Meet Sen. Key Pittman, D-Ghostville


Steve Marcus

The historic Mizpah hotel in Tonopah was built between 1907 and 1908 and is included on the National Registry of Historic Places.

A few years ago, I was chatting with a clerk at the Jim Butler Inn about rumors about someone buying the then-shuttered Mizpah Hotel, which is next door. She had heard of it and thought it might happen. (It did; the Mizpah reopened not long after.) But as of then, she said, there was nothing going on at the Mizpah except the usual “activity.”

“Activity?” I asked, thinking at first of squatters or parties.

The clerk looked at me in disbelief. The historic hotel built in 1907, and location of many tales of Nevada history, was haunted.

Of course.

The clerk apparently saw the need to educate this urban rube on the history of the Mizpah, particularly the Lady in Red, a woman — some say a prostitute — who was supposedly killed in a crime of passion. And then, of course, was “the senator.”

“The senator?” I asked.

After another look of disbelief, she explained the story of Sen. Key Pittman’s death in 1940.

According to the story, which was memorialized in the famous (or infamous) 1963 book “The Green Felt Jungle,” the Democratic senator died at the Mizpah a few days before the election.

The Democrats didn’t want to lose the seat, so aides told no one, put his body in a bathtub and filled it with ice. A few days later, the dead man won re-election, and a Democrat was appointed after his death was announced days later.

And the clerk knew this by personal experience. Decades after the senator died, she was working at the Mizpah and was surprised by a figure suddenly. She quickly realized who it was and said, “Hello, senator!” but he just glided by, disappearing through a locked door.

And that, she said, was the truth.

Not to contradict the clerk, but there’s no evidence that the senator died before the election, was put on ice or was even in Tonopah when he died. Guy Rocha, the dogged Nevada historian and former state archivist, has that story on his list of Nevada myths.

What really happened?

Pittman had a massive heart attack during what Rocha said was a “drinking bout” at a Reno hotel the day before the election. After being examined by a doctor, he was quietly taken to a hospital and he died five days after winning re-election. That’s an account backed by Pittman’s personal doctor, whom Rocha interviewed, and other evidence, including the diary of Pittman’s wife.

But don’t let that ruin a good story.

The real question is: What is Pittman’s ghost doing in the Mizpah Hotel, 173 miles, as the ghost flies, from Reno?

Perhaps the senator enjoys the “activity.”

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