Josephine Stevens Whitehill Bishop was born June 18, 1875 in Silver City, New Mexico. Her father, Harvey Whitehill gained notoriety as sheriff of Grant County, New Mexico. He was the first officer to arrest Billy the Kid, before the outlaw gained widespread infamy.
Josie grew up as a frontier girl, accustomed to the loneliness and hardwork of the desert. At 19, she began a career as a teacher. During this time, she met Herbert Hall Bishop. The two married on March 4, 1896.
After marrying, the Bishops traveled around the United States for several years. Together, they parented seven children. However, the couple was not destined to last. In 1920, they separated and Josie moved to Long Beach, California, where she pursued work as an actress. Though Josie gained moderate success, appearing in films like “The Last of the Mohicans,” and “The Pathfinder,” she longed to return to the frontier. Acting in Westerns was no replacement for real frontier living.
In 1925, Josie left Hollywood behind, striking out to Jawbone Canyon to begin life as a prospector and miner. An old friend from New Mexico, John Christie told her about the discoveries of gold and silver in the Mojave, and that was all the encouragement Josie needed to leave Tinseltown. Though it was a tough life, Josie adored the desert. With the company of her friend Henry “Scotty” Cook, Josie kept going through the tough times, always pursuing the dream of striking it rich.
Prospecting in the desert is hard work, and without any discoveries on the claim, Josie and Scotty relied on odd jobs to keep going. They drilled a well on their land and sold water to other prospectors. Josie also wrote for the Cantil newspaper and served on juries as a way of making ends meet. Their work was hindered by a fire that burned down all the buildings and equipment on Josie’s claim in 1932. Though arson was suspected, no one was ever arrested, and the accident caused a huge setback in Josie’s efforts.
It wasn’t until 1937 that Josie struck it rich. In the dusty desert canyons, she found not gold or silver like other miners had, but something much more valuable. Josie had uncovered the richest deposit of radium to have been found at that time.
Before the discovery was known, Josie often wondered why her eyes stung when working in her mine. Josie called in the help of Cecil B. Rathbone, a mineralogist from San Diego to determine what was going on. Rathbone found that the deposit was super rich in radium, with 190 milligrams of radium bromide per ton of concentrated ore.
Now, knowing just how valuable her find was, Josie kept it secret while she sorted out some legal issues with the land. At the same time, she bought up another 11 claims, covering 170 acres. As she waited for the legal proceedings to conclude, Josie is said to have held off process servers with a shotgun. There was good reason for Josie to jealously guard her claim; in those days, radium sold for $72,000 per gram. In today’s money, that would be a staggering $1,371,550 per gram! Josie sunk two mine shafts on her property, one to mine the radium, and the other to search for silver and gold deposits. Because gold had been found not too far from Josie’s claim, it was possible that her land was rich in more than just radioactivity!
After news of Josie’s success became public, she was dubbed the Radium Queen of the Mojave. Josie toured the United States as a representative of Kern County as well as the mining industry at large. She was featured in Time Magazine and in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. She spoke with politicians, and brought attention to the people of Kern County. For two years, Josie shone in the limelight, with many never learning that her only payout for her find was about $50.
Josie may have found a super-rich deposit, but it can be hard to translate rich ore into monetary wealth. Josie struggled to mine and process the radium. Later she struck a seemingly lucrative deal to sell the mine for a million dollars to be paid in royalties as the ore was extracted. The mine never went into production after this and Josie was left without any payout.
Josie was a unique woman. Dedicated and unflinching as a desert prospector, but also incredibly caring. Had she received a bigger payout, it was her dream to establish a home for old prospectors. She wanted to provide a place for them to find community, support and care.
She was also an amateur “desertologist.” Growing up in New Mexico, and then finding her home in the Mojave, Josie found solace in the tranquility of the desert. She made study of the native plants and animals around her claim. The cycles of deadly summer heat and chilling deserts never dissuaded Josie.
Josie worked and lived on her claim in Jawbone Canyon from 1932 all the way until her death in 1951 at age 76. She was buried near her home.
Following her death, Josie’s grandson Bill Bishop pushed for a memorial to be placed near Josie’s claim. With help from the East Kern Historical Museum Society, a monument was placed at the Jawbone Station and is designated as a California Point of Historical Interest. Josie’s family has since relinquished their ownership of the claim to the federal government, and all the riches discovered there remain unearthed.
Bureau of Land Management - Ridgecrest. “Josie Bishop Radium Queen of the Mojave.” http://www.stevens-whitehill.org/Publications/PDFs/Josie_Bishop_BLM_Flyer.pdf
Elliot, Virgil. “Josie Bishop, Radium Queen of the Mojave,” Settler’s Gazette. January 1999.
Gillis, Bill. “Claim gave fame, no money,” Antelope Valley Press. June 23, 1993.