The Red Ghost of Arizona
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.
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.
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?”
- “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.
- “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