In early American West history, there are tales of a Jordanian, or Syrian, or Greek, – history is a bit vague as to his actual ancestry – camel driver called Hi Jolly and a failed U.S. Army experiment with camels; soon after the “camel trials” ended more tales were told about the legend of the red ghost. The camel experiment began on Feb. 10, 1856 when permission was given for 74 camels to be used as pack animals in a military expedition by the U.S. Army. Major Henry C. Wayne, of the U.S. Army, and Lt. D.D. Porter (of the U.S. Navy) accepted the two original consignments of camels delivered by the Navy ship Supply in Indianola,Texas.
Part of the first batch of camels came with their own driver, named Hajj Ali (Ali al-Hajaya). Ali’s name was too hard for the Army’s soldiers to pronounce so it was changed to Hi Jolly. Much later the man would be also be known as Philip Tedro – which was his Greek name – and this camel expert was on hand to aid the two military men who took charge of the camels for the 1857 Beale Expedition across the wilds of Arizona to set up a new Army fort called, appropriately enough, Fort Beale.
The Beale Expedition was to open a wagon road across Arizona from Fort Defiance to California and it was helmed by Lt. Beale and Major Wayne who were both convinced of the Camel’s merit and according to one individual, the late Bill Kaiser, the foreign creatures could pack “a thousand pounds of freight 65 miles a day” Kaiser finished by saying that Hi Jolly said that they could also go for three days without water.
Kaiser, who died in 1963 at the age of 90, talked to reporter William C. Barnard for a Nov. 21, 1946 article in the Associated Press. The, then, 73 year-old Quartzsite local spoke of knowing and talking to Hi Jolly, who died in 1902, and he explained that despite the press, and the Army, claiming that the experiment was a failure; the camels actually proved their worth. Kaiser then went on to say that according to the Greek camel driver the biggest problem with the camels was the fact that they “scared hell out of every varmint” they encountered.
There was never any “official” reason given for the Army’s decision to stop the camel trials. Although timing could have had a lot to do with it. The commencement of the Civil War and the tensions preceding it caused purse strings to be tightened and funding for the experiment was cut. It was said that the camels had a devastating effect on the mules which were also used by the Army at that time. Bill Kaiser related that according to Hi Jolly mules would take one look at the camels and “lay their ears back and run for the hills.”
In 1864, after funding had been completely stopped for the project, the U.S. Army held an auction to sell of the camels left in its inventory. They sold around 34 of the creatures that were moved on to Benicia, California and the rest stayed with Hi Jolly and the Army until 1866 when the hapless animals were taken down to the Camp Verde. There the remaining 66 were sold off. Quite a few ran off and adapted to the local desert area very well. Jolly, kept a few camels of his own to run.
After losing his former job as camel driver, Hi Jolly went on to work as a tracker for the U.S. Army and later tried running his own “Camel Packing” business for all the mines in the area before going broke. He then became a familiar fixture around the Quartzsite community and he did a series of different jobs before he died in 1902. After his camel business “went bust” he turned the remaining camels loose. Before that, however, there was the legend of the Red Ghost that terrorized locals in Arizona.
Tales of camels being spotted in and around Quartzsite had been fairly common, at least according to local Bill Kaiser. As late as 1946, he reported that several denizens around the small Arizona town told of finding fresh camel spoor around ranches and other outlying areas. The 1946 interview with Associated Press had Kaiser telling the reporter that he was looking for any wild camels still in the area.
The legend of the red ghost, however, took place many years before that interview and after the days of Hi Jolly. It was in 1883 that the ghost first reared its terrifying head. That year saw the Apache wars settling down with the exception of small bands of renegade Apaches who were still attacking isolated ranches in the area. On one such ranch, which was near Eagle Creek in southeastern Arizona, two men rode out to check on their herd of cattle; to make sure no Apache raid had decimated their stock. They left their wives behind with the children and it was while they were away that the red ghost struck.
After the men had left the area, one of the women inside the ranch house heard the dogs start barking wildly and “ferociously.” She then heard a terrible scream.” Rushing to a window she looked out and saw a “huge, reddish colored beast” race past with a “devilish-looking creature” riding it. Locking the door, the terrified woman waited until the men returned. When they arrived, they found the other woman had been trampled to death. The next day, the men followed the creature’s tracks, which were large “cloven” tracks much bigger than a horse’s track. They also found long red hairs tangled in the brush.
Not long after, a group of prospectors in Clifton, Arizona woke to piercing screams and the sound of thundering hooves as something came tearing down through their tents; scattering men and equipment. The scared men saw a giant creature go running off in the moonlight and the next day they found the same sort of tracks as those at the ranch.
Stories about the “red” ghostly giant spread across the territory. Although many would embellish their tales of the red ghost, quite a few managed to get close enough to the creature to see that it had something strapped to its back. Another group of prospectors on the Verde River saw the thing and fired at it. They missed but scared the creature off and as it made its escape, something fell from the “ghost’s” back. It was a human skull with some flesh and hair still attached.
Accounts increased of people unfortunate enough to come into contact with the creature. One group of miners claimed it was at least 30 feet tall and red haired. A cowboy came across the red ghost and roped it. The creature took off dragging man and horse along with it until he lost his grip on the lariat. The cowboy was able to see that the “devilish thing” on the creature’s back was a skeleton.
Over a number of years, the legend of the red ghost grew to huge proportions. No one thought of the camel driver, Hi Jolly. He could have, perhaps, shed some light on the realities of the legend. Finally, after a very long time of tall tales and talk of haunts, someone caught the red ghost. A local rancher woke one morning to see the giant creature eating grass out of his front yard. He calmly got his Winchester rifle and killed it with one shot. It was then that people discovered the ghost was a camel that had leather straps bound so tightly, and for so long, on its back that the animal’s back and sides were scarred. No one knows why the animal had a dead man strapped to it.
The incident of the “red ghost” was immortalized on the Western anthology television program Death Valley Days which ran for quite a few seasons. Looking in IMDb there is a listing for The Red Ghost of Eagle Creek – December 1963 in season 12 episode 10 – which is, essentially, the Red Ghost Legend mentioned on the Hi Jolly Cemetery sign. A film was made in 1976 with the not-so imaginative title of HAWMPS!; a cheap affair, it did offer the talents of Western stalwarts Slim Pickens, Denver Pyle and Jack Elam in a somewhat forgettable feature. This “bicentennial” film told the Hollywood version of the Beale Expedition as a comedy; lacklustre and yawn-worthy it was not a smash hit. It did, however, have a character who was a camel driver by the name of “Hi Jolly” played by Gino Conforti.
Travelling to Quartzsite, Arizona today the curious traveller can see the Hi Jolly Cemetery along with the quartz and ironwood pyramid monument built back in 1935 by a member of the Highway Department who found Hi Jolly’s final resting place. Under the pyramid headstone, lies Hi Jolly and his favorite camel and the camel on top is said to be in honor of the legend of the red ghost. The cemetery is also home to a lot of war veterans who have passed on and it is also the final resting place of William George “Bill” Kaiser – of the Associated Press interview, as well as other locals.
By Michael Smith