The Curious Life and Tall Tales of John Murile Caves

Captain Harold Davis of the Oceanside Police Department was a collector of many things, including three large scrapbooks in which he placed various photos of crime and accident scenes, along with a variety of newspaper articles dating from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Captain Harold Davis of the Oceanside Police Department

One scrapbook contained a human-interest story of John M. Caves, a retired sea captain who was hospitalized in the Oceanside Community Hospital. This was not Caves’ first visit to Oceanside, and it wouldn’t be his last. Curious, about Mr. Caves and his peculiar claims, I did a bit of research and uncovered two different hoaxes perpetuated by Caves for over four decades. In between he would murder a traveling companion and serve time in prison.

John Murile Caves was born January 4, 1882, in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, a small borough of less than 2,000 person in Allegheny County. He was the second of four children born to Samuel T. and Martha Caves, who lived in a rather stately home at 713 Pennsylvania Street in the town of Oakmont. His siblings were Samuel Meredith, Henry Adams and Mary Caves. Their father Samuel Caves worked as a blacksmith with Verona Tool Works.

713 Pennsylvania Avenue, Oakmont, Pennsylvania, the home of Samuel and Martha Caves

At the age of 18 John Murile Caves was still living with his parents but held no occupation, nor was he attending school, in an era where this would have been atypical. His brothers, one older and one younger were both employed at Verona Tool Works with their father.

In 1907, at the age of 25, John was arrested along with two other men for breaking into a train car. In the newspaper account, John Caves was described as a “cripple who walked with a crutch” and “peddled shoestrings.” This may have been the first of John Caves’ personas as he was not at all crippled, at least not permanently. T. B. Shaffer, the railroad detective, reported that Caves’ two companions seemed distraught about their arrest, but in contrast John Caves was “cheerful” about the encounter. Regardless of his hapless attitude, the arrest landed Caves in jail, awaiting trial for several months after which he was found not guilty and released.

Walking Career Begins

John Caves would begin an “illustrious walking career” two years later in 1909. No official record was found of the starting point or date but in September 7, 1909, the Quincy Journal announced that Caves had arrived in Macomb, Illinois.

Going by the moniker of “Happy Jack” the Journal reported that Caves had started his walk on April 6th of that year, starting from Boston. He claimed he ran away from home at the age of 9 and (incredulously) had already completed two walking trips across the continent. Now he was determined to travel around the world against a wager of $2,000 from “Bryan’s Commoner and Munsey’s Magazine”, which purportedly provided the route that he should travel.

According to Caves, he was not to ask for a cent from anyone along the way but could accept gifts. Apparently and supposedly people were very generous as he claimed to have eaten no less than three meals a day and stayed at the finest of hotels while on his journey.

Caves further claimed he had a year in which to complete his trip across the United States, but four years to travel the world. Caves announced his intention to make his way to Lincoln, Nebraska and from there to San Francisco where he would eat a Christmas Dinner. The article ended that “Happy Jack” was 28 years old and walked at an “easy gait of 5 miles an hour.”

On September 21, 1909, Caves had walked to, or at least arrived in, Burlington, Iowa by way of Fort Madison. The Burlington Hawk Eye reported that Caves had now walked 10,090 miles and that he was on his way to Des Moines to Omaha, then to San Francisco “by Christmas.” From there Caves said he would get “free passage to Japan and Australia, from Australia to London and from there home again.” Caves next stopping place on his route would be Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, the newspaper informed readers.

For the next several years John Caves would convince or at least amuse folks with variations of this tale, and it would be perpetuated from town to town, newspaper to newspaper. But the good residents of Ottumwa, Iowa saw through the tall tales and when Caves stopped through their town they were not taken in by his charm or his story. The Burlington Evening Gazette in Burlington, Iowa (where he been just days before) disclosed: “Happy Jack, the big bum alleged globetrotter, who is trying to fool the people throughout the country, was arrested for drunkenness in Ottumwa.”

The Ottumwa Courtier shared this news in September of 1909: “John M. Caves, who claims to be a globetrotter, has clasped to his belt of claims another item. Yesterday he proceeded to tank up as much of the brew down his throat, but before he covered as much distance in this direction as he claims he has covered over the country, he fell into the hands of Office L. Lightner. ‘Happy Jack’ was jugged, and in police court he acknowledged he was drunk. Judge Morrissey gave him three days to repent.”

From the Burlington Evening Gazette, September 27, 1909

After this encounter and 3-day jail stay, on September 27th Caves had reached Albia, Iowa, stating, “I’m still going. Roads are good. I’m making 50 miles a day. I will be out of the state, Saturday, October 2.”

Oh, but “Happy Jack” was still in the state of Iowa on October 5th where he was giving a lecture of his travels in Glenwood at the Opera House.

Did Caves ever make it to Omaha or San Francisco? It is hard to say. Perhaps he was detoured.

In Trouble

Eight years later John Caves was in the news again when in August of 1917, he was arrested for assaulting a railroad conductor with a knife while working as a restaurant cook. He pled guilty and was put on parole. 

WWI registration card with John Murile Caves. Note date of birth

In September of 1918 Caves was working as a “blacksmith helper” at Verona Tool Works where his father was employed in Oakmont, Pennsylvania (his hometown), according to his World War I registration card. He seemed to have settled down for a very brief time, but he would soon be on the move again for another walking trip “around the world.”

But before that Caves found himself again in trouble with authorities when on May 22, 1921, he was arrested in Bellwood, Pennsylvania. After an altercation with members of a train crew, he was ejected and in retaliation threw a rock that subsequently hit the brakeman. Caves spent over two weeks in jail until his day in court. The Altoona Mirror reported: “Happy Jack Caves, an individual of tall stature who assured the court that he was ‘a sailor from the high seas’ who had come to this section of the country to visit some friend and became intoxicated, pled guilty to through a stone through a passenger car window near Bellwood.”

Bellwood Train Station, Bellwood Pennsylvania where Caves was arrested

It is worth noting that Caves would again claim to be a sailor decades later. However, before that reinvention, he began another worldwide trek.

A Trip “Around the World” Begins

On April 1, 1919, (notably April Fool’s Day), Caves purportedly began a journey from Boston that would take him to every continent in the world, and every state in the U.S. Supposedly a total of 16 men began this trek, that would take them 99,986 miles in a period of three years. The winner of this race of sorts would allegedly win $30,000, which is equivalent to $500,000 today. The contest was supposedly sponsored by Johns Hopkins University and was the starting point.

Nothing was found about this race or contest until June 25, 1921 (two years later from its supposed start date) when the Times Herald in Olean, New York ran a story with the headline: “Happy Jack Is Ahead On His Hike Schedule.” The story stated that he had arrived in Olean, New York at 5:35 am from Eldred, Pennsylvania (a distance of about 13 miles). At that time Caves had claimed to have visited 42 of the then 48 states and that he 28 days ahead of schedule. He was due to return to Boston April 1, 1922.

The following details were included in the Times Herald article, and it is worth noting that similar details, which varied from time to time, would run in more than 50 articles from just as many newspapers around the eastern part of the country:

  • In every state and county which he enters he has to go to the capital and county seat. When he returns to Boston, he must have a dollar for every county seat and $5 for every capital.”
  • Additionally, he was to receive a signature from every town or city official that he passed through and dutifully mail these signatures to the “committee in charge.”
  • He was not allowed to “ask for rides or money” but he was allowed to accept “gifts of money.” The prohibition of rides included a reward of $500 to anyone who witnessed him riding rather than walking.

Happy Jack Caves walked an amazing 40 miles a day, at least according to the Herald piece, and at the time the article was written, he simply carried a knapsack weighing 65 pounds.

On July 12, 1921 the Hudson Columbia Republican newspaper reported that “Happy Jack” arrived in Hudson, New York from Albany. He had purportedly completed 70,182 miles, 23,000 of which were on foot. Caves claimed to have 20,804 miles to complete before April 1, 1922. From Hudson he was on his way to New York City, to Fall River, Massachusetts, then back to New York to Niagara Falls and then on to Canada and Montreal.   Countries claimed already visited were: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Italy, Greece, France, Russian, England, Germany, Australia, Japan, China, as well as “every country in South and Central America.”

Caves arrived in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on August 15th. The newspaper there reported that Caves was walking to settle a $30,000 wager between the Boston Pedestrian Club and the Pedestrian Club of John Hopkins University. He was on his way to Greensburg next, but the newspaper also added the unbelievable detail that Caves had “circumnavigated a wheelbarrow around the globe during the years 1893-97.” (He would have been 11 years old based on Caves’ ACTUAL age.)

On October 7, 1921 Caves passed through Massillon, Ohio “enroute to New England and Canada.”  The stories kept coming as Caves went from town to town. The journey expanded, he turned his 65 pound knapsack and instead began pushing a wheelbarrow and the wager or bet became prize money instead, which grew. Caves followed no particular route but seemingly meandered back and forth, retracing his steps while approaching “the last leg,” while the finish line seemed elusive.

On or about November 2, 1921 Caves arrived in Bucyrus, Ohio and then made his way to Marion, Ohio, where he stayed at the Royal Hotel on Main Street. In just five months his story had changed significantly. According to the Marion Star, Caves had traveled 91,000 miles, visiting every country in the world, but had eight of the U.S. states left to visit (not six) but he was now 38 days ahead of schedule. During this tremendous journey Caves claimed to have worn out 90 pairs of shoes covering 43,000 miles on foot. At this point, the traveler was accepting gifts as the article stated he “‘passed the hat” while giving lectures on his adventures.  

The following day the Richwood Gazette in Richwood, Ohio informed its readers that Caves arrived in town. This time Caves was to walk 99,986 miles and had 5,000 to go but was still a full 38 days ahead of schedule. The Gazette reported that Caves could ask for nothing except water and the use of a telephone.

Caves made it to Newport, Kentucky (population 316) the following day – traveling over 140 miles to do so. Even at 40 miles a day it would take him over three days nearly a week to travel that distance, so it is safe to say that he hitched a ride or hopped a train. At Newport Caves claimed to have 2500 miles to go, adding that the money he collected from county seats and state capitols was sent directly to the “Pedestrian Club of Boston” who co-sponsored the trek with Johns Hopkins Hospital.

It was more likely that he simply pocketed any money he received from gullible officials who believed his elaborate stories.

Later that month Caves made his way 400 miles south to Huntsville, Alabama. He claimed to have been 38 days ahead of schedule of his deadline of April 1, 1922. In Huntsville Caves claimed that he was native of Norway and this “fact” would often be included in many subsequent stories.

Caves trip from Richwood, Ohio to Huntsville, Alabama, a distance of 493 miles

There was no telling how much farther south he traveled and then supposedly headed north towards the finish line. Little is known of Caves and his travels until June of 1922, well after the supposed deadline.

The Wheelbarrow

The Baltimore Sun announced the arrival of “Happy Jack Caves” on June 26, 1922 with the headline “World Pedestrian Here.” Caves was on the “last lap of his journey” and now it seems he had four months (rather than three) to complete his trek. More new details were that he now pushed a wheelbarrow containing a tent and cooking utensils and a Great Dane dog was his companion.

Now he added a detail to his ever evolving story that 17 other contestants had begun with him, but they had all dropped out. In addition, out of the 99,986 miles required he had just 700 to go, although it was reported he had visited every “state in the Union” and in “every foreign country.” But if Caves was now in Baltimore, Maryland, the finish line (Boston) was just 400 miles away.

Three weeks later, on July 11, 1922 Caves was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania a mere 80 mile trip, but it seems Caves was no longer keeping his 40 mile a day pace. The Evening News of that city reported that he had “traversed every country, continent, ocean and sea, and river in the world” along with just 45 states (versus all 48). Although these details varied, Caves still had no less than 700 miles to go, despite the fact that he had traveled 80 since his last encounter.

Rather than traveling northeast to Boston to the “finish line”, Caves instead went west to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a distance of 24 miles, arriving July 24th. He then continued on a southwesterly direction to Shippensburg, (population 4300) a distance of just 20 miles, arriving July 26th.

From Baltimore, Maryland to Indiana Pennsylvania in June/July 1922

A representative of the town’s newspaper interviewed “Happy Jack” who now claimed to have been born in 1861, coming to America in 1881 from Norway. Still on his “last stretch” but traveling in the opposite direction, Caves added to his tall tale saying that he had been in 4 wars. His story evolved again saying he had visited “all the principle countries” — Europe, Asia and Africa and had been to 47 states. To keep track from his last count of 45, what two states did he visit in two weeks as he had only been in Pennsylvania during that time frame?

If that wasn’t enough, Caves’ wheelbarrow was said to have weighed 165 pounds and he claimed to have worn out 5 wheels, 12 axles and exactly 284 bearings, along with 46 pairs of shoes. The article went on to say that Caves expected to arrive in Boston by August 18 or 20 (even though he wasn’t headed that way) and that he was going to beat the world record by 8 months. It concluded by saying that Caves was on his way next to Hagerstown.

It was noted by one newspaper that Caves offered proof of his travels by newspaper clippings that he collected about himself. It was also pointed out that while his wheelbarrow was plastered with photos, clippings and postcards of places he claimed to have visited, none of them were outside of the United States.

On August 30, 1922, Caves meandered his way northwest (away from Boston) to Saltsburg, to Blairsville and then traveled east to Indiana, Pennsylvania. The local newspaper there said that Caves eight months away now (probably because he wasn’t going in the right direction)! It went on to say that he was a happy looking man and that at age 61 (he was really 40) “looks good for at least that many more.” After his stay Caves was on his way to Punxsutawney.

Several months seem to pass without a “Happy Jack” sighting until December 9, 1922 when Caves traveled to Snow Hill, Maryland. This 300 mile route traveling southeast was nowhere nearer Boston and he most certainly did not complete his journey by August. Nonetheless the paper dutifully reported that Caves was on his “last leg” of his journey. Notably, Caves talents and skills expounded as now he spoke 17 languages, all of which he was “more proficient in than English.”

But Caves could top even that, by saying that in 1888 he had pushed a “hogshead” (a 63-gallon barrel) from Boston to San Francisco. By completing this fete he won $16,000. If that claim wasn’t wild enough, he added that next he had SKIPPED across the entire continent and out of 24 contestants he was the only one to finish and was awarded $12,000. (Caves also claimed to have roller skated from coast to coast.)

Did anyone question these claims? The newspapers seemed very happy to take him at his word or at least print them.

Finally, it seemed that Caves’ journey was over when the Boston Globe announced on December 19, 1922, that John Muriel Caves had finished his endurance walk around the globe after reaching Wilmington, Delaware. (Eight months later than one of his supposed deadlines).

The Journey Continues

But “Happy Jack” was not finished. It seems he started over OR more likely just kept his ruse going, traveling to towns he had not yet visited with the same story. No doubt this was a continuation of the “original contest” or journey, but no one seemed to know or realize.

On January 9, 1923 he arrived in Reading, Pennsylvania. Caves was on his “last lap” of a “hike” around the world. They happily put him up at the local YMCA, noting that Caves had “obtained the seal and signature of every burgess, mayor and county clerk, or prothonotary of every borough, city or county through which he passed.”

Martha Meredith Caves, John’s mother, died on June 14, 1923 at her home in Oakmont, Pennsylvania at the age of 71. It is possible that John was there for her funeral, but he did not stay long. Just about two weeks later he arrived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on June 27, 1923.

His arrival was regaled with a large photo in the newspaper with the headline that read: “Pedestrian Here is Near End of Journey Around the World.” Some of the “facts” remained the same: 1. The race started April 1, 1919; 2. Seventeen contestants began the race but only he continued; 3. Caves had to obtain signatures from every clerk, mayor (or king). Compared to his “previous race”, he had now worn out 47 pairs of shoes, 7 wheels, 28 axles and 284 ball bearings.

“Happy Jack” John Caves with his wheelbarrow, July, 1923 (Library of Congress)

On July 5th the Chronicle Newspaper of Shippensburg, PA noted that Caves had passed through Lancaster and noted that he had traveled through Shippensburg a year prior. They did not question why he was back in the area, seemingly traveling in circles.

In May of 1924 the Edwardsville Journal, Edwardsville, Illinois announced that Caves was nearing the end of his “long walk.” He had until September 29 to arrive in Chicago, but since he was well ahead of time, he was “not rushing.” It was revealed he had been in a St. Louis Hospital for two weeks and that his dog had to be kenneled for sore feet. Caves had now worn out 52 pairs of shoes and 28 axles on his wheelbarrow. This time the newer added detail was that out of 17 contestants, Caves was the only one left, but the others had simply not quit, as previously reported, Caves now said that 5 died while walking and 2 were killed in accidents.

Happy Jack made his way to Columbus, Indiana on January 8, 1925. Embellishments of his travels continued, including that he was given 39 dogs by the Boston Kennel Club over the course of his trip as traveling companions. He spoke all of 21 languages and was an interpreter during wartime. It was also noted that he had worn out 83 pair of specially made boots, 9 wheels and 286 ball bearings. Caves purportedly was on his way to Indianapolis to obtain the signature of the governor and that after doing so his list of signatures would be complete. He then had until January 25th to reach Boston to finish. But he never made it to Boston because he was still on his “last lap” when he reached Greenfield, Indiana on January 27th.

Close up view of “Happy Jack’s” wheelbarrow with photos and names of states he allegedly visited.

He then made his way to Dayton, Ohio and from there to Marion, Ohio on February 25, 1925. The local paper noted that Caves was on his “return trip” and that he had passed through 3 1/2 years earlier. No one seemed to notice that he was meandering from town to town.

Caves visited Crestline, Ohio one month later on March 21st. The newspaper shared that Caves had just ten days to complete his walk and claim a $10,000 prize (considerably less than $30,000 to $50,000 claimed a few years ago).  It was astutely noted that he would have to travel 100 miles a day to make that happen. Days later Caves “was found ill” and brought to the Monnette hospital to recover from an undisclosed malady.

Route from Seymour Indiana to Bucyrus, Ohio in 1925

On November 3, 1925 Caves was hospitalized again, for gall stones. He was still on the “last leg” of his journey, of course. This time it was disclosed he would receive $26,000. The following month he was in Kingsport, Tennessee. In April of 1926 Caves arrived in Wythville, Virginia where he declared he had just 930 miles to go.

Then finally, on April 22, 1926 it was announced that he had arrived at the Potomac Park Tourist Camp in Washington, D.C., which apparently was the new finish line or the completion of his 99,986 “required” mileage. The accomplishment took 8 years, 3 months, 21 days and 5 hours, according to Caves, but if he started April 1, 1919, it really took 7 years and just 21 days. (But who’s counting?) Caves claimed he continued without “a day’s interruption” which wasn’t true because of recorded hospitalizations.

Caves gave his usual statistics to the newspaper: he had worn through 90 shoes, 30 wheelbarrows, 28 axels and 30 dogs, which had all died according to Cave. He also kept track of his lectures which totaled 321.

Caves revealed that he was on his way next to Annapolis, and then headed north to meet up with his wife and 5 children! At least once he claimed he had 4 children and years later he would repeat a story that his one and only wife had died from scarlet fever while traveling around the Horn.

Whiskey and Bay Rum

Despite the completion of his required 99,986 miles, John Caves continued to travel and on May 27, 1927 he was in Plymouth, North Carolina where he was scheduled for a lecture at Darden’s Christian Church to talk about his travels. The lecture was well attended but it came to abrupt halt when church leaders determined Caves was under the influence of whiskey.

On January 15, 1928 Caves was a patient in the Allegheny Hospital after a “general breakdown” although doctors could not decide the cause of his illness. He had visited his sister who was a nurse at Pittsburg Tuberculosis Hospital and had fallen while on the road near the town of Creighton. Curiously, it was revealed that Caves had been unable to talk or hear for a period of two years and communicated by writing with paper and pencil. This, of course, was untrue because of his willingness and ability to give lectures from town to town.

The Pittsburg Press, who announced Caves’ hospitalization, also reported that “during his long walk, the best time Caves made was 8 miles an hour” and that he once walked 71.5 miles in 21 hours.

In early March of 1929 his travels came to another halt in Akron, Ohio after he was “picked up” by police after drinking too much Bay Rum, which was used as cologne and aftershave lotion. The newspaper reported that the 50-year-old (closer to his actual age than most reports) had been wandering for 10 years. Caves told authorities he was the only one left in the race and he had to do now was to walk to Boston. “No more bay rum for me,” as he allegedly continued on to the fictional finish line.

Caves drank Bay Rum intended to be used as an after shave

However, later that year, Caves was found by police in Lancaster, Pennsylvania after drinking nearly a half bottle of Bay Rum (which was 58% grain alcohol). Caves claimed that he was cold and in an effort to warm up he drank the highly toxic alcohol mixture that was used as astringent.

It seems as Caves continued drinking, the public began to question some of his claims. The Intelligencer Journal printed Caves’ claim that he had traveled 99,000 miles in 12 years (with a starting year of 1917 rather than 1919) and figured that Happy Jack would have to average 22 miles a day, each and every day including “Sundays and holidays.”

Lancaster police noted that Happy Jack was neither happy nor congenial and he was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

But things would get worse for “Happy Jack” when on February 20, 1930 the Morning Post of Camden, New Jersey revealed that Caves was penniless, his dog was dead and his wheelbarrow wrecked. The newspaper cited that Caves had started his “endurance trip” 11 years ago and noted that he passed through Camden in 1926, obtaining the signatures of the County Clerk. But now he hobbled into the police station on crutches, looking for food and a place to sleep.

Caves claimed to have been struck by an automobile at Kennett Square, PA a month earlier, suffering a broken ankle. As a result of the accident he was hospitalized nearly three weeks at the Chester Hospital. The hospital gave Caves enough money to reach Philadelphia and from there he had made his way to Camden. He was sent to the Salvation Army barracks but instead went to the police department located next door because the former institute was “too crowded.” Caves informed the newspaper that he had completed 99,286 miles (still 700 shy, even years later, of the required 99,986).

Murder in Macungie

Six weeks later “Happy Jack Caves” was arrested and charged with murder on March 30, 1930. The Berwick Enterprise of Berwick, Pennsylvania said that it was the same Caves “who gained fame” by pushing a wheelbarrow “from New York to Los Angeles.” Caves was arrested for the stabbing death of John Barrett during an argument at a “hobo camp” near Swabia Creek on the outskirts of Macungie, a small town near Allentown. He confessed to the stabbing but claimed self-defense.

A subsequent newspaper reported that Caves was “well known in police circles” because of his frequent arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. No longer referred to as an adventurer, he was now simply a “wanderer,” an “itinerant” or even a “hobo,” and his walking expedition called a “stunt”.

Published accounts detailed that Caves stabbed Barrett after a dispute over milk and the killing was witnessed by four young boys. He was placed in the Lehigh County jail awaiting trial. Despite previous newspaper accounts that he was 62 years old, the jail records list his correct age at 48.

The Lehigh County Jail where Caves awaited trial.

During his trial in June of 1930, Caves testified in his own defense including the fact that he was a “consort of wayfarers and hoboes” with colorful nicknames such as “Baltimore Whitie”, “Old Man Morrissey” and “Barrett the Barber”, whom he killed.

Barrett was given his nickname because he carried a razor around his neck. He was portrayed by others as ferocious and vicious.

Caves voice was described as thin and high pitched as he recounted how the two men had met in “The Jungles”, an Allentown hobo camp. Caves would beg for food for Barrett and himself, since he was a more sympathetic figure on crutches. After an argument over milk in the coffee, apparently Barrett was too liberal with the pour, Caves said Barrett struck him with a pocketknife and he in turn simply grabbed a butcher knife in self defense. The knife hit Barrett in the heart, killing him instantly.

The prosecution called four young boys to contradict Caves’ version of what happened. John Ritter, 12, Edwin Bortz, 13, Harold Rhoads, 10 and Donald Rhoads, 12 spent the entire afternoon with the two men and each testified that Caves “quarreled and grumbled” throughout the day about various things, including about a piece of liver.

The boys also testified that Caves had begged for and acquired turnips, potatoes, onions, and coffee. The two men, and apparently the boys as well, stole two kettles, two knives and “a big piece of suet” (animal fat). Caves had managed to collect $2.85 after panhandling which he used to buy bread, cigarettes and four containers of “canned heat” (Sterno). Perhaps the intention was to warm a meal with the aforementioned ingredients, Caves instead made an alcoholic mixture to drink with the liquid contents after squeezing it through a handkerchief and diluting it with water. This was not an uncommon practice during Prohibition, particularly in hobo camps.

Caves drank “canned heat” after filtering it and diluting it with water.

While at their encampment, Barrett complained that Caves put too much water in the coffee and Caves in turn complained that Barrett put in too much milk. Angry, Caves lunged at Barrett with his crutches, hitting him in the mouth and cutting his lip. The incident resulted in the soup that would be the group’s meal being spilled.

Caves reportedly said to Barrett, “Are you sorry for what you did?” to which his companion replied, “Do you want some more?”  Caves then responded angrily, “I’ll give you some more!” and suddenly drew a knife, stabbing Barrett.

Afterwards, Caves placed a pocketknife in the hands of the lifeless Barrett and went through his pockets. He found two coins but said in disgust, “Two lousy cents” and then kicked Barrett’s dead body. As he walked or hobbled away, Caves said to the boys, “This is the second time he tried to kill himself.”  To which Donald Rhoads replied, “You killed him, you skunk!”

John M. Caves was found guilty of 2nd degree murder after the jury deliberated over 29 hours. The only relative that showed support by attending the trial was his sister Mary Caves, who took the verdict much harder than her brother. It was revealed that he showed no sign of emotion except what was termed “a sigh of relief.”

Eastern State Penitentiary (from easternstate.org)

Caves was sentenced 6 to 12 years and sent to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Noted for its innovative wagon wheel design, the imposing prison once housed notorious gangster Al Capone. Caves was given the prisoner number of C-6262.

Records provided by Eastern State Penitentiary and the Pennsylvania State Archives indicate that Caves’ stay there was not without problems. He was sent to solitary confinement more than once for fighting.

The prison was visited by Dr. Doncaster G. Humm of Los Angeles, who specialized in “industrial psychology”, visited and interviewed several prisoners, including Caves, to “secure material for research.” He would later publish his findings and identified seven different temperaments defined as “normal, hysteroid, manic, depressive, autistic, paranoid and epileptoid.” Humm was of the opinion that “the marriage of those with a poor hereditary background should be discouraged. Sterilization and marriage education were suggested as eugenic ideals.”

Doncaster George Humm, Bucknell University, 1909

Records show that on June 5, 1934 Caves was transferred to Graterford Prison, a newer facility, but he was returned on January 3, 1935. Nine days later he was transferred to the Lehigh County Jail, then released on parole June 26, 1936. In December 16, 1936 he was once again returned to Eastern State Penitentiary for violation of parole.

Cave was released again on parole on June 16, 1937, perhaps because his father died, but the Pittsburgh Press reported in October that Caves had nowhere to go and asked to go back to prison. He was returned on November 7th.

John M. Caves’ World War II Registration Card

By 1940 Caves was paroled again, because in April of 1942 Caves filled out a World War II registration card (for men born on or after April 28, 1877 or before February 16, 1897). At that time he listed his address as 428 Fourth Street in his hometown of Oakmont, Pennsylvania.  He was officially discharged from the penal system on January 3, 1943, which was nearly 12 years from his sentencing.

A New Life – A New Story

One year after his official release, John Murile Caves began a tour of the country with a new life story of adventure which again brought him notoriety and attention — that of an elderly seafaring captain. 

On April 10, 1944, the Cumberland News of Cumberland, Maryland said that the “80-year-old former merchant marine captain, John M. Caves, Baltimore, was taken to Memorial hospital at 7:15 pm yesterday by Officer John G. Powers after being stricken with a heart attack near Central Y.M.C.A.  His condition was reported to be fair.”

Seven months later Cave had made his way to the west coast to Southern California. In January 1945, he reportedly collapsed in Descanso, about 40 miles east of San Diego. He was picked up by the Highway Patrol and brought to San Diego and was described as “penniless and ill.” However, Caves’ story was filled with heroic yet fantastical details, saying that he was a merchant marine for 65 years, “shipping supplies in five major wars, six historical rebellions, captaining the lead ship in the first convoy to Guadalcanal, and losing his own ship January 16, 1942, off the coast of Newfoundland.”

He told Patrolman George Dowdy that he was hitch-hiking home to Philadelphia so that he could get medical attention and “get back into service again.” The San Diego Union promulgated this “fantastic story” but didn’t seem to question any detail. Caves, who claimed again to be from Norway, said that at age 10 he was a mess boy “on an old Norwegian sailing vessel” and that he had traveled no less than 208 trips around Cape Horn. When asked about a wife, he said he married a daughter of another sea captain many years ago, but she had died of scarlet fever while rounding the Horn. 

Additionally, Caves claimed to have continued his career “through World War II and until, he left a ship at Richmond, California in December 14, 1943, his career was halted by a hit-and-run auto driver.”

He gave his date of birth as January 4, 1861 (21 years earlier than his actual birth year) and his birthplace as Upland, Norway. The newspaper article concluded with a story that Caves was the captain of the Jenny P. Higy (or Hickey in other accounts), which sunk off the coast of Newfoundland in 1942, “carrying 250 Polish refugees and a crew of 85.” All lives were saved but Caves lost his life savings. (Editor’s Note: No record could be found a ship by this name being sunk or a similar event.)

Rather than head to Philadelphia as planned, one month later “Captain” Caves was in Shreveport, Louisiana waiting for transportation to his “hometown” of Baltimore. It was a very familiar story published in the Shreveport Journal in February 1945, but with the added embellishment that he was the captain of the Paul Revere which brought needed supplies to Marines in Guadalcanal. His ship was torpedoed three times during 1941 and 1942. Caves shared the same story of losing a wife to scarlet fever.

The following month Caves arrived by train in Indianapolis, Indiana sickly and penniless. His age was given as 84 when he was really 63, but he happily told his yarns of his “long and colorful maritime career.”  He was, he said, headed to Baltimore.

However, three months later he was in Ogden, Utah. Seemingly in much better health he was entertaining folks with his stories at a local canteen. The Ogden Standard-Examiner reported on June 23, 1945 that Caves was the “oldest seafaring maritime captain still on active duty” who had “a store of sea tales as long as his years of service.” These talks, of course, included the sinking of the Jenny P. Hickey, and leading a convoy to Guadalcanal. Caves however, was not trying to get back home (to either his hometown in Philadelphia or Baltimore) but “to pick up another ship and another cargo of supplies to carry somewhere across the sea.”

Across the country and back in 1945

The following month, in July, Caves had not traveled east but west, and was in Tulare, California where he had collapsed from another heart attack. Information was provided that he was a retired sea captain but still “in service of the government at Port Hueneme.” His age was listed as 70 years old, which was a bit closer to his actual.

Just as when he claimed to have walked around the world, his only evidence of his seafaring career was saved newspaper clippings about himself from various towns he had visited.

In August of 1946, Caves was in a Bethsaida hospital in Maryland, after suffering yet another heart attack. Caves said he was “visiting” in Baltimore, but on his way to San Diego when he stricken.

One month later John M. Caves was in an Albuquerque jail for being in “a dazed condition.” It was assumed he was drunk (and likely he was) but because he claimed he was 87 years old, the police had pity on him and took him to the hospital. However, it was his second visit to the same hospital in as many days and the hospital said they could not handle him, so he was taken to the county jail. When taken to jail he “relapsed into a coma” and could not speak “from the effects of a medicine found in his possession.”

The police found previously published newspaper articles that Caves had collected about himself, one published out of Kansas stating that he was born in Superland, Norway and was a sea captain for 32 years. It seems while in Chapman, Kansas he stayed at a hospital there and officials discovered several receipts or bills for various hospitals around the country. Caves was crisscrossing the country, having “heart attacks”, telling his stories, collecting newspaper articles about himself, along with the bills, and going on to the next town.

He reportedly made his way to Newark, New Jersey in January of 1947 only to travel back west to California.

Oceanside, California

In February of 1947 he was found “writhing in pain” on a sidewalk in downtown Oceanside. It seems he had suffered another heart attack, but Captain Harold Davis took him to the local hospital where he made a quick recovery after taking “a heart pill.” Caves said he was on his way to Corona by bus but didn’t have any money. Davis bought the stranger some food, who claimed now to be 87 years old, listened to his stories of the sea and purchased him a bus ticket so he could go on to his next destination.

Months later, in October, Caves was in Redding, California where he suffered another one of his trademark heart attacks.  However, the next month while in Sacramento it was determined he was “just drunk” and not ill and was booked in the county jail.  In 1948 he was in El Paso, Texas where he was hospitalized for, (you guessed it) a heart attack. 

John Muriel Caves with his nurse at Oceanside in 1951

In March of 1951 John Caves was back in Oceanside, California. The Oceanside-Blade Tribune reported the following:

Police were called the other night to a modest room in a local hotel—an elderly man, a heart attack, not much if any money—and thereby hangs a tale. It’s a tale of the sea, of iron men and wooden ships, dating back to the middle of the last century. As it turns out, the tale has been told before, and Capt. Harold Davis of the local police department, along with a few other people, are wondering about it.”

Well, at least there was some skepticism but that didn’t keep the paper from sharing his stories, including how he was born in an igloo in Norway!

The account continued:  “Further checking by Capt. Davis showed that the man suffered heart attacks in this city in January [1947], and again in April, and there is evidence to show that his heart has put him in hospitals in other communities in California and Arizona at least. These circumstances, plus the fact that hospital nurses and Capt. Davis don’t think the man looks as old as the 92 years he claims to be, make observers somewhat doubtful. After all, a policeman of 20 years becomes so accustomed to hearing stories that he is inclined to believe nothing which can’t be documented. Still, it is a good story and the grizzled old gentleman tells is simply and well. He can’t prove it with papers, except for news clippings he has collected from other interviews, but on the other hand, his listeners can’t disprove it either. As far as we know, it may just be the best yarn since Edgar Allen Poe’s fabulous trans Atlantic balloon race.”

The Oceanside Blade Tribune then printed Caves’ “biography”, which was slightly similar in detail to other previous versions, but included mostly a new and different story of his early sea-faring career:

Capt. John Murile Caves, a Norseman, was born in 1859 in the Land of the Midnight Sun in an igloo. One of several children, he went to sea as a cabin boy when he was 10 years old, aboard a barkentine bound for San Francisco, around Cape Horn. From there the ship loaded with wheat and barley bound for England, and then back to Norway.

Later he shipped again aboard a three-masted, full-rigged ship to Boston with a load of matches. When they docked, he tried to run away, but was caught and taken back aboard ship.

Young Caves made a number of voyages, spending 11 years on Norwegian ships. On one cruise in 1881 his ship had docked in Baltimore, and was ready to set sail for San Francisco, when Caves met a man who agreed to help him get off the ship just before it sailed. He put his bags and seat chest in the forecastle, and that night a small boat came alongside and took Caves ashore.

He lay low for three months, living in the attic of a large hotel outside Baltimore, and then went to the US commissioner to get his first papers. He became naturalized in 1886, went to sea again aboard a ship to San Francisco, and on that particular trip the vessel sprang a leak out on the Atlantic. The crew had to pump her by hand all the way around Cape Horn to Frisco to keep her afloat, Caves recalls.

After that trip Caves decided to become a steward, but one trip and went back to being an able-bodied seaman. He said the crews, who were often shanghaied in those days, complained too much about the food.

By hard work and the good fortune of having captains over him who could teach him, Caves eventually worked his way up. On Caves’ second cruise the captain of the ship had his family aboard, including, two daughters who were school teachers and who helped young Caves with his education.

In 1890 he joined the US navy to increase his seafaring knowledge, signing on for four years, but stayed in for 10 and took part in the Spanish-American war. When he was discharged at Norfolk, he took the examination and received his captain’s license.

All told, Capt. Caves has been in five wars, serving in the merchant marine in all but the Spanish-American. The others are the Boxer war, the Boer war and World Wars 1 and 11. In the last one, in 1943, he says his ship was bombed on a return trip from the Marshall Islands. For 32 years he sailed the seven seas as ship’s captain.

Since the war his health has not been good, and when he was taken ill here Tuesday night he had come from a US merchant marine hospital in Fort Stanton, N.M. He was en route to Santa Ana, where a government pension check awaits him, and then he planned to go to Port Chicago to see a nephew who is about to ship out on his first deep-sea voyage as ship’s captain.

The article ended with this curious and telling notation: “Thursday afternoon, disappointed because the newspaper story had not appeared yet, Capt. Caves boarded a bus to Santa Ana.”

Just days later Caves was back in Oceanside. The Blade-Tribune said he had been in the hospital at Santa Ana for a heart attack. This return visit to Oceanside was not quite as welcoming as he landed in jail for vagrancy charges after panhandling.

After leaving Oceanside Caves traveled to Modesto three weeks later, had his requisite heart trouble but was jailed for vagrancy.

Two years later, in March of 1953, he stopped in Tucson, Arizona but was arrested for being drunk in public. Three weeks later Caves was in a Las Cruces, New Mexico hospital.

In June of 1953, Caves was on his fourth visit to Oceanside. This time he was given a Greyhound Bus Ticket by the “Oceanside Community Chest”, a local charity, for a one way trip to Los Angeles. The voucher was signed by Captain Harold Davis of the Oceanside Police Department.

Conclusion

From 1956 to 1957 Caves traveled back and forth to Baltimore only to come back to San Diego, then on to Denver, Kansas City, Missouri, to Indianapolis, Indiana to Claymont, Pennsylvania and then to New York.

His brother Samuel Meredith Caves died in May of 1956. His sister Mary Caves, who faithfully attended his murder trial in support of her brother, died November 28, 1956 at the age of 77. On January 2, 1958 his last surviving sibling, Henry Adams Caves, died of a self-inflicted gunshot.

One of the last mentions of John Murile Caves was found on May 15, 1958 in the Evening Sun, Baltimore, Maryland. Isaac Berman, a real estate agent had been receiving bills from hospital and ambulance services all over the west coast addressed to “Capt. John M. Caves. Berman was quoted as saying, “Who is this man and why did he give my address?”

The Evening Sun announced that Caves was receiving welfare and had given the 228 South Broadway address as his home, and supplied it to the police as well.

Caves had been in the Maryland hospital in 1956, claiming to be 99 years old. He told the staff he came from New Mexico with money given to him by a minister. His next trip, he said, was to Washington, D. C. to see about his military pension. This was a story repeated in many of the articles, but he never received a pension because of the fact that he was never in the military or merchant marines.

He stayed for a full two weeks at the Maryland hospital and then just walked out one day. Although Caves claimed chest pains, the hospital had found nothing wrong with him, noting he ate “like a horse.” His two week stay in Room 528 was $400 which like dozens others went unpaid. Other bills were left unpaid as well. Exasperated Berman said, “I guess I’ll be sending mail back to the Post Office for him as long as I live.”

It seems that soon after this unwanted publicity, Caves was sent to stay at Delaware State Hospital Cemetery in New Castle. Many of the patients there were diagnosed with mental illness and a variety of disorders.

Delaware State Hospital aka Farnsworth

John Murile Caves died January 23, 1961, at the age of 79. He was buried in the Delaware State Hospital Cemetery and was given just a number to mark his burial spot.

The cube marking the gravesite of John Murile Caves (from findagrave.com)

According to Cris Barrish of WHYY, the cemetery “has 776 such cubes that are arranged in concentric circles in what’s now known as the Spiral Cemetery. A small and weathered stone angel with her hands clasped in prayer serves as a lone sentinel over the lost souls. Patients without families who would or could afford to bury them were instead laid to rest on site.”

View of square markers in the Delaware State Hospital cemetery (Cris Barrish, WHYY)

With all the attention and publicity he had received for four decades, his nameless resting place belies the colorful, if not fabricated, and sometimes troubled life of an infamous wanderer.

2 thoughts on “The Curious Life and Tall Tales of John Murile Caves

  1. Another great story. Thanks, Kristi. He seemed to get a lot of press. Not a life well-lived though, although in some ways, an interesting one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes he lived a tumultuous life always on the go, he probably had mental issues along with an addiction to alcohol. No where to call home – but I think his sister Mary would have cared for him if had stayed put.

      Like

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