The Real “Russian John”

Miner 1While re-reading my copy of the book “Haunted Idaho” by Andy Weeks, the story of “Russian John” caught my attention. From the author’s account it became evident that nobody really knew where the name “Russian John” came from or if he had been a real person. All he had to go on were tales of a ghost called “Russian John” dressed in a miner’s headlamp and old miner’s clothes haunting the area not far from Ketchum, Idaho.

Tales like this have to come from somewhere. Considering the fact that there is a hot spring called “Russian John’s” as well as a ranger station I decided to do a little research in an attempt to find the REAL “Russian John.” A basic Google search brought up a link to a site featuring the actual cabin of “Russian John,” and although no identifying information was provided the existence of a cabin suggests that he was indeed a real person and not just some local tale.

My next plan of attack was to search through some old newspapers for the area of Ketchum and this is where I found my first major clue! An article in The Ketchum Keystone, dated August 10, 1889, provides the following…

There has been some little cold water thrown upon John Ahlfors (or Russian John’s, as the place is generally known) by a report that the water of his well known warm springs, during the excessive and continued drought has experienced a coolness, but such is not the case, his little plunge bath room is as neat and cosy as ever, and the water from the spring is still maintains the same degree of heat that it always did, and, by the way, the weary traveler will always find at Ahlfor’s a pleasant, homelike place of rest.

So, we now have a name… John Ahlfors/Ahlfor! Now to find out where he came from, which, you might think, is obvious because of his nickname of “Russian John.” But in researching old tales things are often never that straight forward.

So, who was the REAL “Russian John?”

A search of census records gives us some surprising information… “Russian John” was actually “Finnish John!” He was born Johan Mauritz Ahlfors on 22 January 1843, in the ancient city of Turku, Finland. His parents were Abraham Ahlfors and Elisabeth Mattsdr.

 He is first found in official records as living in Nevada during the 1875 state census, where he was working as a miner.

A small mention in the Idaho Weekly Keystone, dated July 12, 1884, tells us that John has been in Idaho since sometime before 1884…

John Ahlfors still keeps open the Hot Springs House, and is doing a fair business in connection with his hay ranch.

The May 14, 1898 edition of the Ketchum Keystone reports…

J.C. Coburn and John Ahlfors are working on a mine recently located by the former near the mouth of West Fork. The prospects are encouraging.

From The Ketchum Keystone, June 4, 1892…

John Ahlfors, proprietor of the Hot Springs ranch on the Galena Road, was in town Wednesday and made a pleasant call at the Keystone office. John has been keeping cases for the past ten years of the first teams to pass his place in the spring, and says the first team to pass this year was about five days later than ever before.

From The Ketchum Keystone, October 15, 1892…

John Ahlfors has had a few tons of ore sampled this week taken from the Ochery mine on Cherry Creek, near Galena, which assayed 121 ounces silver and 66.50 percent lead.

And from The Ketchum Keystone, November 24, 1894…

John Ahlfors has moved down from his Warm Springs ranch on the Galena road and is now a resident of Ketchum.

The federal census for the year 1900 gives us a little more information. We now find John living in the Deer Creek district of Idaho, employed as a wood chopper. He also declares that he arrived in the United States in 1868. A quick look at the 1870 census does not reveal where he was living at shortly after arriving in the United States. It is possible that he was traveling at the time and did not get enumerated.

The 1910 federal census places John in Ketchum, Idaho, working as a silver miner. On this record he declares that he arrived in the United States in 1869. Searches through the Castle Garden database do not produce a record of immigration. It is possible that he landed in Canada and crossed over the border from there.

The Montpelier Examiner, (Montpelier, Idaho), dated August 11, 1916, informs us that John Ahlfors has died…

John Ahlfors died in Ketchum last week from dropsy at the age of 75 years. He came to Wood River twenty-seven years ago, and lived for many years near Galena, where he conducted a station. He was also a prospector.

So, there you have it. “Russian John,” although NOT Russian, was indeed a real person. Considering that Finland is located next to Russia it is not too much of a surprise that the people he came into contact with assumed he was Russian due to a similar sounding accent. This was an era when it was rare for one person to ask another directly where they originally came from. The only person to ever do so was probably the census enumerator.


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