c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this story originally appeared in Grunge Magazine.
Why do histories from the Wild West include so many haunting tales of ghosts? For one thing, the average life expectancy between 1865 to 1895 was between 35 and 46 years old. In rough and tumble towns like Dodge City, Kansas citizens faced a one in 61 chance of being murdered between 1876 and 1885. What with the absence of penicillin, aspirin and the plethora of meds on the market today, it’s no wonder that death came easily in the 1800s. Old West Daily Reader cites the three biggest killers as diarrhea, pneumonia and tuberculosis. On the other end of the spectrum were the gamblers, gunfighters and other miscreants who could easily die from lead poisoning (read: death by bullets). Calaveras County, California for instance, listed the top three causes of death as “dysentery, shot and stabbed” in 1850.
So with all these sudden, untimely deaths going on, is it any wonder that some folks’ spirits linger on today? Even Science defines a ghost as “a person’s spirit that continues to exist in some form after the physical body has died.” If that person dies with some sort of unfinished business in their life, or is murdered, or dies so suddenly they don’t even know they are dead, their ghost could hang around until it is somehow set free. That is where oodles and oodles of intriguing ghost stories are born. Here are some of the most intriguing ghost stories from years past.
Sarah Winchester’s “Mystery House” – In 1862, Sarah Lockwood Pardee married William Wirt Winchester, who would become heir to the famous rifle that won the west. The couple bore only one child, Annie Pardee Winchester, who lived just over a month before dying. William died too, in 1881, from tuberculosis—just three months after inheriting his father’s fortune. The grieving Sarah relocated to San Jose, California in 1885, and purchased a farmhouse she lovingly called Llanada Villa. Beginning in 1890, Sarah began building onto the house, which eventually grew into a towering seven-story structure spanning 24,000 square feet.
Here’s the thing: superstitious Sarah built onto her house, higgledy-piggledy style, on the advice of a psychic. The medium said the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle needed a home in order to protect Sarah. She would live forever as long as she kept building onto the house. Workers toiled 24/7 to construct a mishmash of secret passages, staircases leading nowhere, trap doors and other wild additions. Work ceased when Sarah did die, in 1922, but staff and visitors have seen the ghostly image of a carpenter named Clyde, and regularly hear footsteps and voices. It’s no wonder the Winchester Mystery House is called “one of the most haunted places in America.”
Seth Bullock, the ghostly hotel keeper of Deadwood, South Dakota – In many ways, Canadian-born Seth Bullock was a typical frontiersman. He was a member of the Montana legislature, married with three children, and successful at his hardware and supply business. In 1876 Bullock moved to Deadwood, where he was made sheriff and served in the Spanish American War. But his favorite career of many was being proprietor of the Bullock Hotel, a commanding, luxurious, three-story building which opened for business in 1896. Deadwood’s first “real” hotel featured fine furnishings throughout, a bathroom, library and parlor on each floor, sixty-three rooms to rent and a large restaurant.
Bullock died in 1919, but he couldn’t resist staying on at the hotel. Dozens of visitors have seen the man’s ghost “with it’s steely stare” walking around the upstairs hallways. Ethereal figures have occasionally tapped guests on the shoulder. Whistling and footsteps are often heard, and guests have reported hearing their own name called when nobody is there. Sometimes, apparitions even appear in various mirrors as lights and appliances are turned on and off by an unseen hand. And, a cowboy hangs out in what is known as “Seth’s Cellar” in the basement. The Bullock remains a hotspot hotel even today, complete with a nice bar where you can have a cocktail—if you can keep your glass from moving around by itself.
Tom Horn, the assassin who still hangs around – In 1903, 14-year-old Willie Nickell was riding his father’s horse, and wearing his coat, when he was ambushed and killed during one of Wyoming’s infamous land wars. His killer was Tom Horn, a hired gun with a dead aim who said he mistook the boy for his father. Although he confessed to the killing while drunk, Horn was sentenced to hang for his crime. And hang he did, but Tom Horn’s ghost remained behind early on. History’s How Stuff Works cites the “frontier mothers” of yesteryear who got their unruly children to behave by telling them, “Tom Horn will get you.”
Even today, ol’ Tom still gets around: Horn is said to haunt both the Wyoming Home and the Wrangler Building in Cheyenne, both places where the murderer allegedly spent time. Visitors to Horn’s grave in Colorado claim to have seen a “cowboy ghost” hanging from some nearby trees. Even Joe Nickell, Willie’s distant cousin, supports evidence that the ghost of Tom Horn exists based on the work of clairvoyants, but also early newspapers who reported on “ghostly sounds” and other paranormal activity shortly after Horn died. At least Nickell got the last laugh on behalf of cousin Willie. At Horn’s gravesite, he managed to hop around on the mound despite a broken leg during a visit sometime back. “We all agreed I had ‘danced on Tom Horn’s grave,'” he said.
The Ghost of Jesse James – The story of Jesse James being killed by Bob Ford in 1882 is well-known to history buffs: James was dusting some pictures on the wall in his own living room. Ford shot him in the back of the head. That was the end of the famous outlaw—or was it? Soon after James was laid to rest, the locals started seeing what they claimed was his ghost, wandering around the family homestead in Kearney, Missouri. Even today, unseen voices and weird photographs captured at the farm are attributed to the spirit of Jesse James.
And there is more. Several ghost-hunters claim that staff working for the Jesse James Museum at the homestead have heard the sounds of “restless horses.” Also, mysterious lights have been seen inside the house at night, turning on and off by themselves. Is Jesse’s ethereal presence limited to the family farm? Those who know of another house James’s uncle once owned outside of Paso Robles in California say that “phantom horsemen” have been spotted galloping along in the moonlight who are perhaps Jesse and his brother Frank. The sightings are backed by a claim that the boys spent time at their uncle’s property.
The Congress Hotel in Tuscon, Arizona – One ghost at the historic Congress Hotel in Tucson, Arizona is only known as a young woman who shot herself to death in room 242. Other spirits haunt the hotel as well. According to co-owner Shana Oseran, they enjoy walking the halls and lobby wearing their “old-fashioned attire” and tend to do “the same things over and over again.” The ethereal visitors appear to be guests, but also people who have worked at the hotel since it was built in 1919.
Even so, room 242 remains at the top of the intrigue list. Nicknamed the “Suicide Room,” the story goes that at least one visitor, Aric Allen, was there the night the lady killed herself. And, some film footage actually shows a ghostly light leaping off the bed. One urban legend identifies her as a barmaid who had just broken up with some important official, and says she died in a hail of 29 bullets during a standoff which “was called a suicide.” The bullet holes allegedly remain in the closet, but the girl’s name, and official news stories about her death, remain unknown.
Kate Morgan and the Hotel del Coronado – On Thanksgiving Day in 1892, a young, rather melancholy woman calling herself Kate Morgan checked into the five-star Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. Five days later, Kate decided she would never check out, and shot herself to death. Even the police were puzzled as to her real identity, for several items in the girl’s possession included the names of other women. Kate’s body lay at the morgue for several days before she was officially identified. In the end, it was ascertained that Kate was the unhappy wife of an Iowa gambler who, for reasons of her own, decided to end her life.
One story about Kate states she told the hotel housekeeper she had stomach cancer. After her death she was buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery under the names “Kate Morgan” but also “Lottie A. Bernard.” The problem was, however, that Kate’s unhappy spirit stayed on at the hotel. Guests in her room on the third floor have reported that lights and the television flicker on and off. Items move on their own at random, chilly breezes blow through the room, and there are sounds of voices and footsteps. Some guests even see “shadowy phantoms”, while downstairs in the gift shop items also move around.
The amorous ghost of J. Dawson Hidgepath – In the wild town of Buckskin Joe, Colorado, finding a lady to court among hundreds of miners wasn’t easy for J. Dawson Hidgepath. The lovelorn miner doggedly pursued about every woman in town without success. And when he fell off a cliff in 1865 while picking flowers for his newest crush, the ladies of Buckskin perhaps breathed a sigh of relief. But Hidgepath remained romantic, even in death. Shortly after he was buried in Buckskin’s cemetery, his bones began showing up in the most unusual places, namely at the homes of the ladies he loved.
Indeed, the boney would-be boyfriend first showed up on the porch of a woman who had spurred Hidgepath’s advances in life. The poor thing fainted. No woman was safe; from the bed of a young dance hall girl to an old woman who mistook the skeleton for soup bones, Hidgepath made his ethereal self known all over town. Each time the bones appeared, they were reburied, only to show up again. At last, the wise men of the town found a solution. Surely not even a skeleton would court a woman smelling like an outhouse, and that is where the bones eventually wound up. The ploy seemed to work, until years later when an unsuspecting woman was using the outhouse. As she hovered in the partial darkness, she heard Hidgepath’s signature greeting, whispered in his most tender Mississippi monotone: “Will you be my own?”
Ghost lights of the graveyards – Western ghost stories are not complete without the dozens of cemeteries at which various colored lights can be seen bouncing around from gravestone to gravestone at night. In an article by New Scientist, with the tongue-in-cheek title “Graveyard ghosts are a gas,” it is explained that two gasses, phosphane and diphosphane, are emitted from the intestines and can ignite when they meet air. Eeeeeew. And baloney, if you believe in mysterious cemetery lights. Because for well over a century, the phenomenon has kept ghost hunters everywhere intrigued. Take Elizabeth Polly of Kansas, for instance. A victim of cholera circa 1867, Elizabeth is better known as the “Blue Light Lady” who floats around in her blue burial address atop a hill.
There are more: Westcliffe, Colorado’s historic graveyard has long been known for its intriguing lights, which vary in color, size and speed as they flit among the tombstones. The later the evening, bigger and more numerous they get. At the cemetery in Anson, Texas, a single white beam light will travel towards your car if you turn off the engine and flash your lights three times. Lights don’t always come from graveyards. The luxurious Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City, Oregon features “Granny” Annabelle, who also favors floating around in a luminous blue gown, hovers around the grand staircase, plays with the guests’ jewelry and nibbles from the mini bar in their rooms, and pinches the derriere of anyone daring to sit in her favorite chair.
Tombstone’s timeless spirits – If all of the ghosts in Tombstone, Arizona were to stand up at once, there would be one heck of a population problem. It is known that a stroll down Allen Street at night just might reveal the ghost of Virgil Earp who was seriously wounded following the famed shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, in 1881, or Billy Claiborne who was killed by Buckskin Frank Leslie in 1882, or even the ghost of a lady in her white nightie as she floats across the street. Inside haunts include the infamous Bird Cage Theater, where ghostly prostitutes and their men are often spotted wandering around.
Indeed, the Bird Cage (which is now a wonderful museum) is said to be home to upwards of twenty-six ghosts, and its reckless past is evidenced by around 140 bullet holes in the walls. Ghost tours are available daily, but a nightly tour sounds even better for the less faint of heart. Between the nightly events and Tombstone’s numerous drinking holes, doing an overnight stay at the Burford House bed and breakfast might introduce you to a “jilted groom ghost” named George Daves, who in life objected to seeing his girl with another man. Daves shot the woman to death before taking his own life. Ladies beware: George not only wanders the halls and appears in the mirrors, but also favors smacking the fannies of female guests and, sometimes, yanking their covers down in the night.
Ghosts of the Sand Creek Massacre – In the early morning hours of November 29, 1864 Colonel John Chivington of the U.S. Army and his soldiers viciously slaughtered a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho Natives as they slept in their village near Sand Creek in Colorado. The victims were mostly women and children, 163 in all, whose bodies were then mutilated before Chivington and his men were honored with a parade in Denver. But the callous colonel was later believed to have “fabricated a reason for the attack.” The grounds were made a national historic site in 2007, but in the years before and after, visitors to the massacre site have seen and heard some mighty interesting things.
Writer Russell Contreras once recalled his wife’s grandmother telling him “I shouldn’t visit unless I’m ready to meet ghosts.” Others have echoed her sentiments that in the silence of the remote massacre site, the voices of those killed will whisper on the wind. Others who have camped near the site have claimed to have seen the spirits of wandering in the area, and sometimes screaming has been heard. Visitors please note: the Sand Creek Massacre site is sacred, so please show your respect when visiting. Camping at the site is forbidden. Visitors should check in with the National Park Service for information. And if you pack it in, be sure to pack it out.
Nevada’s haunted Yellow Jacket Mine – In 1859, the Yellow Jacket claim in Storey County, Nevada was just one of many mines popping up during the gold rush era. Early on, the mine was fraught with disputes over the claim, but by 1863 everything was settled as a new shaft was dug. A mere six years later, however, the Yellow Jacket suffered one of the worst mining accidents in Nevada history. At the 800-foot level below ground a fire started, trapping some miners as the timbers collapsed and toxic gasses filled the shaft. Over 35 bodies were eventually retrieved, but others of the dead were left underground as the fire remained burning for quite some time.
As early as 1888, The Two Worlds reported that the mine was so haunted that even investors occasionally pulled out or sold their shares. One of the many mine employees who was scared half to death on the job was W.P. Bennett, who was working alone when he heard “heavy footsteps coming tramping over the planks directly toward him.” The startled man called out “Who’s there?” The answer came in two shovels Bennett held, which were suddenly yanked from his hands and thrown about twelve feet. Stories like Bennett’s reverberated over the years. Visitors today can still hear the cries of the dying men, and a cabin below the mine can be rented from the Gold Hill Hotel.
Violence at the St. James Hotel in New Mexico – In 1872 a French chef, Henri Lambert built the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico, right along the Santa Fe Trail. Anybody who was anybody stayed there, including such notables as Annie Oakley, Black Jack Ketchum, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James and author Zane Grey. As one might guess, there were numerous violent incidents over time—like the murder of T.J. Wright, who was shot in the back on the way to his room after winning big in a poker game. Even Lambert’s own son, Johnnie, died after some unknown accident at the hotel. As a result, the St. James has its own special set of specters who never quite got around to checking out.
Aside from the usual cold spots, electrical energy and items moving around, several psychics over time have identified various spirits at the hotel. They include Wright, little Johnnie, the ghosts of two other children, a “gnome-like man,” and even a “pleasant-looking cowboy.” Most prominent is Lambert’s wife Mary, who died in 1926 in room 17. Mary’s presence is indicated by tapping on the window when it is open, the smell of flowers, touching guests as they sleep, and in one case, a “hideous scream.” Sweet dreams.