The Secret Life of Eugene May (Part 1)

Eugene A. May was a long-time resident of of Empire, the early mining town east of Carson City. You might say he’s still a resident: his quiet grave is tucked in at the little Empire Cemetery, overlooking the valley. Little did we know when first saw his headstone — but May had a secret life!

Known to his friends as “Hank,” May moved to Nevada about 1863 and was living at Empire at the time of the 1870 Census. Around 1878 he married a young widow named Eldorado, who had a one-year-old daughter named Jennie (Eugenia). May was 47 years old at the time of their marriage and solidly middle-aged. Eldorado, on the other hand, was only about 24 — roughly half Hank’s age.

Pretty Eldorado, possibly about the time of her marriage to first husband, Michael Dunigan. (Courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society)

Their age difference would raise eyebrows today, but May/December romances weren’t all that uncommon back then. And for a widow with a young daughter it was a practical match. Eldorado’s first husband, Michael Dunigan, had died in 1877 after a fluming accident at Lake Tahoe, and women had few work options outside the home. Eldorado had young Jennie to think about.

The steam-powered Mexican Mill was built in 1861 and could process 75 tons of ore a day. Nine men worked at the Mill, including foreman Hank May.

Hank May was a skilled millwright and was the foreman of the Mexican Mill. He was a stable breadwinner, and raised young Jennie as his own. The family lived in a house near the mill, and Jennie would follow Hank to work, later recalling spending “many hours of my early life watching the mill process.”

Hank was a “strong Republican,” and ran for state Assembly in the fall of 1880, beating Democrat Samuel Longabaugh in the election. Jennie remembered visiting the Nevada legislature with her mother, Eldorado, where “we sat proudly on the Assembly floor.”

The Mexican Mill eventually closed about 1885, but Hank remained on as a caretaker and watchman. When the mill was later remodeled to process gypsum (used for making cement), Hank was again employed. With his skills as a millwright, he also was called upon to help build other mills and hoisting works along the Carson River through the years, including the power plant at Rodenbaugh’s Station (the old Power Dam at Ruhenstroth).

One morning in the winter of 1898, however, Hank May met with a tragic accident. According to Jennie, he “slipped near the dynamo and his arm was caught in a revolving wheel.” His arm was dislocated at the shoulder, and the bone was broken in three places.

Eugene May was born in 1832. His gravestone incorrectly lists his death year as 1901 (he actually died in late 1900).

Hank May lived for another two years, but never fully recovered. He died at his home in Empire in November, 1900. Rev. J.W. Durrance officiated at his funeral when Hank was laid to rest at the peaceful Empire Cemetery atop the hill overlooking the Mexican Mill where he worked for so long.

Soon after Hank’s death, however, an astonishing story came to light. Hank’s friend, B.F. Denton,  notified newspapers back in Hank’s home state of Illinois about his death, noting that his real name was not Eugene May at all!

Eugene “Hank” May, it turns out, was actually Henry Head, son of a wealthy father (whose own name might produce chuckles today: Biggar Head).

Hank aka Henry was born in Illinois in 1832, and grew up at Sand Ridge, between Edwardsville and Alton, Illinois. Biggar had evidently remarried, and Hank/Henry got into a dispute with his step-mother that led him to leave home about 1850, at the age of 18. By 1863 Hank/Henry had made his way to what would soon become Nevada; the 1870 Census shows him living in Empire. He not only left behind his home and his family, but also adopted a new name and kept his true identity a secret: he was now “Eugene A. May.” Denton, his friend since childhood, knew about the fiction but at Hank’s insistence kept mum.

Hank/Henry held tight to his family grudge for the next 50 years, refusing to contact two living brothers back east, William and Augustin Head. A half-sister sent Hank several letters about 1880, but he refused to open the envelopes, sending each of the letters back unread. He admonished life-long friend Denton that “if he ever wrote East about him, they would never again be friends.”

Even Hank’s headstone held tight to his secret; it bears the name he was known by for so many years in Empire: ‘Eugene A. May.’

Eugene May’s quiet grave at Empire Cemetery. Eldorado must have stood here, shedding tears as she buried her second husband. Little Jennie, too, must have mourned over this grave; Eugene was the only father she had ever known.
Here’s Eldorado in later life — still smiling, despite the hardships she lived through!

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE, INCLUDING A SURPRISING LINK TO ALPINE COUNTY!
Tune in next week to read the second half of this story, with more of the tale about widow Eldorado and her young daughter, Jennie!

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A giant thank-you for assistance with this story to Nevada historian Sue Silver for her amazing research on the Empire Cemetery! You’ll definitely want to check it out if you’re interested in any of the folks buried there. Her research is conveniently referenced by last name. Here is the link to her complete Empire Cemetery research online.

The other great resource we found helpful for this article was www.Newspapers.com. If you haven’t already stumbled across it, it’s a subscription site but definitely worth it for finding obituaries and other stories across the country. For this article, for example, we turned up the Alton Telegraph (Illinois), December 6, 1900, which gave fascinating additional contemporary details about Denton and May’s “secret”.

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