Selected journalism by Stephen J. Dubner |
Dutch Schultz's Millions
By STEPHEN J. DUBNER
November 19, 2001
In Phoenicia, New York, a tidy hamlet in the Catskills, rumor holds that it is illegal to walk down Main Street carrying a shovel. According to the local police chief, this is not true. An older, more widespread rumor, however—the rumor that generated the shovel rumor—has yet to be proved false: that the gangster Dutch Schultz, fearing a long prison term (which he didn't get) or assassination (which he did, in 1935), loaded his ill-gotten millions into a steel box and buried it on the banks of the Esopus Creek.
Treasure seekers have haunted Phoenicia ever since. Among them is Laura Levine, who grew up in Chinatown and has been coming to the mountains since childhood. She is now forty-three and spends considerable time in Phoenicia, where she runs an upscale junk shop. She is also a mushroom hunter, a graduate of Harvard, a rock-and-roll photographer-turned-painter (the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is currently exhibiting her folkish paintings of rock pioneers), and, now, a documentary filmmaker. "Digging for Dutch: The Search for the Lost Treasure of Dutch Schultz" recently had its première at the Woodstock Film Festival, twenty minutes from Phoenicia.
Levine, who looks a bit like a shaggy sister of Debra Winger, cannot recall when she first heard the Schultz legend. The steel box was said to contain bonds, cash, diamonds, and gold, worth perhaps fifty million dollars today. Levine eventually decided that it would be silly not to look for it. Soon, her lark became an obsession. She picked up a video camera and began to record every clue she found and every story she heard. She was not bothered that each story placed the treasure in a different spot. "Basically, everyone thinks it's buried in his own back yard," she said.
Levine learned that the treasure was buried near three pine trees. Or maybe beneath a lone poplar, or fourteen feet from a big sycamore. Schultz definitely carved an X in the tree, unless he didn't; one pesky treasure hunter has since carved X's on a number of trees to throw off the competition. Some people believed that Schultz stashed the treasure outside of town beneath a rock outcropping known as Devil's Face. (This theory stems from a line in Schultz's famously incoherent deathbed ramble: "Mother is the best bet, and don't let Satan draw you too fast.")
The town undertakers, Gene Gormley and Mark Wilsey, told Levine that they were in possession of Schultz's treasure map. They had one problem: the treasure itself was inaccessible, for X marked a spot that seemed to be directly beneath a highway built long since Schultz's time. Another local, a writer named Monica Randall, also professed to have located the treasure—simply by dangling a pendulum over a map of the area—but said that she wasn't interested in digging it up. A gangster's money, she said, would have bad energy.
Levine herself is bothered by the money's provenance. Schultz, known to his mother as Arthur Flegenheimer, was a particularly despicable gangster, vicious and charmless and cheap. Levine has resolved to start an animal refuge if or when she finds his money. James Schick, a retired cartographer who drove up from Virginia to dig in Phoenicia, said that he'd return half of it to the citizens of Harlem, whose nickels and dimes funded Schultz's numbers racket.
Schick's tale is the centerpiece of Levine's film. One night, he said, while watching a segment about Schultz's treasure on "Unsolved Mysteries," he "went into a state." Schick found himself standing alongside Schultz and his cronies on the very night they buried the steel box. After returning to his senses, Schick drew up a detailed map of what he had seen and set out for Phoenicia. "I am not a seer," he told Levine. "I am not a swami or a sooth or any of that crap—forgive me. I'm just an ordinary person, but I think all of us are sensitive to voices."
Then there was Barbara Reen, a psychic, who, on camera, contacted Schultz directly. Levine pushed her to ask him for clues. He revealed, if nothing else, his vanity. "If I were to tell you exactly where the treasure is, then there'd be no more search," the gangster said, via the psychic. "There'd be no more fun, and I wouldn't be famous anymore."