The ghosts of Manitou Springs

Putting a haunted cemetery to the test

The grave of Civil War veteran Charles Adams

Dead leaves swept gently across the footpaths in Crystal Valley Cemetery last Saturday evening, as if brushed away by a great, unseen hand. A crescent moon slipped silently behind the hills, and several large deer munched quietly on the short grass overlying Manitou and Colorado City’s dead. Perfect night to look for ghosts.

Crystal Valley, located on a tree-sheltered hillside east of Manitou Springs, is one of Colorado’s most notoriously haunted graveyards. When my wife and I first visited about three years ago, after participating (in our capacity as SpiritBear Paranormal, our part-time ghost-hunting franchise) in an investigation at a haunted Manitou B&B, the first thing we saw was a bloody deer leg lying on the main driveway.

Welcome to Crystal Valley, indeed.

But the deer legs were all intact last weekend, and they were joined by the legs of several dozen locals, all participating in a nighttime cemetery tour, hosted by Stephanie Waters and Colorado Ghost Tours. Waters, a writer, cancer survivor and Manitou resident, has made a cottage industry of guiding cameraphone-armed locals through some of the most legendarily haunted areas in the Colorado Springs area for a decade. She is also the author of a couple of books on haunted Colorado history, including Haunted Manitou Springs, and she is well-versed in the local lore of weird doctors, famous Indian fighters and shot-dead ne’er-do-wells that make up the early days of the area’s history.

She was also joined by The Spirit Chasers, Christopher and James, a successful and energetic duo of ghost hunters from the area who have gained some local media notoriety for their abundantly documented investigations and their appearances on radio programs and syndicated TV programs such as My Ghost Story. Set up with a portable DVD player, they reviewed and narrated some of the visual and audio evidence they have collected on their investigations, taking questions from the tour participants.

We were introduced to the group as both ghost hunters and local media, as we told Waters we were doing a story for a Boulder newspaper, and we followed Waters and her crew around for a spell, listening to the stories. There was the somewhat demented Dr. Isaac Davis, who had donated the land for the cemetery and was a leading city figure (Manitou’s coroner, to be precise), but who also decided to practice embalming technique on the unclaimed body of a murdered gambler, and displayed his handiwork publicly on summer days to the horror of the Victorian civilians. There was the sad story of Emma Crawford, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 19 in 1891 and whose remains cascaded down from her requested resting place on Red Mountain in a rain-soaked muddy torrent after the railroad undermined the mountain’s slope. And there was the enterprising Austrian immigrant Theresa Kenny, who purchased her own plot 14 years before her death and who built her own mausoleum in her spare time, finally occupying it for good in 1943.

As iPhones blinked away against the night’s darkness, the guides took questions about spirit orbs and apparitions, told a few jokes and generally breathed life into the motionless headstones, reminding their patrons that stories lay beneath the cool, grassy soil, and that cemeteries are the places that join the present with the past, legend with fact and, tonight at least, the living and the dead.

For all the creepiness that cemeteries evoke at night, this one didn’t particularly feel haunted. It was pretty well lit from the lanterns, plenty of ambient streetlight, flashlights and the city-installed cemetery lighting, and the three or four roving groups of cemetery tourists leaked plenty of voice-noise through the cemetery, which isn’t much bigger than, say, Boulder’s Columbia Cemetery on the Hill.

But we wandered off anyway, finally finding a darkened area by the grave of Charles Adams, U.S. Army Civil War veteran and allegedly a member of Col. John Chivington’s notorious Sand Creek detachment. Adams died in 1895, and his headstone is said to exude uncharacteristic warmth at night.

We ran our voice recorder for a few minutes, addressing the late Mr. Adams, and decided to fire off a few flash-lit pictures. Like a lot of ghost hunters, we tend to be pretty clinical and process-focused on the techniques of gathering evidence. It’s easy enough to slip into a certain frame of mind, standing at the headstone of someone long dead, in the dark, surrounded by headstones, with little but the whisper of wind in the trees. But the mind plays tricks on the senses in the dark, and the latent desire to hear a voice or see the shape of a spirit can easily coax the sensory-deprived mechanisms of the brain into actually seeing and hearing them. If you think there’s something to all this ghost stuff, and plenty of people don’t, you have to find a way to separate wishful thinking from actual evidence.

And thus, the camera and the recorders and the IR light. In pixels we trust.

Is the cloudy blur on the right the product of a supernatural presence or bad photography? | Photo by Dave Kirby

I reviewed each of my snaps as I took them, and one in particular caught my eye. A nebulous cloud of light appeared at the right edge of the frame, with a brilliant orange orb in the center of the frame, and I immediately raised the camera and took another in the same direction. The shape and the orb were both gone in the second. The orb was not of much interest to me, but the vaporous cloud off to the side was.

I showed it around to the hosts and they found it interesting — “proof ” is a word rarely tossed about in ghost-hunting circles; even the most ardent believers concede that proving the existence of ghosts with technology is a very dicey proposition, even if thousands of Ghost Hunters-inspired amateur groups around the country keep trying.

The “light anomaly” in the upper left perplexed experienced ghost hunters, who say they had never seen anything like it. | Photo by Sharon Rodemann

We packed up and headed home. The next evening, my wife showed me another odd photograph that she captured at dusk, before the event got started. The dimming crescent moon hung behind some of the cemetery’s tall and mature trees, and to the left is an irregularly shaped light anomaly. At first glance it suggested a bit of lens flare, but lens flares tend to markedly mirror the primary light source, and this one clearly did not. We’ve shot thousands of photos on ghost hunts, and we’ve never seen anything quite like this.

Is Crystal Valley Cemetery haunted? For a lot of us, the truth remains tantalizingly close, but always just out of reach.