Ready, Set DRIVE! A Haunted Halloween Ride Through New Mexico’s Wild West
When it comes to haunted Halloween excursions, driving the scenic Enchanted Circle of New Mexico is considered to be one of the best. Preferred stopping grounds for the likes of legendary gangsters like Billy the Kid, Clay Allison and the gang of Black Jack Ketchum give it some real historical grit. Settled by prospectors in the late 1800s and home to a not-so-notorious serial killer, stories of the past are fueled by passion, heartache and mayhem.
Stop 1 The Site of Historic Elizabethtown
Consider it’s 1869. You and your family have made it through the treacherous mountain pass to a place called Elizabethtown, a thriving gold-mining camp on the slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The literal translation of Sangre de Christo is ‘the blood of Christ’ giving it an ominous setting right from the start.
The town itself has a strong community by this time with a church and a schoolhouse. In fact, it is the first town incorporated in all of New Mexico. Like many Wild West communities, nights are fraught with drinking, gambling and prostitution. There are many saloons to choose from, dance halls and even two hotels.
Image: Courtesy of New Mexico Nomad.
Image: Elizabethtown remnants of mine in 1939.
The lumberyard and gold-mining industries bring prosperity while enticing adventurous souls, train robbers and gangsters. One such group is the posse of famed outlaw Black Jack Ketchum. He and his crew have been responsible for dozens of train robberies and murders throughout the late 1800s. Their rugged lifestyle first goes unnoticed by the population of Elizabethtown, as they show up at dance halls, on nice horses, behaving as gentlemen and claiming to be cowboys. More than one mesmerized girl becomes heartbroken when she finds out the truth.
Serial Killer in the Mountains
Over the years it’s been noted that a few travelers have ventured out on the road leading to Taos, never to be seen again. A man by the name of Charles Kennedy operates a rest stop on the road providing dinner and beds. From 1856 to 1871 it is unknown how many ‘guests’ Kennedy murders. Usually, it happens when they are sleeping and he robs them of their belongings. Numbers have it at between 15 – 100 victims and while some remains have been recovered, no one will ever know what the real number is.
While the details of the story are based on rumors, it is thought that Kennedy’s luck runs out one night when a traveler joins him, his wife Rosa and 9-year-old son at the dinner table. The traveler asks if there are many Indians in the area.
The innocent 9-year old replies, ‘“can’t you smell the one Papa put under the floor?”’
Charles is outraged. He shoots his guest and kills his own son by bashing his skull in on the fireplace. Evidence later supports the loss of life.
Rosa is locked up in the house but once Kennedy passes out from heavy drinking, she manages to escape from the chimney. From there, beaten and bleeding, she journeys the 15 miles to a saloon in Elizabethtown where she tells her story to townspeople. Clay Allison and David Crocket (nephew of frontiersman Davey Crocket) listen in.
Clay leads the raid to Kennedy’s house where a heavily inebriated Kennedy is arrested and put in jail. When the corrupt judge considers letting Kennedy’s lawyer buy his freedom, Clay Allison takes the law into his own hands. He and his friends storm the jail, break Kennedy out and from there sever his head in a gruesome fashion. It is said that Kennedy’s head was on public display possibly on a pike outside of Lambert’s Saloon for a year.
There are old men and women who remember tales told of this place. They say that of a night, when wind rustles a thousand leaves and the moon becomes hidden behind scudding clouds, the screams of the dying can be heard. That the smell of burning flesh permeates all things, and walking in search is a body that has no head.
You can visit Charles Kennedy’s tombstone at the site of Elizabethtown today. The inscription reads: ‘Came to his death by hanging by parties unknown’.
Unfortunately, not much of Elizabethtown remains today. Like many mining towns, the gold dried up. In addition, a deadly fire in 1903 destroyed all but a few of the town’s buildings. A true Wild West ghost town, now owned by the Mutz family of the former Mutz family hotel in Elizabethtown (succumbed to the fire) there are few structures standing.
Image: Kennedy’s grave lies outside of the Catholic Cemetery.
Stop 3 Haunted St. James Hotel in Cimarron
While technically not part of the Enchanted Circle, Cimarron lies just 29 miles Southeast of Elizabethtown. One of the most reckless and haunted places of NorthEastern New Mexico, your Halloween journey wouldn’t be complete without it.
Home to the storied St, James Hotel, Cimarron has been the site of a lot of lawlessness throughout the years. Characters like Buffalo Bill Cody, Earp Brothers, Annie Oakley, Jesse James and Black Jack Ketchum were known to stay here. Many people died within its walls and on the streets surrounding the hotel.
Image: Courtyard of storied St. James Hotel of Cimarron, NM.
Cimarron played a crucial role in the famed Colfax County War over the Maxwell Land Grant. The government land grant, owned by the Maxwell Mining Company refused to parse out land to settlers, deeming them ‘squatters’. Tensions came to a head when the respected Reverend Franklin J. Toby was shot and killed in September of 1875. Cruz Vega, the man accused (but never proven) of killing him, was tortured and killed on the way to tell the judge what he knew about the case. Before he died though he called out a third actor as the murderer, Manuel Carderos who was also mysteriously found dead before he could testify. Some think that the notorious Santa Fe Ring, who had a stake in the Maxwell Grant ordered some of the killings.
From a news article by Weekly New Mexico dated 16 Nov. 1875.
For the past week Cimarron has been more or less in a complete state of anarchy growing out of the excitement incident to the late murder of Rev. Tolby, and lynching on the night of the 30th Oct., of Cruz Vega charged with complicity in the same; -aggravated by the killing of Francisco Griego, three days later, by Allison of Red River. On Sunday the telegraph was employed most of the day in dealing further excitement an anarchy starting as we gather among the friends of the lynched man. It is charged by the reaction party or mob that before the death of the lynched man he stated that other persons were implicated in the murder including some of the best cititzens of Colfax County.
Today you can order food and drinks in the bar which still showcases the markings of 27 bullet holes. Book a room but be wary of room 18 where a hotel guest was grizzly murdered. Visitors to the St. James over the years have made multiple claims of ghost sightings including the spirit of the Inn’s late wife, Mary Lambert, a cowboy reflected in the mirror of the tavern as well as cold spots and random pictures that fall off the walls.
Stop 3 A Trip To The Guney
-Laguna Vista Hotel in Eagle’s Nest
There is a saying in New Mexico, ‘If you listen to the land, you’ll hear legends’. Such is true in the area surrounding the Laguna Vista hotel in Eagles Nest. Opened in 1896, the Laguna Vista was originally named El Monte. Located near Raton, a well-known place for horse races, it quickly became a favorite stopping spot for politicians and affluent citizens attending the races.
Gambling fast became the favorite past-time at the saloon in the 1920s and 30s. As well as brothel rooms, which to this day, (although non operating) can still be found above the now restaurant which used to serve as the hotels’ lobby.
Rumors have it that there is a ghost of a young woman living there. She had come to the hotel on her honeymoon and was stranded when her husband went out and mysteriously disappeared. She stayed on as a saloon girl and makes occasional appearances in the dance hall.
Multiple paranormal activities have occurred such as the piano playing when no one is there and a vacuum running on its own. Ghost sightings have been chronicled throughout the years, including this testimony by a long time employee by the name of Kristi.
On this particular day Kristi brought her 2-year old daughter Rayni to work with her.
“She had placed little jingle bells on her daughter’s shoes so that she could keep track of her while she was working. Suddenly, Rayni walked into the kitchen very gently and slowly. Kristi said she looked very odd and when she asked Rayni what was wrong, Rayni replied, “the lady told me to stop making noise”. When Kristi asked Rayni where the lady was, Rayni led her mother into the dining room and pointed at “someone” saying “that lady.” Kristi saw no one but Rayni insisted that her mother remove the bells from her shoes.”
A psychic once visited and said there was a presence of 22 spirits at the Laguna. Stay for a night and make your own determination!
Image: Modern Day Laguna Vista Inn. It was a favorite watering hole for the Lonesome Dove movie crew.
Stop 4 The Storied Violence Of Taos
From its inception, Taos was meant to be a town like no other. Located at the base of the Sangre Cristo Mountains, its ethereal light and crisp clean air has summoned many artists and adventurous souls throughout the years. What’s not apparent today, however, is that the rich history of Taos is rooted in disputes, shootouts and of course is fraught with ghosts to this day.
From ghost sightings of Kit Carlson at the Kit Carlson House & Museum to the smell of burning flesh in the old Taos jail, there have been enough paranormal activities that you can take a haunted tour to experience them yourself. Check out walking tour: Ghosts of Taos. Disclaimer: Due to Covid-19 they have suspended their operations and will resume in 2021.
Start out at the historic Taos square where people claim to feel spirits. The site is home to dozens of hangings including 22 following the Taos Massacre of 1847 and the hanging of murderer José Manuel Miguel Gonzales as late as 1881. In the true style of the Wild West, it is said that Gonzales was a sheepherder who shot a cowboy over a game of cards.
A similar sentence handed out years before in 1864 given by Judge Isaac, notoriously known as the ‘Hanging Judge” was sent by letter to the editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican. It read of convicted murderer Jose Maria Martin:
“José Maria Martin, it is now the springtime, in a little while the grass will be springing up green in these beautiful valleys, and on these broad mesas and mountainsides, flowers will be blooming; birds will be singing their sweet carols, and nature will be putting on her most gorgeous and her most attractive robes, and life will be pleasant. .. but none of this for you, José Maria Martin. When these things come to gladden the senses of men, you will occupy a place six by two beneath the sod, and the grass and these beautiful things will be green, growing above your lowly head. ”
The Alley Cantina
As you venture to the Northwest side of the Plaza where the Alley Cantina currently stands, stop in for a drink. This over 400 year-old building is one of the oldest buildings in Taos. Owners Buzz and Ruth Waterhouse reported strange happenings to the Taos Chamber. Tales include setting things down and when they’d return, items wouldn’t be in the same place, candles being lit on their own and multiple women repeating they felt a shoulder around them while waiting for the bathroom. When they turned expecting their boyfriend or husband, no body would be there.
Perhaps the most haunted place in all of Taos square is the Bent House & Museum. Charles Bent, the first civilian governor of the territory of New Mexico came to a brutal end during the January 1847 Taos Revolt.
Scalped alive, he was then dragged into his home to be beaten until death while his children and wife looked on. In a chilling tale by Bent’s daughter, ‘an angry crowd surrounded their home and when Bent asked them what they wanted they told him they wanted his head’.
The mob went on to kill Bent’s brother-in-law Pablo Jaramillo, Steven Lee (the Sherriff of Taos County), J.W. Leas (the circuit court judge and Cornello Vigil who served as Narciso Vigil.
It is said that paranormal activity increases here every January anniversary of the event. Across the street at Moby Bookstore, owners report that books mysteriously fall from shelves. The home which is now the Bent Museum still has a hole in the wall that the family made on the night of the revolt to escape. Various visitors have heard a piano playing and when they went to look, no one was there.
There’s also a system of tunnels under many of the shops in and around the square. It’s thought that they were used either as an escape from Comanches or to secretly visit women of ill-repute.
Historic Inn of Taos
Image: Entrance to the Historic Alley Cantina in Taos.
Image: Charles Bent
Just across Paseo Del Pueblo Sur (68) you can access the Historic Inn of Taos and the Kit Carson Cemetery. The Historic Inn of Taos shares a wall with the former home of Arthur Rochford Manby who was found beheaded in his 19-room Spanish Hacienda. Strange things happen in the rooms and kitchen on the other side of the wall. Guests have reported seeing the ghost of Manby, the smell of roses which his wife Helen cultivated while housekeepers report cold spots in some of the rooms. There have been many guests over the years that left after checking in. They have all said the only reason was that they ‘felt they couldn’t stay there.’
Kit Carson Cemetery
The big mystery of the Kit Carson cemetery are the three graves of unidentified women covered by concrete so their spirits can’t escape. They were thought to have been witches and very evil but nobody knows for sure.
Image: Tombstone of Kit Carson at Kit Carson Cemetery in Taos.
While beautiful by day, night in the Enchanted Circle takes on a more sinister hue. Are these spirits of the past trying to ignite revenge or are they just subliminal reminders of the souls who walked through history of America’s Wild West? You won’t know what you think of course, until you visit them for yourself. A true Halloween vacation delight, with history, gore and a back drop of gorgeous Fall colored leaves.
…Can you hear that? Northern New Mexico’s ghosts are calling you!
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