ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 2012
At 60 years of age Arthur Manby had solidified his reputation as the most disliked man in Taos. Ten years later, July of 1929, his decapitated body was found swollen and stinking and riddled with blue flies and maggots on a cot in his beautiful Spanish Colonial hacienda near the Taos plaza.
Manby was a talented con man. Advanced by an easy smile and comfortable manner he quickly roped in one sucker after another. Everyone in Taos knew him. Most hated him. A few tolerated him. Many feared him. He spent most of his adult life conning, thieving and accumulating a fortune on the backs of everyone who had anything in northern New Mexico, and beyond. Real estate was his primary game. He also dabbled in mining schemes and even art cons.
Until things began to unravel, and while Manby was still thought to be legitimate, he ruled that part of New Mexico like a bad emperor. He took money for land he had no right to sell. He summarily evicted those who may have had a legitimate claim to the land. He sold stock in worthless mines. He had no conscience. He trampled the poor and conned the rich and he did it with the protection and encouragement of the corrupt government in Santa Fe. He had friends in high places and thugs in low places. But by the time he was 60 his luck and thugs were running low. He was in trouble financially. His schemes and the law were beginning to catch up with him.
By 1929 Manby was laying low, dodging lawsuits and victims of his schemes. He was beginning to look a tad frayed around the edges. His thinning white hair stuck out from his floppy hat in all directions. Signs of his syphilis were beginning to show. What goes around comes around!
On a warm, late spring afternoon I stopped in at the old Manby hacienda out of plain, morbid curiosity in the place. It’s now an art center where artists and tourists accumulate. They also have a coffee bar there and a fridge full of bottles of lemonade. A young man, 14 going on 20 and of dubious alertness was running the espresso machine. I asked him if he knew which room Manby’s body was found in. He looked up at me utterly confused.
“What body?”, he nearly yelled.
“Arthur Manby’s.” I said. “The guy who built this place and whose headless body was found here in 1929.”
“Jeez!” The kid replied. “I don’t know anything about Manby or a body.”
Once again it seems incomprehensible to me that a person would work in a place and not know all the juicy details about it. Where is this kid’s sense of curiosity and enthusiasm in macabre history?
My own fascination in the place stems from my interest in the location of Forrest’s hidden chest. Let me explain-
One of my first search locations was in a place on the Rio Grande known as “the box”. This is a deep gorge (canyon) with the Rio Grande at the bottom that starts where the river enters New Mexico and extends all the way past Taos. Up until this point the Rio is a warm running stream but once inside the box it gets fed by cold springs and it’s volume increases significantly. There are two very nice streams with Brown trout that enter the Rio in the box. Each could be considered not far, but too far to walk from the start of the gorge. One is the Red and the other is the Hondo.
My first expedition to New Mexico was to search the confluence of the Red and Rio Grande rivers. This area matched up so well to the clues in the poem that I could not believe it wasn’t there…maybe I just missed it…
The one flaw in this area is access. The steepness and depth of the gorge gang up to make this a hike that’s a level of difficulty which doesn’t sound like Forrest’s game. The only access at that point is by foot and it’s at least a mile in and a thousand feet down…Would Forrest have carried 40lbs of treasure down into that hole…in retrospect, I doubt it.
So in June I wanted to check out the other confluence…the Rios Hondo and Grande. This area of the box is also steep and deep but the mitigating factor is the road that dives in and out with a bridge at the bottom. The John Dunn Bridge. The Hondo is apparently a great Brown trout fishery. The box is the canyon and all the other clues could be twisted to point here as well. “If it isn’t at the Red it must be at the Hondo”, I told myself.
Now, what all this has to do with Manby is that at one time Manby owned this area down at the confluence of the Hondo and the Grande. He built two bridges down there and later, when he needed some money, sold them to a tall, skinny fellow from Taos named John Dunn. John had a streak of bad luck when according to legend both of Manby’s bridges were washed away in a flood soon after he bought them. So John rebuilt one of the bridges and constructed a hotel down on the river. Served fresh trout for dinner every evening, improved the road on both sides of the river and charged a toll for people using his bridge. This was a pretty lucrative business because if you didn’t use John Dunn’s bridge you could add an extra hundred or so miles onto your trip to or from the railroad at Tres Piedras.
But bridges were not the only calling card to that spot. Manby also tried to improve a natural hot spring a few miles further down stream from the Dunn Bridge. It had been used by Indians and Spaniards and everyone else going back hundreds…maybe thousands of years. By “improve” I mean put a building around the spring and charge people to use it. What he ended up building was dark and frightening, so few people went there. Years later the building was torn down. The open-air spring is still there. It’s called Manby Hot Springs and is just down river from Black Rock Springs which is near the John Dunn Bridge. Anyone can go down there and relax in either Manby or Black Rock…or just watch the river. They are both free and when I was there only one other person came by Black Rock. An easy trail takes you past a cave and over to the pools of hot water at Black Rock. It was at one of these springs that I knew Forrest had hidden his treasure. It was here that I was intent on searching.
Being a fan of the “form follows function” adage I wanted to see Manby’s hacienda and conjure up some of his destiny before I started searching. I wanted to sit in the room where his headless torso was discovered and drink a lemonade and soak up the atmosphere… minus the blue flies and maggots. Karma to karma. Maybe Manby would tell me where, exactly to look.
So now I am in Taos, in Arthur Manby’s hacienda cum-art center cum-lemonade stand. I brought along an old map of the building showing where his body was found and where the dismembered head was ultimately discovered back in 1929. I was hoping the kid would allow me to explore the rooms. But that doesn’t look like it’s going to work out. He seems a bit upset by the whole notion of a headless body in his establishment. He keeps an eye on me like he’s ready to dial 911 if I should pull out a knife or start speaking in tongues. I can see the windows and a door across the garden that lead to the room I want to be in. I look around. Its right after school and three high schoolers are hanging out but that’s about it. They look like they are readying up to leave. I wait. They leave.
I place a couple bucks under my lemonade glass, pick up my camera and walk over to the door across the garden. There is no sign reading “keep out”, or “employees only”. I twist the knob. It opens. I walk in and close the door behind me. The room is narrow and long. Windows along the garden side let in soft light. Cafe tables and chairs mean this room is now used as an eating space. I wonder if the folks who dine here sense it’s ghoulish past.
I find a chair in a spot I identify as the most likely location of the infamous cot. I sit. I think Manby thoughts. I try to conjure him up. Nothing! I try harder. I close my eyes. I focus.
Something happens. I hear a noise around my head. What is it? Flies! One is trying to crawl into my mouth.They are all over me. Something smells putrid. This is disgusting. I force my eyes open. My heart is pounding against my rib cage. The flies are gone. The air in the room smells like air in a room. What just happened? Did I actually slip back to 1929? I don’t want to do that again. I am a little freaked. I take a couple of pictures in the room and quickly leave the way I came in. I figure the whole episode up to an over achieving imagination. I find my truck over near the cemetery, hop in and drive away from Taos and stinking blue flies a little faster than the law allows.