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Twisted History:

The Triple Deaths of  Ah Wee, 

The Laundryman of  Bennettville

 by Cecile Page Vargo



igh in the Sierras, near the base of  Tioga Hill, laundryman Ah Wee was sick and dying in his Bennettville shanty.  His friend, Jim Toy, a merchant and Chinese doctor from Lundy, hurried across the rugged mountains to his side.  Not long after he arrived, Ah Wee took his last breath.  Jim waited until the body was cold and rigid, then went to a boarding house for supper.  After the meal, he and  a group of men  decided to go back to the laundryman’s and tend to the body.  Imagine their surprise, when they arrived and Ah Wee was up and walking around.  It took the strength of all of the men to get Ah Wee back to bed again.  Jim Toy nursed Ah Wee through the night.  Just before daybreak, however,  Ah Wee breathed his last one more time.   

Mule Ride to Lundy

            A strong box was built for the Chinese laundryman’s body, so it could be taken to Lundy for internment. Louis Amoit’s pack train would come for the body and the box around noon that day.  Meantime, Jim watched the corpse constantly for returned life.  Louis arrived and they packed the box with Ah Wee’s body in it on the back of a pack mule.  They trudged along slowly until reaching the level ridge of Mount Warren Divide.  As Louis hurried the mules, the one with Ah Wee’s corpse began to trot.  Suddenly, groaning noises were heard from the strong box.  First thoughts were that it was the mule groaning, but Louis decided it best to make sure.  As he stopped the mule, the groans from the box became louder.  Ah Wee was alive once again.  Reportedly, Louis Amoit’s “ eyeballs crawled out on his cheeks, looked at his ears, and tried to climb under his hat” in fear.

            Louis Amoit and his pack mules, with the once again alive and breathing, Ah Wee, headed on to Lundy.  In Lundy, Ah Wee rested comfortably in quiet quarters, appearing to be convalescing nicely. By 11:00 that Monday morning, an American physician checked on him to see how he was doing.  Ah Wee turned his face to the wall and breathed his last one more time.  

Peaceful and Penniless

            The Homer Mining Index of   October 27, 1883 ,  reported that on the Tuesday after his third last breath, Ah Wee was buried with “imposing ceremonies of the Chinese kind.”   When interviewed for the Index, Ah Wee’s friend Jim Toy said he had died of a cold.  Asked if it was a case of pneumonia, Jim Toy thought the reporter had said “no money”, and replied “No, no.  Him got no money - him allee time gamble - tlee week ago him losee two hundled dolla - him got no money.”  Regardless of what caused Ah Wee’s triple deaths,  the third death was the charm, and he laid peacefully and penniless, to rest one last time.    

Stretching the Truth

            It is well known that during the 1870’s and 1880’s, a few editors of mining town newspapers were prone to exaggeration to make the life of the lonely miner more interesting as he read about weekly events.    Amongst the editors of the afore mentioned Homer Mining Index, where the story of Ah Wee originally came from, was one known as Lying Jim Townsend.  Lying Jim, cranked out copy for the camps of Bennettville, Lundy, Bodie, Aurora and surrounding areas.  He was particularly noted for inserting an “occasional yarn of questionable veracity” once in awhile.  Lying Jim was quoted from a column as saying “It requires inventive genius to pick up local news here now.  The scribe has to trust to his imagination for facts and to his memory for things which never occurred.”  

            Whether Lying Jim, had anything to do with the three deaths of the Bennettville laundryman, this self pro-claimed ghost town gossipist of modern times, doesn’t know, but she has also uncovered an entirely different version of Ah Wee, which was unearthed by a friend who she affectionately calls, NK4U.  It’s up to the reader to decide which story he or she prefers to believe.

A Biography of Mr. Lee "Ah-wee" Chung
(The Cliff Notes)

by "NK4U"

            Lee Chung was born in 1838 to peasant Chinese shepherds in the Xiuxeng province of northern China . A brief proliferation of primitive photographic techniques which blossomed in Xiuxeng at the time of Lee's birth provide us with the only known photograph of Lee in his childhood. Sadly at this time, the short-lived practice of photography invented and developed in this region was lost when all known artisans of the craft were killed (virtually simultaneously) by the dangerous and peculiar mercury-based processes involved at the time.

            The Xiuxneng province is characterized by it's high elevation and cold, harsh winters. As a boy, Lee developed a fondness for snow sports which was go grow into a life-long passion for tobogganing. By the time Lee left China for the western United States in 1878 he was well known throughout northern China as the most enthusiastic (if not-so-talented) Chinese tobogganier as well as a novice toboggan craftsman. While his enthusiasm for the snow-covered slopes could not be tempered, his lack of ability and substandard, home built equipment provided for a continuous series of greater and lesser toboganning accidents, resulting in greater or lesser quantities of massive injuries. As a result, Lee's wits and reflexes were to grow ever slower over the course of his lifetime. Nonetheless, throughout Lee's worldly travels, he was never seen to travel without his most favorite trusty toboggan which he called "Rosebud".

            Lee worked hard in the railroad camps, and later in the mining camps as he worked his way through the American west. Lee intentionally sought out camps in the harsher environs so he could be close to his beloved slopes. Lee performed any odd job he was offered; laundromat technician, stable swamper, clerical secretary. All jobs to Lee were merely an end to a means - to provide him with the sustenance he needed to support his increasingly-habitual toboggan use. Lee amassed a record of call-in "sick days" before or since unrivaled in industrialized nations. Though everyone knew where Lee was on these "sick days" of course. For his distinctive and gleeful cry of "ah-WEEEEEE!" as he launched himself from the mountain tops could be heard throughout the locality.

            By the time Lee reached the mining camp of Bennetville in 1882 his coordination and mental faculties were clearly impaired. He was soon offered a job in one of the less-reputable bordellos in town, which he gratefully accepted before promptly phoning in sick. The nickname "Ahwee" or "Ah Wee" was assigned to Lee as he took to the slopes and his familiar cry was heard throughout the town. The name stuck as more and more camp regulars and visitors turned out to watch Lee's antics on the slopes. His cataclysmic crashes grew in frequency and spectacle as his agility continued to decline undeterred by his indefatigable passion for his "sport". Such spectacles culminated in the "Tioga Glacier" incident in the deep winter of 1883. Crowds were stunned and delighted as Lee careened off the lip of the 95-foot face of the Tioga glacier, landing in a crumpled heap on the rocky shores of
Lake Tioga . His lifeless (and frozen) body was recovered 2 days later and stored in the Bennettville Livery where he was miraculously revived by a birthing mare.

            Lee soon took to the slopes again, and shortly thereafter his body was recovered from an abandoned ventilation shaft. The Bennettville townsfolk (in an expression of fondness for Lee) used his body as a makeshift cigar dispenser by propping him up in the frigid shelter in front of Smith's Apothecary, whereupon Lee was inexplicably revived days later by a startled passerby. As the winter season waned in the high Sierras, Lee was forced to seek out more dispersed and isolated patches of snow amongst the rugged crags surrounding Bennettville in order to support his toboggan mania. Such was to be his undoing in May, 1884. As Lee cried "Ah-WEEEE" and pushed off from the top of a rocky swale a lone photographer snapped the last image of Lee "Ah Wee" Chung.



    Last known photograph of Lee "Ah Wee" Chung, 1884





            Though Lee's body was never recovered, the townsfolk of Bennettville honored Lee by inscribing his moniker on a small granite obelisk which was then hurled off the same rocky crag which had claimed their beloved Ah Wee.



Bennettville and the Tioga Mining District

by Alan Patera

Western Places



Ghost Mines of Yosemite

by Douglas Hubbard

The Awani Press


Red Blood & Black Ink: Journalism in the Old West

by David Dary

University of Kansas


Special thanks to Mike Bray & Alan Patera!