The Old Wild West is full of some creepy tales and spooky legends, there can be no doubt about that. From across the expansive wildernesses of this untamed land come all manner of tales of ghosts, monsters, and the unexplained. One of the very curious oddities from the annals of the old west comes from the state of Arizona, where a bloodthirsty demonic creature was said to roam. This is the odd story of a massive hoofed entity that terrorized the region, and would come to be known as the Red Ghost.
The whole tale can probably best be traced back to the spring of 1883, when two women and their families were living at a humble cottage near a place called Eagle Creek. On this dark evening the women were at home alone watching their young children, the men off on an errand. This was a tense time, as the Native general Geronimo and his warriors had recently passed through leaving death in their wake, so it is understandable that the families waited eagerly for the return of the fathers, ever vigilant for an attack at any time. At some point as they sat there in the darkness awaiting the return of the fathers and wary of any Native warriors who might come around to kill them, one of the mothers went out to fetch water from a nearby well. It was to be a quick errand, but as soon she left, the family dogs reportedly began raising a ruckus, howling and barking at nothing in particular, and as the woman was out there on her chore there was the sudden sound of screams, moans, chaos. She never came back.
The other woman who went to the window to peer out into the gloomy darkness and said she witnessed something enormous and red “ridden by the devil” go galloping by. It was all so terrifying that instead of going out to investigate, the remaining mother barricaded the doors and waited for help to come, with it being unknown just what had happened out there with that red demon or whether the other woman had survived at all. It was not until the men returned that they would discover what had happened, venturing out into the night to find the body of the woman who had gone to get water. Strangely, her corpse was battered and broken almost beyond recognition, as if she had been viciously trampled by some monstrous beast, surrounded by mysterious footprints far larger than any horse and some wisps of reddish hair adorning the brush. Although it was suspected that someone had murdered her, the hysterical woman who had seen the beast said that the ferocious red monster and ghostly rider she had seen must have been behind the death, and it was officially classified as “death in some manner unknown.” However, this would not be the last appearance of the “Red Ghost.”
In the days after this tragic incident at the cottage there would begin to trickle in reports from prospectors of seeing an immense, red cloven-footed creature prowling the wilderness, often with glowing eyes and a phantom rider, and some of these encounters proved to be rather harrowing indeed. In one instance, a miner told of seeing the beast vanish into thin air, and another swore that he had seen it kill a bear. Others said it would kill horses without provocation. One well-publicized account was made by a group of miners who were purportedly accosted in their tent by something very large, and when one dared to look outside they saw an “impossibly tall horse,” which let out an unearthly wail and ran off into the night. The creature had destroyed the tent and left enormous hoof prints twice the size of those of a horse, as well as a path of trampled brush and red hairs behind.
Many of these stories began to take on an almost urban legend feel to them, spooky tall tales whispered around the campfire, each more fantastical than the last, and the Red Ghost, also known as the Fantasia Colorado, became almost legendary in a short period of time. It was seen as a demonic beast atop which rode a skeletal specter, a monstrosity from Hell itself, and it was greatly feared. As mythical as this all seemed, one terrifying account would come forward to give it all a little more weight and a possible explanation. In this case the witness was a well-respected wealthy local rancher by the name of Cyrus Hamblin, who on this day was out rounding up cattle in an area near a place called Salt River when he had his brush with the odd. At one point he was surveying a deep ravine when he claimed that he had spotted a large reddish creature moving through the dense chaparral, which considering the scary stories of the Red Ghost was rather alarming at first. However, as the beast made its way into the open Hamblin saw that it appeared to be something almost as unexpected as a ghost- a camel.
He tried to creep closer to get a better look at the animal, and would report that it had seemed to have something on its back, which looked to be the dead body of a man although he couldn’t be sure. In the meantime, the Red Ghost continued to be sighted, with many of these reports still maintaining that it was some sort of supernatural beast or demon, which could vanish at will and was not afraid to ruthlessly attack those who wandered too close. A few weeks after Hamblin’s encounter a group of prospectors say they came across the creature near the valley of the Verde River. In this case the miners were armed, and they claimed to have fired in unison at the thing but that it had been impervious to their bullets. As it ran off it dropped something from whatever was perched on its back, and when the prospectors took a look it was found to be “a human skull with a few shreds of flesh and hair still clinging to it.”
Although it is unknown who this poor soul had been, the more superstitious claimed that this was yet another victim of the marauding monster, but in reality it probably was a camel rider who had died from the elements, his corpse withering away as his beast of burden wandered these badlands. It might seem strange that there should be a camel rider out in Arizona, but it would not be beyond the realm of possibility, as the U.S. had at one point created a Camel Corps in 1855, using the animals to help the Army operate in the forbidding desert landscape of the American Southwest.
Camels were seen as perfectly adapted to this harsh frontier, and their ability to carry far more weight than horses or mules made them particularly useful. A contingent of camels was then imported and trained by the Army, and the whole thing was so promising that the War Department added funding and their full support behind the project, but it was an experiment that would ultimately fail. The animals were just too unruly and too alien to most handlers for them to really catch on as a viable alternative to horses. Most ranchers regarded them as foul-tempered, kicking, biting, spitting abominations, who did not want them anywhere near their land, and cavalrymen did not care too much for them either. The whole project was disbanded in 1863, with the camels auctioned off, left abandoned at scattered military outposts, or in some cases even just released into the wild.
The use of camels became somewhat invigorated when miners continued to use them, switching to the two-humped Bactrian variety rather than the one-humped dromedary type that the Army had used. However, these camels were no better behaved than the others, and were widely mistreated, leading to incidents of the camels fighting back and even trampling their owners to death. Once again, many of these camels were abandoned or left to the elements, lost and forgotten. It is thought that those that did make it into the wild probably eventually died, but there is the chance that some could have survived, and indeed there were camels being sighted in the southwest well into the 1900s, with reports coming in from as late as the 1960s. Could it be that one of these camels, made aggressive by years of mistreatment by its human handlers, could have been The Red Ghost?
The mystery of the Red Ghost became even more interesting when the skull and remains that had fallen from its back were more carefully examined, and it was determined that the strips of rawhide used to fasten them had been tied in such a way that suggested that the dead man had been intentionally fastened to its back by someone else, although whether he was still alive at the time or not is unclear. In an article in The Mojave County Miner it was written:
The only question is whether the man was tied on for revenge or merely as an ugly piece of humor by someone who had a camel and a corpse for which he had no use.
Who had this man been and why had he been tied to the back of a camel? No one knows. Interestingly, reports of the Red Ghost continued, with ranchers and miners frequently reporting that they had been attacked by the beast, and although it was beginning to be widely regarded as a possibly violent camel on the loose, there were still reports that painted a picture of something more supernatural. One such account came from some prospectors camping out along the shores of the Verde River, when they said they had been awoken by an earth-shattering piecing scream. They claimed that a red haired monstrosity at least thirty feet long and with massive pitch black wings had then swooped down from the sky to land with a resounding crash that knocked some wagons over and sent men running in terror. They said that when they had warily returned to the camp in the morning the camp had been utterly trashed and littered with huge cloven footprints and red hairs.
Was this just a tall tale to build on the pervasive legend of the Red Ghost or was there something more demonic operating out there in the desert and being confused with the escaped camel? Whatever the case may be, the creature was seen for years, eventually losing its macabre load on its back, and sightings slowly evaporating until it was rarely seen at all. The last reported official encounter of the Red Ghost was carried in the February 25, 1893 edition of the Mohave County Miner, which reads:
Another ghost is laid. Another of the tribe of gaunt hobgoblins that keep the romance of the mysterious southern deserts is gone. Another of the unearthly dangers that the timid Mexican women used to pray against has departed. Mizoo Hastings of Ore was the priest that exorcised this phantom. Mizoo has a ranch a little above the gold camp on the San Francisco River. He woke up one morning and saw through the window of his cabin a big red camel banqueting in his turnip patch. Mizoo took a dead rest on the window sill and blazed away. He got the camel. When he went out to examine the beast, he found that he was all scarred up and had evidently had a very hard time. He was covered with a perfect network of knotted rawhide strips. They had been on him so long that some of the strands had cut their way into the flesh.
This was the official end of the Red Ghost saga, but the tales and unconfirmed reports continued, either because there was something else out there or because the real camel had become intertwined with a pervasive, evolving legend. Was it just a camel that killed that woman and was behind all of the strange tales and reports? Who was the body upon its back and what had doomed him to such a fate? In the end it is all a rather colorful historical tale, likely weird history tinted with campfire tales, myth building, and a dose of sensationalist newspaper articles. Regardless, it is a damn strange little historical oddity, whatever the case may be.