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The Red Ghost of Arizona

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

What was the large, red animal that roamed around the Arizona Territory in the 1880s? It trampled a woman to death. It appeared and then vanished before the eyes of witnesses. It was thought to carry a burden on its back that resembled a dead man. One person swore he had seen it devour a grizzly bear. What was the Red Ghost?

Incident at Eagle Creek

Two women and their children were alone in an adobe house in the spring of 1883. The men folk had gone off in search of their flock of sheep. They were concerned that Geronimo and his followers might have killed some of the animals.

Around the middle of the day, one of the women went to a nearby spring to fetch some water. She hadn’t been gone long when the woman in the house heard screams. She rushed to the window and later said she’d seen something enormous and red with the devil riding on its back.

She barricaded the door and prayed until the men returned.

the-red-ghost-of-arizona

When the men returned and heard her story, they went out on a search and found the other woman trampled almost flat. There were huge cloven-hoof footprints and some reddish hairs stuck to willow branches. A coroner’s jury returned a finding of “death in some manner unknown.”

A few days later, the camp site of some prospectors was attacked in the night. Again, there were gigantic footprints and red hairs left behind.

There were other sightings and each embellished the fiendish appearance of the critter even more. Some teamsters encountered a beast that was 30 feet tall that dropped into their midst on black wings. However, the teamsters’ cargo included several barrels of whiskey, so that has to be taken into account in evaluating the story.

Others said the ghost had a skeleton was riding on its back.

The Red Ghost Identified

Cyrus Hamblin was a rancher in Salt River, about 80 miles to the northwest of Eagle Creek. While checking on his cattle he saw the beast at a distance.

Robert Froman (American Heritage) picks up the story: “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.”

A few weeks later, the camel was seen by some other prospectors. They fired on the beast, which took off in a hurry, but something appeared to be shaken loose from its back. They rushed to find the skeletal head of a human with bits of hair and skin still attached.

The End of the Red Ghost

The only contemporaneous accounts of the Red Ghost appear to have been carried in The Mohave County Miner newspaper, which went out of existence in 1918. It likely practiced a form of journalism not uncommon at the time that wasn’t greatly bothered by accuracy. So, the stories told must be taken with a granary of salt.

However, the Red Ghost’s career of frightening the wits out of those who saw it continued for about a decade. Then, it met up with Mizoo Hastings.

He awoke one February morning in 1893 to find a camel rummaging for breakfast in his vegetable garden. Hastings raised his trusty rifle and plugged the animal with a single shot.

Neighbours visited the scene and it was agreed by all that Mizoo Hastings had felled the Red Ghost. There were scars on the animal’s back where rawhide strips had cut into its flesh; these had been used to tie down the body of a man whose remains had since fallen off.

The Origin of the Red Ghost

In 1857, 75 camels were brought to the United States from the Middle East. The idea was that they would carry U.S. Army supplies in the south-western desert. For a variety of reasons, prominent among them the outbreak of the Civil War, the plan was killed. Some of the animals were auctioned off but some were simply turned loose. Almost certainly, the Red Ghost was one of the imported camels or a descendant.

Memorial to the Camel Corps in Texas.

Memorial to the Camel Corps in Texas.

But, unravelling the mystery of the animal’s cadaverous rider has proved impossible. There’s plenty of speculation though.

Was he a Confederate or Union soldier, captured and secured to the camel’s back either alive or dead?

Was it a prospector who had bought a camel and suffered a cardiac arrest and got tangled up in the saddle and harness?

Was it a soldier who was afraid of camels (they can bite viciously if feeling grumpy) and was strapped to the beast as a crude and unsuccessful method of getting him to overcome his fear? And then, the animal bolted, validating the soldier's concerns.

The Mohave County Miner offered another explanation: Was this merely “an ugly piece of humor by someone who had a camel and a corpse for which he had no use?”

Bonus Factoids

  • “Topsy” was a feral camel that trekked across Arizona and into California. She was captured and taken to the Griffith Park urban wilderness area. But, she didn’t do well and, in April 1934 The Oakland Tribune reported that “The Last American Camel Is Dead.”
  • Camels roamed the American continent millions of years before any humans arrived. According to American Heritage “The whole camel family, like the horse family, evolved here and spread to the eastern hemisphere via the then well-traveled land bridge from Alaska to Siberia a mere million years ago.”
  • In Australia, camels were imported to carry freight during the exploration and development of the interior. Once railways were built and gasoline-powered vehicles became available the camels were no longer needed. Thousands of the animals were simply turned loose in the Outback. The numbers were sufficient to create a vigorous breeding community. And, breed they have. There are now about 1.2 million camels in Australia and they are a menace to the environment and farmers.

Sources

  • “Whatever Happened to the Wild Camels of the American West?” Chris Heller, Smithsonian Magazine, August 6, 2015.
  • “The Red Ghost.” American Heritage, Robert Froman, April 1961.
  • “The Legend of the Red Ghost.” Andrea Aker, Arizona Oddities, March 12, 2010.
  • “The Red Ghost: U.S. Camel Corps.” Strange History, February 11, 2013.
  • “The Roaming Ghosts of the West.” James Weatherholtz, Mysteries of the American West, November 13, 2015.
  • Ghost Camels of the American Southwest.” Kathy Weiser, Legends of America, April 2017.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 26, 2018:

Hello, Rupert, well you got me thinking, and add some wisdom to my mind. I had not known that the hump camel or the Arabia desert beast is an evolutionary animal, including the present day IIamas.

I think this kind of question is due to the American tendency of using the horse most of the time for transport at the early stage of modern life. Even the American aborigine Indians use the horse, but nothing was said of the 'no' hump camel. In films or literature, no story of the camel. Americans,including the 'cow boys' love the horse very much like the dog. She is on a fast tract. So, the horse power is a measurement for speed. Seriously, I would love to check the facts with Britannica's Macromedia. but my public library was then closed.

Thank you very much for adding to my bank of knowledge.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 26, 2018:

Hi Miebakagh. Camels did indeed evolve in the American continent. Here is a quote from Paleo Sleuths:

"When you picture camels, you might think of humped inhabitants of deserts in the Middle East.

But camels didn’t always have humps or traverse sand dunes. They started off the size of a beagle, but with much longer legs and neck, and had no humps or bumps. They first appeared in subtropical forests in North America, during the Eocene Epoch.

From there, early camels traveled long journeys, with growing bodies and changing feet, until they became two distinct evolutionary lines.

Some migrated over the Isthmus of Panama to South America and evolved into modern day llamas, vicunas, alpacas, and guanacos.

Others used the land bridge across the Bering Strait to cross to Asia and eventually to Africa. Along the way, they evolved into the camels we know today."

This vastly predates the habitation of humans. Here's a BBC report: "They (humans) probably came on foot from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge, which existed between Alaska and Eurasia from the end of the last Ice Age until about 10,000 years ago. The area is now submerged by water."

Some experts put the first humans in America at about 13,500 years ago.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 25, 2018:

Hello, Rupert, the questions raised about the origin, are all serious. The story is even interesting and funny. However, the question about camels roaming the American continent before any human came is doubtful. The native aborigines Americans are well known for pony express services. The camel is native to the eastern countries. Nonetheless, I enjoy the story. Thank you.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 24, 2018:

Hi Natalie. This story does have a whiff of urban myth to it, so I tried to point out that the contemporaneous coverage is from sources that are a bit dodgy. However, some credible publications have covered it.

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on September 23, 2018:

An interesting story. It might seem just one of those mythical creatures later debunked - except for the weird story about the dead man/skeleton strapped to it's back. Thats truly bizarre!