It’s Halloween, and I’m marking this month’s installment of Still on the Shelf (where I tell you why I periodically run a dust rag across a certain book, pull it off the shelf, and open it up to read) with a ghostly tome.
I lived in Colorado for more than 33 years and never got tired of reading about its history, its people, its ghosts, the romance and adventure of the Old West. Imagine Colorado in the 1800s and you might think of characters whose spirits are alive today — people like Zebulon Pike, Kit Carson, Chief Ouray, Baby Doe Tabor, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, Buckskin Joe, Alfred Packer, Mattie Silks, to name a few. In Twilight Dwellers we meet some not-so-famous personalities who live(d) beyond the grave. The author concentrates on tales of the 1800s, with most originating in the 1860s.
Remember, these ghosts were once living, breathing people. What makes a ghost? Were these ghosts so full of life that their emotional energy imprinted in time and locked them in space for eternity? Are they really spirits of the dead? Or are they merely the result of suggestion?
You don’t need to believe in ghosts to enjoy these stories. There are phantom trains (including a real engine known as the Dread 107, which couldn’t seem to make a run without killing people), the spirits of unhappily exhumed occupants of the former City Cemetery (now Cheeseman Park in Denver), some ghoulish screamers and groaners who occupied the Denver Courthouse, the mysterious blue ghost lights (compared to St. Elmo’s fire) in Silver Cliff Cemetery, disembodied voices and presences in various mines who befriended miners and played practical jokes on them, and an assortment of murder victims intent on destroying the living, or at least giving them a good fright.
In a humorous story called A Determined Lover, we meet J. Dawson Hidgepath of Buckskin Joe, a lover of women who yearned for one of his own. Alas, the mining towns were full of dirty, bearded, grouchy guys. Women were few and far between. When they were present, they were either married or close to 100 years old. This didn’t stop Hidgepath from making marriage proposals to one and all. He died in a fall while climbing a mountain, and the townsfolk gave him a respectful, proper burial.
However, Hidgepath continued to court and propose. His skeleton would be seen leaving flowers and love letters at one woman’s home or another, tipping his hat and asking if she would be his. Hidgepath’s bones were reportedly sighted at women’s doors, parlors, beds, and kitchens all over town and the surrounding towns. After each incident, the townspeople would rebury the bones, digging the grave deeper and topping it with larger and larger stones. All to no avail. This went on for 15 years until finally the men took the bones and pitched them down an outhouse in the outskirts of Leadville. Although Hidgepath never showed his skull again, one woman visiting that particular bone-occupied privy claimed she heard a voice beseeching her to be his.
Some of the more touching stories tell of a ghost violinist in Brown’s Gulch and a mysterious phantom lady who regularly leaves a bouquet of columbines on the site of what is now believed to be her fiance’s grave in Central City.
A Meadowlark’s Shadow is a beautiful love story about Kathleen Cooper, a rancher’s daughter, and Julian LaSalle, an aristocratic gentleman. Kathleen, on the balcony of the hotel where they were to be married, waits for Julian to return from Leadville for their wedding.
She waits and waits and waits. A search party is organized and discovers Julian’s body down the road a ways. He had been robbed and brutally murdered. Devastated, Kathleen’s ghost has been seen on that balcony by many travelers approaching the hotel. She was reported to speak to them, to call out, “Julian, come back.” Looks like she might remain a ghost bride for a long time.
Finally, a sorrowful memory emerges in the chapter hauntingly entitled Tipis Out of the Mist. This is the story of the Sand Creek Massacre, the cruel slaughter of Cheyenne and Arapahoe men, women, and children by US troops on November 29, 1864. Even now it is said that some days, in the early morning haze, tepees appear and disappear, fading in and out, exposing the cries and screams of victims, the wails of others mourning their dead. People who have stumbled on the site, not realizing what took place there, have reported feelings of overwhelming sorrow, even if they don’t see the teepee images.
Martin reports that these and many other phantoms can still be seen and heard, that they have not entirely faded. Undoubtedly, Colorado’s mountains and prairies hold many secrets, some mysterious, some pleasant, some sad, some horrifying. Maybe it’s good that some voices and visions remain with us for so long. Maybe some should never fade, should remain, to remind us always.
And that’s why this book is still on the shelf.