Arts December 7, 2010

Lore and Legends

Mysteries of the Wood River Valley
The Wood River Valley, a place where the sagebrush subtlety of the Great Basin reaches toward the magisterial peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains, has seen its fair share of the unusual over the years. And among the detritus of history, bizarre stories, legends, myths and madness have emerged. Some stories were created by splashy journalists. Others by community apprehensions. And still others by mad behavior or just plain silliness. Most are now relegated to musty archives. But here are a few engaging stories from our past that run the spectrum from legitimate history to old-fashioned delusion.



I know a little about elephants, as I was once assigned by the Detroit Free Press to ride the lead elephant at the head of the annual Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus parade through the Motor City.

That elephant, dusty, bored and thoroughly disinterested, began the parade with me clinging to the no-doubt-homicidal beast like some parasitic barnacle on the back of an immense gray whale. Meanwhile, my photographer yelled up, “Relax!” with the serene composure of someone safely standing at street level.

Undoubtedly, he’d never been on an elephant before. Nor had he ever heard of Samson, the great Indian elephant that once attacked an innocent and placid Hailey, Idaho, wreaking havoc upon the quiet citizenry and prosaic animal life of Blaine County.

Samson was probably, in 1884 at least, the largest Indian elephant ever seen in America. Five tons. At least 12 feet fall. He first came to public attention while taking children and tourists for rides at Coney Island in New York. His stay there was uneventful, but his handler had a sense that Samson had a dark side. It was just a hunch, but he sold Samson to the circus.

It was a routine albeit very warm August day in Hailey when the Cole Brothers Circus arrived. And while the original reports of Samson’s rampage through the Wood River Valley were fairly reserved, the version the pachyderm’s trainer, George Conklin, penned years later for his autobiography was downright sensational.

Conklin, wearing tights with a leopard skin wrapped around his waist, reported that shortly after Samson had dropped off the last of the local kids that had ridden upon his back as the circus paraded from the train station to the Big Top, the elephant, as usual, followed the cages full of other animals into the main tent.

But then, inexplicably, Samson put his trunk under a small cart of animals and casually flipped it on its side. Samson then turned on four nearby work horses, knocking them all to the ground. He then followed this up by flipping over 11 more carts, letting loose a menagerie of lions, tigers and bears to the “Oh, my!” shock of the crowd of spectators.

Conklin got a pitchfork and jabbed the elephant a few times to divert its attention. As Samson turned to attack Conklin, he jumped on a bronco and hightailed it out of the tent. Samson gave chase. Outside the tent was a blacksmith shop with a huge ore wagon in front, waiting for repairs. Samson blithely shoved it through the shop front and continued his pursuit. As Conklin wrote in his memoirs, “An elephant never goes around anything.”

Conklin was pounding across the field toward a water tower where many people were perched to watch the circus festivities. To them, Conklin looked like a crazed phantasmal on horseback…until they noticed he was being chased by an enraged elephant—and they were heading right for them! “They climbed down and ran faster than I ever saw anyone run in my life,” Conklin recalled.

Chaos spread quickly. In a momentary pause, Conklin was handed a shotgun which he fired a couple of times at the elephant. “I hit him squarely in the trunk five or six times, but he paid no more attention to it than he would to so many raindrops,” he wrote.

Four cowboys with small-caliber rifles joined the chase and fired at Samson. It didn’t slow him down, though. Finally, the elephant was trapped in a freight yard and set upon by a score of circus workers, who were able to topple the beast and tie up his legs.

Conklin soothed and healed the bound elephant, whose worse problem was a sore trunk. He had to be handfed for a week.
Samson went on to continue his circus career without further disruptions. But years later, he was caught in a fire that swept through the circus’s winter quarters. Samson wouldn’t allow anyone close enough to set him free. He died in the blaze.

It was a tragic, senseless death, but the legend of Samson has lived on. His bones were collected and mounted for an elephant display in the Museum of Natural History in New York City where Samson had a second life entertaining and informing children—far away from screeching train engines and the occasional foul moods that once threatened the well-being of Hailey, Idaho.





For years, the rarely timorous denizens of the Wood River Valley and the Camas Prairie lived in mortal dread of a being so large, so loathsome, so cruel, that adult men slept with their lanterns blazing and fierce watchdogs cowered behind iron stoves. No one was safe. The Camas Wild Man was afoot!

Newspapers, including those as far away as Chicago and New York, quoted witnesses who said the Wild Man wore a beard two-and-a-half-feet long. His muscular body was covered with a two-inch-thick mat of hair. His finger and toe nails were long, at least two inches, and resembled claws. Whispered conversation reported he lived primarily on snakes and over the years had abducted a couple of innocent maidens, ensuring a fate worse than death. These horrific stories, whispered in the finest drawing rooms of the Valley, sent delicate women lurching for their swoon couches. All piety and decency and life itself were vulnerable to this demented feral beast.

Finally, justice prevailed. The Bellevue Sun reported in 1883 that a traveler named Mickelhenny was hunting in the prairie for ducks with a double-barreled shotgun. Suddenly, the Camas Wild Man leapt from behind some greenery.

Mickelhenny, no whimpering fool, dropped the Wild Man with both barrels. Mickelhenny’s colleagues came running. But the Wild Man was NOT dead. He rose and started to flee. Just as the Wild Man turned to look back at his tormentors, one of the men hurled a hatchet at him. The hatchet cleaved his forehead, and, this time, the Wild Man fell dead.

“Thus ends the life of a mysterious being,” reported The Bellevue Sun.

“A man no one knows whom and coming from no one knows whence. A terrible specter. A being shrouded in mystery of whom nothing more will ever be known.” But not so fast!

T. E. Picotte, editor of the Hailey Times, was aghast at the Sun’s revelation. Outraged, Picotte detailed in his paper—admitted to the world—that he, personally, had conceived and brought forth the Camas Wild Man. And this fictitious creation, he fumed, had well served the circulation needs of all three valley newspapers (The Ketchum Keystone rounded out the literary triumvirate). The Sun, he harangued, had no legal or moral right to callously kill off the circulation-enhancing Wild Man, and even then it did so with “ways that are dark and tricks that are vain.”

Presumably, newspaper readers in those days paid no more attention to editorial-page rants and front-page tomfoolery than they do today. And, thus, Valley readers quickly moved from the Wild Man to the more pressing revelations of Mrs. Kate Dougray, who reported that during the winter two of her fine hogs fell into a pond . . . mind you, it was 30 below zero . . . and were quickly encased in ice. However, when the thaw came, the two pigs, brace yourself, promptly broke free of their ice overcoats and returned to normal life . . . rooting for garbage behind the local restaurants. Why not?





Even by the mid-1980s, the young and restless of the Wood River Valley had a subset that sustained itself by lackadaisical work and a host of chemical concoctions. And, thus, the story of the Moss Man begins.

In March of 1984, cross-country skiers reported to the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office that a man—with peeling skin and green moss on his back—was living in the wide, shallow, natural mineral hot pool at Frenchman’s Bend in the Smoky Mountains, about ten miles west of Ketchum on Warm Springs Road. On the ground nearby were the man’s frozen clothes.

The deputies extracted the semi-coherent, 6’ 2’’ interloper and carted him off to the old St. Moritz Hospital, where doctors were flabbergasted. The man, then 20-year-old Hailey resident Timothy Hammerbeck, claimed to have been living in the pool for 28 days.

After initially settling in for a long, quiet, speed-heightened soak, Hammerback was horrified to discover that his clothes, lying on the ground by the hot springs, had frozen. It was bitterly cold, and putting on his icy outfit, he declared, was out of the question. Even leaving the pool for a few moments to get fresh water from Warm Springs Creek resulted in his feet beginning to freeze. So he stayed in the 90-plus-degree water, only leaving as infrequently as possible to get a drink. He figured there would soon be a spring thaw and he could get back into his clothes.

Having resigned himself to being trapped in the hot water, Hammerback held fast to his resolve and bobbed around for days that flowed into weeks. He was observed by some people who dismissed him as unhinged and moved on. A man on a snowmobile gave him a bottle of beer—his only nourishment—and, as he later recalled, “probably the best beer I ever had in my life.” The hospital doctor estimated he lost 60 pounds during his immersion.

Current Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling, one of the officers who came to extract Hammerback, told Outside magazine for an article done more than a decade after the soggy event that the Moss Man had basically spent the winter sleeping in the post office, before taking his historic dip.

“When we pulled him out, he looked like a boiled chicken wing,” Femling said.
“He had moss growing on him.”

The man’s sister-in-law wasn’t surprised by what may have been the longest hot tub stay in American history. It seemed he consumed amphetamines like popcorn. “His brains are really scrambled,” she told the Mountain Express shortly after the her soft-boiled brother-in-law was rescued.

The Moss Man, who said his nickname is embarrassing, reportedly had numerous strange visions while soaking, including watching a white wolf stalk and kill a deer. Moss Man’s visions helped inspire a bunch of Valley locals to create a short-lived festival a dozen years later in honor of the man who temporarily became half-human, half-plant. The Moss Man Commemoration and Pagan Fun Fest of Ketchum, Idaho, though, soon disappeared into the same blurry history that swallowed up its namesake.

But the Moss Man declared he has fond memories of his sojourn at Frenchman’s Bend, although he’d prefer to let that part of his life fade into obscurity.

“I’ve got a job now,” he told Outside, on the condition he not be identified, adding that he’d moved to the practical Midwest, where people would never consider taking up residence in an outdoor hot tub as a sensible real estate play, even if rent free. “People might get the wrong idea about me if they found out I’d lived in the water for a while. It was hard at first, staying there all by myself. But after a couple of weeks, I just started feeling peaceful,” he said.

“It’s also possible,” the Moss Man admitted, “that the drugs had a little bit of influence.” Maybe just a little.





By Mike McKenna

For some of us, home really is where the heart is, and for those of us like the legendary Mrs. Osborn, that’s where it will always stay.

The night of May 26, 1901 was a particularly chilly and damp one in the friendly confines of Hailey; a booming mining town in the wild remotes of the young state of Idaho. To warm things up, Mrs. Sara Jane Osborn had started a fire in the library of her family’s home, just north of town on a thousand-acre homestead, then known as the Cloverly Ranch.

Her husband, the revered Reverend Israel Tremain Osborn, had built both the home and the community’s Episcopal church back in 1885. On this fateful night, the good Reverend was in Shoshone spreading the word and saving Gem State souls.

Just after midnight struck, Merton Olson, one of the couple’s three sons, was awoken from his slumbering spot in the dairy barn next to the house by the cries of his mother: “Fire! Fire!”

Merton raced from the barn to the house where he saw his mother trapped on the second floor. She hollered for him to save his brother, nine-year-old Joseph, the only other family member in the house. Merton grabbed a ladder but it proved to be too short. He then raced around to the rear of the house to help but was too late. The house, and all inside it, was quickly engulfed.

When the fire was finally put out, it was theorized that a beam had fallen and taken the lives of Mrs. Osborn and her youngest child as they tried to make their way downstairs. Her body was found lying next to him, one arm reaching out and just barely touching her son.

It’s said that you couldn’t find a dry eye in all of Hailey the next day when news spread of the tragedy. Most of the residents of the Wood River Valley, including folks from Ketchum, Bullion and Bellevue, attended the services with a funeral procession reported to be half a mile long.

Mrs. Osborn and her son were laid to rest in the Hailey Cemetery—although legend has Mrs. Osborne actually never left her house.

Reverend Osborn quickly rebuilt the house, adding a stained glass window on the second floor in honor of his late wife and son. In 1941, the Chapman family bought the home from the Osborns. And for about as long as anyone can remember, there have been steady and numerous reports of encounters at the house—always on the second floor—with a woman, usually wearing a white or blue dress

As John Chandler told the Wood River Journal years ago,
“She’s certainly not a dangerous type of spirit.
She’s very helpful and loving.”

House guests of the Chapman’s have long told stories of seeing an apparition. But unlike other ghost stories, it doesn’t appear that Mrs. Osborn is very frightening. She’s said to have a lot more in common with “Casper the Friendly Ghost” than with “Zuul,” the demonic spirit from the film "Ghost Busters"—though she doesn’t seem to care much for parties.

John Chapman was just four when his family moved into the house, and while he reports to have never seen Mrs. Osborn himself, he has certainly felt her presence. Besides being inspired to do a few odd things when he remodeled the house in the mid-1990s—like buying a fireplace front on a whim that turned out to be from the same year the house was originally built—there were some odd occurrences during a Halloween party one year.

While the house was filled with revelers, a picture flew off a wall and a lead and glass chandelier fell in what was described as a “floating” manner. Miraculously, not a single plain of glass on the chandelier was broken. The party was, however, broken up a bit by the phenomenon.

Those who claim to have seen and spoken to Mrs. Osborn said she has explained that she’s simply “caretaking” her home and that Joe left long ago. She also reportedly approves of the Chandler’s remodel.

As John Chandler told the Wood River Journal years ago, “She’s certainly not a dangerous type of spirit. She’s very helpful and loving.”

And thus the legend of Mrs. Osborn lives on.




This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.