We’ll never know exactly why Joe Simpson shot Jim Arnold that Easter Sunday, April 19, 1908. It’s hard enough to tell exactly what happened because there are conflicting accounts that have been embellished in numerous retellings.
When it comes to the story of Joe Simpson, most writings published since have focused on his death and the treatment of his remains afterward. After all, he was lynched by vigilantism in Skidoo, California, and the legend of his disinternment and re-hanging for benefit of the press is deeply entrenched. The newspapers of the day focused on Simpson’s murder of Jim Arnold and the subsequent lynching, but are mute regarding his remains afterward. This author wanted to focus on Simpson’s life prior to his appearance on the scene in Skidoo’s history, as well as his murderous actions, death and aftermath. It’s truly wondrous that when the subject of Joe Simpson comes up among historians, what usually follows is spirited dispute.
Most books tend to paint Simpson as a n’er-do-well, a bum, a petty thief, a drunkard, an outcast, a worthless man who never contributed to society. Yet, though brief and succinct, early press on Simpson show a different side of the man that subsequent publications do not.
In the course of research for this publication, the author has not been able to find much information regarding Simpson’s early life. The earliest reference by this author was found in the 1900 Nevada State Census. It gave this information on Joseph L. Simpson, who was living during June 1900 in the 2nd precinct of Reno, Nevada:
- Head of household
- Born September 1874
- 25 years old last birthday
- Born in California
- Both parents born in Ohio
- Occupation -- unreadable (appears to be possibly the words "line" and "cook")
- Can read, write and speak English
- No home listed as rented or owned
Simpson’s occupation was scrawled on the census form, unreadable, but appears to be possibly the words "line cook." This goes along with sources who say that Simpson was employed at or owned a chop house located in a Reno hotel. It is thought that Simpson eventually drifted south to Rhyolite during the wild excitement happening in the central and southern sections of Nevada and the Death Valley country in California.
At what point Simpson came to Death Valley is not clear, but he appeared to have followed the Bullfrog rush south, and then cross into Death Valley. Details gleaned from government records and newspaper items it appears Simpson wanted to be more than a cook and he focused on mining, mine ownership or partnership in mines.