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.
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.
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