The ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada is home to some of the most spectacular remnants of our state’s boomtown era. Most of the town has long since been swallowed up by the desert, but a few stone buildings, namely the Cook Bank and the old schoolhouse, still stand, alone and long abandoned on the edge of Death Valley.
Adventurous explorers that elect to make the short walk across to where the red light district used to be, and where the old jail still stands, may notice something peculiar, a lone grave, adorned as if it were the resting place of a Voodoo Queen, sits alone in the sagebrush and tumbleweeds. A white cross identifies this as the grave of Isabelle Haskins, or Mona Bella. It has become customary to leave her a gift of alcohol, Mardi Gras beads, loose change, or anything else really.
According to the legend, Mona Belle was a prostitute that worked in Rhyolite in its heyday. Her pimp, angered at her decision to quit the profession, murdered her in cold blood one night by shooting her. The townswomen, jealous of Mona Belle’s beauty and popularity amongst their husbands, refused to allow her to be buried in the cemetery along side good Christian people. So she was interred on the edge of town, near the brothels and criminals. Other stories say it was her estranged husband that shot her when he found her with her pimp, who she ran away with.
It all makes for a great tale, but unfortunately it is just that, a tale. Most of it is not true. So what really happened? According to research I have undertaken by reading the Pacific Reporter which documented the findings of Supreme Court cases in the western states during this period. The true story was…
Mona Belle was born Sadie Isabelle Peterman in Battle Creek, Nebraska, in 1886. She married C.C. Heskett just after high school, but did not stay with him long. She eloped with a man named Fred Skinner and the duo headed west. Skinner was a gambler and was in and out of jail for petty crimes. The two eventually made it to Rhyolite, where they lived together “in adultery,” since she was still married to Heskett, who was serving time himself at this point. Mona, as Sadie was known by, was the proprietress of a dance hall there.
Around 3 a.m. on January 8, 1908, an argument broke out between Mona and Skinner, possibly over money. Exactly what happened next is unclear, what is known for certain is that Skinner shot Mona dead with three bullets and Skinner took two shots to his torso. Skinner told the physician that treated his wounds that Mona shot him and then asked him to shoot her in a type of murder-suicide. He later amended the story to say that she shot him, he wrestled the gun away from her, and only shot her when she ran for another gun that he knew was in the house. Most believed that he inflicted the wounds on himself in order to get away with the murder.
The incident caused such an outrage that Skinner was spirited away to Beatty, Nevada because the police feared a lynch mob. And, in fact, a posse was formed the following night only to find that he was already gone. Skinner was moved to Tonopah to stand trial, despite his claim of self-defense, he was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 50 years.
According to a letter from Mona to Skinner that made its way into the court documents, the two may have had a daughter together named Edith. It is unclear if she was raised with family or died in her infancy as there is no other mention of her.
Mona’s body was transported to Ballard, Washington (now part of Seattle), where her parents then resided, and was buried there. So whoever is buried in that lonely grave in Rhyolite is not Mona Belle. The previously unmarked grave was mistakenly marked as hers sometime in the 1950s, since Mona was the most famous murder in Rhyolite history.
As is often the case in Nevada history, the truth is stranger than fiction. Perhaps the grave is the resting place of an unknown prostitute, or maybe no one is buried there at all; short of taking out a few shovels, a lantern, and bottle of rum, we may never know who rests there. We do, however, now know the true story of Mona Belle. Additional information about the ghost town of Rhyolite.