One day in January of 2007, I decided to do a little time traveling
from Los Angeles to the wilds of the western Mojave. With horse and
buggy I headed, to Jawbone Canyon and to Josie Stevens Whitehill
Bishop's grave. Somewhere along the way I picked up a little tidbit
that Josie's papa was from New Mexico, so I turned my buggy around
and headed straight for Silver City.
horse was getting pretty tired by now, and so was I. We stopped in a
saloon and there a young man overheard us asking about Sheriff
Whitehill. It was pretty scary for a moment when I realized who this
kid was - but he came over and tipped his hat, then sat down right
next to me at the old bar. I slung down a shot of whisky real fast
before I took him up on his offer of his rough hewn hand. "Name's
Henry, Henry McCarty," he said, "But most people around these parts
know me best as Billy."
kid, Billy, and I started talking, and one thing led to
another in the conversation, as they often do. Turns out that
Sheriff Whitehill arrested him once for throwing rocks at Chinamen,
and stealing several pounds of butter from a rancher. The Sheriff's
boy was friends with Billy, and he felt sorry for the kid, so he let
him off with a warning.
A few months later, Billy found himself arrested by Sheriff
Whitehill once again. This time for stealing clothing from a Chinese
laundry. The case went to court and Billy was sent to jail, in hopes
it would temporarily keep him out of more serious trouble and teach
him a lesson that he would take with him later in life.
Unfortunately, for Billy, it didn't work. I shuttered when I
realized that after our brief encounter at that Silver City bar....
Billy's fate would eventually wind up in the hands of another
sheriff named Garrett.
bartender came around and offered the kid and me another round,
which by this time I was in more desperate need of than the first
one. We clunked our glasses together before taking the second shot.
I wiped my hand across my mouth, then my jeans, before offering
Billy my hand once again. "Thanks," I said. "You've been more than
helpful." I then got up from the creaky bar stool and headed out the
realized the library was just down the street from where my horse
and buggy rested. I paused to pat the horse in assurance, and then
headed towards the building. There the librarian kindly directed me
to a room in the back where the newspaper archives were kept. I
thumbed through until I found 1875. Sure enough, April and September
of 1875, Henry McCarty, better known in later years as William Henry
Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, was arrested by the Sheriff of
Grant County, Harvey Howard Whitehill.
heart was racing by now, and I knew I had to get back to California
and the western Mojave Desert. I hurried back to my buggy and with a
holler to the horse; we were fast on our way. In record time, we
were back at Jawbone Station and a quick look at the calendar behind
the BLM visitor center counter, assured me it was 2007. Upon
request, a volunteer behind the counter directed me to the
Radium Queen of The Mojave
There it was: Josie Bishop, Radium Queen of the Mojave. A few
paragraphs down I read:
"Born June 18,
1875, Silver City, New Mexico, Josephine Stevens Whitehill was
the fifth of ten children born to Sheriff Harvey Whitehill and
his wife Harriet Stevens."
my mouth dropped open. Harriet Stevens would have been pregnant with
Josephine at the time her sheriff husband was arresting Billy the
years after Sheriff Whitehill let Billy the Kid off easy for
stealing several pounds of butter, the sheriff’s daughter moved to
the Mojave Desert from New Mexico. She was quoted in a 1937 edition
of Time Magazine as arriving with "a can of beans, a loaf of
bread but no butter." But the lack of butter didn't seem to bother
Josie as much as it had bothered the infamous outlaw. She owned some
promising acreage between Jawbone and Redrock Canyons that would
eventually earn her the title “Radium Queen of the Mojave”.
indeed June 18, 1875, when Harriet Stevens, the wife of Harvey
Whitehill of Silver City, New Mexico gave birth to their second
daughter, and fifth child of seven, Josephine Stevens Whitehill. In
1884, at the age of nine, Josie graduated from normal school and met
Herbert Bishop. By March 4, 1896, Josie and Herbert were married.
Over the next 24 years they would have seven children together. They
moved back and forth from New Mexico, to Arizona, to New Mexico
again, then San Francisco and Kennett, California. When her famous
father died, Josie was deeded 80 acres of his Silver City ranch.
Josie and Herbert lived on the Silver City ranch until 1918, when
the call of Southern California’s oil and mineral resources lured
them west. By 1920 Josie’s marriage to Herbert soured. Herbert and
two of their sons moved to Colorado, while she remained in Southern
friend from Silver City, John Christie, introduced Josie to the
riches of the desert north of the town of Mojave. In 1925, she
partnered with 27 year old Henry Scotty Cook to work Christie’s
claims and inhabit three tent cabins near Red Rock Canyon. When
Christie died in 1928, Josie acquired his claims.
survive financially, Scotty took on odd jobs, while Josie wrote for
the Cantil newspaper, and served on juries in Bakersfield. They sold
water, a precious commodity in the arid Mojave Desert, from their
well to locals to make ends meet when the claim years were lean.
1932, a fire destroyed the tent camp they called their home. Josie
and Scotty moved five miles away where wood cabins already stood
waiting to be used. This site, located off of route SC175, between
Jawbone and Redrock Canyons, would be Josie’s home for the remainder
of her life.
and Scotty worked their claims for gold and silver for 12 years. One
particular claim puzzled her. Every time she entered the shaft her
eyes would burn. So in 1936, Josie dug up some ore samples to show
to a mineralogist in San Diego. He promised to examine them and send
her a report, but she didn’t hear from him for over a year.
August of 1937, following a long battle over ownership of her 170
acres, and 11 claims, word was released in both Life and
Time magazines, that an old time desert rat had discovered
radium. The ore sample taken to San Diego had assayed in at 130
milligrams of radium bromide per ton of concentrated ore.
between the New Mexico and Mojave Desert years, Josie did a little
acting, appearing in such movies as "The Last of the Mohicans", and
"The Pathfinder", which gave her some claim to fame. However, it was
her radium discoveries that turned her into an overnight celebrity.
In addition to the articles in Time and Life, she was
listed in Who’s Who Among Noted Women In America. Josie
toured the nation, appearing as the Radium Queen of the Mojave at
the 1939 Worlds Fair, and on Robert Ripley’s Believe It Or Not
radio show of October 25, 1940. A visit to New York even earned her
a seat at a Mrs. Vincent Astor’s tea party, where she was introduced
to the discovers of radium, Pierre and Marie Curie.
Non-strategic mining came to a halt in 1942 thanks to the
declaration of World War II. Josie’s claims remained undeveloped
until February of 1945. Three officers of the Canadian Radium and
Uranium Corporation paid a visit to the mines, and the presence of
radium was confirmed once again.
October of 1945, Josie was in a one year lease agreement providing
her $250 a month, and a share of the profits until she received a
minimum of a million dollars. At nearly seventy years old, Sheriff
Whitehill’s daughter, Josie, would soon be the world’s richest
woman. In 1946 she was featured as a speaker at the annual meeting
of the Colorado Mining Association in Denver. The following year she
would speak at the American Mining Congress convention in El Paso
year 1948 brought tragedy to Josie’s rich desert life. Tuberculosis
claimed the life of her son Charley, and she buried him on her
claim. Easter morning of 1949, Josie and the remaining children
attended sunrise services at Red Rock Canyon and enjoyed breakfast
at Josie’s cabin. January 1951, the Inyokern Naval Ordnance Testing
Station sent out their scientists, who again found strong evidence
of radium at several locations on Josie’s property. She received a
letter announcing that Chicago based geologists would soon arrive
and do additional test drillings. That June, at the age of 76 years
old, Josie Whitehill Bishop went to Trona to celebrate her 76th
anniversary at one of her son’s homes.
11, 1951, a man named James McCarthy came to pick up Josie for a
meeting in the town of Mojave. As they passed Jawbone Road, the
winds raged. Worried her hair would be blown unpresentable for the
meeting, Josie reached to roll up the window of the car. In stead
she grabbed the latch of the door, causing the door to swing open,
and throw her to the pavement. She was taken to a Bakersfield
hospital where she died in the night, July 12, 1951. All of her
remaining children were by her side.
Visitors gather around the graves of Josie Bishop (top
left and bottom) and her son, Charley (top right). The
graves are located near her former claims on BLM
land overlooking Jawbone Canyon.
Ownership of Josie Bishop’s claims reverted to her children. Son
Jack, and other children, worked the claims to no avail. Partner
Scotty remained on the claim until health forced him to his
daughter’s home in Los Angeles. Meantime, Josie’s son, Jack, died in
1973. Eventually, arsonists burned everything on the Bishop
claims. At the death of Josie’s last child, Gene, the claims went
to her husband, Herbert, and son Jim.
recent years the State of California recognized Josie’s claims as a
Point of Historical Interest. A monument was erected in front of
Jawbone Bureau of Land Management Station. The Bishop family decided
to discontinue maintaining the claims and they were released to the
Federal Government. The Friends of Jawbone adopted the site of
Josie’s claims as a Bonanza Trail site. The graves of Josie and her
son Charles are on the site. Desert travelers, with suitable four
wheel drive vehicles, can pay tribute to Josie at her claim today.
obtain more information visit
Josie Bishop Radium
Queen Of The Mojave
Bureau of Land Management
Ridgecrest Field Office
Flyer - Written by Myrt Railey