Old Skeletons : Digging Up the Unsolved Mysteries of Dead Man’s Hole

<i> Richard Crawford is archivist for the San Diego Historical Society. </i>

In Erwin Gudde’s classic “California Place Names,” the author notes more than a score of California locales bearing the macabre name of “Deadman.” Throughout California, many canyons, creeks, islands, flats, and gulches, have been dubbed “Deadman"--a popular name choice for places where a corpse was found.

San Diego’s “Deadman’s Hole” is in the northeast part of the county--along California 79, midway between Warner Springs and Oak Grove. Modern topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey show the site about 1 mile southeast of Sunshine Summit.

For much of the late 1800s, the historic Butterfield Stage passed through this region. A natural spring at the site of the “Hole” made it a popular rest stop.


A Butterfield stagecoach paused here in 1858. Reportedly, as the stage driver knelt down by the spring for a drink of cool water, he was horrified by the staring face of a man, bobbing lifeless in the water. From that day forward, the area would bear the name of Deadman’s Hole.

But that was not the last body reported found there.

A mysterious murder occurred in June, 1887. Oliver Reilly discovered a miner’s camp, neatly laid out but apparently abandoned. Two mules, nearly dead from thirst, stood tied to a nearby tree. A journal of Mr. D. Blair was found at the camp.

Days later, the corpse of David Blair was found at the spring of Deadman’s Hole. A hastily convened coroner’s jury blamed the killing on the man who discovered the abandoned camp. The hapless Reilly was eventually released for lack of evidence.

Only months later, Deadman’s Hole was the scene of another strange death. An Indian girl named Belita was found strangled. Two months later, her stepfather, Luis Melendrez, was arrested near Julian. The case was apparently never prosecuted.

Yet a third murder occurred almost simultaneously. The body of a woman named Franciscia Ranteria, 45, was discovered close to the same spot where David Blair had been found. The coroner’s jury found two bullet wounds in her back, “inflicted by some person or persons unknown.”

Certainly the strangest story of Deadman’s Hole was reported in the San Diego Union in April, 1888.

According to the article, two hunters from Julian, Edward Dean and Charles Cox, spotted “an immense unwieldy animal, that from a rear view resembled a bear.” It might have been a bear, but the creature walked upright. The men followed the animal into an area known today as Dark Canyon.

To stop the creature they fired shots in the air. “The beast stopped and turned to face its pursuers. . . . They saw before them a human countenance . . .”

The hunters killed the beast and then discovered its lair. “Cox struck a match and by its blaze all the mysteries in Deadman’s Hole were revealed,” the story continued. The cave was filled with skeletal remains, including five human skulls. Thus, declared the article, the mysteries of Deadman’s Hole were solved. The strange beast had been the culprit. The creature was loaded into a wagon and hauled to San Diego for public exhibition.

On April 2, the day after the story was first reported, the newspaper ran another short article on the subject. It reported that many people had gone to the San Diego police station to view the remains. They had all been told to come back the following year--for the next “April Fool’s Day.”