If you go after revenge, say the sages, dig two graves.
Vivia Thomas, it seems, never heard that saying. Betrayed by a lover, she wanted revenge. Revenge put the betrayer in his grave; remorse and pneumonia put her in hers, in a very curious place.
Born into Boston wealth and high society, petite, beautiful Vivia Thomas came of age in the years following the Civil War. It was expected of her that she would marry a man of the same class, and to that end, once she made her debut, her parents carted her around and showed her off at balls and parties to bring that marriage to pass.
Vivia had a wayward heart, though, as young girls often do. At some otherwise meaningless social engagement, she met a stunningly handsome young cavalry officer, lately returned from the war. Vivia fell instantly in love. He professed to share her feelings. Soon, after a suitably supervised Victorian courtship, the pair announced their engagement.
An ecstatic Vivia was soon absorbed in planning her wedding: too absorbed, perhaps, to notice that her would-be groom was developing cold feet.
The date was set. Scant weeks before the happy occasion, the cavalryman vanished. He left Vivia a note saying that he wasn’t ready for marriage yet. He craved that faceless seductress called Adventure, and he was going west in search of her.
Vivia’s shock and grief soon gave way to murderous rage. Her erstwhile lover was going to pay for the embarassment and gossip he left in his wake, and at her hands.
Vivia, too, vanished from Boston. She left no note to explain why.
For her own safety, as she traveled, she cut off her luxuriant hair and donned a man’s clothes. This disguise would serve her well when she finally tracked down the faithless cavalryman. He had rejoined his old unit, and was stationed at Fort Gibson, in Oklahoma Territory, keeping tabs on Native American tribes banished there by removal from their tribal lands.
She was a good rider, and had become adept at concealing her womanhood under her man’s clothing. Arriving at Fort Gibson, she quietly joined the cavalry. She maintained her surname; the Christian name she used is forgotten. She was known as Private Thomas to the officers and men at the fort. She even managed to deceive her former lover, whose eyes passed over her without interest; so much was her appearance changed.
She soon learned that the man had betrayed her in more ways than one; he had taken up with a Native American girl who lived near the fort. Attitudes about Native Americans were such that his new amour only compounded Vivia’s insult.
When the time came, Private Thomas proved not only a good horseman and soldier, but a deadly shot as well. One night in December 1869, while her ex-fiance visited with his new girlfriend, Vivia hid out along his route back to the fort. As he returned in the wee hours, Vivia shot him from ambush, killing him instantly. She rode like the wind back to barracks, exultant at finally having gotten her revenge.
That exultation would not last long.
The officer’s affair with the Native girl had not gone unnoticed, by his white fellow soldiers or by the members of her tribe. When his body was found, it was assumed that he had been killed by natives who were offended by the affair. He was buried quietly at the fort and soon forgotten. . .
by all but the Boston beauty he had betrayed.
When her first savage joy wore off, Vivia suffered an emotional collapse. She began sneaking out of barracks at night to weep at the officer’s grave. And if her own conscience were not enough to drive her to near madness, her betrayer’s spirit did; he would appear before her, hovering like a shadow, pointing an accusing finger at her.
Nights in the icy Oklahoma winter, worry and grief all broke Private Thomas’s health. One night, coughing and feverish, she failed to return to barracks. Found early the next morning, she was taken to the infirmary; the fort’s physician diagnosed pneumonia, and pronounced it fatal. The chaplain was sent for, and to him she confessed all.
She died on January 7, 1870. Only when a surprised medical assistant, detailed to prepare her body for burial, found that Private Thomas was a woman, did the chaplain come forward with her story.
The cavalrymen of Fort Gibson were so impressed, despite finding she was the killer of their fellow officer, that she had braved the hard life of a frontier soldier, that they buried her in the fort’s Circle of Honor. She lies under a simple stone with her name and the date of her death carved on it.
There are those who say she doesn’t rest, though. Reports have come in over the years of a delicate-looking phantom in cavalry uniform, seen weeping near the grave of Vivia Thomas. Even in death, she mourns the false lover on whom she took a deadly revenge.
Michael Norman, Haunted Homeland (2006)
Richard and Judy Dockrey Young, Ghosts from the American Southwest (1991)
Maureen Wood and Ron Kolek, A Ghost a Day: 365 True Tales of the Spectral, Supernatural, and. . .Just Plain Scary! (2010)
Day One of a Valentine’s mini-marathon–about the things we do for love– 😉