Melvin Dummar stuck to his bizarre Howard Hughes story until the end. That doesn’t mean we should believe it
When I heard last month that Melvin Dummar had died, at his home in Pahrump, the news immediately thrust me back to an evening almost 12 years ago in another Nye County town, Tonopah. On April 13, 2007, I drove the 200 miles from Las Vegas to Tonopah for a scheduled interview with Melvin. He was constantly on the road in those days, selling frozen meat at remote ranches and in small towns across rural Nevada and Utah. He stopped in Tonopah about every three weeks, and he always stayed at the Clown Motel, where he received a special rate of $25 per night and was allowed to run an extension cord from his room to his truck to keep the freezer going.
Melvin and I sat down in his room, and he told his story, my microcassette recorder positioned on the table between us. He told me about late December 1967, when he picked up an injured “bum” beside the highway between Tonopah and Las Vegas, and the guy told him he was Howard Hughes. He told me about the day in 1976 when someone left an envelope on his desk at his gas station in Willard, Utah, and that the envelope contained a handwritten will signed by Howard Hughes. He talked about delivering the will to the Mormon Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, and about the media frenzy after the news broke that, according to the will, he stood to receive one-sixteenth of the Hughes estate. He teared up while recalling how family, friends, and others shunned him after a Las Vegas jury, in 1978, ruled the “Mormon Will” a fake.
Melvin and I talked for about two and a half hours, and not once did I sense that he was putting on a show. He had told these stories to journalists, lawyers, and others hundreds of times by then, but his words did not feel rehearsed or polished to advance a particular agenda. I’m no expert at identifying whether people are telling the truth, but my impression was that Melvin was being honest — that he genuinely believed everything he told me.
His apparent candor in that Tonopah motel room does not, however, mean that his story holds up to scrutiny. It’s possible that what he said was truthful as far as it went, but that he didn’t tell me the whole story. It’s possible that Melvin’s memory of what happened was faulty, a challenge all of us deal with. And it’s possible that Melvin was a con man who, although he never got rich from it, stuck to his story to avoid the shame of admitting it was made up.
I do not support the latter scenario. Melvin, I believe, picked up somebody on his fateful drive in 1967. It just wasn’t Howard Hughes. The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Hughes never left the penthouse floor of the Desert Inn during his stint in Las Vegas between 1966 and 1970. If Hughes had left the D.I., his coterie of personal aides would have known about it and been at his side the whole time. That’s just how it was in Hughesworld.
The theories advanced years later to explain why Hughes would have ventured into central Nevada are just not credible. The notion that he was flying over the area to look at his mining claims suggests he had a keen interest in this aspect of his Nevada operations. He did not. Consider that he purchased six casinos in Las Vegas and one in Reno without inspecting any of them. And the claim that Hughes traveled to the area for sessions with a prostitute at a rural brothel is even more far-fetched. Among other reasons, his severe germophobia surely would have deterred him from relations of this sort.
While I can believe that Melvin picked up somebody in the desert, his story about the will being dropped off at his Utah gas station is harder to digest. It’s possible he was merely a pawn in a scheme to introduce the fake will. I’d like to believe that, because the man as I knew him seemed incapable of masterminding such an elaborate flimflam. But it’s difficult to imagine Melvin being oblivious to such an elaborate enterprise unfolding around him. Still, the fact that he stuck to the story to his death — that he never ratted or confessed despite the hardships he suffered as a result — leaves open the option that he was, to borrow a word associated with another great conspiracy theory, a patsy.
One of the most interesting threads of the Melvin Dummar story is that he had many supporters, people who believed — who still believe — that he was screwed out of his rightful share of the Hughes fortune. Melvin was a gentle and friendly man. During his endless travels selling meat across the rural West, he befriended many people who had little trouble believing that larger forces had used their power to discredit him and deprive him of his windfall.
The Oscar-winning movie inspired by Melvin’s story contributed to this. When Melvin and Howard was released in 1980, its screenwriter, Bo Goldman, summarized the story as “a meeting of one of the richest men in America and one of the poorest.” The film helped transform Melvin from a fraud into a living folk hero, a regular guy who had a shot at the American dream but was thwarted by powerful forces. It’s human nature to take Melvin’s side — the side of the underdog, of FDR’s forgotten man — in this story.
After Melvin died, people asked me whether his story was true, and I expressed my doubts. This didn’t go over well with one friend, who commented, “I don’t know why you want facts to ruin a good story.” I understand the feeling, even as I recoil at its larger implications.
I don’t know the whole story of Melvin Dummar, Howard Hughes, and the Mormon Will. Perhaps nobody does, or ever will, especially now that its protagonist has passed on. But I believe the more complicated version — the version that pokes holes in Melvin’s story, that asks more questions than it answers — is more interesting than the unexamined legend.
Geoff Schumacher, senior director of content for the Mob Museum, is the author of Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue.