c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins
When we of the living world think of ghosts, our minds naturally conjure up visions of some ethereal figure in an old-fashioned costume. Colorado is rife with tales of such sightings, along with a handful of psychics who have met a misty apparition or two themselves. More often than not, the ghostly subjects of today seem to date to just a century or so ago. But what of those people from the Victorian era itself? Were they not safe from the perils of witnessing supernatural phenomena? Indeed they weren’t.
For over a hundred years and then some, Coloradans have had the same fascination with the afterlife as their descendants. In a time before medicine and safety, death was all too frequently a visitor in many a household. Funerals were an everyday part of Victorian life, and their ceremonies were carried out with vigor. Robert Latta, a visitor to Cripple Creek at the turn of the century, recalled seeing a funeral procession making the rounds of the local bars. The parade was led by a brass brand playing “There’ll Be A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”. The transparent participants laughed and danced their way through every saloon along Bennett Avenue, stopping at each one for a drink and a toast. “They were ‘celebrating’ the funeral of one of their friends,” Latta remembered, “and were carrying his coffin with them. It was the noisiest funeral party I ever saw.”
Naturally not every death was taken so lightly, especially if the deceased decided not to remain so. In 1894, a miner was killed by an explosion at the Mamie R. Mine in the Cripple Creek District. A few nights later, several of the dead man’s co-workers watched in horror as their comrade suddenly rang the bell and disembarked from the hoist bucket alone. Slinging his bloody and shredded arm over his shoulder, the ghostly miner smiled at the men before ambling off into the night. The chilling tale would be repeated around the district for years, followed by new stories as they developed in Victorian imaginations.
Another time in Cripple Creek, a gentleman claimed to have seen a funeral procession on the edge of Mt. Pisgah Cemetery. Upon arriving at the graveyard, however, the man saw no sign of a funeral gathering. Further checking confirmed there were no funerals taking place that day. With the number of clairvoyants calling Cripple Creek home, it is no wonder such stories and their frightful counterparts began appearing out of nowhere.
Cripple Creek was not the only place to suffer such eerie events. Many of Colorado’s first ghost stories date back to the early 1800’s and before. As early as 1832, for instance, a ghost known as John Fagan was terrorizing travelers between Denver and Bent’s Fort. One day in 1879, the Central City Daily Register reported on a miner who arrived at the bottom of a local mine shaft and found the dead body of another miner. The man put the body in the hoist bucket, only to have it arrive up top empty.
That same year, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News printed the story of a recently built house in which no one could live. The newspaper hired a reporter to spend the night in the house. During the course of his stay, the reporter was visited by the ghost of a young woman who claimed her murdered body was interred with the walls. An investigation revealed the girl’s body, just where she said it would be.
In 1881, Dr. Hartmann of Georgetown wrote of a seance at which he and his spiritualist friends summoned dead loved ones and attempted to grab a ghost. Six years later, a visitor to Breckenridge suffered repercussions from drinking from a spring haunted by an Indian maiden who died in captivity. And in 1889, engineers along the Rio Grande Railroad were chased by a phantom train over Marshall Pass. This time, the apparition at the helm of the ghost train left a chilling message written in the frost of the other train’s window: “Years ago a frate train was recked as yu saw—now that yu saw it, we will never make another run. The enjine was not ounder cantrol and four sexshun men wore killed. If yu ever ran on this road again yu will be recked.”
By 1890, folks all over the state were having more supernatural experiences than ever before. A 70 year old man claimed to have received a letter from his dead daughter. In March of 1892, prospectors were spotting an ethereal dragon near Gray’s Peak. Later that year, three prisoners escaped from the Gunnison jail after a phantom set them free. A seven foot ghost was spotted at a station house in Lafayette in 1893. And in 1894, a lengthy conversation between a spirit and mediums cleansed a Denver house for occupancy.
It is true that many of these early tales were probably explainable, such as blaming an inept jailer or real estate shark. Other stories make one wonder as well, such as the 1887 report of a prostitute who went straight after seeing the ghost of her mother. Prostitutes seemed, as always, to be of particular interest to ghost seekers. There is the story of two men who resolved to capture the ghost of harlot Lizzie Greer for loitering near a Dissecting Room in Denver (physicians could sell the indigent deceased to a dissecting room for experiments, thereby covering their own costs). In 1886, Annie “Dutch Annie” Busch’s spirit was hanging around the city jail long after she did herself in at the end of a rope.
It is interesting to note that of all the ghost stories from the past, none seem to survive today except in the annals of the newspapers from whence they came. Have the lost souls found peace and moved on with time? Or did they ever really exist to begin with? In the end it doesn’t really matter; ghost stories are among the best of all stories, true or not. Even so, the prospect of ghosts haunting the earth for centuries leaves one final question: If a live person who once saw a ghost is deceased, does that ghost still see ghosts?