c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins
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, Tombstone, Canyon Diablo and other places, citizens faced a one in 61 chance of being murdered between 1876 and 1885. And what with the absence of penicillin, aspirin and the plethora of meds we see on the market today, it’s no wonder that death came easily in the 1800s. In a day of unsanitary conditions, lack of indoor plumbing and general dirtiness, the three biggest killers of folks in the west were 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.”
It’s really no wonder that the spirits of the past linger today, hoping to share their sad tales of an untimely demise with us. For those who don’t believe in ghosts, even scientists suppose that a person’s spirit can indeed outlast their physical bodies once they die. Especially if one 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.
Take Sarah Winchester and her “Mystery House” in San Jose, California. Born Sarah Lockwood Pardee, the lady married William Wirt Winchester in 1862. Sarah gave birth to only one child, Annie Pardee Winchester, who only lived for about a month. Then William died too, in 1881, from tuberculosis, just three months after inheriting his father’s Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The grieving Sarah relocated to San Jose in 1885, and purchased a farmhouse she lovingly called Llanada Villa. She also began consulting with a psychic.
At the medium’s urging beginning in 1890, Sarah began building onto Llanada Villa. There was no rhyme or reason to her design, and the house would eventually grow into a towering seven-story structure spanning 24,000 square feet. Why would Sarah undertake such a project at the advice of a psychic? Because she had been told that the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle needed a home in order to protect Sarah. Furthermore, the psychic claimed, Sarah would live forever as long as she kept building onto the house.
Frantic to stay alive, Sarah hired workers who toiled 24/7 to keep the construction going. This resulted in a literal, odd structure with secret passages, staircases leading nowhere, trap doors, and even a one-way mirror wherein Sarah could keep an eye on her servants – but was installed so instead, her servants could observe her instead. Work finally ceased when Sarah did die, in 1922, but the thousands of people who have visited famed Winchester Mystery House, including staff, have reported hearing footsteps and voices on numerous occasions – as well as the ghostly image of a carpenter identified as a man named Clyde.
Further south, on Coronado Island off of the San Diego coast, the spirit of Kate Morgan lingers at the opulent Hotel del Coronado. On Thanksgiving Day in 1892, the young, rather melancholy woman checked into the five-star hotel. Five days into her stay, Kate inexplicably shot herself and died. A police investigation revealed that Kate had told a housekeeper that she had stomach cancer. But it was also discovered that she was perhaps not who she seemed; several items in the lady’s room contained the names of other women. Police hoped someone would come forward and claim her body, but they never did. After several days at the morgue, Kate’s body was finally identified, as Kate Morgan but also Lottie A. Bernard. She was, it was revealed, the unhappy wife of an Iowa gambler who, for reasons of her own, decided to end her life.
Kate’s body was buried, under both of her names, at the local Mt. Hope Cemetery. But her spirit stayed on at the hotel, and remains there still. Guests in her room on the third floor have reported that the lights and the television flicker on and off. Items move on their own at random, chilly breezes blow through, and the sounds of voices and footsteps echo across the floor. Occasionally, shadows are seen moving through the room. Kate indeed remains at the Hotel del Coronado, her unhappiness having no cure.
East of California, in far-off Deadwood, South Dakota, are numerous ghosts who wander the once busy and often violent city. One of them is Seth Bullock, a Canadian-born Seth Bullock frontiersman who eventually became a member of the Montana legislature, married, had three children, and ran a successful hardware and supply business. After the Bullocks moved to Deadwood in 1876, Seth became a sheriff and served in the Spanish American War. But his favorite career of all seems to have been master of his own Bullock Hotel, a luxurious, three-story building which opened for business in 1896. The hotel featured a large restaurant, fine furnishings throughout, a real bathroom, a library and parlor on each floor, and sixty-three suites.
Bullock died in 1919, but he couldn’t resist staying on at the hotel. Dozens of visitors over the years have reported the man’s ghost staring at them rather malevolently as he wanders around the upstairs hallways. Guests have felt someone tapping on their shoulder when no one is there. They have also heard their names being called, as well as whistling and footsteps along empty corridors. Apparitions have been known to appear in various mirrors as lights and appliances are turned on and off by an unseen hand. There’s even the ghost of a cowboy hanging around in the basement. The Bullock remains a ghostly 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.
Then there is the ghost of Jesse James, who has been reported numerous times since he was killed by Bob Ford as a dusted some pictures on the wall in his own living room. Ford shot him in the back of the head, and 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.
Not all ghosts, of course, are well-known figures. 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. Alternatively, says one source, the gal was a young barmaid who had just broken up with some important official. A gunfight broke out soon after, during which the girl somehow died in a hail of 29 bullets in room 242 – but her death was ruled a suicide. Supposedly the bullet holes can be seen in the closet, but the girl’s name, and official news stories about her death, remain unknown. Naturally the room has an ethereal quality about it today, and is commonly called “The Suicide Room.” There are other spirits in the hotel as well, who can be seen and heard walking the halls and the lobby dressed in clothing of another era.
Wicked South Dakota isn’t the only old west state where ghosts of the past can find no rest. Some of Colorado’s earliest spirits are the ghosts of the Sand Creek Massacre. It was here in the early morning hours of November 29, 1864 that Colonel John Chivington of the U.S. Army and his soldiers viciously slaughtered group of Cheyenne and Arapaho Natives as they slept in their village. 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. They say that even today, 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 the victims wandering in the area, and sometimes screaming has been heard.
Further west, in the once wild town of Buckskin Joe, Colorado is a spirit with a most determined wish. In a day when finding a lady to court among hundreds of miners wasn’t easy, one J. Dawson Hidgepath was among the lovelorn. A miner by trade, Hidgepath doggedly pursued about every woman in town, without success. The man was downright bothersome, 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 a hopeless romantic, even in death.
Shortly after he was buried in Buckskin’s cemetery, Hidgepath’s skeleton began showing up in the most unusual places, namely at the homes of the ladies he loved. The boney would-be boyfriend first showed up in a heap on the porch of a woman who had spurred his advances in life. The poor lady 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 women 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?”
Colorado is also one of many places where mysterious lights appear in the local cemeteries. Westcliffe’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. From a certain hill in the high-altitude city of Cripple Creek, lights can also be seen glowing at Mt. Pisgah Cemetery. Certain scientists maintain that such lights are really two gasses, phosphane and diphosphane, which are emitted from the intestines of dead bodies and can ignite when they meet air. But that doesn’t begin to explain those who have remained six feet under for a century or more.
While Cripple Creek is certainly famous in its own right as the site of the last big gold boom in Colorado, other, more famous places have their own population of residents from the past. In Tombstone, Arizona, they say, if you walk down Allen Street at night, you just might see 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. The nearby Burford House bed and breakfast has the spirit of George Daves, a groom who was left at the alter and next spotted his would-be bride in the arms of 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.
Another haunted state? Nevada, whose Yellow Jacket Mine was staked clear back in 1859. Early on, the mine was fraught with disputes over the claim, and in 1872 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.
Soon after, ghostly happenings at the Yellow Jacket scared investors into pulling out or selling their shares. One of many mine employees who was frightened 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.
New Mexico also has a ghost story or two. One of them surrounds the famously St. James Hotel in Cimarron, which was built by a French chef named Henri Lambert in 1872. 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. 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 T.J. 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 at lease one case, a hideous scream in the dead of night. Sweet dreams.