Harmon’s Histories: Montana’s ghosts of Halloween past

Jim Harmon

News flash! According to an article this summer in the British publication the Express, scientists in England “believe they have an answer to the age-old question: “Do ghosts exist?”

Not surprisingly, the answer is “no.” Such apparitions, they say, are more likely traced to your sleep patterns.

So never mind the “news flash” stuff. That just confirms long-standing human beliefs.

The Dickens character Ebeneezer Scrooge told us as much, long ago, while confronting the first of three ghosts in A Christmas Carol: ““You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Despite all this, a lot of us still believe in ghosts today, including this writer. There’s a particular room in our house in which one can hear voices and occasionally see a wispy, vaporous figure. Full disclosure: My wife does not – repeat, not – share this view.

Was the clear enough, dear?

Anyway, it’s Halloween time, so I thought I’d share a few tales from Montana’s past.

In 1872, newspapers across the country reprinted an account, first published in the Virginia City Montanian, involving an incident at a mining camp near Sterling, about 30 miles northeast of Virginia City.

“There stands at this place a stone house … erected by a mining company and occupied by miners and ghosts. The mining company would very willingly have served a writ of ejectment upon the ghosts, but they wandered from room to room, making hideous noises, approaching, retreating, now overhead, now underfoot, defying human eyesight.

“The miners endured these nocturnal disturbances for a while, but at last their ethereal visitors commenced to disturb the sleepers in their beds, indicating their presence by adjusting the bedding, tucking it under at the side as carefully as mothers do their sleeping infants, and lightly patting the bodies of those in the beds, waving their hands above their faces.

“They felt no touch of the hands on the face, but distinguished the motions in the disturbance of the air. That was too much. The miners could withstand the spirits when up and awake, but that the ghosts should ‘put them in their little beds’ so carefully, and in such a motherly manner, was beyond their endurance. They decamped.”

The Helena Independent newspaper in the 1890s delighted in telling so many stories of things that went “bump in the night” that brethren scribblers around the state suggested they might want to – how shall I say – knock it off.

The headline of one such story claimed to be “a true tale of some strange events … written for the Independent by Julian Hawthorne.”

The author recalled his sister placing a candle on the mantlepiece, then – while “stooping over a chest in the corner, she noticed her shadow glide along the wall. Turning, she saw that the candle had been placed on the table, several yards from its former position. But no one except herself was in that part of the house.”

The Powder River County Examiner, in the early 1920s, recalled “the ghost stories of early day Butte” and how one “imaginative” reporter created some of them.

“Silver Dick Butler was a reporter on an afternoon paper and the day was not prolific of news. Returning from an ‘empty run’ he told his troubles to the city editor. ‘Then fake something — a ghost story if nothing else,’ snapped the boss.

“Dick chuckled gleefully, sat down, brushed his lustrous locks with his fingers, and dashed off the story involving (an apparition) that beckoned with fleshless fingers the reporter to follow it down the mine shaft where it disappeared in a cloud of luminous mist.”

After writing the story, Butler wandered “up the gulch to see how the story took, so that he could write a ‘follow-up’ next day.” Along the way he heard a housewife calling out, “Patsy, Patsy! Come in here or the ghost’ll get ye.”

According to the Powder River County Examiner, “That was the beginning of a lively spook-era in Butte … (with) the ‘cut-ups’ of the neighborhood, who feared neither ghost nor devil, (taking) advantage of the occasion to play pranks on the superstitious by robing themselves in white sheets and appearing in some dark locality to the excited exclamations of the crowd.

“But one night a tipsy miner and a loaded pistol put an end of the gaiety of the youths. The uncanny stories in the morning paper furnished shivers for a week.”

Texas author Debra Munn, whose family roots go back to the early mining days in Butte and Anaconda, has researched many stories of Montana hauntings.

“Who’s Haunting Carroll College?” and “The Mystery of the House in Philipsburg” are among the delightful tales contained in her book, “Montana Ghost Stories: Eerie True Tales.”

She also details numerous yarns from the University of Montana campus, including a “spiteful phantom” in the Fine Arts Building and the ghosts believed to be residing in Brantly Hall and Rankin Hall – a good read in the days before Halloween.

Perhaps all this ghost stuff is just a bit of “undigested beef” affecting our sleep patterns.

What’s that? Yes, dear – I told them; there is absolutely nothing strange going on in our house.

But, just between you and me …

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.