The Red Ghost


One morning in the spring of 1883 two women were alone with their children in a small adobe house on Eagle Creek in the southeastern corner of the Arizona Territory. The men of the family had gone out early to determine how many of their sheep had been slaughtered or driven off by Geronimo and his Apaches in the latest raid through the area. Being left alone at such a time meant a certain danger for the women, since Geronimo might take it into his head to return that way, but to such dangers they had long since been inured.

At some time during the forenoon one of the women left the house to bring water from the spring several yards away in a thicket of willows. A few minutes after she went out, the house dog began to bark and brought the other woman to the window. All she was ever able to report about what she saw was that it was red, enormous, and ridden by a devil.

She heard screams but was too terrified to think of doing anything, instead, she barricaded the door and spent the day in hysterical prayer. When the men returned that night and heard her story, they lit torches, and went to investigate the spring, where they found the body of the second woman near the water, trampled almost flat, in the mud were the prints of hoofs, cloven and twice the size of a horse’s. Clinging to some of the willows were long, red hairs.

The coroner from Solomonsville who held an inquest was highly suspicious of the story. Except for the horribly battered state of the body and the remarkable hoofprints, he would have been convinced that the woman had been murdered, possibly by other members of the family. In the end, however, he permitted the jury to return a verdict of “death in some manner unknown,” and it was so reported in the Mohave County Miner , a weekly newspaper in Kingman, Arizona.

A few days later two prospectors washing for gold on Chase’s Creek, a tributary of the Rio San Francisco several miles northeast of Eagle Creek, were awakened in the middle of the night when their tent came smashing down on their heads. They heard, as they told it, a loud scream and a sound of pounding hoofs and saw what seemed to them an impossibly tall horse crash off into the brush. When they told their tale at the mining camp of Ore, several miners returned to the scene with them. Along the bed of the creek they found the prints of huge hoofs and through the brush leading off uphill a trail that had been broken by an obviously large animal. A few long red hairs clung to some of the bushes.

Although half a dozen miners corroborated these discoveries, which clearly coincided in details with the occurrence at the sheep ranch, the general reaction to the story was a skeptical grin. Tall tales told around the campfire were the favorite form of entertainment in those days, and the tellers soon seized on the Red Ghost, as they dubbed the mysterious animal, and embroidered on the meager accounts of his two appearances. One devotee of this game claimed that he had chased the beast and that it had eluded him by vanishing into thin air. Another reported that he had watched it kill and devour a grizzly.

About a month after the death of the ranch woman, however, the Red Ghost rematerialized in a form the tall-tale tellers had not dreamed of. The event took place near the Salt River some eighty miles northwest of Eagle Creek. A rancher named Cyrus Hamblin, out hunting for stray cattle, climbed a bare ridge to get a look around. Across the ravine below him was a tableland covered with dense chaparral. He could barely distinguish a huge reddish animal moving through the brush.

Hamblin later admitted that, despite the deep ravine separating him and this apparition, the hair rose a bit on the back of his neck. But he stayed to get a better look, and the animal gradually worked out into a fairly open space. Hamblin was able to relax. Although the distance was a good quarter of a mile, he recognized the beast beyond any possibility of doubt. It was a camel.

To most Americans, and even to most Arizonans, the discovery of a camel wandering in the wilderness would have been quite as startling as most of the invented stories about the Red Ghost. It happened that Hamblin had spent several years in the desert region of the southwestern part of the territory near the California border. He had never heard of camels in the high Salt River country, but he knew that in the desert they were, if not plentiful, by no means uncommon. He also could see that there was something more unusual about this camel than his choice of range. The hump on his back was topped by an oddly shaped burden. At the distance separating them, Hambliii was unable to see the burden clearly, but he reported that it looked to him like a man. And if it was a man, it seemed quite certain that he was not alive.

Hamblin’s reputation was so solid and his story so soberly circumstantial that most of it was widely accepted. It brought back to life a nearly forgotten bit of the West’s history and gave the more imaginative of the territory’s citizens something they could really go to work on. Soon the Red Ghost, or Fantasia Colorado as the Spanish-speaking settlers called it, was one of Arizona’s most famous inhabitants.