Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Characteristic ghost stories of the Great Plains may now be found in collections from Alberta to Texas. This was not always so. People of the Great Plains have traditionally evinced a wry skepticism toward ghosts. Typical is Lisa Hefner, a collector of ghost stories from Kansas. When asked if she believed in ghosts, she responded that she believed in stories. In Nebraska an Omaha Indian expressed dislike for the word "ghost." He said Native Americans preferred to think of these encounters with the dead as grandparents returning to give advice. He said that many times his dead grandfather had returned to guide him to a better way. Nevertheless, everywhere in the Great Plains ghosts are used to explain unexplained sounds, sights, feelings, or movements.

A willingness to believe in ghosts can be a disadvantage. For example, in a story called "The Phantom Piccolo Player," historian Everett Dick tells how one homesteader, haunted nightly by the same melody and, eventually, by gunshots, abandoned his homestead in Dakota Territory. When he returned years later he found the owner of his former claim whistling the same haunting tune. Soon he learned that his erstwhile haunter had been privy to information about where the railroad was to be built and had made a fortune on that knowledge.

From collecting three volumes of ghost stories, mostly from Nebraska and Iowa, storyteller Duane Hutchinson identified several characteristics of Plains ghosts: they seem unable to think; they do not speak and, if approached, they vanish; most often, they seem to be carrying out some task that they repeat mindlessly, trapped in some habitual action; and in a few cases, they respond to shouts and commands to go away and leave the living alone. Furthermore, the costume the ghost wears appears and vanishes with the apparition, which raises the question: are overalls immortal?

In the course of research that took three and a half years, Debra Munn interviewed 137 people and scoured the records of historical societies for evidence of Wyoming ghosts. The ghost stories of Wyoming share attributes of ghost stories everywhere–mysterious footsteps, machines that malfunction, doors that open and close, and rocking chairs that rock with no one in them–but Wyoming ghost stories are also place-specific. There is Dolly Carson's haunted trailer (a common Wyoming house type) in Cody, where her dead husband and mother carry on the feud that defined their living relationship; there is the restaurant on the outskirts of Cheyenne where weary travelers once sought refuge in a Plains blizzard but could never find again; and there is Fort Laramie, with its layers of history, perhaps Wyoming's most haunted site. Of course, some ghosts are purely imaginary: the door at Fort Laramie that kept unlocking itself was only a case of a lock responding to Wyoming's temperature extremes.

In his collection of "eerie true tales" from his native Oklahoma, David Farris documents numerous sightings of UFOs, overgrown fish, and strange beasts, as well as ghosts. Philanthropist Thomas Gilcrease is said to still (forty years after his death) walk the hallways of the Gilcrease Museum, and a phantom hitchhiker– a young boy–has been picked up on a lonely stretch of Highway 20, just east of Clarence, only to disappear mysteriously. Meanwhile, in Ghost Hollow, near Cushing, the old elm that once was a hanging tree glows luminously when there is a full moon.

The farther south you go in the Plains, the more the ghost stories take on a Mexican flavor. This is evident from some of the titles in Docia Schultz Williams's collections from Texas: "The Ghost of San Pedro Playhouse," "Jose Navarro's Haunted Homestead," and "Shadows of El Tropicana." The stories are filled with historical and cultural details and convey the essence of the Plains environment: old army posts molder into the earth; night breezes carry the fragrance of piñon and mesquite; and for those willing to believe, ghosts drift through the West Texas night.

See also ART: Gilcrease, Thomas.

Duane Hutchinson Lincoln, Nebraska

Farris, David A. Mysterious Oklahoma: Eerie True Tales from the Sooner State. Edmond OK: Little Bruce, 1995.

Hutchinson, Duane. A Storyteller's Ghost Stories. Lincoln NE: Foundation Books, 1989, 1990, 1992.

Munn, Debra D. Ghosts on the Range: Eerie True Tales of Wyoming. Boulder CO: Pruett Publishing, 1989.

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