Posts Tagged ‘melvin dummar’

Up close and personal with the Mormon Will

November 22, 2020 1 comment

In the television series The X-Files (1993-2002), FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are assigned to investigated odd and unsolved cases. Mulder leans toward believing in the paranormal, while Scully, a medical doctor, is a skeptic. I bring all this up as context to discuss one of the iconic images from the series: a poster on the wall in Mulder’s office. The poster shows an unidentified flying object hovering in a clear sky above a copse of trees. The bottom half of the poster says, simply, “I WANT TO BELIEVE.”

This phrase, I think, can be applied to the mindset of a lot of people these days. They want to believe in conspiracy theories. They want to believe in ghosts. They want to believe the mob killed Kennedy. They want to believe these kinds of things no matter how little real evidence there is to support them. I have heard people say, more or less, “I don’t care what your evidence says, I believe this to be true.” It’s pretty difficult to counter such a statement.

To be clear, being a skeptic does not have to mean immediately dismissing all exotic ideas and theories. For example, while I have never had a paranormal experience in 55 years on the planet, I am open to the possibility that more is going on than the human senses can detect. I prefer leaving that door open a crack rather than shutting it, locking it and throwing away the key.

I took the same approach when I began researching the story of Melvin Dummar and the Mormon Will for my book on Howard Hughes. From the start, I was skeptical of Melvin’s story but I left the door open to the possibility that it could be true.

As I recount in my book, I interviewed Melvin for several hours in his room at the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada. Melvin told me his story of picking up an injured older man on a dirt road south of Goldfield in late December 1967. Melvin said he took the man to Las Vegas and dropped him off at the Sands Hotel. He said that during the trip, the man told him he was Howard Hughes.

Melvin then told me about how, after Howard Hughes died in 1976, he came into possession of a handwritten will allegedly written by Hughes, and how he took it to the Mormon Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. The church, in turn, delivered the will to the court in Las Vegas. The will was taken seriously enough, especially by the individuals and entities who stood to benefit, that it became the focus of a trial to determine its validity. One of the potential benefactors was Melvin, who would become rich thanks to the kindness he offered the old man he picked up in the desert. However, the court did not validate what came to be known as the Mormon Will. Lacking a legitimate will, Hughes’s holdings were turned over to his heirs, led by a cousin, Will Lummis.

Although the will was deemed to be a fake, which strongly suggests Melvin was involved in a nefarious scheme, many people to this day believe his story. Melvin became a working-class hero, an earnest man whose one chance at the brass ring was thwarted by the powers that be. This view of Melvin was enhanced by the 1980 movie Melvin and Howard, which follows the story pretty much as Melvin told it.

I and many others have written extensively about the Mormon Will without having actually looked at it. Pictures of the will have appeared in newspapers and books, of course, but few people have actually gone to the courthouse in Las Vegas, where it is housed, to view the document up close.

I recently did this, and it was worth the time and effort.

I pursued a personal viewing of the will at the urging of Paul Rhoden, son of Harold Rhoden, the key lawyer involved in the Mormon Will case. Harold Rhoden represented Noah Dietrich, the former Hughes executive who was named executor of the estate in the will. Why Paul Rhoden and his brothers remain interested in the will all these years later is for them to explain. It appears they believe the will is real, and that new technologies could yield information to support this assertion. Whatever the case, my interest in looking at the will was simply part of my ongoing research, which, for better or worse, has not ended with the publication of two editions of my book about Hughes.

After seeking and receiving approval from District Court officials to look at the will, on September 18th, 2020, I walked into the Clark County Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas, met the employees in charge of such things, and was soon seated at a table with the three pages of the will and a related envelope encased in plastic in front of me.

This might not seem like a big deal, but for someone who has been writing about this legendary document for many years, it was a thrilling experience. As the pictures accompanying this essay show, the handwriting on the document is badly smeared. This, I am told, is a result of the chemicals used in the FBI’s fingerprint analysis of the document. The greenish smears clearly come from the ink in the pen used to write the will. The red blotches are more difficult for the layman to comprehend, but they apparently resulted from the process of attempting to procure latent fingerprints from the paper.

Despite the smearing, the will remains legible, confirming the handwritten words so carefully studied for the trial and in the years since. The biggest indicators of the will’s forgery are evident: the use of the media-created nickname “spruce goose” to describe Hughes’s giant H-4 airplane; the misspelling of the last name of Hughes’s cousin as “Lommis,” not “Lummis”; the highly unlikely selection of Dietrich as executor, considering Hughes had fired Dietrich 11 years before the will was allegedly drafted. And so on.

But all that is old news. For me, the biggest takeaway from seeing the will in person was the nature of the paper. Up close, it is clear that the paper used for the will is of the type a student would use for an elementary school assignment. It is cheap paper with wide rules. It is the last kind of paper one would expect one of the world’s richest men to have at his disposal.

Hughes did not have children, and he seemed to have little interest in them. After he became a recluse, he never came into contact with any children, and his aides, if they had children, never brought them to work.

Further, we know that especially in his years living at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, Hughes was a prolific memo writer, and that he exclusively used yellow legal pads for this purpose. Why would he use cheap, wide-ruled school paper to write a will when he had an ample supply of yellow legal pads stacked beside his chair?

I’m sure my observations about the paper on which the will was written are not going to change minds around the world concerning the Mormon Will’s validity. If people can overlook the use of “spruce goose” in the will, they surely can concoct a rationale for Hughes to write the will on children’s school paper.

The research will continue. Just as researchers continue to look for new clues to who killed Jimmy Hoffa, I look for fresh information about the life and times of Howard Hughes. Next, I would like to take a deeper look into the Mormon Will case file to see if it yields anything interesting. If I find anything noteworthy, I will report it here.