A rich mouth and a loudmouth sparked reckless gunplay that seemed to involve nearly every man in Ballarat, California, and resulted in the wounding of two deputy sheriffs —two-thirds of the town’s entire sober population.
The fusillade of bullets bored more holes in adobe and wood walls than in the human flesh for which it was intended. Luck or just plain bad shooting had left most everyone unharmed. The exceptions were two of the three sober men in California’s Ballarat Mining District that fall day in 1906—both of them lawmen. The gunfight was triggered by a display of gold from a least likely source. That and ample consumption of whiskey.
The only victims, Inyo County Deputy Sheriffs Edward Shuey and Billy Wilford, were taken to a southern California hospital well over 200 bone-jarring miles from the crime scene. There, on his hospital bed, Ed Shuey propped himself up on his good elbow and related many of the details of “that annoying affair at Ballarat” to a Los Angeles Times reporter. He described an affray that differed from most Western gunplay in one important respect—virtually the entire census took part. “Sure, Ballarat is a great town,” Shuey told the reporter. “Things go along there quiet and dead for a few months, and then suddenly something happens. It sometimes don’t take more than a turn of a two-spot to make something happen, and then the whole population likes to take a hand, bein’ that the place is so small.”
Founded in 1897, the mining camp was named for Ballarat, Australia, source of the 138 1⁄2-pound “Welcome Nugget,” the world’s largest gold nugget when unearthed in 1858. Nothing so big was ever found at its Inyo County namesake. But Ballarat, Calif., nestled at the foot of an alluvial fan centered on the juncture of Jackpot and Pleasant canyons on the western slope of the Panamint Mountains (a north-south range that separates Panamint Valley from Death Valley), did boast a population of 400 to 500 during its heyday between 1898 and 1905. The town served as a base for the sometimes-hopeful men who prospected and mined the surrounding area. The two-story Calloway Hotel towered above a handful of other wood-frame buildings. On the outskirts, ground-floor adobe or scrap-wood shanties, wood-frame tents and rock walls dotted the tiny camp.
Seven of the commercial establishments were saloons.
By September 4, 1906, the day of the shootout that left Deputies Shuey and Wilford wounded, Ballarat was in steep decline. Mining had all but ceased. The population had dwindled to but a few hangers-on, mostly sunbaked desert rats and leathery prospectors who refused to believe the gold and silver had played out. Drinking was the order of the day, at least the nonwork days, and there were more of those than ever.
“The other day when this little matter occurred,” Shuey told the reporter, “Ballarat was enjoying a quiet morning, with everyone loving his neighbor. Of course, there was one or two games of stud going, left over from the night before, and, naturally, there was some little discontent showing up in spots, but no one was hurt. Don’t think more than two or three shots were fired. Aside from this, you couldn’t hear nothin’ but the burros braying and a chucka walla barkin’ from a rock.”
Shuey explained that the trouble started when he tried to prevent Irishman Jack Kane (aka Keane), known as the “Bad Boy of Ballarat,” from shooting Jack Curran, an old-time prospector. For his interference, the deputy caught a Kane bullet in his right arm. Billy Wilford, the second deputy to arrive on the scene, also took a Kane round in his shooting arm. Three Ballarat saloonkeepers still in business—Chris Wicht, George Vollmer and John “Whiskers” Chambers—then joined in the fray. Shuey, no doubt pressed for details by the man from the Times, started from the beginning: “Well, we were all snoozing there in the shade or patronizing the principal industry out in Ballarat, all of us leery about striking out into the mining district on account of the heat, when along comes the stage from Joberg [Johannesburg].
It ain’t much for the stage to come, but when it brings Jack Curran, who we call ‘Copper Stain Joe,’ then the coming of the stage might be called an event in Ballarat.”
To a big city reporter, this might have seemed a nonevent and begged the question, Why all the fuss? But it seems Curran was among the most successful of the Panamint prospectors. He hit rich gold claims above Ballarat in Surprise Canyon and drew more fame, atop the canyon, from his success in relocating Panamint City’s original Panamint Mine. Curran proved a better prospector than a spitter; it was his way to just let chewing tobacco juice ooze down his chin. Years’ worth of amber saliva had stained his skin a permanent copper color, hence the nickname. Copper Stain Joe’s success in finding gold had earned him celebrity status in Ballarat, as well as the far more respectful nickname “King of the Panamints.”
If the Times reporter still missed the point of the townsfolk’s extraordinary excitement that September morning, Shuey cleared it up: “But the offense to the peaceful and quiet mood of Ballarat didn’t stop there, for the reason that Jack arrived with his face full of gold teeth. His mouth—you ought to see that member; it represents the biggest absence of face I ever see under any man’s nose—well, when it burst asunder, as it were, in one of Copper Stain’s tender smiles, why it made every man in camp want to horn him out of that gold.”
Of all the hard-drinking citizens that day, none took a greater interest in Curran’s choppers than Kane. According to Shuey’s account, the Bad Boy of Ballarat stepped up to Copper Stain Joe and said: “Quite a sight of metal you’ve got in your face. I’d like to borrow your mug and salt my mine with it.” Curran brushed him off, saying: “Run away, sonny. You got more mouth than you need already.”
“What?” replied Kane, reaching for his pistol. “I’ll make you swallow them false teeth of yours, and then you won’t be worth enough to flag a bread wagon.”
Curran wasn’t about to back down. “Copper Stain made a few remarks just then which ain’t in any book on polite answers, and I run up in time to get a mitt on Kane’s pocketful, which was rapidly bein’ emptied,” Shuey told the reporter. “But it made old Copper Stain Joe mighty sore all right, and he went and borrowed a six-shooter. Jack [Kane] couldn’t keep quiet, though. He kept going around town kickin’ ’dobe walls as though he felt real wicked. He jumped over the old stone corral five times and back again, and then he walked out in front of the principal saloon and said, very loud, ‘I can’t git it out of my system, boys.’ With that, he walked up to George Vollmer, snoozing on his stoop, and said, ‘George, I’m goin’ to fill you so full of lead that the ammunition factory will make a bid on your carcass.’
“‘Just wait ’til I git a drink, will you?’ says Vollmer. ‘I want to take a fittin’ farewell of this old camp, anyway.’ With that, Vollmer goes into his cabin and gets a double-barrel shotgun filled with buckshot and, coming out, remarks that if there is any more monkey business, he’d make the man who was responsible leak like a 40-mesh sieve.
“Kane didn’t like the looks of that gun, I guess, for he walks off and goes hunting for trouble over to Frank Pelham’s house, where Copper Stain is. Copper Stain, not having any artillery, comes over and borrows my gun, saying he’d feel safer if he had a shooting iron with him. Things moved along peaceful for maybe 10 minutes, then all at once the celebration broke loose.
“I runs over to where the fireworks is poppin’, and there’s old Curran and Kane, popping at each other just as fast as they can pull triggers. Just as I got there, Kane poked his gun into Curran’s anatomy, and I grabbed it just in time to get a hole bored through my arm, which put me down and out for the time being. After I went down, Kane started up the street, taking potshots at everyone in sight.
“Billy Wilford limbered up his old .45 and calculated that being a deputy sheriff, it was his duty to take in the obstreperous Mr. Kane before any more damage was done. So he throws up his job in Whiskers’ saloon, where he is tending bar, and just as he steps out of the rear door, he meets Kane and tells him to throw up his hands. Kane threw up his hands, all right, but being so nervous and excited, his gun went off, and the bullet caught Billy in the pistol arm, just about where he got me. Bill goes down with the shock, and before he can switch his gun to his left, Kane pumps three or four more shots at him. Billy only gets in one shot after shifting his gun.
“By this time most every one in town was cutting loose with his six-shooter, and the dust was flyin’ from the ’dobe walls, and glass was dropping out of the windows to beat the band. When the fireworks was getting good and warm, Chris Wicht, thinking there was too much light in his saloon, thereby making him too conspicuous a target, sneaks out around the corner and is taking for tall timber, when Jack Rogers cuts loose at him and empties his gun, but Jack, being full of booze, did no more damage than tear a few holes in the atmosphere, and Chris got down in the cellar to safety.
“Me being out, and Billy being out, Ralph Williams undertakes to gather in Mr. Kane, so he deputizes himself and Jack Carr, and they surround Mr. Kane, who is out of ammunition but still fighting mad, and runs him into the bastille. Then they starts to gather up the wounded, and while they are fixing us up, old Whiskers comes running over from the jail and says Kane is trying to burn himself out.
“‘Let him burn,’ says Billy Wilford. ‘He’s done damage enough in this town.’ But they put out the fire and left him [Kane] there in the charge of Ralph Williams.
“Seems funny that [almost] all the sober men in town should get shot; the only one who didn’t get his was Vollmer, and I guess that two-faced shotgun full of buckshot didn’t look good to anybody.”
Deputy Shuey ended the interview stating, “Jack Carr loaded Billy and me on the stage, and we were in for a 15- hour drive with a drunken stage driver who did not miss a rock in the road over the whole 70 miles to Joberg. We was pretty near all in when we got there, and the doc could not do anything for us but plug up the bullet holes with cotton and send us on to Los Angeles.” The two deputies must have been racked with pain during that long, rocky ride. It is most likely that a supply of Ballarat’s favorite beverage, “oh-be-joyful” whiskey, accompanied the wounded men—to be used externally as an antiseptic on the cotton plugs and internally according to their level of misery.
On September 7, 1906, Inyo Independent that Inyo County Sheriff Charles Collins and District reported The Attorney William Dehy traveled to Ballarat to return Jack Kane to the county seat of Independence to face charges. A later edition stated that Ed Shuey had had his right arm amputated. That same article identified the shooter, Jack Kane, as “Jack Keane,” founder of the prosperous Keane Wonder Mine in Death Valley. By October 20, the Beatty Bullfrog Miner reported that both deputies had lost their right arms, and that Jack Kane had been released on bond.
Neither Shuey nor Wilford could return to their jobs as deputies. Records from Inyo County and elsewhere indicate that the Bad Boy of Ballarat never stood trial. It seems Kane (or Keane) sold out his mining interests in the area, jumped bail and skedaddled back to Ireland. There, in an Irish pub, he fought and killed another man. Kane died in jail. Copper Stain Joe Curran survived the fracas in one piece, his gold teeth intact, and lived out his life in the desert. Curran’s burial site is uncertain, but a law enforcement incident that occurred at Death Valley National Monument in 1958 may offer a clue.
That winter Ranger Matt Ryan took a complaint at his Wildrose Station from two excited park visitors. They had just driven from the old mining town of Skidoo, 35 miles north of Panamint City. They were furious, having seen two men digging up graves to extract gold teeth from the human remains. Ryan radioed Ranger Lee Shackelton (author of this article) for backup, then raced 16 miles to the Skidoo cemetery. He found many heavily vandalized graves, their wooden markers so scattered he had no hope of returning them to their rightful places. The grave robbers had made a clean getaway. Ryan signaled his backup to stand down, then noted that many of the human skulls grinning up at him showed evidence of fresh tooth extractions. Apparently, Copper Stain Curran had not been the only one from the old mining days to have gold teeth.
One can only wonder what information the culprits possessed to suggest committing such a bold crime. Could it have been the Los Angeles Times interview with Deputy Edward Shuey? That mystery will likely remain unsolved, but it might very well have been a 50- year-old echo of the 1906 gunfight. Only ghosts remain in Ballarat, which sits 3.6 miles east of California Highway 178, midway between Trona, Calif., and Highway 190.
Author Lee Shackelton of Mariposa, Calif., found the 1906 Los Angeles Times story in the century-old scrapbook of his greatgrandfather James W. Orndorff. We sadly report that Shackelton died in California on November 7, 2009, after a brief illness. His wife, Ti, told Wild West that Lee had worked 37 years as a National Park Service ranger, retiring in 1992 after 21 years as Yosemite’s chief law enforcement officer. Survivors include children Steve, Mary Lee and Jim.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.