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Ku Klux U: How the Klan Almost Bought a University

Hagerstown Exponent, October 4, 1923

When the Hagerstown Exponent published this headline in October 1923, the editor had gotten the facts wrong.  The Ku Klux Klan’s powerful “Indiana Realm” had not bought itself a venerable institution of higher learning that summer.  But it had come close. For a few weeks, Valparaiso University — sixty miles from downtown Chicago, and formerly one of the largest private schools in the U.S. — teetered on the brink of becoming a “Ku Klux Kollege.” Once praised as the “Poor Man’s Harvard,” in 1923 many feared the university was about to become a “hooded Harvard.”

“Valpo” is a thriving university today, with some of the best programs in Indiana — and has no connections whatsoever to the KKK.  But a century ago, after its rapid rise to national fame, the highly-respected school was caught up in hard times. Yet its sudden nose-dive after World War I took many alumni and faculty by surprise.

Founded by Methodists in 1859, the original school — Valparaiso Male and Female College — took in students of all levels, from elementary to college age.  The pioneer school was also one of the few co-educational institutions in America before the Civil War. That war wreaked havoc on enrollment, leading the college to close its doors in 1871.  Two years later, it reopened as a teacher’s college. Until 1900, the school went by the name Northern Indiana Normal School and Business Institute.

Renowned for its economical tuition and low cost of living — as well as for admitting women and students from overseas — by 1905 “Old Valpo” enjoyed one of the highest enrollments of any private university in the U.S.  With over 5,000 students that year, the school ranked just behind Harvard.  Its affordability to working-class Americans led many to praise it as the “Poor Man’s Harvard.” (Harvard itself was sometimes jokingly called “The Rich Man’s Valpo.”)


Valparaiso University circa 1915
(Valparaiso University, circa 1915.)

Students from all over the U.S. and the world trained to be public school teachers here.  Some were busy teaching English to immigrants employed at Gary’s new steel mills.  Valpo’s programs in law, engineering, medicine, and dentistry were well-regarded. Its College of Medicine and Surgery had been brought over from Northwestern University in Chicago.  When the college moved back to the Windy City in 1926, it formed the nucleus of Loyola’s medical program.

Harvard and Yale might have been too good to take out ads in Chicago newspapers.  But this ad from 1905 appeared next to one for another great school on the rise, the University of Notre Dame.


The Inter Ocean, August 1, 1905
(The Inter Ocean, Chicago, August 1, 1905.)

Yet once enrollment peaked in 1907, venerable Valpo plunged into an unexpected, two-decade-long decline.  After accreditation of American colleges and universities began at the turn of the century  — partly driven by a desire to standardize high-school education and thereby “unify” the country — Valparaiso failed to win accreditation. Suddenly unable to transfer their credits, current and prospective students found the school a harder sell, especially as affordable new state universities, teachers’ colleges, and urban night schools entered the competition.  Valpo’s lack of a football team and Greek life were another stumbling block, though it hurriedly scraped together a football program in the early 1920s and even played Harvard.  (It lost 22-0 in its first game.)


VU


World War I issued another blow.  The famously affordable university had always attracted international students.  (One of the more unusual of them was future Soviet Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, “Stalin’s Man in China,” who would die in a Siberian gulag in 1951.)  But after 1914, many of these students left to fight for their European homelands in WWI.  When America entered the war against Germany in 1917, student military enlistment left Valpo’s academic and residence halls almost empty.  And with plenty of war-related jobs now available to women, female students also tended to skip out on college for the duration of the war.


Journal Gazette (Mattoon, IL), July 17, 1923
(Journal Gazette, Mattoon, IL, July 17, 1923.)

In 1919, Indiana passed a new law requiring private colleges to maintain a half-million dollar endowment.  Cash-strapped Valparaiso University, burdened with a $350,000 debt (almost $5 million in today’s money) faced the real prospect of bankruptcy.  The school’s trustees even tried to sell it to the state that year for use as a public teacher’s college, but the Indiana legislature declined the offer.

Holding on by a thread — and led by controversial president Robert Hodgdon, who turned out to hold fake medical degrees — desperate trustees and the equally-desperate citizens of Valparaiso sought new owners.  That list of potential “saviors” grew to include the Presbyterian Church, the International Order of the Moose, and the owner of Cook Laboratories in Chicago, who wanted to turn the campus into a syringe factory and provide 1,000 jobs to townsfolk. (Their prosperity would have been shattered by the school’s demise.)

Then, in July 1923, a new bidder expressed interest.


Daily Republican (Rushville, IN), August 16, 1923
(Daily Republican, Rushville, Indiana, August 16, 1923.)

For some residents of Valparaiso — which hosted a parade of at least 5,000 Klansmen in May 1923, an event that attracted 30,000 visitors from around the Midwest — the offer to take over the struggling school seemed like a God-send.  Academics, alumni, and many students, especially “undesirable” Catholics and Jews, thought differently. Many teachers and students were ready to pack up and leave.

But incredibly, as far as the trustees were concerned, the question of selling Valparaiso University to the Ku Klux Klan mostly came down to whether that organization itself had the resources to made good on its own offer.

The efforts of the revived Klan proved more “sophisticated” than that which had died out in the 1870s.  Klan rallies and parades occurred all over the North and West, from Chicago to L.A., from Oregon to Maine.  And the flag they waved wasn’t the rebel flag.  KKK membership in those years peaked in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, “ground zero” for some of the biggest Klan activity.  D.C. Stephenson, the “Grand Old Man of the Klan,” operated mostly out of his headquarters in Indianapolis, a city that was almost taken over by Klansmen and Klanswomen; It was also a city that fought a valiant battle in the press, courts, and churches to discredit the “Invisible Empire.”


KKK Members, Valparaiso, 1923
(Klansmen on Franklin Street, Valparaiso, Indiana, 1923.)

The Fiery Cross, May 11, 1923
The Fiery Cross, May 11, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The “Second” Klan defined itself as a hyper-patriotic organization of white Protestant Americans and was more mainstream than at any other point in its history.  During the ’20s, the Klan was less concerned with suppressing African Americans than with stemming the tide of new immigration coming from Southern and Eastern Europe — including to heavily-industrial towns like Gary, just thirty miles from Valparaiso.  The Klan sought to cripple an imaginary conspiracy contending that Catholics wanted to destroy American public schools and hand the U.S. government over to the Pope. It also warned of the activities of “Jewish Communists” and anarchists in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the 1919 Red Scare. (The fear provoked by deadly anarchist bombings wasn’t entirely groundless, however.)  Prohibition of alcohol, another cause taken up by the KKK, was a barely concealed way to crack down on immigrant culture.

These views were shared by thousands of Americans who didn’t belong to the Klan.  The Invisible Empire even found strange bedfellows in Progressivism, including women’s suffrage advocates, who espoused some of the same “reform” ideals promoted by the “kluckers,” albeit with different objectives. Newspapers, big mansions, and church services lent the “hoodlums” in “nighties,” as a Muncie editor quipped, credentials that midnight lynchings in cornfields didn’t.  In Indianapolis, the organization considered establishing a Klan hospital on North Alabama Street for white Protestants only.  (The hospital was never built.) Acquiring a university would help the Klan project a cleaner image. And since Valparaiso was a teacher’s college, the Klan could now propagandize American children from within schools.


Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923 (4)
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By July of 1923, the trustees of Valparaiso University and the Klan were talking.  Representing the Klan was Milt Elrod, whom Stephenson had recently made editor of The Fiery Cross, the major KKK newspaper, printed at the Century Building on South Pennsylvania Street in downtown Indianapolis.

Encountering obvious concern from much of the faculty and student body, Elrod assured the press that a Ku Klux takeover of the school would change nothing except the trustee board, which was to be packed with Klan appointees.  The school would remain open to women and would be non-sectarian, Elrod insisted — though Catholic students were already beginning to drop out and enroll elsewhere.  Ludicrously, Elrod initially claimed that the Klan would admit any applicant who met the proper “educational requirements,” including “Negros,” though he later admitted that the school would not have the “proper” facilities for African Americans.  (The sad irony is that Valparaiso University did not admit African Americans even before the Klan tried to buy it.)


Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 16, 1923 (2)
(Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 16, 1923.)

Few people — the trustees excepted, it seems — took Elrod at his word when he said that nothing else would change at the university except skyrocketing enrollment and the return of its once prestigious reputation.  (There were rumors that it would be renamed “National University”).  Yet Elrod’s enemies had already come out.  In The Fiery Cross, he was busy singling out “un-American” and “alien” opponents. Elrod may have been quick to pick up on campus rumors that Catholic priests from Notre Dame had visited town, spurring the Klan to act soon and not be outbid by the “agents of Rome.”


Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923 (3)
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Heavy opposition came from the press.  Even in Indiana, major urban newspapers tended to be anti-Klan, including the Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis News and most famously the Indianapolis Times, which won a Pulitzer for its battle against the group.  Some of the sharpest criticism, however, came from George R. Dale, the wildly colorful and energetic editor of the Muncie Post Democrat.  Dale, who endured death threats and assaults on his life and that of his family, ran a paper that could be called The Onion of its day.  His paper, virtually one long, rambunctious op-ed piece, employed a folksy humor to give sucker-punches to the powerful “Indiana Realm.” Dale went on to become mayor of Muncie in 1930.


Muncie Post Democrat, August 3, 1923
Muncie Post Democrat, August 3, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Editors and cartoonists nationwide– including E.H. Pomeroy, an illustrator for the Valparaiso Vidette — tore into Elrod’s proposal once it came out that he might, in fact, get hold of the $350,000 in cash needed to bail the school out of debt.  (Elrod also promised that the Klan would set it up on a million-dollar endowment, twice the amount required by Indiana law.)  As the story spread across the U.S., an illustrator in the New York Call went straight for the jugular, publishing a parody of Dante’s Inferno — “Abandon All Brains Ye Who Enter Here.”  The cartoon depicts book-burning, classes in whipping and tar-and-feathering, a “Klinik” to teach “100% Americanism,” and a commencement day ceremony where students sport an unconventional new style of cap and gown.


Literary Digest, September 15, 1923
(“Abandon All Brains, Ye Who Enter Here.” Republished in Literary Digest, September 15, 1923.)

Another critical broadside came from Helena, Montana.  The writer in Helena’s Independent Record thought that a bout of education for “kluckers” might at least have a few salutary side-effects.


The Independent Record (Helena, Montana), August 28, 1923

The Independent Record (Helena, Montana), August 28, 1923 (2)
(The Independent Record, Helena, Montana, August 28, 1923.)

One editorial appeared in Robert W. Bingham’s Louisville Courier-Journal.  Bingham fought a crusade against Southern poverty and criticized Fascism before even Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced it.  “Ku Klux and Kolleges” may have been Bingham’s own editorial.  It asks if there is no provision in the Indiana school’s original charter to prevent the sale to the Klan.  The Courier-Journal also pointed out that many teachers in Kentucky  had been trained at Valparaiso in its better days, and that Kentuckians should be concerned about its ultimate fate.


Louisville Courier-Journal, July 27, 1923 (3)
(Louisville Courier-Journal, July 27, 1923.)

Though excitement among some Valparaiso citizens allegedly ran high, Milt Elrod was probably too quick to make blustery promises about the Klan’s own financial strength.  His proposal to buy the school wasn’t a “joke,” but Elrod was a notorious booster and propagandist.

Through the sale of thousands of robes, newspaper subscriptions, and membership fees, the “Imperial hierarchy” of the Klan had amassed huge fortunes for itself.  D.C. Stephenson had gone from being a poor coal dealer in Evansville to a wealthy man by age 33, but he squandered Klan money on liquor, women, cars, and a yacht. Even the $350,000 needed to buy the Valparaiso campus — not to mention the $1,000,000 offered as an endowment — was apparently beyond the ability of bumbling Klan leadership to come up with (or hang onto).

The American press and higher education breathed a sigh of relief when, after just a few weeks, Elrod feebly announced that the Klan had changed its mind due to “legal technicalities.”  Some papers reported that — true to the Louisville Courier-Journal’s suggestion — a clause in the school’s original charter had been discovered, preventing control by any “fraternal, benevolent or charitable order” (an inaccurate description of the Klan, at any rate).


Fort Wayne Daily News, September 5, 1923 (2)
(Fort Wayne Daily News, September 5, 1923.)

“Legal technicalities” caused by the school’s charter might be a myth, a clever way for both the university and the Klan to save face after the embarrassing episode.  Most newspapers ran with it, but there seems to be little evidence that university trustees would have called off the sale if enough cash had been put down in front of them.


Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, September 11, 1923
(Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, September 11, 1923.)

Fortunately, Valparaiso University never fell into KKK hands. With the corrupt Klan itself in disarray by 1925, and with Stephenson headed to the nearby state prison at Michigan City for rape and murder, any future Klan bids were out of the question.

In the summer of 1925, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod rescued the run-down, almost abandoned school.  Lutherans at that time had several colleges and seminaries around the U.S., but no university.  They announced vague plans to use it as a theology school or teachers’ college.  Securing the deal was assisted by Reverend John C. Baur, a Lutheran minister and noted opponent of the Ku Klux Klan in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


The Republic (Columbus, IN), May 18, 1925
(The Republic, Columbus, Indiana, May 18, 1925.)

Under Lutheran guidance, Valparaiso University’s fortunes gradually turned around, though it barely survived the Great Depression.  By the 1950s, “Old Valpo” once again ranked among Indiana’s and the nation’s best colleges, a reputation it still holds today.


Hoosier State Chronicles provides searchable access to several years of The Fiery Cross on our site.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

“Gary Camel Caravan Alarms”

In the wake of one presidential hopeful’s recent call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., we thought it appropriate to share a humorous anecdote about Muslim immigrants in Hoosier history. This story also evokes a mostly-forgotten episode that saw Chicago’s great film companies use the Indiana Dunes as a stand-in for Mexico and the Sahara Desert.

The story came out in both the Gary Daily Tribune and Chicago Record-Tribune.  In the summer of 1910, if we can trust the Chicago reporter, some Muslim steel workers shouted excitedly, and maybe even suffered a bit of homesickness when the following scene played out in the streets of the new town of Gary.


Gary Camel Caravan -- Chicago Record-Herald, June 14, 1910

(Chicago Record-Tribune, June 14, 1910.)


The Gary Daily Tribune had a different take:

Gary Daily Tribune June 13, 1910 (4)

Gary Daily Tribune June 13, 1910 (6)(Gary Daily Tribune, June 13, 1910.)


In the early days of the silent movie industry, Chicago’s Essanay Studios predominated.  Not until the 1920s did the big film producers relocate to Hollywood.  Founded in 1907, Essenay’s headquarters were located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. While best known for producing a series of fourteen Charlie Chaplin comedies in 1915 (The Tramp is the most famous), the company also turned out a few American movie “firsts” — including the first American Sherlock Holmes movie (1916) and the first American film version of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol (1908).  This producer of silent films also scored hits with actor Francis X. Bushman (1883-1966), once hailed as “the handsomest man in the world.”  One website calls him the “Brad Pitt of his day.”


bushman -- ben-hur 2jpg

(Bushman played the corrupt Roman tribune Messala in director Fred Niblo’s 1925 adaptation of another Middle Eastern tale with Hoosier connections.  Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ was based on the 1880 novel by Indiana author Lew Wallace, who served as U.S. Minister to Turkey from 1881-1884.)


Chicago’s own sand dunes had mostly been destroyed by 1910, though just a hundred years earlier, they had been the scene of the dramatic beheading of frontier Hoosier soldier and Indian agent William Wells.  (Wells, a white captive from Kentucky after whom Wells County was later named, was killed on the beach during the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812.)  With the growing city looming up on Lake Michigan’s western shore, historic films set in exotic or far-away places had to be filmed across the lake in Indiana.  In spite of its proximity to Chicago, swampy northwest Indiana was the last part of the state to be settled and was still largely undeveloped in 1900.

Some of the films Essenay at least partially shot in the area that became Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore include one called Lost in the Desert.  That movie seems to have gotten lost itself, but it was apparently part of a series of films by American actor William V. Mong.  (Two of his earlier films are entitled Lost in the Jungle and Lost in the Arctic.)

According to an article in The Times of Northwest Indiana, Mong played a “British officer who escapes from Bedouin bandits and wanders aimlessly in the desert until the cavalry rescues him. . .”

In a strange tale of life imitating art, [Mong] became lost in the Dunes after he fell asleep under a tree and the crew left without him. Mong was made up for his role, his clothing in tatters and a leopard skin covering his shoulders.

When he awoke, Mong couldn’t find his way out of the Dunes and was forced to spend the night, suffering from a lack of water and tormented by mosquitoes.

The next morning a trapper from the village of Crisman, making his way through the marshes, was startled to see a ragged, unkempt, half-naked man with long hair and a beard.  The strange figure was stumbling through the sand, carrying a club.  At times it paused, tried to shout, then moaned inarticulately, and went on his way.  The frightened trapper hurried back to Crisman to tell what he had seen. A sheriff’s posse tracked down and rescued the lost man about sunset.

The trapper might have been even more scared if he’d come across Mong in the costume he wore in a 1921 film adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  Mong appeared as the wizard Merlin.

A similar film was made in the Dunes in June 1910, Lost in the Soudan, by the Selig Polyscope Company.  This was definitely the film that brought an unusual camel caravan parading through the streets of Gary, Indiana — to great acclaim from a segment of the town’s Muslim steelworkers.  Lost in the Soudan starred the great cowboy actor Tom Mix, an early predecessor of John Wayne.


Dunes camels

(Filmmakers on the set of Lost in the Soudan, partly filmed in the dunes near Miller Beach, Indiana, in the summer of 1910.  Other films made there include The Fall of Montezuma, set during the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, and The Plum Tree, a tale of the Mexican Revolution. The Plum Tree used a regiment of the Illinois National Guard, who impersonated “Revolutionists” and “Federals” in a pitched battle filmed in an Indiana ravine.)


Theodore Roosevelt riding a Camel, Khartoum, Sudan

(Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, left, riding a camel in Egypt or the Sudan, 1910.  The man riding the other camel is the English-Austrian soldier, General Rudolf Carl von Slatin, who publicly converted to Islam to win the support of his soldiers.)


We take the Chicago Record-Herald’s statement on faith that the crowd who encountered a film company’s camel caravan in Gary in 1910 were actually Muslim.  While some of the first immigrants ever to come over the Atlantic were Muslim — including an estimated 15-30% of the slaves carried here from Africa — the great wave of voluntary Muslim immigration to the U.S. didn’t really begin until just before World War I.

Yet according to a recent history of Islam in America,  Bosnian Muslims had settled in Chicago and Gary, Indiana, by 1906, and they may have been the group that shouted “Allah! R-r-r-uum!” at the movie camels on Broadway in Gary.  In the 1910s, Bosnians were also working in the copper mines around Butte, Montana, in and played a role in the labor struggles there. In 1906, Bosnian Muslims established a Dzemijetul Hajrije (Benevolent Society) in Chicago to provide mutual aid and help pay for funerals and healthcare.  That society soon had a branch in Gary.  By 2007, it was estimated that three-quarters of Bosnian Muslims in the U.S. lived in the Chicago-Milwaukee-Gary area.

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Muslim immigration picked up after 1918.  It’s an interesting fact that one of the first mosques and Muslim cemeteries in the U.S. was founded by Syrian Muslims in Ross, North Dakota, in 1929.  (Ross, a town in North Dakota’s remote Badlands, had a population of just 97 in 2010, though those numbers were much higher a hundred years ago.)  Another mosque was soon built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1934.  Contrary to popular images, the Midwest has long been one of the cradles of Islam in America, with large numbers of Muslims, for example, settling around the auto factories of Dearborn, Michigan.

Several hundred thousand Middle Eastern Christians, mostly from Syria and Lebanon, also came to the U.S. in those years.  (Famous Syrian Americans include former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, tech wizard Steve Jobs, filmmaker Terrence Malick, and actor F. Murray Abraham, who played composer Antonio Salieri in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus.)

As for camels in the U.S., their history, too, goes back farther than you might think.

In a 1909 article in Popular Science Monthly, Walter Fleming, who taught at Louisiana State University, claimed that the Spanish had brought camels to Cuba for work in mines and that the English had unsuccessfully tried out the use of dromedaries in Virginia in 1701. Fleming wrote that the English also gave camels a go in Jamaica, but the beasts were rendered useless when their feet got infested by Caribbean “chiggers” — a bug well-known to anybody who has hiked around grassy Hoosier fields in the summer.

In the wake of the Mexican War, the U.S. Army experimented with a short-lived camel corps in the 1850s.  During Franklin Pierce’s administration, the War Department — then headed by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis — tried out the practicability of using camels in the arid Southwest, which prior to exploration Americans still thought of as mostly a barren, useless desert.  Under the command of U.S. Admiral David Dixon Porter, who had previously served in the Mexican Navy, the navy vessel USS Supply sailed to the Mediterranean and picked up thirty-three camels in North Africa, Turkey, Malta and Greece.


Camel corps 2

(An awful drawing from the Report of the U.S. Secretary of War, 1857, showing the transport of Middle Eastern camels on a ship bound for Texas.)


Jefferson Davis

(U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis helped start the Camel Corps.  The experiment led to the arrival of a group of Muslim caretakers for the camels.)


Jefferson Davis had seen Texas and the Southwest himself as a colonel in the Mexican War.  Fleming wrote:

Davis, late colonel of the Mississippi Rifles, made extensive studies in regard to the different breeds of the animal, its habitat, the proper care of it, and its adaptability to the arid plains of Texas, New Mexico and California. . . In March, 1851, he proposed to insert in the army appropriation bill an amendment providing the sum of $30,000 for the purchase of fifty camels, the hire of ten Arabs, and other expenses. In support of his measure he made a speech reviewing the history of the camel as a servant of man and explaining the need for the animals in the west.

According to a correspondent for the Times-Picayune, “three Arabs and two Turks” landed with the USS Supply in New Orleans in 1856. They traveled with the camels on to Matagorda Bay, Texas, and beyond “to attend to their wants.”  Some sources claim these men were actually Greek.


Raftsman's Journal, July 2, 1856

(Raftsman’s Journal, Clearfield, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1856.)


These Middle Eastern dromedaries were used in the Federal government’s war against the Mormons in Utah in the 1850s.  While they came to be well-liked by some soldiers, the advent of train transportation made them impractical.  The U.S. Army tried using camels to carry the mail between New Mexico Territory and California during the Civil War, though the camels were based primarily out of Camp Verde in the Texas Hill Country.

Lincoln’s war secretary Edwin Stanton ordered the beasts to be auctioned off in September 1863, yet sixty-six of them were still in army possession at war’s end.  A few had fallen into the hands of Confederates during a raid on Camp Verde.  One camel was said to have been at Vicksburg, Mississippi — in Jeff Davis’ home state — when that town was under siege in 1863.

Walter Fleming also reports that in the 1870s, miners were using some of the ex-army camels to transport salt and cord-wood between California and Nevada silver mines.  Others figured into a popular camel race in Sacramento just after the Civil War.  Like those who remained in Texas, however, these may have been interbred with commercially-imported animals brought in at a later date by speculators in San Francisco who thought the animals would prove popular in mining, logging, and perhaps even agriculture.  By 1910, however, the only industries that found camels especially useful were the Ringling Brothers Circus and Chicago’s film industry.


Ukiah Daily Journal (Ukiah, CA), May 9, 1968

(Ukiah Daily Journal, Ukiah, California, May 9, 1968.)


Most of the beasts brought over from the Mediterranean aboard the USS Supply — or their descendants — had apparently vanished by the early 1890s, when the last of them was reported to have been seen in Arizona.  That one might have been shot.  In fact, strange, scary stories had begun to circulate about the creatures.

By 1890, “ghost camels” had entered the folklore of the desert Southwest.  At least one of these tales about the feral descendants of Jefferson Davis’ Army Camel Corps followed an old trajectory of Irish and American folklore.  The humped creature carried around a headless rider.  In another version, the devilish-looking beast carried the full skeleton of a rider who had died atop its back.   Still another tale involved a Southwestern camel that was seen eating a bear.

News reports about the survival of these wandering dromedaries, believed to have been the abandoned beasts of the Army Camel Corps, kept on coming in.  In April 1934, one alleged survivor who had been taken to the Los Angeles Zoo was crippled by paralysis and had to be put down by zookeepers there.  Another siting of a “ghost camel” occurred near the ghost town of Douglas, Texas, in 1941. Newspapers were still syndicating these stories in 1968. Smithsonian Magazine even saw fit to re-tell a bit of the story earlier this year.


Anderson Herald (Anderson, IN), April 18, 1968

(Anderson Herald, Anderson, Indiana, April 18, 1968.)


The legend of the “Red Ghost,” in fact, lives on as an “Arizona oddity.”  Likewise, the tomb of Hadji Ali.  A Greek-Syrian born in 1828, Hadji Ali converted from Christianity to Islam, performed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and was living in Algeria working for the French Army when the USS Supply came looking for camels.  Hadji Ali joined the U.S. Army service, coming to California as a camel tender in 1857, later becoming an American citizen in Arizona Territory in 1880.  He worked as a scout and mule packer for the army and participated in the campaign against Apache chief Geronimo.

Nicknamed “Hi Jolly” by neighbors who couldn’t pronounce his name, Ali prospected for minerals on the edge of the Mojave Desert near the Colorado River until his death at Quartzsite, Arizona, in 1902. Following his death, the fascinating pyramid that marks his grave site — erected by fond locals — became one of the roadside attractions of the Grand Canyon State.


Hadji Ali and Bride, Tucson

(Hadji Ali, alias “Hi Jolly,” and his bride Gertrudis Serna in Tucson, Arizona, 1880.)


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com