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Lair of the Beasts: Ghostly Animals
By Nick Redfern
September 08, 2012
Back in the mid-1800s, the U.S. Army embarked upon a little-known, but fascinating, project to try and counter the severe problem of so many of its pack-horses dying in the overwhelming heat of the southwest, and particularly so in a certain part of the California desert – Death Valley.
Grim statistics made the military sit up and realize that trying to protect its horses from the power of the sun was no easy task at even the very best of times, never mind when they might be required to cross Death Valley. So, instead of trying to find a way to improve the situation for the animals, they decided to try their luck in a distinctly different direction. The plan was to replace the horses with animals far more used to treacherous temperatures: nothing less than a corps of camels.
For a few years, the Army pondered deeply upon the admittedly novel idea, with some elements of the military perceiving the whole thing as a brainwave, and others seeing it as a distinctly harebrained idea. But, in 1855, matters came to fruition when Congress finally allocated $30,000 to get the program on the move.
Certainly not a huge sum of money today, but, back then – more than a century and a half ago - it was most definitely enough for Major Henry C. Wayne to put together a team and take a ship, the USS Supply, to Smyrna, an old city on the Aegean Coast of Anatolia, where a deal was done to purchase a herd of camels.
Just under a year later, Wayne’s team was back on American soil, as were the four-legged, now-legal aliens from afar. Over the course of the immediate years ahead, further overseas purchases of camels were made, and they were all routinely used by the military in areas of the United States where dangerously high temperatures and a lack of regular water were always the order of the day. That situation changed drastically in 1861, however, with the outbreak of the American Civil War.
During the four year long conflict, in which North and South fought violently against each other, food reserves fell dramatically and soldiers did whatever had to be done to survive – which, on occasion, included slaughtering sizeable numbers of camels for their abundant supplies of meat. But, rescue was at hand.
Some of the camels were spared death and transferred to circuses and zoos. Others, however, were clandestinely released into the heart of the desert wilderness – usually during the dead of night - by those in the military who had not just the task of looking after the camels, but who had grown to love them, much as one would a pet dog or cat. Far better to give the camels at least a chance of freedom than to have them end up on someone’s dinner-plate, it was reasoned.
And there is good evidence that the camels in question not only survived in their new wild environment of the southwest, but thrived, too. Certainly, sightings of camels in the U.S. continued for decades – with the last reliable report surfacing from Douglas, Texas in 1941. Or, it’s more correct to say that the 1941 date marked the final sighting of a living, wild camel in the United States’ southwest. Now we have to turn our attentions away from the living to the dead.
From mid 1951 comes the story of one “Fat” Mack Mahoney, a prospector working in Death Valley who claimed to have seen a herd of seven camels roaming leisurely through the desert one scalding weekday afternoon.
For Fat Mack, just seeing the camels was astonishing enough alone; but watching them then dematerialize and vanish into a hazy green fog, that came out of nowhere, was even more so. Mahoney, who told his story in the early 1960s to a legendary collector and writer of paranormal tales, Frank Edwards, stood by his tale until his dying day in 1972.
A somewhat similar tale surfaced in 1962. The witness, Wendell Bishop, was floored by the sight of a solitary camel standing in a small gulley. More incredibly, sat atop the beast was a man dressed in a 19th century era military uniform befitting that of the south-based Confederates. Neither camel nor rider seemed to see Bishop, both remained rigidly still, and the only response to Bishop’s questions concerning what on earth man and beast were doing in the middle of Death Valley was complete silence.
But, Bishop did, eventually, get an answer of sorts. After a couple of minutes of loudly and somewhat worriedly stammering out questions from a distance of about fifty feet, Bishop was shocked to the core by the sight of the animal and its rider suddenly dissolving into absolute nothingness. For years, Bishop kept silent, only telling his wife, who finally blew the whistle on him decades later.
Nick Redfern’s new book, The World’s Weirdest Places, is available now.