It was a warm June night 115 years ago near midnight, and close to the witching hour when it first appeared.
Chinese Camp, but a shadow of its former Gold Rush glory, lay quiet and under the stars along with most of its residents. Two men, photographer A.C. Beck and a pal were still up. The photographer had been finishing some glass plate developing and the two were taking a break under some trees when it happened.
A tall dark form seemingly glided along the back streets of the town. And then it seemed to vanish. This would repeat itself a few nights later and again have witnesses. There was no denying it now. Chinese Camp had themselves a certified card=carrying ‘haint, a wraith if you will, ghosting like nobody’s business in their little town. This was just the beginning of a three-month long paranormal attack on the town and its shaken inhabitants.
The ghost, now comfortable in its celebrity seemed to become more active, and no unsuspecting person out in the evening or even peering out into the darkness from the safety of their own parlor was safe from the disturbing sight of the phantom.
One such unfortunate soul was poor Frank Crangle, employed at the Shawmut Mine, and as luck would have it working the graveyard shift. Making his way through the darkness late one night to the mine, he was shocked to suddenly encounter a tall figure, this time draped all in white with a veil over the face (if in fact there was a face) and true to its previous actions, the figure glided down the hill to stand motionless in the lane in front of the old Leahy place.
Now Frank, not one to startle easily, brushed this odd occurrence off as just someone (in a white shroud, veil and “gliding”) meeting another person in town and carried on his merry way. The next night however there would be no such brushing off, when he ran headlong into the very same specter in the very same spot in the lane.
This time Frank reacted with cat-like reflexes and dropped to the ground, flat on his belly so as not to be seen by the ghostly figure, fully intending to see exactly what its intentions were, but when next he looked up, the lane it was empty. Again, it had vanished into the night.
As the summer wore on so did the encounters. The phantom was not only seen by more and more witnesses, and in more and more locations, it had also taken on a thug attitude, banging on furniture at Dr. Stratton’s home as he and wife slept, and entering the church, tossing items about in a reckless way.
The list of witnesses grew longer, M. C. Lot, Paul Morris and George Egling just to name a few. And this ghost-thug seemed to have an ethereal closet, as its attire was apt to change at will from all black, to the white shroud with a curtain as a veil (to cover what simply must be horns) and if the mood struck it, pantaloons would suffice. With women and children terrified and the men not so comfy either, something had to be done and soon.
Armed and ready with the conviction that if it was truly supernatural bullets would do it no harm, and not giving a lot of thought to what bullets would do if it wasn’t, ambushes and spectral hunts were set in place, but with no results and gradually things seemed to settle down and get back to normal.
But one resident and eager phantom fighter by the name of Nelson Williams never gave up the ghost (pun fully intended) on catching this or any other spook for that matter, and he got his wish one night in front of the Eagle Hall when he bumped into the vision in black. Suddenly, he decided he might need a little help after all and ran into the nearest saloon to summon backup. But alas, by the time they all clamored out into the street it had again vanished.
But now their thoughts had turned away from the afterlife and on to the possibility that the culprit was a living, breathing person. The town would soon have its answer by means of a 16-piece brass band.
Every Thursday evening band leader William H. Haigh and his fellow musicians would meet at Eagle Hall in the center of town to hone their skills, sometimes going late into the evening. On this night the practice had ended, and the Hall securely locked up tight, when band member Spencer Shepard happened to pass by later that evening and found the door flung wide open.
With an exasperated huff he stormed in disappointed at the carelessness of his bandmates. As he reached the doorway, he would come face to face with the town’s resident ghost standing in the moonlight. This time it was the phantom that was startled and in its hurried escape crashed about knocking over chairs as it fled, and later blood from an apparent injury was found. Now they knew this was not the demon of their imaginations but a flesh and blood person, and this person had a boo-boo.
Every person in town was suspect and everyone looking for the incriminating injury, and when the dust finally settled it would leave as many questions as answers.
The day after the encounter in the Hall one of the town’s most educated citizens, a lady of means and very well known, appeared with a curious head injury and quite a story to go with it. She said it was acquired by a frantic late-night run through town searching for a lost horse. Few bought this story of course. It would later be revealed that the lady was a well-known busybody and her drastic measures were to simply get the scoop on her neighbors’ lives.
And so, we end the story of the pantaloon and curtain wearing Specter of Chinese Camp who brought a sleepy town to life that long-ago summer of 1904.
Billie Lyons is curator of the Tuolumne County Museum.