Old West Ghosts of Hays City, Kansas
By Doreen Stadelman Wente
Every community has their share of local legends and ghost stories. Hays, Kansas is no different. Originally known as Hays City, the history of Hays is rooted in the old west. Many well-known “wild west” figures resided in or passed through Hays City. Wild Bill Hickok was the sheriff for a brief period of time, General George Custer was stationed at Fort Hays nearby, and the world famous Buffalo Soldiers were a part of Fort Hays during the Indian Wars, just to name a few. Hays City was a wild and rough town during its early years. With over 30 saloons and brothels, the soldiers from Fort Hays frequented the town. Card games, brawls and gunfights were everyday occurrences. It’s not surprising that Hays would have a good number of ghost stories to share.
The downtown, original area of Hays that was once full of saloons, brothels and merchants, has many stories to tell. One local legend says that anyone who was killed in the gambling hall was thrown down an old well out back. Other stories have the unruly being buried in the local Boot Hill cemetery. A railroad bridge at the edge of town became known as “the hanging bridge.” Anyone who actually live long enough to be tried in the court of Judge Joyce, was hung from this bridge if found guilty.
Kate Coffee, a saloon and brothel owner, was stabbed to death in her own saloon. The original building still stands. It has housed several businesses and has most recently been converted to apartments. Over the years, there have been many sightings of Miss Coffey’s ghost.
As the town of Hays grew and expanded north, the Boot Hill Cemetery needed to be moved. Many of the graves were moved to the new Mount Allen Cemetery located a few miles north of town. Many of the graves at Boot Hill had been lost, so not all of the bodies were moved. This area is now in the center of a residential neighborhood. As basements were being dug for new constructions over the years, many remains have been found. A good number of residences in the surrounding neighborhood have experienced strange happenings. The Boot Hill Cemetery is now a historical landmark and a memorial stand on the spot.
While there are so many ghost stories told about Hays City, the most well-known stories are centered at Fort Hays. Fort Hays was established in 1865 and originally known as Fort Fletcher. The fort was located along the banks of Big Creek 14 miles southeast of what would be Hays City. In the spring of 1867, the fort was destroyed by a flood. The site was abandoned and the fort was re-located on 7500 acres of land ¾ of a mile directly south of Hays City. The name was then changed to Fort Hays.
Fort Hays was a fully functioning fort during the Indian Wars, housing the regiments of the Seventh US Cavalry, the Fifth US Infantry, and the Tenth US Cavalry. The fort was abandoned at the end of the Indian Wars late in 1889 and turned over to the State of Kansas in 1900. A few original buildings still sand and are now part of a museum and a good portion of the land is now Fort Hays State University. At one time, two houses that were officer’s quarters were sold and moved to another are of Hays and used as private residences. One well known ghost story happened to a family who lived in one of these houses. The children always complained about voices and footsteps during the night. One evening, as the owner was returning home from work, she entered her house and began to enter the dining room. Around her dining room table was a group of cavalry soldiers playing cards. As she backed out of the room, the soldiers faded and disappeared. Many years later, the two houses were sold back to the museum and re-located to their original places at the fort. Occasional activity is still reported by visitors and staff.
The most well-known legend surrounding Fort Hays and Hays City is that of the Blue Light Lady. Sometime during the mid 1860’s Elizabeth Polly and her husband Ephriam came to Fort Hays. Ephriam was a hospital steward who came to the fort to attend to the sick and wounded. In 1867, a cholera epidemic hit Fort Hays. There were so many sick to take care of that Elizabeth joined in to lend a helping hand. Evenings, Elizabeth would often walk the two miles to Sentinel Hill to find spiritual comfort from the tasks she endured daily. Sentinel Hill over looked the fort and city and offered an wonderful place to relax and reflect. Late in 1867, Elizabeth contracted the disease. As she was dying, she asked her husband to bury her at the top of Sentinel Hill. He agreed, but when the time came, he found the limestone hill too hard to dig a grave. He buried her at the foot of the hill instead. Four limestone posts were used to mark the grave. Legend says that these posts were stolen by four thieves. Each of these thieves met with an untimely death. One was killed in a gunfight. Another was struck by a train. The remaining two died in a carriage accident. Because of the theft of the markers, Elizabeth’s gravesite has been lost. Attempts have been made to dig in the area in hopes of finding her remains. Several remains have been found, but there is no proof that any of them were actually that of Elizabeth.
The legend of the Blue Light lady began when people started seeing a blue, glowing ball of light floating in the area of Sentinel Hill. It is assumed that the spirit of Elizabeth Polly is looking for her grave. Others, still have seen a woman in a blue prairie dress and bonnet. One of the earliest known reports was in 1917 when John Schmidt, a local farmer, encountered a woman in a blue dress crossing his field. He attempted to call to her, but she just continued walking, entering a small shed on the property. Mr. Schmidt had his family watch for her all day. After never seeing anyone leave the shed, he went to check on the woman. To his surprise, there was no one in the shed and nothing had been disturbed. Mr. Schmidt’s farm was located close to Sentinel Hill.
In 1957, a member of the Hays Police Department was patrolling along the Interstate 70 Bypass that passes between Fort Hays State University and the old fort museum. He looked up to see a woman in a blue dress crossing the road directly in front of his car. He was positive he had hit her. He radioed dispatch to send an ambulance and got out of his car to help the woman. There was no one there. He never found the woman that he was sure he had injured.
In recent years, a crew of custom harvesters was cutting a wheat field near Sentinel Hill. Most of the crew had headed into town at the end of the day. One combine operator stayed behind to finish his “rounds”. He encountered a woman in a blue dress gliding across the wheat field. He called to her, but she ignored him and continued her walk. When he met the rest of the crew in town for supper, he told his story. The waitress told him that he had just seen the Blue Light Lady.
Whether Elizabeth Polly is actually the Blue Light Lady or just a wonderful woman who cared for the sick, she holds a special place in the hearts of the residents of Hays. A park in the city has been named for her and a memorial statue has been placed in her honor. Another memorial marker has been placed at the top of Sentinel Hill. There haven’t been any recorded sightings lately, but it seems she likes years that end in 7, so the community of Hays will have to keep watch in 2017. Maybe the Blue Light Lady will appear again.
Hays, Kansas is rich with ghost stories and old west history. Anyone with an interest in either of these subjects would not be disappointed in a visit to the area. This article only touches on a few of the stories and legends. There is so much more to discover in Hays, Kansas. And who knows? If you visit at the right time, you just might get to meet Elizabeth Polly.