Tag Archives: ghosts

Ghosts and Goblins of Colorado

c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

Ghost

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?

Death, the old fashioned way

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

“How do you like your blue eyed boy, Mr. Death?”
     – Buffalo Bill’s by E.E. Cummings

To say it wasn’t easy to die in the old west is misleading. Actually, dying came rather naturally to an unnaturally high number of unfortunate folks. It was the act itself of drawing one’s last breath and heaving that final sigh that took on difficult proportions.

Death wore many hats in the Cripple Creek District, the high mountain gold mining district on the back of Pikes Peak in Colorado. The ever-present grim reaper could visit under many guises. Frightful sounding names such as Apoplexy, Nepluritis, Gastritis and Enteritis were assigned as causes of death. Other ailments, including appendicitis, pneumonia and “acute indigestion” represent those illnesses we can treat today with fewer fatalities.

Much of the romance connected with the District’s history revolves around the dead. Local funeral records offer a vivid glimpse at real, uncensored death at its worst. Between 1910 and 1913, one mortician recorded 29 fatalities at Sisters’ Hospital (now the Hotel St. Nicholas) and 15 at the County Hospital (now the Cripple Creek Hospitality House). Add that to the many more who died at home or on the job, and here is death running rampant in a frontier town.

Here were typical situations which have since evolved into classic western scenarios. For the gunshot scene we have Rube Miller, the first man killed at Cripple Creek. Miller was shot in the head by Charles A. Hudspeth at the Ironclad Dance Hall in 1892. We also have W.P. Pate, who was shot to death on bawdy Myers Avenue a few days after Christmas 1911. Preceding him was fourteen year old James Truitt, who was shot in the head at Lake George in October of that year. The next year, Walter Irwin suffered a fatal bullet at Four Mile Creek.

Children were most susceptible to a premature passing. Records from 1910 to 1913 record nine stillborns, some of which included death of the mother. From 1913 to 1916, 33 children were recorded by just one of Cripple Creek’s many funeral homes. Measles, pneumonia, scarlet fever and appendicitis were the usual suspects. But there are others: Four year old Carl Olson died near Cripple Creek from an “explosion” in 1912. As late as 1928, twelve year old George Fleetwood succumbed to 3rd degree burns.

The national Influenza Epidemic of 1918 also found a home in the District. In roughly a year’s time, one funeral director recorded 45 deaths. Among them were the Snowden boys, ages ten and fifteen, who died within a day of each other at the District town of Elkton. Their mother died just four days later, leaving a single grieving husband and father.

Suicides were another common malady. In 1916, Charles W. Richards died at his cabin in Cripple Creek. “Poison and alcohol”, notes the record flippantly, “probably suicide”. Emma Johnson followed suit, as did W.W.Holmes. With time, the depression during the 1920’s and 30’s also imposed fatalities on the shrinking district. Witness William Walker, who shot himself in the head at home in 1928. There is Clarence Newman, who made a political point at the Victor City Hall by slitting his own neck on New Years Day 1930. Then there is Eva Drake, who did herself in with a messy bullet in 1936.

By these same accounts, job stress is nothing new to America. We have Arthur Carnduff, a night watchman who killed himself at Vindicator Heights outside of Victor in 1930. Most intriguing is Victor postmaster Dixon Durette Pennington, who literally went postal and shot himself, at the post office, that same year.

Naturally, a wide assortment of mine accidents also kept the population in check. Most fatalities were caused by falling rock, interspersed with more interesting deaths like being crushed by the cage or timbers, falling down shafts, and getting blown to smithereens by misplaced dynamite. Others were run over by trains, and an assortment of grisly head injuries were common.
We even have mysterious deaths like that of Thomas Carter, whose body was found in July of 1912 on Beacon Hill. In 1913, Absear Avery and H.W. Lyal were both killed by lightening. In 1915, an unidentified body was discovered in Cripple Creek. In 1918, watchman Fred Kimpes was found dead at the Kavanaugh Mill. Warren McMann and Gordon Edwards also died when they “came in contact with heavily charged wire”.

What to do with the dead? True to tradition, deaths were reported by the men of the family, who then left the women to prepare for the funeral. Many funeral services and the rowdy wakes that followed took place in the privacy of the home. For those who could afford it, a handful of funeral directors were always on hand to render aid.

Funeral homes capitalized on their thriving industry with an assortment of fancy services. In 1910, the average casket cost from $15 to $350 depending on whether you wanted a pine box or the more exclusive “Fairy Couch”, a favorite among women and girls. Services included embalming at $5 to $50, opening the grave for $5 to $7.50; outlaying the lot for about $4.50 and hearse rental at $10 to $15. Extras consisted of burial robes, hair dressing, candles, flowers and even underwear and socks, which were frequently purchased for the deceased.

Even the poor were subject to the services offered by undertakers. Usually the county or local hospitals footed the bill for burial at a cost of about $15. Upon being hauled to the cemetery, the body was deposited in its proper designated area. At Mt. Pisgah Cemetery in Cripple Creek, African American women like Mrs. Clara Owen and Hattie Whitfield were buried in the “colored” spaces. Others, such as alcoholic Dan Duffy, merited a plot in the “poor” section.

As in the present, families sometimes opted to send the deceased elsewhere for burial. In 1913 Philip Roberts, who was killed in self defense by prostitute Jennie Wenner, was shipped off to Denver. Irvine Pogue, who died of a gunshot wound in 1917, was sent to Boulder. Evelyn Buchanan’s husband even had her body exhumed and exported to Nebraska when he could afford to pay for transportation. In turn, Mt. Pisgah Cemetery received the bodies of James Hamond from Excelsior Springs, Missouri and Bud Johnson of Greeley.

Wherever they landed, most of the District’s deceased were laid to rest with as much ceremony as possible. Peaceful sleep was intended for all, despite the century-old ghost stories and reported hauntings of today. Perhaps Denver’s Rocky Mountain News was wisest when it published this announcement back in 1874: “The News hereby declares its purpose to insert gratuitously notices of no more ghosts. They are becoming altogether too common, and the denizens of the other world appear to be encouraged by the attention they receive in this, to make unduly frequent visits.”10 Mt Pisgah Cemetery Jan MacKell

Mt. Pisgah Cemetery in Cripple Creek is the final home of many area pioneers. Many remain unmarked and unidentified, largely due to a mortuary fire in the 1940’s that destroyed almost all of the burial records.