In the spring of 1883, a coroner was dispatched to investigate the gruesome death of a woman on a sheep ranch in eastern Arizona. The only witness to the killing was a woman who barricaded herself inside a ranch house during the attack. According to her, when the men left with the herd the two women and their children gathered in the house. The unfortunate woman had gone down to a nearby spring to gather some water. The witness heard screaming a short time later and looked out of the window. She described the assailant as “red, very tall and ridden by a devil.”
The coroner found trampled brush and huge hoofprints at the death scene. The woman’s body was covered in injuries consistent with a death caused by crushing blows. The coroner, however, didn’t believe the witness’ story about a demon in the saddle of a red specter. But without any further evidence he didn’t have any other choice but to rule the “death in some manner unknown to the jury.”
This devilish apparition became known as the “Red Ghost” and people all over the Arizona territory told stories about this apparition. Folks claimed that it was 30 feet tall and would disappear before their eyes when chased. But the next credible story came from a hunter named Si Hamlin a few weeks after the death at the sheep farm.
Si Hamlin, sometimes also referred to as Cyrus Hamblin, was in the Salt River area of Arizona when he spotted the “Red Ghost” through the brush. He got close enough to see that it was a camel with something large on its back. He thought the camel’s cargo might be a man but he didn’t get close enough to be sure before it disappeared into some trees.
What was a camel doing in Arizona?
When Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War (1853-1857) he advocated for the creation of a Camel Corps in the Army. Davis believed that camels would help with the westward expansion through the Southwest because of their ability to carry large loads through arid environments. Congress approved of the Camel Corps in 1855 and by 1857 the Army purchased 75 camels. They were stationed at Camp Verde in Texas and were used to transport supplies. The camels weren’t used for long. By 1864 the Camel Corps had been disbanded and the camels were sent all over the Southwest. Some ended up with the Confederate Army when they seized Camp Verde, some were sold to zoos, some were used by mining companies to haul supplies, and others were just turned loose to roam the desert.
The Camel Corps explains the presence of a rogue ungulate terrorizing the people that lived in the Arizona desert. What could explain the presence of the “demon” on its back?
The answer to this question came about a month after the Si Hamlin sighting. Early one morning, two prospectors were working in the Verde Valley when they saw a red camel grazing on the mesa. The miners fired at it and missed. When the poor animal jumped and ran off something fell to the ground. They found that it was “a man’s head, dry and withered, but with flesh and hair still on it.”
The “Red Ghost” that tormented Arizona turned out to be nothing more than the decaying corpse of an unidentified man strapped to a camel. As the days passed, and the body decomposed further, more parts fell away.
About a month after the two prospectors shot at the camel, a cowboy spotted the “Red Ghost” in his branding corral. He approached it on his horse and tried to lasso the animal. The camel charged and nearly killed the cowboy. Although the animal ran off, the cowboy got close enough to see the dwindling remains of a corpse on its back.
This was the last sighting of the “Red Ghost” for the next ten years. Then in 1893 a rancher named Mizoo Hastings saw a scarred, red camel grazing in his garden. This time the “Red Ghost” would not escape. Hastings fired his rifle and killed the camel. By 1893, nothing remained of the corpse, though the animal bore the scars from the leather straps that once kept the body in place.
The “Red Ghost” might have been nothing but a ghost story told to scare people around a campfire. But this gruesome apparition could have been an unfortunate camel with a corpse strapped to his back.