The Wild West was a raucous and romantic place full of outlaws and chivalrous gunslingers that helped define the United States as a country. However, the aftermath of that era is a whole lot of spooks and scary stories for telling around the campfire. Whether they’re haunting a mining town or the place where they faced their last shoot-out, these legends of the past still linger.
Here are eight haunting ghost stories and legends of the specters, creatures and infamous people and places who put the wild into Wild West.
1. The Sorrow of La Llorona
The legend of La Llorona has a long history in Mexican culture, with hundreds of variants there and in the United States. In American tellings, she is either the spirit of a wealthy man’s neglected wife or a young woman who loved to go out dancing. Both versions describe how she slowly grew resentful of her children, who limited her ability to be her own person.
Eventually, in a fit of madness, she drowned them in a local river before realizing her crime and taking her own life. In death, she is doomed to wander near the same river at night, moaning mournfully, “Where are my children? Give me my children!” Parents tell this story to their children, reminding them that if they wander around at night, La Llorona will take them and drown them just as she did her own children.
2. Spirits of the Lost Goldmine
In the late 1800s, German prospector Jacob Waltz died near Arizona’s Superstition Mountain. After searching all over the United States, Waltz had passed away from exhaustion – due to the heavy bags of gold that he carried at his death. With no map or clear origin for the gold, people began seeking the so-called Lost Dutchman’s Mine, with very little luck.
The mine gained its reputation as the holy grail of the Old West as more and more prospectors on its trail disappeared or died mysteriously, with only the body parts of some turning up. Legend tells that the spirits of the Dutchman himself and all the other unlucky prospectors are the cause – guarding the mine and killing any who come close. People continue to search for Waltz’s mine, all the same, hoping to unearth this lost treasure.
3. The Ghost of Jesse James
Jesse Woodson James committed countless crimes as a bank robber, gang leader, and all-around outlaw in the Wild West from the 1860s to 80s. When the gunslinger died at the hands of Robert Ford in 1882, such was his reputation that there were rumors of James’ escape. However, his specter was soon spotted around the James family farm in Kearney, Missouri.
In the century since, strange phenomena have become every day, including otherworldly voices, odd movements caught on camera, and lights randomly turning off and on. Legend has it that these are the acts of the ghostly gunslinger, who, upon finally returning home, found himself unable to leave.
4. The Comfort of Silver Heels
In the mid-1800s, the miners at Colorado’s Buckskin Joe mining camp revered a beautiful, local girl who was everyone’s preferred dancing partner. She was dubbed Silver Heels, and they all loved her and ensured that all her needs were fulfilled. When the camp was hit by smallpox in the winter of 1861, Silver Heels did her part – nurturing the sick and comforting the dying.
Afterward, though, the camp Belle disappeared. Most accounts describe how she contracted the pox and, as her face was scarred beyond recognition, Silver Heels had hidden herself away in shame. Yet, she was not gone for good; to this day, a veiled specter often walks the local cemetery, placing flowers upon her miners’ gravestones.
5. Tombstone’s Supreme Spectre
One of the Wild West’s greatest legends was Marshal Fred White of Tombstone, Arizona. White brought law and order to the town that would become an infamous center for gun-slinging and intense crime at the end of the 19th century. His genius allowed the marshal to maintain a certain calm among his criminal citizenry.
However, he eventually died from an especially unfortunate accident in the form of a gunshot to the groin. Although Tombstone is an especially active area for the supernatural spirits of cowboys and criminals, White supposedly rules over them all, keeping the peace in Tombstone even in the afterlife.
6. Deadwood’s Undead Host
The Black Hills Gold Rush may have given birth to Deadwood, South Dakota, but it was Seth Bullock who helped establish this lawless Wild West towns. Bullock arrived from Montana in 1876 and opened a hardware store that nurtured the less criminal elements of the community. When his business burned down, he replaced it with a luxurious hotel that continued to highlight Deadwood’s hospitality.
Even after Bullock passed away in 1919, he continued to maintain the best parts of the town that he helped make. Hotel employees to this day report Bullock inspecting rooms, policing staff and turning off unused lights.
7. Bodie’s Unlucky Curse
Tourists of the Old West often take souvenirs home, not all of them legally. However, those stolen from Arizona’s Bodie State Historic Park are generally returned. The mining town of Bodie was founded on the border between California and Nevada in 1877 but was abandoned in the 1940s. Today, it stands as a reminder of the gold mining era, with intact buildings and rumors of a lively afterlife of strange lights, music, and haunts of various temperaments.
The curse of Bodie, though, has more to do with the objects that people sometimes steal. Whether taken on purpose or on accident, items as small as a nail will bring bad luck. Rangers regularly receive letters describing car accidents, unemployment, health problems, and more besides, such that people drive from all over to right their luck. You can peruse the cursed folks’ tales at the museum or read them in the book, Bad Luck, Hot Rocks.
8. Beware the Skinwalkers
The Navajo tell of sinister beings called the skinwalkers or yee naaldlooshii, which translates into “by means of it, they go on all fours”. According to legend, these malevolent witches were originally medicine people who took on dark magic and so became something beyond living or dead. The details remain unclear because even talking about skinwalkers can result in harm to the teller due to their dislike for outsiders and vengeful, violent tendencies.
Cowboys later took up the Navajo’s stories, spreading tales of these creatures throughout the Old West. Whenever someone disappeared in the dessert or otherwise died in strange circumstances, the skinwalkers were blamed. By most accounts, their powers allow them to take the form of any animal and imitate any sound, but they only do so to do harm and will not hesitate to kill any being, human or otherwise.
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