"Dear Bodie... I'm sorry that I took this piece of metal from the town. I thought it was all a joke but it wasn't at all. Things are happening that are very hard to explain." From a letter to Bodie, 2003
The "curse letters" arrive at Bodie State Historic Park about once a week. They're usually handwritten, often anonymous, with an object rattling in the envelope. And the writers are all very, very sorry.
Legend has it that any visitor who dares to take anything -- even a rock -- from this Gold Rush ghost town, isolated beyond the eastern Sierra, will be punished.
Over the decades, "the curse of Bodie" has been the subject of rumor, ghost-hunter lore and online chatter, and it promises bad luck, health problems and even mysterious accidents.
For years, guilty souvenir-takers have been sending those letters to the park staff, detailing the misfortune they believe has plagued them ever since -- and desperately sending their “cursed” items back. Yet the most curious thing about this so-called curse isn’t even how deeply people believe in it: It's how it began.
This myth did not originate with superstitious Gold Rush prospectors, or credulous ghost hunters. It was started by the California Department of Parks and Recreation itself -- and it's had an effect the state parks service didn't expect.
"Fair warning for anyone that thinks this is just folklore -- my life has never seen such turmoil. Please take my warning and do not remove even a speck of dust." From a letter to Bodie, 2002
Bodie -- established in 1859, claimed by the state parks service in 1962 -- lies hidden in the hills east of Yosemite, south of Lake Tahoe and north of Mono Lake. It’s over 15 miles from the nearest town, connected by a narrow winding highway that turns into an unpaved dirt road. When the winter snows come, this place often becomes impassable.
In the late 19th century, Bodie was the archetypal Gold Rush boomtown.
The gold and silver found in these hills by New York prospector W.S. Bodey -- who died in a blizzard before ever seeing the town that took (but misspelled) his name -- drew people from across the nation.
Standing in the middle of the eerily silent Main Street here, it’s impossible not to imagine what Bodie must have been like in its heyday: a noisy, thriving, hardscrabble town of almost 10,000 souls that boasted over 60 saloons. Here, “gunfights were common,” according to Catherine Jones, the park interpreter who works with the Bodie rangers to show people around this strange spot.
“Like most of the towns in the Wild West in the late 1800s," she adds with some understatement, Bodie “probably didn't have the kind of law that we’re used to nowadays."
California State Parks maintains Bodie in what they call “arrested decay” -- the rot repaired, but not replaced. While some buildings are little more than ruins and tumbledown shacks, a glance through the windows of the better preserved structures reveals interiors that could have been left just yesterday.
In one family home, the kitchen’s surfaces are stacked with dishes. In the town morgue, peeled wallpaper sways in ribbons from the ceilings, above the empty caskets.
In this particular ghost town, it’s hard not to think about ghosts, or feel unusually disposed toward legends of vengeful Gold Rush spirits. Which is how this whole curse tale got started.
"You can have these godforsaken rocks back. I've never had so much rotten luck in my life. Please forgive me for ever testing the curse of Bodie." From a letter to Bodie, 2004
“Years back,” says Jones, a single park ranger at Bodie apparently invented the notion that misfortune would befall anyone who took something from the park. “That maybe if we started this idea that you'd have bad luck if you took artifacts from Bodie, it would try to keep people from stealing artifacts."
Theft has always been a problem in Bodie, even before it was claimed by the state.
The ghosting of this town was gradual: Mining actually continued up until 1942, but by then what had once been a crowded, bustling town had faded into an increasing collection of vacated homes. Many of them were -- and are -- still filled with the possessions of those who’d up and left.
For locals and visitors alike, Bodie was that strange, sort-of-empty town out in the hills back then, where you could wander around and perhaps pick up a freebie or two. Someone once even took a piano from a house in Bodie, says Jones -- just loaded it onto the back of a truck, and drove it away.
Even as a state historic park, with signs and constant staffing, light-fingered visitors apparently continued to be tempted to take souvenirs. So, Bodie conjured its own boogeyman: the story of a curse, shared with tourists over the years to discourage them from filling their pockets with ghost town trinkets.
These days, staff here no longer really talk about their curse with visitors, and we'll get to the reason for that. But still the curse letters keep coming.
"Please find enclosed one weatherbeaten old shoe. The shoe was removed from Bodie during the month of August 1978... My trail of misfortune is so long and depressing it can't be listed here." Letter to Bodie, undated
The letters, Jones says, arrive with such regularity that the staff here recognize them on sight.
“Pretty much every time the ranger goes to the post office to pick up our mail,” says Jones, “there's a cursed artifact in there.” They’ve received so many of these letters over the years that they’re now collected, on display, in the Bodie museum.
From rambling multi-page narratives to one-sentence apologies and Post-its, they confess to taking nails, glass shards, ceramic fragments, coins, flowers and more. Some writers claim to have had no clue taking anything from a state park was forbidden, despite the multiple signs. Others admit they knew, and just couldn’t resist.
For some, the curse is explicitly supernatural: ghostly apparitions, poltergeist-like disturbances. For the majority, it has taken the form of plain bad luck: accidents, auto trouble, job losses. Some report experiencing the curse’s effects instantly on the drive home. Others perceive them only in hindsight. One letter is from a young person so terrified at the thought of removing anything from Bodie that they returned items their family purchased in the park’s gift store.
Some are almost comical. One young correspondent blames getting grounded by his parents on the curse. Another child simply writes: “Sorry I took the glass pieces. I thought they are pretty. My fish died the day after.”
Yet others are far more serious in tone. In one heartfelt letter from 2017, a young woman blames the rock she took from Bodie for the breakdown of not only her relationship, but her parents’ marriage, too. Another writer says she’s losing all her loved ones to cancer.
Of course, it’s not just the letters. These people are sending their cursed items back, because they think it’ll help, and this is the reason that staff no longer talks about the legend much to visitors. Because by inventing a curse -- one that haunts you until you make things right -- the folks at Bodie State Park unwittingly created a whole new problem for themselves.
"This nail was taken from the town of Bodie… Nothing should leave Bodie. Also, who wants bad luck. Please put it back for me." From a letter to Bodie, 2017
Every time an item is returned, the staff at Bodie have to treat it for what it is -- a stolen object. That means filing a law enforcement report for every single one, no matter how big or small.
Red tape notwithstanding, it may seem like no big deal to pick up a rock from Bodie and then remorsefully return it. Yet to the parks service, these aren’t just trinkets. They’re artifacts that carry a very real historic and cultural value -- “even the broken glass and the nails that are strewn about the ground,” as Jones puts it.
When these are picked up and taken from the park, they’re instantly divorced from their place and context. The minute they’re put in someone’s pocket, so much of the story they can tell is lost for good.
Returning an artifact doesn’t actually solve this problem either. When these envelopes arrive back at Bodie’s door, it’s not as if the rangers can just empty out their contents on Main Street. Take the “beautiful piece of obsidian rock” one letter writer confesses to taking “to remember my amazing trip” -- the rock she blames for her subsequent romantic pain and career trouble.
Jones and her colleagues now have no way of knowing exactly where in the park it originated.
“It potentially could have come from a prehistoric site, a Native American site. But now we don't know, because now it's out of context," she says. "That's what's unfortunate about this stuff being removed from its true place.” The worst-case scenario here, she says, is that artifacts like this “will probably live in a box forever.”
Consider that piano, too. Jones says it was eventually returned to Bodie, after its owners heard about the curse (“health problems, car troubles” this time). Where once it might have sat in a family's living room, or been played in one of the saloons, it now sits silent in the town hall. It's in Bodie’s own version of Collections Purgatory -- unknown, unaccessioned -- and the staff here will never know its true story.
"So sorry for picking these up. I love antiques and being a Christian I felt so guilty for taking these on Monday. Not to mention Tuesday we got a flat tire and my husband hit his head on a rock." From a letter to Bodie, 1998
Inventing a thief's curse has undoubtedly been a mixed blessing for Bodie State Historic Park. It has drawn attention to what continues to be a very real problem with theft here, and almost certainly deterred many would-be souvenir hunters. Yet it has also ensured a steady supply of returned, orphaned artifacts with no way home.
Rather than harp on the curse to visitors, Jones says she and her colleagues hope “that that we can get a better message out to people that visit Bodie that they should leave everything in its place.”
Kids nearly always ask her about the curse on tours, but she prefers instead to explain to them why taking something from a state park is wrong.
“Bodie," as she puts it, "is a giant outdoor museum, and everything should be treated like it is when you go inside an indoor museum. You wouldn't steal from an artifact exhibit in a museum, so it's hard to know why anybody would steal from Bodie."
Yet much in the way that their invented curse proved almost too effective, perhaps what's at work is the park’s very success in maintaining Bodie in "arrested decay" -- the thing that makes visiting this remote place so compelling. Away from those glimpsed interiors, wandering through Bodie feels more like exploring some kind of deserted world than visiting a museum.
Maybe that's why people feel so inclined to just ... pick stuff up. Just like the letters say.
That “stuff," of course, is actually California heritage. But then, so much about Bodie is not what it seems. It’s a golden boomtown that now lies silent, with a curse that isn’t, but people believe in anyway. And the fact that it endures says a lot about our desire to believe in the otherworldly in places like this. Or perhaps just the power of a guilty conscience.
"I send the purloined goods, along with my deepest apologies to whatever spirit I have offended... I feel better already. Confession really is good for the soul." From a letter to Bodie, 1996