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The Borax Man

by Brian Dunning, May 03 2012

Once in a while I come upon an old ghost story or monster story that I’d never seen before. It happened again on a recent father-son weekend trip to Death Valley, our favorite family destination.

Throughout Death Valley are remote cabins left over from the mining days. Many of them have been partially restored to various levels of livability, and are meticulously maintained by volunteers who frequent them. They’re often stocked with spare tools and supplies, and at least one I’ve visited even has running water piped in from a spring. Nearly all of them have shelves of knick knacks — bits and pieces of mining history collected from the surroundings — and always a lot of books.

We were at one such cabin in the Tucki Mine area. Visitors are always welcome in these cabins, and we signed the guest book. I flipped through some of the books on one shelf and found a small one I hadn’t seen before, a little storybook full of ghostly tales and legends of Death Valley. Here is the story I read:

In the late 1800s, borax mining was the principal business in Death Valley. Many Chinese laborers were employed in the borax mills. Lumps of borax called “cottonball” were scraped from the valley floor, crushed, and boiled in open vats made from adobe. This purified and crystallized the valuable chemical so it could be transported and marketed.

In 1885, a 7 foot, 7 inch tall Chinaman named Tong Yu was working at the Harmony Borax Works when he accidentally fell–or was pushed–into one of the large open vats of boiling borax. Workers fought to pull him out. Tong’s entire body was horribly burned, and his flesh was deeply saturated with the caustic borax.

He was brought into the living quarters, and a doctor was sent for. By the time the doctor arrived the next morning, Tong Yu was nowhere to be found. During the night he must have wandered away alone, perhaps in an agonized madness.

Today, visitors to the park often report a tall, thin, distant figure on the salt pan under the moonlight. Sometimes the wind plays tricks on the ears, sounding almost like a mournful cry. In 1974 a party of park rangers chased the figure on foot but could not get close. The Borax Man seemed to melt right back into the plain he came from.

The Borax Man was new to me, and I thought I’d heard them all. I took a pair of camera phone pictures of the pages. Unfortunately, fool that I am, I did not take a picture of the cover or title. I searched Google Books and the rest of the web to no avail. If anyone recognizes this story or knows the name or author of the book, please post it in the comments. I would love to get a copy. My favorite part is the awesome little illustration of what appears to be an alien from Close Encounters; I guess he’s pretty lost.

Apparently I am obligated to do the “skeptical” thing and give my thoughts on the likelihood of the story. I have been to some of the borax works and have seen the ruins of these vats. Those mentioned in the book, the Harmony Borax Works, are by far the best preserved and are today a major attraction at the park. I know that the refining process described is more or less accurate, but I had not heard before that the mixture necessarily had to be boiled. Sometimes these works had to be shut down during the summer months, since in order for the crystals to form, the solution had to cool to a certain point. In the summer it stayed too hot throughout the night, and no useful crystals could be produced.

I imagine it’s likely that guys did fall into these vats from time to time, but without knowing the water temperature it’s hard to assess whether they’d have been burned or not. Certainly with a full-body burn the way Tong Yu suffered, dehydration would be a major problem and I don’t guess he would have lived very long if he did wander away. He probably ended up like this unidentified gentleman pictured here.

Chinese workers did indeed work at these mills. The work was hot and horrible, the smell was awful, and the pay was poor. Chinese were unable to get better jobs because of racial discrimination, so employers were always happy to snatch them up for the worst work that nobody else would do. I’ve not found any sort of records for Chinese laborers — I don’t know how many tens or hundreds of thousands of them worked throughout California in the 19th century — so I will not presume to suggest whether Tong Yu was an actual guy or not.

I’d say most of the story is perfectly plausible. I did spend a few fruitless minutes trying to track down the one modern detail given, the 1974 chase given by rangers. No results. Next time I’m at the park, I’ll ask some of the rangers if they’d heard the story. If I learn anything interesting, I’ll post it here.

14 Responses to “The Borax Man”

  1. Carl says:

    Interesting story! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Namowal says:

    I’ve heard some weird desert tales before, but this one is new to me. It does have the motifs of a good ghost story.

    1. Gruesome on-the-job accident

    2. Victim vanishes/body never found

    3. Elusive ghost is “still reported” by visitors.

    Thanks for looking into the plausibility of the accident happening in the first place. It’d be all to easy for readers (and this includes me) to think, “Well, the ghost part is made up, but that’s creepy that some guy got poached in a tub of borax.” Whoops. :)

  3. Mark says:

    The temperature of the vats is fairly irrelevant. The chemical burns from a vat of borax would be bad enough.

  4. Søren Furbo Skov says:

    It is probable that the water was boiled.

    The process described is recrystallisation, which is a purification technique that utilises differences in solubility: The impure compound is dissolved in hot, often boiling, solvent and insoluble impurities are removed by filtration. The temperature is then lowered so that the pure compound crystallises, and soluble impurities can be removed.

    To minimise the loss of compound, it is important to have as large a difference in solubility as possible. Solubility follows temperature, so a high starting temperature is essential. I can think of only two reasons to not do this:
    1. If “insoluble” impurities become to soluble in hot solvent. this might be the case for borax, depending on the nature and concentration of impurities
    2. If compound in the mix breaks down under higher temperatures, and this somehow interferes with the production. IIRC, this can happen in both sugar and salt recrystallisation, where the might become bitter if the mother liquor is boiled.

    • vin says:

      I live in Far North Queensland Australia, where Sugar Cane has been a major industry since settlement…..there are many many horror stories of Industrial Accidents in the Mills around here that involve workers falling into the vats of boiling molasses etc and literally falling apart in their rescuer’s hands (but I haven’t currently heard any ghost stories of boiled alive workers haunting the old Mills, many of which are currently closing down….so it shouldn’t be too long before some stories start popping up…..they should get along nicely with all our North Queensland Gold Rush ghosts, WW2 ghosts and the aboriginal’s Quinkin ghost population)

      • tmac57 says:

        (but I haven’t currently heard any ghost stories of boiled alive workers haunting the old Mills…

        Maybe those molasses mill ghosts are being ‘syrup-tious’ in their activities?

  5. Ab Norm Al says:

    I will just throw this out, wouldn’t a 7’7″ Chinese man earn better money in the circus or sideshow in 1885 than what is described in this story? I would think such a person would have caused some attention.

  6. Bob Jase says:

    I never saw this story on ‘Death Valley Days’

    Too bad, it would’ve kicked ass.

  7. Daya says:

    I’ve just finished reading The Chinese Opium Wars by Jack Beeching. Although we and the French didn’t participate in the opium trade as enthusiastically as the English did, we drugged and kidnapped the Chinese, loaded them aboard our ships and brought them to the US as “indentured servants.” The terms of their indenture were so severe that for many of them they were the same as slaves. They worked the mines of the west and build the transcontinental railroad. Because the English had been so thorough in their introduction of cheap opium to the Chinese (by the time the trade was finished there were about 88 million Chinese addicted to opium), many of the Chinese “slaves” we captured and brought here were already hopeless opium addicts. How they kept up their habit as they crossed over is unknown to me although it would serve a slave master to see that his new “recruits” had what they needed to keep them alive so that he could use them more efficiently. Seems to me that many troubled Chinese ghosts might be roaming the west. There are probably countless horrific stories of how they died.

    • vin says:

      Opiate withdrawal takes about 2 weeks (depending on the opiate… methadone, which is a synthetic opioid, can take 3 MONTHS to ‘dry out’ from, which is a horrifying experience as one does NOT SLEEP for over 50 days….the Guinness Book of Records says nine days for longest time awake…not truly accurate, if they took opiate withdrawal, and especially Methadone withdrawal into account, the record would be closer to 2 months….which sounds impossible but it’s well documented in medical circles)…..its an EXTREMELY unpleasant experience with sensations very akin to the worst flu you could possibly get…..but you don’t actually die from it. Opium Tar, being the least refined, is actually one of the most difficult drugs for the human body to withdraw from, and deaths did occur, but you usually had to be one of the ‘rich’ to be even able to afford a habit big enough that the withdrawal could cause organ failure…..its usually not the drug that kills, its the poor state of health that the addict lets their body fall to (many people retain massive opiate habits till very old age…as long as an addict sleeps and eats properly and looks after themselves, there are virtually zero negative affect from opiates eg doctors were still giving women in childbirth Heroin, which the call Diamorph until only a couple decades ago as it IS actually the safest analgesic painkiller. Morphine and Heroine ARE actually virtually the same drug)…..opiates, like hemp, have had a very bad rap by the propagandists (the USA would have far fewer ‘junkies’ or drug related crime if those two drugs were still legal……its one thing where I wish the Oz govt followed their European counterparts instead of their American brethren (but, fortunately, cooler heads prevail and now Australia has a ‘harm minimisation policy’ rather than a ‘War on Drugs’ and it reflects in our crime statistics…..totally off topic, but I felt the need to vent and educate.

  8. Bob Werdna says:

    I once ran into a man in Panamint Springs in the bar who told me a similar story. He was old and crusty, and had obviously spent most of his life in the sun. He said that he had been born and raised in Trona, and after graduating with the high school class of ’56 at Trona High he turned to a life of prospecting in with the re-mining of some Death Valley mines and prospecting in the mountains. After talking about this for a while I asked him about some points of interest along West Side Road on the valley floor. I mentioned an old plane crash out there and asked if he knew where it was. This seemed to trigger something in his memory. The words that follow are his exactly “I was on the salt flats on a full moon once, and I will never forget that night.” He told his account of chasing a tall, white figure across the salt pan and having it disappear into the salt, as if melting. He went out in the direction he last spotted the figure and found only a small pile of borax material. He then explained this with a very similar story that you give. Anyway it was my last day in the area and I left the following morning, but unfortunately I did not catch the man’s name. Just thought it was worth sharing, Thanks for this Brian

    • Brian Dunning says:

      Wow! Seems he at least knew the story.

      My son and I have met at least one such old-timer in the bar at Panamint Springs, and he regaled us with stories of yore. I wonder if it was the same guy. :-)

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  10. David Garlits says:

    Nice ghost story. The part that makes me skeptical is “boiling borax in adobe vats.” Unless there was an iron liner in the vats, this would be extremely difficult to do. Adobe mud bricks are water soluble, and combined with high temperatures and a caustic material… Nice story though.