The bones of Fred Pranty were hidden in a gunny sack on a shelf in the old jail, forgotten for many years. When the newly elected judge cleaned house, he made the strange discovery. But who was this prospector who kept to himself during his years in the Rim country, and was he really murdered as rumor had it?
He was born Christopher Frederick Prante, son of Ernist (yes, spelled like that) and Mary Prante (with an "e"), in Friendship, Ind., Dec. 22, 1861. The "y" ending on the family name came after common usage by their neighbors.
Fred was the third son in a family of 10 children and life was hard. Their father Ernist was subject to periods of depression, and a month before Fred's 11th birthday the father committed suicide. Mary was overwhelmed with the responsibility of children ages 1 to 17, as well as by the stigma of what had happened. She planned to move to her brother's town of Peru, Neb., and sent her two oldest sons ahead to buy land. Instead, they went to nearby Louisville, Ky., squandered the money and returned empty handed. It was four years before she could recover financially enough for the move, and this time they all went together except for Fred. He was commissioned by his mother to drive the family livestock to Nebraska.
The year was 1879, and Fred was 17 years old. He never appeared in Nebraska. His family was certain he had been killed along the way. Actually he simply wandered during the next 10 or 12 years. Where he went remains a mystery.
He next appears in the public records Oct. 17, 1892, when he signed The Great Register of Gila County with an address in Globe. He prospected around central Arizona and soon became a resident of the Rim country. His name is on a number of mining claims around Payson and Gisela. One claim was for the Smuggler Mine, filed in February 1897 along with co-signers David Gowan and W. E. Frazier.
In 1900, his name again appears on the Great Register, and during the next two decades, Pranty made his mark in the memories of local settlers.
Carrel Wilbanks (the younger) described him as "soft spoken, medium build, fair complexion," a prospector who had a cabin in the Sierra Ancha range west of the Wilbanks' Spring Creek. It was located on the ridge of Sheep Mountain between Gun Creek and Alder Creek. From there, he would go on prospecting trips for weeks at a time, and apparently found just enough gold to keep himself in groceries.
"He never bothered anybody," Wilbanks remembered, but Pranty would go into Globe about once a year to serve on the jury. In 1914, he again signed the Great Register, and voted in Gisela.
The Ogilvies of Star Valley remembered him as an "educated gentleman" who graced their table more than once. The parents of Anna Mae Ogilvie Deming told her they often invited Pranty for the holidays, either at their ranch or with their relatives the Goodfellows at the Natural Bridge.
The last time anyone saw Fred Pranty was early in the second week of May 1924. He had brought his burros down to Wilbanks' pasture to fatten them up before going on another prospecting trip. He said he would be gone a week or 10 days, and then he disappeared.
Some weeks later, in June, his burros wandered into the Ogilvie ranch with broken tie ropes and reins. Pranty's saddle was on the larger animal he rode; his chuck box and bed roll were secured to the other burro. Obviously something was wrong, and local ranchers got up a posse to go to his cabin. It was secured with a lock, and when they broke in they found everything in place. His big silver railroad watch was on the table, along with two dollars in change. His rifle hung on the wall. The men went to Payson to make their report, and the justice of the peace suggested they retrieve his belongings for safe keeping.
Upon returning to the cabin, Wilbanks, Ogilvie and the others found it had been burglarized. Only a few tools and a few of Pranty's belongings were left. The men replaced the lock and began to search for his body, to no avail. The disappearance of the 62-year-old miner became the talk of the Rim country.
It was about 10 years later, in the early 1930s, when Dude Greer found part of a skeleton on the Rim, above the old military road. There was a leg bone and a few others, along with a skull that had a single bullet hole in it. Nearby lay a .38 automatic pistol and a miner's pick. Greer took the remnants back to town, and the J.P. called a coroner's jury. Wilbanks identified the pick as Pranty's, having his mark on it. He also recognized the pistol. But the final identification was made from Pranty's many gold fillings and gold crowns. He had occasionally been called "Gold Tooth Pranty" by the locals.
"We decided it was Fred Pranty all right," said Carrel Wilbanks "Some thought he might have broken a leg or was snake bit, but he'd been around snakes all his life. If he'd been bit he'd have slashed the spot with his knife, sucked out the poison and gone on up the mountain. No, I always did think he had a stroke and just shot himself."
The bones were placed in a gunnysack, and tossed on a shelf in the old Payson Jail where they were forgotten. It was years later that Cal Greer, after being elected Justice of the Peace, found the gunnysack of bones and retraced the story of how they got there.
It was time to lay Pranty's remains to rest.
The bones were placed in a coal oil can and buried in Payson's Pioneer Cemetery, just inside the gate. The years of mystery had given rise to the rumor that maybe he was murdered. But all the evidence pointed to someone who had inherited his father's tendency for depression, and was haunted by the memory of a father who committed suicide.
Or, perhaps it was as Wilbanks suggested. The aging miner had a stroke or a paralyzing injury, and being far from help he decided to take his own life. With no family to care for him and the lonely years having taken their toll, the long trail found its end.
Note: Some of the light shed on the mystery of Fred Pranty came from an article in the April 1973 "True West" magazine, written by his niece Lois Stevens.