since, if it was a hoax, Collins and Lawyer would run the risk of being discredited. On the other hand, maybe they realized even in the 1870s that any publicity (no matter how dubious) is beneficial.
Peabody noted that Collins became soon after an auctioneer but has yet to find any further reference of Dr. Lawyer retaining his position as county coroner.
There is another mystery too. If Dr. Von Herbst did not write the letters, who then did? Was it the imaginings of a bored Democrat writer? Something by which to spice up a hot summer?
“If it was a ghost writer,” Peabody said, “we don’t know who it was, except for the possibility that it might have been Coroner J. J. Lawyer or Fred Collins.”
The amateur historian added that neither one of the men complained — through Letters to the Editor — about their names being used in such a story. Beyond this, there were no letters printed in the Democrat denouncing the tale as a hoax.
Peabody also cited the article about the “Squaw Hollow Sensation” the Democrat reprinted July 19, 1879 from the “Carson Tribune” as perhaps being the newspaper’s way of saying the story was false.
In the article the Tribune doubted the amazing resurrection of the mummy. It even went so far to say it was “the same notorious dried-up Indian squaw that the Coroner of El Dorado County carted from one locality of the county to another, for the accumulation of fees for holding inquests, in the good old Democratic days of El Dorado.”
The reprinting by the Democrat of the article “is proof to me something behind the scenes was going on,” Peabody asserted. But what was going on? Today editors don’t keep a journal of the day-to-day events of a newspaper. And certainly, editors didn’t then. There is no recorded history of the Democrat from which to draw.
Another source Peabody checked was the “Sacramento Union,” then a rival paper to the Democrat. He found no articles substantiating or decrying the “Squaw Hollow Sensation.”
“They never made a word about it,” Peabody said.
In his search for some clue about the origin or intention of the story, Peabody has found some similar articles published in other newspapers at the time. He noted that the Union printed an article about the freezing of sheep for shipment overseas very near the same time that Von Herbst’s letters were appearing tn the Democrat.
In this Union article, the story is told that sheep were being frozen solid in Australia, shipped to England, unthawed, given some type of injection and put out to graze again. Other newspaper articles he found told about accident victims being brought back to life.
Peabody said the idea of the resuscitation of life was very popular at the time as it is now. He compared the interest with suspending animation and then reviving life to people nowadays who are having their bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen to preserve them for future resurrection.
He pointed out, also, that the mummies in the Squaw Hollow cave were supposedly preserved with a gaseous nitrogen which was floating about inside when the doctor pried open the stone covering the entrance.
“This merely shows that we today are just as excited about living again as were those pioneers whose imaginations were undoubtably excited about this series of articles,” Peabody said. “Even the Egyptians themselves who were mummified hoped to be resurrected from their pyramids.”