Harmon’s Histories: Ghosts and graveyards gave early Montanans quite a fright
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
“The boys were out last night in force and went from one end of town to the other performing their pranks.”
“Gates were unhinged, door knobs tied up, bells rung and every other conceivable style of uproarious fun practiced. Fortunately all the grown men of today were boys once upon a time and no doubt took a hand in the same kind of business. Hence they are not disposed to make much of a fuss about the matter.”
That’s how the Helena Independent newspaper covered the local Halloween scene in 1891.
Perhaps this year, it would be advisable to assume a similar temperament and not be too upset at the pranks that will occur after sunset tonight.
Instead, let’s enjoy another great Halloween tradition – the telling of a good ghost story.
Here’s one from 1886, as reported by the Choteau Calumet newspaper.
“We have, when a small boy, spent many hours in the early evening ... listening to thrilling ghost stories. There is scarcely a man or woman who does not honestly believe that he, or she, has seen and been chased by ghosts at some time in their lives.”
“These stories made the hair stand upon our young head like quills on the fretful porcupine, and when it was time to retire for the night, the gold of the Rothchilds could not have induced us to make the trip from the cabin into the house, although less than fifty yards, without a body-guard and then only on a full run.”
“There was, in the neighborhood in which we were born, a country church around which was a cemetery, not called by that name, but known be a graveyard, in which the dead of the surrounding country was interred.”
“It was the general belief, not only among the ignorant and superstitious classes, but also among some well-informed persons that the locality was haunted, and few cared to pass that old church long after nightfall.”
“It was here that a real, genuine ghost had been seen at sundry times, and by persons whose testimony could not be impeached.”
“One night as the moon was dimmed by the fleeting clouds, a gentleman mounted on horseback was passing along the road in front of the church, when suddenly his horse stopped, and trembling in every sinew and muscle, with distended nostrils, gave forth a shrill snort indicating fear.”
“The spurs were applied, but the poor, frightened animal could not be urged forward.”
“Peering into the half darkness, rendered so by the ill-defined and uncertain light of the moon, the gentleman saw an object which looked like a man dressed in white.”
“At first he thought it might be a mere fiction of the imagination, but as the frightful horse evidently saw the same object, it was apparent that it must be a real ghost, or at least something very unusual.”
“Dismounting, and hitching his animal, he advanced in the direction of the object, and as he neared it, it passed across the road and climbed over the fence and entered the graveyard, followed closely by the man determined on a full investigation into the character and true inwardness of this strange apparition.”
“Occasionally it would look to the rear and make unearthly gestures, apparently with a view of deterring him from further pursuit. Seeing that he advanced, the ghost went to the door of the church, entered and closed it.”
“At this point we have always thought that we would have abandoned the pursuit, not on account of fear, of course not, but from an inner feeling that it was not our particular province to investigate every ghost story to come along.”
“The gentleman, however, resolved on solving the question of ghost or no ghost, while an opportunity so favorable was presented.”
“As he opened the church door he could, by the dim light which struggled through the windows, see the apparition crouching near the pulpit, and as he advanced up the center aisle the ghost attempted a flank movement by the side of the aisle.”
“Round and round that church, at the still hour when graveyards yawn, he chased it, and finally succeeded in laying his powerful hands upon it. A fearful struggle ensued, but the ghost had fallen into the hands of a man of great strength and power, and was finally subdued.”
“During all this time not a word had been spoken. By force, the gentleman dragged it out of the church, and suddenly the moon passed from under a cloud, revealing the features of a human being, whose vacant stare and idiotic gaze and expression showed conclusively that reason had long since departed from it.”
“Dragging the poor creature to the nearest domicile, the gentleman learned that it was the son of the man of the house, and his case was thus explained: The young man had been engaged to a young girl, the daughter of a neighbor, who sickened and died, and was buried on the very day which had been agreed upon for their marriage.”
“The terrible affliction threw his mind out of balance, dethroning his reason, and for several years he had been in the habit, about once a week, of dressing himself in a sheet, after the family retired, and passing the night near her grave.”
“Soon after this event he died, and was buried by the side of her he had loved so well; and there they sleep, side by side, waiting for the resurrection in the lost day.”
“The investigation of the gentleman explained the appearance of this particular ghost, which had been seen so often by men of character and standing, as well as by the ignorant and superstitious.”
“This event occurred fifty years ago, and yet the story of the strange adventure is still told in that neighborhood, and the name of the gentleman who pushed his investigation and exploded the wild stories about ghosts at the old church, is still remembered and often referred to.”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.