In 1929, English author Montague James offered five key features of ghost stories: They offer the pretense of truth, a “pleasing” sense of terror, they avoid bloodshed and sex, they avoid trying to explain the mechanism, and they offer a setting common to almost everyone.
Anthropologists tell us that stories of ghosts, or if you prefer, spirits originated among early civilizations as misty, airy, or barely tangible human shapes — the persons within the person. Where did these early people come up with such notions? The scientists imagine from the white mist exhaled as breath in colder climates. The remarkable thing about ghost stories is that they exist in all cultures, and they continue to exist as part of the human story-telling nature.
I related one such tale in the story of Texas Ranger and frontiersman Big Foot Wallace in 2019. In my story about the American Frontier, I touched briefly on the plight of the Donner Party in 1846. It isn’t a very pleasant story — but it is true. And terrible — and not the only incident of that kind. One recalls that the Donner Party crossed the Ruby Mountains via the Overland Pass. They became stranded in deep blizzards, ran out of food, and turned into cannibals. The only reason we know about the Donner Party is that there were survivors who later told their stories.
But, behind the Donner Party was another led by a man named Armbruster Pike. The Pike train experienced the same blizzard. They too became snowed-in and isolated but not in the Ruby Mountains. No, they were stuck inside the Mooney Basin.
Like the Donner’s, the Pikes eventually consumed all their food stores, and in desperation, turned to cannibalization. Those are the facts. What isn’t known is whether Armbruster was murdered for his remains or dismembered while still alive so that others could consume his legs, but one story continues to exist about an apparition “believed to be” Armbruster Pike in search of his legs in and around Mooney Basin. People who report seeing Mr. Pike (or what’s left of him) describe him as being a hunchback-looking creature with long, unkempt white hair and a scraggly beard. Of course, it helps to have two ghost towns in the area, which adds a peculiar flavor to the tale.
The Mooney Basin sits within the Bald Mountain area of Nevada — a mining area since the early 1800s. Numerous tales exist about miners who simply disappeared. One miner’s body was found without his head. Of course, there are numerous possibilities for such a thing (Indians, bears, or people looking for their legs). Okay, go ahead a laugh. One tale took place in 1957 when a stockman was looking for some cattle that had wandered off into the Mooney Basin area. This fellow claimed to have discovered a hunchbacked man with long white hair and in need of a shave eating one of the dead cows. When this scraggly person was discovered, he was covered in blood and was consuming the animal raw. And of course, he had no legs. There are a lot of unanswered questions about this, of course.
Still, the strange happenings in Mooney Basin continue. In the 1980s, modern-day miners continued to report “unexplained events” along Alligator Ridge. What kind of strange events? I’m glad you asked. Large vehicles suddenly started up by themselves, and late at night, a lone figure floating in the distance. Floating, on account of the fact that he has no legs. In 1989, while hauling a truckload of ore along Alligator Ridge, a vehicle operator was killed when his truck went out of control and rolled off the ridge — near where Armbruster Pike was allegedly consumed. Now, of course, no one knows if there is any connection between inattentive truck drivers and legless men, but that’s how ghost stories go and are most effective when told to eight-year-olds around a campfire at night.
On the other hand, in the late 1990s, with the mines nearly worked out, archaeologists discovered human remains in the area of the horseshoe pit. Local Indians claimed that the body was from an ancient burial site, but to play it safe, the local sheriff sent the remains to a pathologist, whose report concluded that the specimen did not come from an ancient time. The remains were estimated to have been buried in the 1950s. So, the Indians didn’t get the remains — but I’m not sure who did.
Now everyone knows what fun-loving fellows’ miners are, right? For many years, one good joke to play on new miners (who’ve never heard about Armbruster Pike) was first, to tell the story with individually crafted embellishments, and then later, dress up as an apparition to scare the hell out of them. Those poor saps then become eye-witnesses to weirdness.
Of course, whoever dresses up as an apparition and prowls around in the middle of the night trying to scare folks could get shot, which might then introduce a completely new ghost story.
One quiet night in the area of the horseshoe, a miner was camping alone with only his two Alsatians for company. Late at night, the two dogs began growling, their hair stood up, and they charged off into the woods. The camper had no idea what was happening, but he wasn’t leaving the firelight for no amount of money. Forty or so minutes later, the dogs returned, but they remained agitated for the rest of the night, which allowed no rest for their master. At daylight, the camper went off into the woods following the tracks of his dogs left in the snow. He never found any other tracks except those of his dogs.
Apparently, spirits don’t leave tracks.