Monthly Archives: October 2015

A Ghoulish Apparition: The Bizarre Legend of Arizona’s Red Ghost

"07. Camel Profile, near Silverton, NSW, 07.07.2007" by Jjron - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

“07. Camel Profile, near Silverton, NSW, 07.07.2007” by Jjron – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Belief in ghosts is widespread throughout human societies. Every major civilization in history has had some belief in the supernatural, even in our own modern world of science and technology.

While the supernatural itself has not been proven, and probably never will be, some ghost stories do have roots in tangible reality. This factual basis has been distorted by retelling and the passage of time, until all that remains is a small kernel of truth. One such story was the  infamous Legend of Bunnyman Bridge, in Virginia. The horrific stories of murder and mayhem surrounding the bridge sprang from a very odd pair of incidents that occurred nearby involving a man in a bunny costume, wielding a hatchet.

Something similar occurred in Arizona, in the late 19th century, when a huge, terrifying beast with a ghoulish passenger was said to terrorize the residents of the high country. This apparition, sometimes seen in remote parts of the state to this day, became known as the Red Ghost.

 

An Apparition at Eagle Creek

The year was 1883, the place an isolated ranch near Eagle Creek, in Arizona. One morning, two men rode out to check the cattle, leaving their wives to tend the children. Later that morning, one women went the the spring to draw up water, while her friend remained at the house with the children.

Soon after she left, one of the ranch dogs began barking frantically. The woman in the house heard her friend scream. She looked outside to see a huge, red-haired beast with a ghoulish rider on its back. Badly frightened, she hid int he house, keeping the children close until the men returned.

That night, after a short search the men found the woman’s trampled body. The next morning, they found cloven hoof prints and long red hairs near where her body was found.

 

More attacks follow

A few days later, a party of miners near Clifton, Arizona received a rude awakening. something huge thundered toward them, screaming. Its huge bulk collapsed their tent. When they managed to clamber out of the ruined tent, they caught a glimpse of something huge running away into the night. Later, they found cloven hoof prints and long red hairs.

A few months later, a rancher on the Salt River by the name of Cyrus Hamblin came across the beast while he was rounding up cattle. He recognized the creature as a camel, but to his horror he saw that there was a skeletal body strapped to its back. Despite his reputation as an honest man, few believed him.

Weeks later, the Red Ghost was spotted again by miners, this time near the Verde River. They fired at the beast but missed. As the camel fled, a piece of its passenger fell of. It was soon identified by the miners as a partially mummified skull, with bits of hair and skin still clinging to the bone.

 

The Death (and Birth) of the Red Ghost

For the next ten years, the legend of the Red Ghost grew, as legends tend to do. Then, in eastern Arizona, a rancher rose one morning to find the huge animal grazing in his garden. One shot from the rancher’s trusty Winchester, and the infamous Red Ghost was no more. When he examined the body, he found that the camel had scars on its back from where rawhide straps had been used to secure the body of a man. But how did a camel, let alone one with a human body strapped to its back, end up in Arizona?

Camels are nothing new in North America; point of fact, they evolved here, before spreading to Asia across the Bering Strait. The camels who made that long trek survived, while their forebears in North America went extinct with this continents other large mammals, no doubt in large part due to humans hunting them for food. Ten thousand years later, the camel had become a domesticated beast of burden, prized for its many adaptations to desert life, its toughness, and its strength.

Photograph of the US Camel Corps at Drum Barracks in San Pedro, California.

Photograph of the US Camel Corps at Drum Barracks in San Pedro, California.

By the mid 19th century, the United States was undergoing a rapid expansion into its southwest territories. Since most of the area is rugged, arid land, some proposed that the camel could aid in this expansion due to its unique adaptations. In addition, the camel could help in pacifying local Native American tribes, who were understandably unhappy with white settlers moving onto their land.

In 1848, Henry Wayne, a Quarter Master Major with the United States Army, suggested that the War Department import camels into the Southwest. Two years later, none other than Jefferson Davies, then Secretary of War and Mississippi stat senator, lobbied Congress on the matter. Despite initial resistance, Congress eventually pass a bill in 1854 appropriating $30,000 to import the beasts of burden.

Seventy-two camels arrived in the early part of 1857. despite camels being suited to the Southwest, it soon became clear that they carried some distinct disadvantages. Camels are notoriously surly animals, and have an independent streak that led them to wander off at night. In addition, their scent frightens horses who aren’t accustomed to it. Soldiers hated  the beasts. The experiment lasted until the outbreak of the Civil War, where the remaining camels were sold or released int the wilderness. Soon after, sightings of wild camels began to be reported.

So, the sightings of a camel wandering the deserts of Arizona were based in historical fact. What, then, of the other facet of the strange story, the Red Ghost’s gruesome passenger?

 

The Skeletal Rider

The Red Ghost’s passenger was said to have been a young soldier who was afraid of camels, which naturally made learning to ride one difficult. To make him confront his fear, his fellow soldiers tied him to a camel, and then smacked it on the rump. Once the beast was off and running, they couldn’t catch up with it or its hapless rider, and both disappeared into the desert.

So what should we make of this story? Is it merely a legend, a ghost story, or is it a true story of an unfortunate soldier and his unwilling mount?

As with the Legend of Bunnyman Bridge, there is a grain of truth to the story that has become distorted by retelling. The particular grain of truth here is that yes, camels were roaming loose in Arizona during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These became fodder for all sorts of stories, becoming part of the region’s folklore, no doubt due to their odd appearance, and surly disposition. It is also good to remember that most of the settlers had never seen a camel before, and so seeing such a large, strange animal would have been a frightening experience.

The gruesome tale of the camel and his dead rider is likely nothing more than a legend based on frightening encounters with odd, unknown animals. These encounters have left an impression on the folklore of the area, because some still claim to see the Red Ghost and his ghoulish rider to this day.

 

Sources:

Aker, Andrea, “The Legend of Red Ghost.” ArizonaOddities.com March 12, 2010. Arizona Oddities. October 18, 2015. http://arizonaoddities.com/2010/03/the-legend-of-red-ghost/

Hawkins, Vince. “The U.S. Army’s ‘Camel Corps’ Experiment.” ArmyHistory.org.  National Museum United States Army. October 18, 2015. https://armyhistory.org/the-u-s-armys-camel-corps-experiment/

Weiser, Kathy. “Old West Legends: Ghost Camels in the American Southwest.” LegendsofAmerica.com. October 2012. Legends of America. October 18, 2015. http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-ghostcamels.html

 

 

 

The Denver Spider Man

As regular readers may have guessed from my focus on the morbid and macabre, I’m a horror fan. So this month is like Christmas for people like me. In celebration of the spookiest month of the year, I plan to devote my posts this month exclusively to the darker, scarier side of history. While it landed before October, my post last week about crossroads burials was a good start.

This week, we will visit the 20th century to find a murder so bizarre that it reads like something from the mind of Arthur Conan Doyle, or perhaps Stephen King, than actual history. The killing, which occurred in Denver, Colorado in October 1941, was a real-life version of the mystery classic: the “locked room mystery.”

Phillip Peters, a 73 year old retired railroad auditor, was home alone the night of his murder. His wife had broken her hip in a fall and was staying in the hospital. One night he did not show up to visit his wife. A neighbor, fearing something had gone wrong, went to check on Peters but found the house dark. No one answered the door. She gathered a group of neighbors. They found every door and window locked. A girl was able to clamber inside the house through a loose screen she pried open. What she found inside was an awful site: the kindly Phillip Peters, covered in blood, bludgeoned to death in his own bedroom.

When the police arrived, they found a peculiar scene. There were no signs of a break-in, and nothing had been stolen. Two cast iron shakers were found in the kitchen, one dusty, the other clean.  A damp towel stained with blood lay nearby. Nothing about the killing made sense—the killer could only have come from inside the house. And judging by the violence of the attack, it seemed it could only have been pulled off by a berserk giant of a man. With no obvious hiding place for a huge psychopath, the police were stumped.

Odd stories began to crop up around the empty little house. Neighborhood children whispered that they saw lights on in the upstairs. A neighbor claimed to have seen a ghostly face in the windows. Neighbors started to believe that the house, the site of such a weird and violent attack, was haunted.

Despite the rumors, Mrs. Peters, finally recovered from her hip surgery, wanted to return to the home she had shared with her husband for fifty years. One night, startled perhaps by a noise in the “haunted” house, Mrs. Peters fell and suffered another fracture. Rather than go back to the hospital, she opted to heal at home, and a nurse was sent to care for her. The nurse soon began to report strange noises in the walls and ceilings. Police investigated, but found nothing. Then one night the nurse saw the rowdy spirit on the stairs. It chattered its teeth at her. She resigned, and a neighbor took over care of Mrs. Peters.

The neighbor sighted the spook as well.  One night, she heard a noise and hurried into the dark kitchen to see the ghost on the stairs. She reported it was a scrawny, filthy creature that seemed to vanish when she screamed. Mrs. Peters went to live with her son in Western Colorado, while police, skeptical of all this ghost talk, decided to stake out the now infamous ghost house.

It was July by this time. Two patrolmen were on duty staking out the house when one caught a glimpse of a face in the upstairs window. He nudged his partner, who looked up in time to see a fleeting glimpse of movement. The officers ran across the street and broke down the door. They searched the downstairs, noticing an odd stench permeating the house. As they were moving upstairs, more police were arriving. The two officers saw a door swinging shut in an upstairs room. They  yanked open the door to find two dirty bare feet kicking in the air. One officer grabbed the struggling “ghost” by the ankles and yanked. Finally the ghost gave in, and soon was laid out unconscious on the bedroom floor, having fainted in his botched escape attempt.

The figure laid out on the floor was scrawny and clothed in filthy rags. Once the “ghost” was taken into custody, he revealed himself as Theodore Coney. He told a bizarre story. He’d met  the late Phillip Peters when he was 17. The two were briefly acquainted through the Mandolin Club, and occasionally ran into one another throughout their lives. As Phillip moved on, got married, and embarked on his career with the railroad, Theodore became little more than a drifter, unable to hold a job and in poor health.

He drifted back to the Phillip house in September of 1941. He found the house empty, stole some food, and found the little attic room above the closet where he slept. The opening to the attic was about as wide as a cigar box, and it was overlooked in the initial investigation of the house because police thought no one could fit up there.

But Theodore managed to wriggle his way in there, where he stayed for months. He initially stayed quiet, sleeping when Mr. Phillip was awake and coming downstairs to eat when he was out of the house. Theodore grew bolder over time, and eventually started shadowing Peters from room to room.

The night of the murder, Theodore thought Peter Phillip was out and about, and came down to raid the ice box. But Peter had been napping, and came upon the scraggly interloper.  On an impulse, Theodore killed his unwitting benefactor and escaped back to the attic.

After his confession, Theodore’s odd story hit the papers. He became known as the Denver Spiderman, for his long, thin fingers and odd manner. The Denver Spiderman was sentenced to life in prison at the Canon City Penitentiary, where he died on May 16, 1967.

 

Sources:

Mayo, Mike. “American Murder: Criminals, Crime, and the Media.”  Visible Ink Press, 2008. Pg 76-77

“The Spider Man.”  Prisonmuseum.org. Retrieved using the Wayback Machine on 10/4/2015 http://web.archive.org/web/20040213070643/http://www.prisonmuseum.org/spider.htm

 

http://web.archive.org/web/20040213070643/http://www.prisonmuseum.org/spider.htm