Arizona Pioneer & Cemetery Research Project
DEATH IN THE DESERT
A TRAGEDY IN AUGUST, 1921
APCRP Research Staff
This is an account of the August Kaufman family who began their tragic trek in Pasadena, California. When they encountered the harsh, unforgiving Mohave Desert, the father, August Kaufman, and his 3-year-old daughter Lillian died.
The family made many fatal mistakes. Here's the sequence of events of the Kaufman family's ill-fated journey, as recorded in four different newspaper accounts of the time. (Listed in sources.)
Kaufman family's route. Map courtesy Mohave Museum of History and Arts. Details courtesy Ellis Harvey.
Approximately August 10, 1921, August Kaufman, a 39-year old brick and cement contractor in Pasadena, California; his wife who was 36 years old; and three young children: Lillian, age 3; Elmer, age 5; and Ruth age 7, began their trip in an old car to visit relatives in Casa Grande, Arizona. From Yucca they took a "short cut" towards Congress Junction, a thriving mining and railroad town about 70 miles northwest of Phoenix, 16 miles north of Wickenburg, and 43 miles south of Prescott. Their route was suggested because of bad roads on the other main route to the southeast from Yucca.
The family camped the first night at Centennial Caves in Centennial Wash, about a quarter of a mile from natural water holes (tanks) where there was water if they'd known to brush away the sand that covered the water.
The next morning they continued down the road towards Congress Junction. The radiator began to leak and their water supply was greatly diminished. They saw an old sign that three prospectors had erected years ago, when they had almost died of thirst. The sign originally said "WATER 17 MILES", but the elements had made a fatal change in the sign. It now seemed to say: "WATER 1 MILE." The Kaufman’s went in the direction an arrow on the sign seemed to point, off their route, but stopped the car in sand about a mile off the Yucca to Congress Junction road. They were almost within sight of the Bill Williams River, about a mile downhill, which may or may not have been dry, and the Clarence Hann Ranch was only about a 5-minute ride away.
Mr. Kaufman left his wife and three children at the car, which was still able to run, and began a fatal walk to try to find water.
Bill Williams River near the mouth. Photo by Ed Block.
Mr. Kaufman wandered at least 72 hours in search of water. He veered towards Signal, away from their route to Congress Junction. At intervals he left pieces of cardboard with writings indicating the direction he was traveling. One desperate note said: "Please be kind and help a woman and three children starving for water on the old Yucca road," with an arrow pointed in the direction they had gone. Altogether he left three cards, the last "while the agonies of thirst had started to claim these victims."
Two days earlier, Mohave County Sheriff Mahoney had received word that there was a family stranded in the desert and began the search, following tracks left by Mr. Kaufman and the pathetic cards left to mark his trail.
August Kaufman's body was found on August 19, by Sheriff Mahoney and his Mexican trackers within a mile of Signal and about 50 yards from an artificial reservoir for sheep and cattle that had water. Mr. Kaufman died, "after putting up a terrible fight for life. The ground near where his body was found looked like a stampede had taken place where he had torn up the ground in this last great fight....he was a powerful man and 39 years old." Mr. Kaufman had wandered in the desert for about 72 hours. The remains were first taken to Kingman and buried there because "the effect of the desert sun having made it impossible to preserve the body."
Meanwhile, Mr. Kaufman's wife (whose first name was never given in news accounts nor on the death certificates), went thru an ordeal for 40 hours until she and the 3 children were rescued.
The desperate family had laid piles of brush in the road to mark their trail and the Sheriff Mahoney followed it to the car. The family had already been found by Mr. and Mrs. Joe Ruddy, en route from Yucca to their ranch nearby. They stopped and offered help, and took Mrs. Kaufman and the three children to the Hann ranch, where Lillian died that night, according to one news account, another said she was already dead when they were found. The nearest doctor was about 110 miles away! The body of the dead child apparently was first taken to Congress Junction and then shipped to Prescott. The Sheriff was wired from Congress Junction when the dead child was brought there, and immediately set out to search for her father.
A poignant account of the ordeal was published almost one month later on October 21, 1921: "Mrs. Kaufman tells Story of Fatal Desert Tragedy," Mohave County Miner and Our Mineral Wealth. (First published in the Arizona Republican, October 13, 1921.) Some quotes from Mrs. Kaufman's story give this tragedy's sad details.
When the family took the shortcut across the desert, "right away the sand began to frighten me - nothing but sand and strange hills, hot and white . . . . the heat was awful." They saw the misleading sign, thinking water was a mile away.
Typical terrain west of Signal, AZ. Photo by Kathy Block
After driving all morning with the sun getting hotter, they didn't come to any water. They thought they'd got off on another road, so they changed direction. Mr. Kaufman stopped when his wife told him she felt something was wrong. "When he heard me say that, he just sat and looked at me, and his face turned gray. Then he screamed -oh, my, how he screamed! And right away he seemed to age from 39 to 89. He kept screaming, 'We are lost, we are lost' and cursing the Lord. And then the children got scared and began to cry, and I had to cry, too." (Note: All the conversations were in German, the native language of the Kaufman’s.)
They stopped for the night when it was getting dark. The children were crying for a drink. August couldn't stand that and said he'd go to for help.
"I didn't want him to go, and I begged him on my knees to stay but he said, 'Mama, I've got to go if you and the children are to be saved from dying." He left that morning. He did not have a map and wandered the wrong way - roughly to the north towards Signal. Mr. Kaufman left most of the remaining water with his family.
They had a little water in the radiator and fruit and canned food. When the sun came up the next morning, it became very hot. But, unfortunately, by noon all their water was gone. Mrs. Kaufman mixed honey with lemons for moisture, as the children didn't like lemons. The children kept crying for water.
That afternoon they were all attacked by bees that were drawn by the honey that was all over the kids. The bees nearly stung them to death. Mrs. Kaufman finally took oil from the engine and washed their faces with it. "They all looked awful - all swollen up until I could hardly recognize them, all covered with the dirty oil. And they were crying with pain and thirst. But the oil drove away the bees."
Honey bee swarm on log.
Mrs. Kaufman thought she was dying that night. She took all the clothes off the children to try to cool them down from the heat. Towards the morning, she put on a new nightgown: "I thought the end was near and I wanted to look all right when people found me - sometime."
The next morning, the children were weak and could hardly move. She gave them some raw potatoes, jelly, and Crisco and it seemed to help a little. But Lillian couldn't eat any of it.
That afternoon, first Lillian began to die after 40 hours in the car, then Ruth and Elmer also. Lillian was "out of her head" and she "kicked and screamed like a demon, 'Please, mama, help me,' she kept crying, 'Mama, buy me some ice cream,' and I knew she was dying. I prayed to the Lord to take her quick. But the Lord didn't." Supposedly little Ruth "looked up at me and said, 'Mama, I don't want to die; I haven't seen anything of life yet.' And I told her: 'Ruthie, I'd rather you would die than have to go through all the experiences of life.'" (The family was very religious and often prayed throughout their ordeals.)
Fortunately, at that point in the afternoon, Clarence Hann and others with him going to Congress Junction saw the car and rescued them. Unfortunately, Lillian died. They stayed at the ranch while the search was made for August. His body was found within a mile of the ranch. He still had some lemons and oranges in his pockets.
His wife was not allowed to see the body. She said, from her home in Pasadena: "I never have seen him since he left, and though he's buried here (Pasadena) with my little Lillian, I can't believe they're dead. I knew he'd never come back. But, I'll see him again, for I brought him to the Lord before he died. And the Lord saw fit to let me keep Ruthie and Elmer."
The story ended with a note from the reporter that as Mrs. Kaufman finished her story, dry eyed, Ruth and Elmer raced into the yard and to the side of their mother, asking for "some'fin to eat-and a drink of water." She went in to get them some food and let the faucet run while she prepared lunch!
I attempted to find out what eventually happened to the family afterward. The only possible clue was a burial in Pasadena Cemetery of Elmer A. Kaufman, born Feb. 3, 1916, died Aug. 22, 2006 at age 90. He may have been the 5 year old Elmer in this sad story.
The bodies of August Kaufman and Lillian were disinterred from burial in Kingman and Prescott and shipped to Pasadena. They are buried together in a single grave. The total cost for August was $235.00-
Funeral Invoice. Courtesy Mohave Museum of History and Arts.
Sketch of headstone in Pasadena Cemetery
Death Certificate of August Kaufman
Death Certificate of Lilian Kaufman
We cannot judge from the perspective of time whether the family would have survived without any deaths had they only........
If you check the Internet, under "Desert Survival Tips", you will find much information. Also, search & rescue units and other agencies often have booklets and seminars on desert survival. Research before you set out in the desert may save your life!
This account used materials from contemporary newspapers:
Weekly Journal-miner, August 17, 1921; Mohave County Miner and Our Mineral Wealth, August 19, 1921; The Coconino Sun, Flagstaff, August 19, 1921, and Mohave County Miner and Our Mineral Wealth, October 21,1921.
ED BLOCK MEMORIAL
Good friend and longtime APCRP Booster
This article is dedicated to the memory of my late husband, Ed Block, who loved the desert and knew how to survive in our many desert adventures. He also greatly enjoyed participating in APCRP projects. Kathy Block
Ed recording graves at Cedar Glade, 2010 APCRP project. Photo by Kathy Block.
Ed dry washing at Gold Basin, his favorite spot. Photo by Kathy Block.
Thank you to:
Ellis Harvey of Chandler, Arizona, for the German translation, and assistance with map.
Kay Ellermann, of the Mohave Museum of History and Arts for the historic documents and map.
Neal Du Shane for editing and producing this article on APCRP.
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