The Legend of Fantasia Colorado

Almost every culture on the planet has some form of “monster” in their belief systems. Sometimes these “monsters” are based on actual events that have, over the generations, morphed into something far more spectacular than what actually happened. Sometimes, as in the case of “sea serpents”, they’re based genuine animals that were hitherto unknown to the people who created the stories. Yet other times the “monsters” are purely creatures of fiction, invented as entertainment to pass a long winter’s night, to keep an invading army away, or as morality tales for children.

What most of these “monsters” have in common is that they don’t exist. But in the late 1800s, there was a monster that was very real. And not only is the the story about the monster itself interesting, so too is the tale of how and why it came into existence.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to The Red Ghost.

As you probably know, the United States and Mexico fought a war between 1846 to 1848. As a result of America’s victory, the US was given undisputed control of Texas, as well as the entire states of California, Nevada and Utah, in addition to most of Arizona and parts of Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. Although American settlers quickly rushed to certain parts of these new lands, much of the land would remain sparsely populated – except by Native Americans – for almost 30 years.

By the 1880s, though, much of what would one day become Arizona had been converted into ranches or farmland. That didn’t mean that everything was peaceful, however. The iconic Apache warlord Geronimo still terrorized the area, and it wasn’t uncommon for a rancher to wake up and find his livestock stolen, his fences destroyed or his neighbors killed or maimed by Geronimo and his men.

It was because of the threat of Geronimo that two women were left alone in their house on Eagle Creek in southwest Arizona one morning in 1883. Geronimo had been active in the area the past few nights, so the men of the family left early that morning to check on their sheep.

At one point that morning, one of the women went out to get some water from a spring several yards from the house. Shortly after her departure, the family dog started barking, which caused the other woman to go to the window to investigate the commotion.

What she saw terrified her. She described it only as something “red, enormous, and ridden by a devil”. The monster was viciously attacking the other woman, and the screams of the dying woman so terrified the other woman that she immediately barricaded the doors and spent the rest of that day on her knees in fervent prayer. When the men returned that night, they lit some torches and went to the spring to investigate. They found the other woman trampled almost flat. The area was surrounded by giant hoof prints twice the size of a horse. They also found strands of course red hair in some of the trees in the area.

The coroner from nearby Solomonsville held an inquest a few days later. As you might guess, he didn’t believe a word of the family’s story. Still, the fact that the woman had obviously been trampled to death and that there were dozens of these mysterious hoof prints near the body gave him no other choice: the Mohave County Miner reported that the woman’s death was officially ruled to have happened by “some manner unknown”.

The family’s wild story was bolstered a few days later, when miners at Chase’s Creek reported being attacked in their tent some time during the night. They rushed out of the tent to see a “giant horse” running away. Several miners returned to the scene with the men the next morning and found the same giant hoof prints and red hairs that the people at Eagle Creek had reported.

Despite the dozens of people who had personally witnessed either the monster itself or direct evidence of his existence, most folks in the area were still skeptical about the tale… until around a month later. That’s when a rancher named Cyrus Hamblin, out looking for stray cattle, spotted the monster, which was now known as The Red Ghost (or Fantasia Colorado to Spanish speakers). And to everyone’s surprise, Hamblin knew exactly what the “monster” was: a camel. But instead of clearing up the mystery, what Hamblin saw only deepened it. That’s because he claimed that he saw a motionless man on the beast’s back.

Most people believed that Hamblin had spotted a camel. But many didn’t believe the story about a motionless man on the camel’s back. After all, Hamblin himself admitted that he was at least a quarter mile away from the camel when he spotted it. Wasn’t it more likely that Hamblin had seen the camel’s hump instead of a man? Still, Hamblin’s reputation was rock solid, and much of his story was accepted.

Hamblin needn’t have worried about his reputation. A few weeks after Hamblin’s encounter the Red Ghost turned up again, this time in the Verde River valley. This time a group of five miners got within shooting distance of the Ghost. They fired off a few rounds, which caused the startled animal to take off. And as it did so, something fell off its back: a human skull with, as the Mohave County Miner described it, “a few shreds of flesh and hair still clinging to it”.

To this day, no one knows who the man was or why we was strapped to the back of a camel. Perhaps he was lost and dehydrated in the Arizona desert, and strapped himself to the camel hoping the animal would lead him to water. Later investigations ruled this unlikely, as the way the body was strapped to the camel would be unlikely (if not impossible) for someone sitting on it. Perhaps, then, the body was strapped to the camel by someone with a sick sense of humor that just happened to have a corpse handy. Or maybe something darker happened – perhaps the body was that of a petty criminal strapped there as vigilante justice. We’ll just never know.

By now you’re probably wondering how a camel ended up in Arizona in the first place. That story is almost as interesting as the Red Ghost legend itself.

Shortly after the Mexican American War, it became obvious to the US Army that horses simply wouldn’t cut it in the deserts of the southwest. The terrain was so uneven that injuries to horses were extremely likely. There were also few sources of water, which was no problem for ranchers who could build their houses near rivers or build cisterns to catch rainwater. But that just wouldn’t do for US Army patrols that were expected to go anywhere they were needed.

As early as 1836, Major George H. Crosman advocated that the US Army use camels to patrol the deserts of the American southwest. As it often happens with government, the idea slowly percolated up through the ranks, such that in 1855 Congress finally approved $30,000 for such an experiment at the behest of Jefferson Davis, President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War and the future president of the Confederate States of America. Davis sent Major Henry C. Wayne and Lieutenant David D. Porter to the Mediterranean on a US Navy ship to buy as many camels as they could.

Wayne, who would go on to become inspector-general of the state of Georgia under the Confederacy, was a cavalryman by profession and horse trader on the side. The man knew horses, and was smart enough to know that he knew nothing about camels. He felt it was in his best interest to learn as much as he could about them, so he spent some time studying camel lore and investigating camel markets in Alexandria and Smyrna before purchasing 33 camels for an average of $250 each. Porter and Wayne also hired six Arabs to train the US Army’s muleteers and a Turk to act as a veterinarian. Although the camels proved to be quite a good purchase – only one animal died on the long voyage to Indianola, Texas – the human hires proved a bust: the Levantines knew next to nothing about camels. Wayne wasn’t discouraged, however. On the long voyage home he had learned a lot about camels, and he was so certain that the camels would work that he sent Porter back to Smyrna on the same day they arrived in Indianola: May 14, 1856.

Sadly for Wayne, it simply wasn’t meant to be. On the way to their new home at Camp Verde, the camels terrified every horse or mule that they encountered. It was a nice bit of foreshadowing, as just about everyone else they came across was either scared by, or indifferent to, the noble beasts. The US Army’s “muleteers” were openly hostile to the camels. Part of this was because camels – unlike horses or mules – would openly defy their masters. Where a horse or mule could be whipped into submission, a camel had to be coaxed. The Army’s “mule skinners”, used to the much more docile mules, didn’t understand this, and when the camels would spit, bite or lunge at them, the skinners took it personally. Xenophobia even came into play – the skinners couldn’t understand why the Army would import “foreign” animals to do a job that American mules or horses could do just as well.

The poor camels only had one real champion outside of Davis, Wayne and Porter, and that was Lieutenant Edward F. Beale. Beale was already famous for teaming up with Old West legend Kit Carson to rescue some US troops trapped by the Mexican army in San Diego in 1846. Beale was also known for carrying the first gold discovered at Sutter’s Mill – ground zero for the California Gold Rush – to Washington, DC.

Beale was tasked with surveying a road that would run from Fort Defiance, New Mexico to the eastern frontier of California – a road that would eventually become part of Route 66. For the trip, he took 69 of the best camels from Wayne’s stock, which included 44 camels purchased on Porter’s second trip. By the end of his task, he was convinced that camels were the way to go. His trip also convinced the War Department of the viability of camels in the American deserts. Unfortunately, Congress was busy trying to keep the Civil War from happening, and the request for 1000 additional camels was forgotten.

Beale knew the hatred that the mule skinners felt for the camels, so he wrote to the War Department asking that the camels be placed under his personal supervision. Sadly, his idea went nowhere, and the “camel project” was slowly ignored to death. The camels were sent to various Army posts in small numbers, and it was often shortly after their arrival that hostile muleteers would “allow” the camels to “escape”. By the time the project was officially abandoned in 1863, only 33 camels remained to be auctioned off.

No one knows exactly what happened to the camels. Since the animals were fully domesticated, it’s a good bet that many of them died shortly after they “escaped” from the Army posts. It’s known that some were found wandering the desert and were used as target practice, or worse. Some were taken by strangers who attempted to put them back to work. This usually failed, and the animals were released into the wild again. Still other camels ended up in zoos and circuses.

As for the Red Ghost in particular, terrifying reports of his exploits continued to trickle in for the new few months. By this point, of course, the camel was a celebrity, and many of these reports seemed to blame anything on the poor camel. It’s even known that pranksters forged a few fake scenes of the Red Ghost’s alleged devastation. The last verifiable encounter with the Red Ghost happened east of Phoenix almost a year after the woman was killed at Eagle Creek.

It’s thought that the Red Ghost was shot and killed by a man named Mizoo Hastings in 1893. Hastings awoke one morning to find a camel nibbling at his turnip patch. Hastings pulled out a rifle, placed in on the window sill for stability’s sake, then fired, scoring a direct hit on the camel. He later reported that when he went outside to investigate, the poor animal was badly scarred and was covered in rawhide strips similar to those that had once held the body of the unknown person. These strips had been on the animal so long that the camel’s flesh had grown around some of them.

That might have been the end of the Red Ghost, but camel sightings continued in the desert for years. Some swear that camels were sighted in 1901. A railroad crew reported seeing one near Wickenburg, Arizona in 1913. A camel was reported hassling some horses near Palm Springs, California in 1929. In 1941, there was a report of a camel near the Salton Sea in the California desert.

It’s possible that there still are camels out there today, although it’s highly unlikely given how many people live in the desert now and how many devices we have that could observe such a thing. What will remain with us forever, however, is the legend of the Red Ghost.

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