1915 Colton John Doe

Willows near the water 1915 Colton John Doe Photography Eric de Sturler

Photography Eric de Sturler

An unknown man I call the “1915 Colton John Doe” was found hanging from a willow tree in the Santa Ana river bottom, 2 miles southwest of Colton, San Bernardino County, California.

Suicide, no identification.

When I read that this unidentified man picked a willow tree to commit suicide the symbolism ran wild in my head.

Trees are usually symbols of strength, withstanding time and the elements, growth, harmony between men and nature, and of course, stability. The willow tree has a unique feature: it is one of few trees which branches can bend and bow without breaking easily.

The willow’s flexibility creates a magical environment where underneath the branches you can find solace, shadow, and quiet. Maybe this man used the shaded area underneath the tree branches to contemplate his actions. Using a willow to commit suicide seems to indicate a determination to die. He knew the branches would not break under his weight. The bending into the river allowed him to be lowered into the river minimizing the risk that he would be found quickly. Maybe he hoped to die and decompose without anyone knowing. Maybe he hoped to drown in case the branch did break. There was no foul play.

On Jan 20, 2011 this unidentified man’s case was entered into the NamUs database (NamUs #UP8428). He is described as a white man between the ages of 40-60, approx. 5′ 11″, about 150 lbs., with chestnut-brown hair, slightly balding, and a dark sandy moustache. The condition of his eyes including eye color could not be determined because of the decomposition in progress. The estimated time of death is hard to determine. He was already decomposing when found so he died weeks before. NamUs does report that DNA is on file.

He was found either on May 12 or 13, 1915 by a rancher. Reporting isn’t clear here. Some people thought this man was Mr. M.V. Dean, who went missing on March 7, 1915. That identification was ruled out. However, I do wonder if Mr. Dean was found as he disappeared after an illness.

At the time the 1915 Colton John Doe was found, all body parts were recovered. There were no distinctive physical features such a birthmarks, scars, tattoos, etc. At the scene, a cane was found near the body. It is described as a “heavy hickory walking stick.” The man’s clothes were found hanging on the tree. I could not help but wonder if he had undressed himself. And if he did, why? Hanging the clothes in the tree could have attracted attention to himself and his plans. It made me wonder at what time of day he came to the river bank. Was it at dusk or at dawn with less chances to be seen and possibly be stopped from committing suicide?

Ransom & Silsbee adThe clothes that were found were a tan-colored overcoat or raincoat from the brand Ransom & Silsbee in San Antonio, Texas. There was a gray hat from Joske Bros. Co Department Store in San Antonio, Texas, and a shirt with a collar and a tie. But I miss the pants, the underwear, and the socks and shoes so what was found was not a complete wardrobe. In another paper I read the man did wore some clothes but they are not described. I assume he wore the pieces described as missing above.

Ransom & SilsbeeWhile I searched online for more information I also looked up the department stores. I found some old pictures of their advertisements. I also found a blog with all kinds of department store information.

Can this case be solved?

It is from 1915 however researching your ancestry online is stronger than ever. This man was someone’s child and may have been a father. DNA is on file with NamUs so anyone searching for missing male loved ones from the San Bernardino area may want to contact NamUs.

Because so many people search databases I decided to make this the Case of the Month for September 2018. Who knows, someone just might be building a family tree with members from the San Bernardino County area.

I hope we find out who you are, dear man. May you rest in peace.

If you have any information about the 1915 Colton John Doe please contact the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department-Coroner Division at (909) 387-2978.


In the series “Case of the Month” I highlight old cold cases. These posts are not an in-depth analysis and of course, sometimes more information can be found online and in newspaper archives. The goal of these posts is to get the cases back in the spotlights, to get people talking again, and if anything to make sure that we do not forget the victims. Just because their cases are cold does not mean that we can forget about them.

If you have any thoughts about this case I encourage you to post them on your own social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, etc. Every time that we mention victims’ names online we enhance their digital footprint.

We must make sure that this man gets a better a web presence if we ever wish to find answers in this case. You can help by linking to or sharing this post.

Thank you for remembering the 1915 Colton John Doe with us.



San bernardino News May 12, 1915

The Department Store Museum