c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins
It was a rather eerie night on the streets of Denver, Colorado. The type of night when the few lit windows along dark alleys cast eerie shadows along narrow paths and against the walls of dingy buildings. Underneath crooked stairways were unseen creatures, mewling and groaning quietly as they sought shelter from the cold. Trash cans were scattered about, their refuse overflowing and blowing about along the cold and gloomy pathway.
Into this grim scene sauntered a man, on his way home from the closest tavern. His creeping form stumbled and swayed as the night’s libations took their toll. There wasn’t a soul to be seen in the alley, at first. But as the inebriated gentleman neared the undertaker’s parlor, something caught his bleary eye. At the back door lingered a single figure, seemingly waiting for him. The ethereal being was wrapped in a white sheet. There was no hat, no scarf, no shoes to protect against the cold, only the sheet, whose worn edges floated about in the chilly breeze.
Upon closer inspection the man realized the person in the sheet as Lizzie Greer, a fancy sporting woman he had once known well. In her time, Lizzie was quite wealthy and well-known in Denver, until drink had got the best of her. Relief flooded through the gentleman as he recognized his long lost friend. “Lizzie?” he uttered, “Is that you?” The woman did not answer, and as the man came closer, she turned uncertainly. Deep inside his drunken mind, the man was beginning to remember something else he knew about Lizzie, something quite disturbing. As Lizzie’s form hurriedly stepped into the dark shadows and disappeared, the memory hit the man full-tilt: Lizzie Greer had been dead, for some years.
Indeed, Lizzie Greer was once one of a healthy handful of wanton women who worked in Denver. Her adventures were many: after arriving in the fledgling Queen City in 1861, she quickly made lots of money as one of the only harlots in town. Her paramour, for a time, was gambler Charley Harrison—a known outlaw who formerly romanced Lizzie’s fellow brothel companion, Addie LaMont. Charley was a killer, too, but he did look so very sleek in his all black suit and his well-groomed beard. His pearl-handled revolvers made a nice accent to the outfit, swinging from his hips in a menacing way.
When Charley finally got into enough trouble to merit leaving Denver, Lizzie and Addie watched him go with a sigh. Charley Harrison was just another in a long line of men the ladies knew, intimately. The women saw no reason to let him come between them, even though he first scorned Addie and then left Lizzie high and dry. But each woman had a demon haunting her that was far worse than the likes of Charley. Its name was whiskey, or absinthe, or beer, depending on the day. Both women found themselves fraught with drinking problems, whose roots reached much deeper than most people could understand.
In the years after Charley Harrison left, Lizzie tried to bring her life back into balance by starting a new, two-story brothel up on North Clear Creek near the Bobtail Mine. But it was no good; within a few years she was back in Denver, scrambling to regain her wealth. One night she hatched a devious plan to invite one of her customers, John Lowry, to come over to her place. Lowry was loaded, and Lizzie conspired with her friend, Elmer Hines, to get her share of his pocketbook.
A neighbor, Mrs. S., remembered seeing Lowry knock at Lizzie’s shanty. The harlot opened the door immediately and yanked the man into her house. A pistol shot rang out as Mrs. S. saw the man fall inside. Next, she watched in horror as the man suffered two hearty blows with an axe. Who held the axe was unknown, but Elmer Hines left just a short time later. After awhile, Mrs. S. saw a Mexican man she knew pulling Lowry’s lifeless body from Lizzie’s house.
Lizzie served time in jail following Mrs. S.’s testimony, but she was soon out and bent on another murder. This time, Addie LaMont witnessed Lizzie shoot one George Maguire in her room. Maguire was not expected to live. Lizzie may have escaped the law this time, but she could not escape herself. Within a few more years, she was a familiar site in the back alleys of Denver, buying liquor whenever she could get her hands on some money, and eating from the garbage bins of local restaurants.
On a cold night in January of 1881, a policeman found Lizzie, sickly and frail, sleeping in Lewis and Wheeler’s lumberyard. The officer took her to the County Hospital, but it was too late. Lizzie could not recover from her illnesses, and died. Her body was turned over to the undertaker, who charged his standard fee of $2.50 to the city for burying paupers. Lizzie’s spirit, however, apparently did not want to be buried. Hence, the gentleman in the alley that dark and dreary night was not the only witness to her ghost. In time, several more stories came forth. Each was the same: Lizzie appeared wrapped in a sheet, and fled when approached.
Eventually, a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News got wind of the story and came creeping down the alley in hopes of seeing Lizzie. The man was making his way quietly through the shadows when he heard the sounds of footsteps. Was it Lizzie, coming his way? It couldn’t be, for she was reported to be barefooted. The reporter stopped in his tracks, listening carefully. Every sound, every clink, every whispering scuffle and shuffle became louder and louder as the man was overtaken with the feeling of being watched. Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, the writer saw a dark form quickly moving towards him. With a yelp, he turned to face the phantom—and encountered instead the undertaker’s assistant.
When the reporter’s heart stopped pounding, the assistant explained what he was doing in the alley. The undertaker, it was revealed, had indeed received his fee from the city for taking Lizzie’s body. But the cunning man found he could make an additional $30.00—over $750 in today’s economy—by selling bodies to the dissecting room. In these morbid laboratories, bodies were cut open for research, their parts and pieces eventually thrown out with the refuse. Accordingly, the assistant had been sent in search of Lizzie to make sure she was dead, and if she wasn’t, to make sure she “stayed dead” so the undertaker could reap his thirty bucks.
That was about the last time anybody heard of Lizzie’s ghost lingering in the alleyways of Denver. Perhaps she too wanted the thirty dollars, so she could continue drinking and dancing her way through the demimonde just a little bit longer. This time, however, the money quite literally slipped through her translucent fingers. Maybe she lost interest and finally found rest, or maybe not. The undertaker’s rooms of old Denver are long gone, perhaps replaced by a laundry or even a bagel shop. Behind these buildings, Lizzie’s ghost could easily be mistaken for nothing more than steam drifting into the still night air.