I just realized awhile ago that one reason I love telling stories, and having them told to me, is that I come from a family of storytellers. I have laughed until I nearly peed on myself over one my sister and the Princess told me about their last visit to the Hobby Lobby in Maryville with Sis following the main narrative thread and the Princess providing odd–some of them downright strange–details about a shoplifter, a trenchcoat, miscellaneous (small and cheap) items secreted in that coat, four store clerks, the police and an EMS crew. They’re both fine storytellers, as are my brother, sister, mother, uncles, aunts, cousins–
Anyway, this story, also from MaryJoy Martin, has some of the strangeness to it that the Princess’s details had–largely because I can’t decide whether it’s a legitimate ghost story or if it’s an instance of another phenomenon altogether–thought transference–or perhaps only a tale of a man with a vivid imagination and a remarkable memory for detail. And it all begins with a young woman named Gertrude Osborn and her dreams of love, violence and death.
Shortly after the Civil War ended, in April of 1865, a young easterner named Oliver Kimball left his sweetheart–the afore-mentioned Gertrude Osborn–to wait for his return from the early Colorado gold fields, after which, wealthy and respected, they would retire into matrimony, parenthood, the nineteenth-century version of conspicuous consumerism, and good works.
For a year, the pair corresponded faithfully. Then, with alarming abruptness, Oliver’s letters stopped coming.
Gertrude Osborn had friends in the Denver area, a somewhat older married couple surnamed Felch. Captain Felch, late of the Union army, was, by Gertrude’s increasingly frantic letters, dragooned into mounting a search for the errant Kimball, whom Gertrude feared had met with foul play.
Kimball had last been heard from in the area known as California Gulch, a fabulously wealthy gold camp. When Captain Felch arrived in the gulch, he found that Kimball had indeed been there, but had disappeared without a trace. Felch did learn, however, that Kimball had had a mining partner, a somewhat sinister individual named Dave Griffin. Sensing that Griffin might hold the key to the whole affair, Felch went in search of him.
He had reached Canon City when an urgent letter from his wife, back in Denver, reached him. Gertrude Osborn, she wrote, had arrived at their home a few days before. She was talking wildly of terrifying dreams she had: of her beloved Oliver in a fight to the death with a man who stabbed him, many many times. Mrs. Felch also noted that Gertrude gave especially vivid descriptions of the canyon in which this dreadful event had taken place, and that Gertrude predicted that Kimball’s body would be found there and that she herself would die once he was located.
Lo and behold, Felch knew exactly the place Gertrude saw in her feverish dreams. It was none other than Dead Man’s Canyon, where the highly irritable ghost of one William Harkins, with a ghost axe buried in his skull, had already set up shop.
Felch, too lately returned from the ghastly battlefields of the Civil War to be much impressed with dead bodies or, indeed, ghosts, made his way to Dead Man’s Canyon.
Here is where, for me, the story gets a bit dicey: did Captain Felch actually see a spectral reenactment of the crime, or was he influenced by his wife’s accounts of Gertrude Osborn’s dreams to think he saw the entire story unfold, in a superbly acted scene of ghostly theater?
As he later told the story, Felch was drawn to a particular area of the canyon, some distance from Harkins’s stomping grounds, by the indescribable and unmistakable smell of human remains. He set up camp that night near a deserted cabin. There, he said, he saw a phantom horse outside the front door; the horse was shortly joined by a phantom man with a phantom dog in tow. The man mounted the horse, and with the dog following, rode out to an area of fallen rock. Felch, bringing up the rear of this spectral procession, watched as a second man accosted the first. In a deadly struggle, the second man killed the first with a large and ugly knife, burying it to the hilt in his heart.
Whereupon the whole tableau vanished: both men, horse, and dog, as if they had never been there.
Felch remained nearby the rest of the night. In the morning, accompanied by a rancher who lived not far from the scene, he found a shallow grave, with a dead man’s near skeletal remains in it. The body was identified by a bracelet it wore as that of Oliver Kimball. In the area where the living heart would have been, a knife was tangled in the ribs. Its hilt bore the telltale initials DG.
Felch reburied the remains, said a few impromptu prayers for the dead, and returned to Denver. His wife told him, on his arrival, that Gertrude Osborn had died a few nights before. Her last words indicated that “my darling has been found at last” and that she was going to rejoin him in the afterlife.
Dave Griffin, whom Felch strongly suspected of Kimball’s murder, was found back in California Gulch. When Felch tracked him down and confronted him with the knife he’d pulled from Oliver Kimball’s ribs, Griffin took the gentlemanly criminal’s way out: he walked into the next room and killed himself with a single pistol shot to the head.
So we’re left with a conundrum: did Felch actually witness the ghostly reenactment of Oliver Kimball’s appalling death, or was he influenced by Gertrude Osborn’s bloody dreams?
Let’s put it this way: Felch himself believed he saw it. He told the tale to a Denver newspaper reporter sometime in the 1880s as factual.
He was, however, the only one ever to report the ghost of Oliver Kimball in Dead Man’s Canyon.
Everyone else who encountered ghosts there was either uninfluenced by Gertrude’s dreams, or too busy dodging the indignant William Harkins and his headgear to take notice of any other spirit.
The story of Gertrude Osborn’s dreams of murder comes from MaryJoy Martin’s 1985 book Twilight Dwellers: Ghosts, Ghouls and Goblins of Colorado.