You know the drill by now: STRANGE HISTORY is a semi-regular romp through tales too weird to be made up. It serves a threefold purpose: to illuminate a little-known slice of the human story, to provide you with fodder for your game group’s next setting or beastie, and to just have fun, man.
We’re back this month with a doozy—the true story of a creature that terrorized the Arizona Territory for a decade in the late nineteenth century. Said to be enormous, an ominous shade of red, and carrying a rotting human skeleton on its back, the subject of this month’s STRANGE HISTORY is the Red Ghost!
*A vital note: this article is about the Red Ghost of Arizona, a popular piece of folklore, not the Fantastic Four’s ape lord supervillain (although that would make a sweet article too).
Welcome to the Camel Corps
As the United States grew in size, settlers spread slowly across North America. By the 1850s its territory had grown to include the arid deserts of the Southwest: the formerly Mexican territories of Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Texas. As farmers, soldiers, and traders made their way west, they learned that their pack animals struggled mightily in the heat and from lack of water.
Enter the United States Camel Corps. First proposed by Secretary of War (and later Confederate president) Jefferson Davis in 1854, the Corps was to be a long-term experiment on the feasibility of using “camels and dromedaries for military and other purposes…to introduce a small number of the several varieties of this animal, to test their adaptation to our country…”
Armed with a Congressional appropriation of $30,000 (over $800,000 today), Davis sent two purchasing expeditions to the Mediterranean from 1855 to 1857. Seventy Batrian camels and dromedaries were purchased and over a dozen drivers were hired from markets rimming the Mediterranean. After several years of trial runs, the camels proved perfectly suited to the heat and lack of water in the region. The Camel Corps was ready for action.
The Red Ghost Rises
The Army’s ungulate undertaking fell victim a fundamental misunderstanding of camel psychology on the part of the Camel Corps’ American members. Their customary brutal treatment of their horses and mules didn’t translate to camels and often resulted in vicious bites, wounds, and incessant spitting. When the Civil War broke out a few years later, the camels and their potential were lost in the greater conflict tearing the United States apart.
By the late 1860s, the camels—which had not only survived the Army’s experiment but thrived in the Southwest’s dry heat—had been either slaughtered or cut loose into the wild. After this, the remaining animals mostly evaporate from the record, save one: a mysterious, murderous, abused survivor that would become known as the Red Ghost. In the spring of 1883 a woman was found dead next to Eagle Creek in the Arizona Territory. Her body was found the next day, “trampled almost flat” and surrounded by long strands of red hair, by her husband.
As word of her unexplained death spread like wildfire through the Territory, the beast was sighted by a widely respected cowboy, Cyrus Hamblin. He got a good look at the beast a month after the woman’s death: it was a huge camel with deep red hair, and it had what looked like a corpse strapped to its back. In just a few weeks, the legend of the Red Ghost had been born.
Stranger than Fiction
The Red Ghost continued to wreak havoc across the Arizona Territory throughout the 1880s. Its legend grew in the telling, with mine shaft cave-ins, attacks on isolated cabins, and even the death of a bear attributed to its evil ways. The skeleton—rumored to be a dying man who strapped himself onto the camel, hoping it’d take him to water—was always a part of the story.
What could’ve driven a camel—one that spent years in the Camel Corps, around humans often—to cause such chaos for so long? The most likely reason is also the saddest: abuse at the hands of humans. After the Camel Corps was disbanded and the camels set free to roam, they succumbed to predators, age, the environment, and people who were all too willing to torment the unusual creatures. Whether the person strapped onto the camel was alive or dead, it was most likely some sick form of entertainment.
The Red Ghost’s reign of terror came to an end on February 25, 1893. As reported in the Mohave County Miner, the Red Ghost was brought down by a rancher named Mizoo Hastings. Hastings, seeing a camel “banqueting in his turnip patch,” opened fire on the animal, killing it immediately. Upon examination the camel was found to be covered in a spiderweb of knotted rawhide ropes, some of them so old that they had cut into its flesh.