John McCarty, 1855-1901
Arizona Game and Fish Commissioner
Buried in Masons Cemetery, Block 17, Lot 3, Grave 8
(Photo courtesy of Patricia Powers, great-granddaughter)
On June 6, 1901 John McCarty set off from his remote camp near Clear Creek on Arizona’s Mogollon Rim to hunt for some rare pigeons and four dozen tassel-eared squirrels. He was never seen alive again. A few months later a body was discovered and identified as McCarty’s, but was it really his?
Little is known about McCarty’s past. Census records suggest that he was born around 1855 in Scott, Virginia, to James and Mary McCarty. At any rate, he was in Arizona when he began to advertise as a professional hunter around 1890.
For the next ten years, newspapers related his adventures as he roamed the Territory, hunting bears, mountain lions and other livestock predators. He also collected rare animal specimens for museums and universities. Because of his extensive knowledge of the territory and its wildlife, he was appointed Fish and Game Commissioner in the fall of 1898.
On April 15, 1900, he married Lillie S. Sparks, then aged sixteen. McCarty left his young wife, pregnant with their first child, with her grandparents when he set off on his last hunting trip a little over a year later. Shortly before he departed, he had taken out six separate life insurance policies that totaled $27,000, nearly $750,000 in today’s currency.
When McCarty did not return from his hunting trip on the Mogollon Rim east of Pine, his partner, J. K. Day, went to search the area. Week after week, the search turned up nothing. Finally, on August 19, a body was found. Near it lay McCarty’s shotgun with a burst barrel. It was surmised that McCarty had been stalking a bear. Apparently, the barrel of the gun had burst when he fired, likely disabling him and leaving him at the mercy of the angry bear.
The body was taken to Flagstaff, where an inquest ruled McCarty’s death accidental. His associates had his body transported to Phoenix for burial in the Masonic Cemetery.
Hardly was McCarty in his grave before the insurance companies refused to honor the policies he had bought, alleging fraud. They claimed that McCarty was still alive somewhere and that his friends had connived to plant a body that they then ‘found’ and identified as his.
As legal guardian for her granddaughter Lillie and Lillie’s posthumous infant son, Mrs. Susannah Cosgray sued the insurance companies for payment. Having failed to produce McCarty alive, they finally paid the claims.
Nevertheless, rumors persisted for years that McCarty was still alive. Was his insurance buying spree part of an elaborate and successful fraud? Or, since he was engaged in a dangerous profession, was he simply making provision for his young wife and unborn child? The debate continues to this day.
© 2018 by Derek Horn. Last revised 17 November 2021.
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