Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Haunted Places

Mission San Miguel, Calif.: Gold Rush Greed and Ghosts

Mission San Miguel, Calif.
Mission San Miguel, Calif.

California's Gold Rush made more than a few fortunes—and it inspired a great deal of greed and criminal activity. No story is more illustrative of the period's dark side than that of the Mission San Miguel. Founded in 1797, just north of San Luis Obispo, the mission was among those secularized and sold by Mexico in 1843, just before the U.S. gained California in the Mexican-American war.

John William Reed turned the mission into a bed and breakfast and accepted payment only in gold, in plentiful supply in those years. He quickly amassed a fortune, which he hid somewhere on the property. Unfortunately, rumor of this treasure was too great a temptation for some goldbug-bitten adventurers to resist. A group of outlaws led by army deserter Joseph Peter Lynch had already killed one man for his gold and sold it to Reed on December 4, 1848. Boarding at the mission for the night, they heard their host brag about his lucrative business and the gold he'd managed to stockpile. They left the next day, but couldn't resist the fever of the gold. Lynch and his men turned around and went back to the mission.

They rested in the mission's kitchen, warming themselves at the fire. One man offered to fetch wood. When he came back in, he pulled an ax from his armload of firewood and attacked Reed; another of the gang stabbed Reed. They then killed Reed's pregnant wife and their young child, their employees and the other guests They ransacked the house and stole anything of value, even Reed's blue peacoat, but they never found his gold.

A mail carrier discovered the twelve bodies and the community laid them to rest in a communal grave. On December 10 a posse caught up with the outlaws. A gun battle ensued, killing one member of the posse. The posse prevailed, though, shooting one outlaw dead; another of the gang drowned in the surf during the fracas. Lynch and two other men were captured, confessed and were executed by a firing squad on December 28, 1848. The dead posse man's widow received what was recovered of the outlaws' loot.

Visitors and area residents report not only strange white lights around the mission, but hearing muffled screams and seeing the spectral forms of a man in a blue peacoat and a lady in white, matching descriptions of Reed and his wife. But no one's yet seen Reed's gold.