Stolen bottle worth $16,000 returned to Piper’s Opera House
September 1, 2005
An empty bottle of bitters pilfered from a Piper’s Opera House archaeological dig back in 1999 has finally made it back to Virginia City.
Steve von Rumpf, an investigator with the Nevada Department of Public Safety, handed over the bottle to Piper’s Opera House officials Bill Beeson and Henry Kilmer on Thursday at Cafe Del Rio Restaurant in Virginia City, Von Rumpf had searched five states to locate it and many other artifacts stolen during an archaeological dig of latrines at the historic opera house in 1999.
He returned the bottle along with a book, “Best of the West: Antique Western Bitters Bottles,” by bottle expert Jeff Wichmann, from whom he gained some knowledge of the value of the bottle.
According to Kilmer, treasurer of Piper’s Opera House, the bottle was valued at $16,000.
Von Rumpf said the investigation started in January 1999, after Pat Whitten, the just-elected sheriff of Storey County, received some inside information from an undisclosed source that artifacts were being stolen from the dig.
Whitten requested assistance from the Nevada Department of Public Safety, then called the Nevada Department of Investigations because of the limited resources of his own office.
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“It was more than a hunch,” said Whitten, who was on hand to witness the return of the bottle. “We had good inside information. I’m proud to see something stolen returned to its rightful owners. I had no idea a bottle could be worth that much.”
Within a year, the case was solved and other artifacts, including buttons, posters, coins, doll parts and shoes were returned.
The bottle took five years to return due to its value and the ever-changing membership of the board of directors of the opera house, von Rumpf said.
“We got finished, and we had to get someone from Piper’s board to give the bottle back to,” he said. “We went through a lot to get it, and we wanted to make sure it got in the right hands.”
The bottle, which dates from 1870 to 1875, once contained bitters, which Piper’s Opera House Director Margot Memmott said was a concoction favored by snake oil salesmen in the Old West.
“(Bitters) was a huge fad at the end of the 1800s,” she said. “Anything that has bitters has alcohol, sometimes laudanum (an opiate derivative), and some spices and herbs in it. It was good for whatever ails you.”
Memmott said the category included Indian bitters and Coca-Cola when it was laced with cocaine. “It was thought OK to drink bitters because you weren’t drinking alcohol, though bitters had alcohol in it.”
The most common type used in Virginia City at the time, she said, was Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, but this bottle is engraved with “Dr. Wonser’s USA Indian Root Bitters.”
Von Rumpf said seven arrests were originally made on conspiracy charges, and “suspects started to play ‘Let’s Make a Deal.'”
Arrested on charges of burglary and grand theft were Marty Hall of Reno, a digger at the site; subcontractors Benjamin Crosby of Carson City; and Bill Heywood of Fallon.
Others involved, whom Von Rumpf didn’t name, returned artifacts and provided information to avoid prosecution.
The bottle eventually ended up in the hands of collector William Hamm of Downieville, Calif., who, when contacted by von Rumpf, returned the bottle.
Hall received immunity for his information on Crosby and Heywood, both of whom received jail time and probation, van Rumpf said, adding that punishment wasn’t the most important thing at the time.
“Our priority was to recover as much property as possible,” he said.
“It feels real good to have closure on a long-term investigation and a feeling of loss by the opera house,” said Beeson, artistic director for Piper’s. “It is also the beginning of the recovery and care of archival material that is important not only to the opera house but to Virginia City and Nevada.
He added, “One of our visions of the future is that Piper’s will become a visual and theatrical artifacts museum of the 19th century.”