The Squaw Hollow Sensation: Part 1 – Introduction

A number of years ago George Peabody, an El Dorado County historian specializing in the history of the Pleasant Valley area, discovered a very interesting story that showed up in a series of articles and letters in several issues of the 1879 “Mountain Democrat.” The story involved the discovery of a group of 1000 year old Aztec mummies in an ancient, tool-cut granite chamber in a dark gorge on Squaw Hollow. The discoverer was a visiting German doctor,  Loerder Von Herbst. If the discovery itself was not strange enough, Dr. Von Herbst claimed to have revived one of the mummies.

Immediately this story took on the look of a hoax, but Dr. Von Herbst was not the only person involved in the adventure. Participating in the experiments with him were Dr. J.J. Lawyer, the El Dorado County Coroner at that time, and Fred Collins, a former County Coroner.

Although, according to Peabody, the prevailing impression amongst the public was that it was a hoax, the letters from Dr. Von Herbst, which make up much of the story, were very scientific for the time which added more than a bit of credibility to the whole event.

Originally Peabody took this story, which he titled “The Squaw Hollow Sensation,” to the El Dorado County Historical Museum which, in 1981, published it using mostly copies from the original newspapers, supplemented by Peabody’s writings. Copies of the book are still available for purchase from them.

With Mr. Peabody’s kind permission, we have taken his research, word for word transcribed the original newspaper stories, which in many cases were difficult to read, and serialized the story. And, where possible, explanations of some of Dr. Von Herbst’s equipment, materials and processes have been researched and added for clarity.

Is it true?, Is it a hoax?, and why the newspaper continued to claim its authenticity are just a few of the questions you may have to answer for yourself.

For clarity and explanation, some comments have been added as notes. Otherwise, the text is just as it came from the newspaper, misspellings and all.


“Mountain Democrat,” May 31, 1879

“MYSTERIOUS. – Doctor Loerder Von Herbst, a wealthy and eccentric savan of Berlin, has been sojourning for several months in Placerville and the vicinity, engaged in testing an interesting theory as to an assumed connection between our Indian tribes and the original Aztecs, and thorough the latter with the ancient Egyptians. Within the few weeks last past Dr. Herbst, accompanied by the present and a former incumbent of a county office, has made a number of mysterious trips, generally at night, to a dark gorge on Squaw Hollow, and there are intimations that he has made some extraordinary discoveries, of great interest in a scientific point of view, which will shortly be made public.”

“Mountain Democrat,” June 14, 1879.

“THE MYSTERY SOLVED. – In a former issue of the DEMOCRAT we alluded to certain mysterious visits to the Squaw Hollow gorge, which Dr. Von Herbst and others had made within the past few months. In this issue we devote a large share of the space on our first and fifth pages to the publication of a recital by the Professor of the results of his explorations in the vicinity referred to in our item, which, we regret to learn, has perhaps been the means of a somewhat premature publication of the facts of the case. These facts are so startling that we should, as we are confident many of our readers will, doubt their authenticity, but no one who has become acquainted with Dr. Von Herbst, during this sojourn among us, will for a moment believe him capable of any willful imposition or misrepresentation. His recital has been largely corroborated by collateral incidents and circumstances, and within a fortnight a large number of persons, including the leading physicians of this place, Dr. Brown of El Dorado, Dr. Geseling of Coloma, Dr. Dryer of Georgetown and the Editors of the Republican and Democrat, will be offered free transportation to the neighboring town of Ringgold, where Dr. Von Herbst’s interesting patient is in quarters at the Continental Hotel. They will also be invited to visit and inspect the wonderful cave described in the Doctor’s communication. The result of these visits will be laid before our readers in faithful and truthful detail.”

“Mountain Democrat,” June 14, 1879 (Letter from Dr. Von Herbst)

“A STARTLING DISCLOSURE – Buried for Centuries and Restored to Life!
The following thrilling recital, from the pen of Dr. Loerder Von Herbst, would only be marred by any attempt at an introduction on our part.

“EDITOR DEMOCRAT – Dear Sir: Conforming to your request that I should make public the details of my late wonderful discovery, I have with considerable labor gotten together, for the perusal of your readers, the main facts. The great labor consisted of searching out, among the voluminous reports which have been forwarded by me to the Royal Society of Berlin, sufficient of explanation to make clear the general drift.

“In the first place you may pardon me for a few words in regard to myself. It is true that I have been working about in the rift which you call “Squaw Hollow,” but which perhaps few of your people have ever seen. It is, I think I may safely say, at this moment attracting more attention from the learned ones sitting now in Berlin, than any other place in your whole country. In the year 1848 I was entered a student at Heidelberg and took successively my degrees of Doctor of Laws and Medicine. While sojourning there, attending the great University Library, I contracted and intimate and warm friendship for several disciples of the celebrated Chevalier Bunsen (Note: Christian Karl Josias Bunsen, 1791-1860, a religious scholar and early Egyptologist), then recently deceased. Through association with them, I wa s led to undertake the study of Philology, then in its infancy. That of Comparative Anatomy of course had received my earliest attention. I then practiced medicine for many years in Berlin, but met little to recommend the profession to me, until I was fortunate enough to be nominated by the then Count Raczynski (who was proprietor of the finest art gallery of Europe), to the post of visitor to the great hospital of Louisenstiftung. Here meeting with patients of all different nationalities, I began to study on the races of man in earnest. Soon afterwards I attracted the notice of the Dean of the Senate of the Berlin University, and was appointed assistant demonstrator on Anthropology, the same position of which Humboldt was the nominal holder. About this time I had occasion to correct some proof sheets of the “Aegypteus Stelle in der Weltgeschichte,” by the admired Bunsen. This was in 1847, and my longing daily grew to make independent explorations in the branches wherein others had become so celebrated. I held my position and was finally sent to Cairo on a special mission by the Royal Society, in search of the correspondent, Professor Nichtken. From him I received instructions in the deciphering of hieroglyphics, and his papers, which I brought safely to Berlin. To my great joy I was appointed Librarian, and immediately began the study of these the latest data on Egyptian Antiquities. I was so selfish that I would admit no other person to the room where the rolls were kept. About this time – 1862 – I was made independent by a legacy which supplied me with the means of traveling. I had spend many years in Egypt, and had followed on foot the assumed route of the lost tribes of Israel, in their migration through China, and supposedly across the ice to this continent. Returned from my travels, I had just completed my first volume of the “Compendium Mizraim,” when I began to acquaint myself with the new theory of Fr. A. Spohn (Note: Frederick August Spohn, an Egyptologist at the University of Leipzig.), in ‘Ueber Hieroglyphen und ihre Deutuag und uber die sprache der alten Aegypten.’ The book and theory did not startle me nearly so much as the notes of the American editor, Gustav Seyffarth (Note: Gustav Seyffarth (1796-1885) a German-American Egyptologist at the University of Leipzig, following Spohn in that position.), in respect to the notable similarity between the strict symbol-writing of the papyri and the rude drawings of the ancient Indians. This startled me, I say, because I had already surmised a kinship between the seemingly so far remote examples This became a dream to me, the more that my revered friend, Von Humboldt (Note: Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a Prussian naturalist and explorer), had been forced to leave off his investigations just at the most interesting point. The University granted me now and indefinite leave of absence, and also the permission to copy the unarranged MSs. Of Humboldt, which related to his discoveries in Central American and Mexico. Taking these instructions, and New York as an objective point, I set sail in April 1876. Having in charge the berlin collection of gems which attracted so much attention at your International Centennial Exhibition. I had already familiarize myself with Mr. George Smith’s book, and with those of my most prominent co-laborers in this interesting study of races, but finally I came to a theory of my own.”

Note: Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt (1769 – 1859) was a Prussian naturalist and explorer. Humboldt’s quantitative work on botanical geography was foundational to the field of biogeography. Between 1799 and 1804, von Humboldt travelled to South and Central America, exploring and describing it from a scientific point of view for the first time. His description of much of this journey was written up in an enormous set of volumes over a 21-year span. He was one of the first to propose that the lands bordering the Atlantic were once joined (South America and Africa in particular).

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