Black Box Specters
Having been hit with a touch of summer cholera, today I present, with minimal commentary two bizarre stories of black box spectres, one from the Arizona Territory and the other from Ireland.
THE DARK SHADOW OF THE DESERT
A Strange Phenomenon Witnessed on the Desert in Arizona Territory.
The following thrilling story of a moonlight adventure on the plains of Arizona is related by a well-known gentleman of San Francisco, Alden R. Vining, whose single avowal is the best warrant for its absolute truth. He is a thorough business man, who possesses the additional advantage of a good scientific education. He cannot readily be supposed, therefore, to indulge his imagination, nor allow it to be imposed upon, by flying phantoms or any hitherto unexplained phenomenon. Travelling by moonlight in an open country leaves the strongest man open to illusion, and the fault is ordinarily imparted to the imagination. When a mind of this nature is illusioned twice and under almost identical circumstances, and followed besides by results which remain forever indelible in the memory, the causes leading up to such effects are not so easily dismissed. They, perhaps are, and forever may remain, unexplainable and only verify the words well known: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”
In the early part of June, 1894, Mr. Vining left San Francisco, intending to bond a gold mine, situated near Black canyon, Arizona Territory, a place about seventy miles south of Prescott. He reached this latter town some days later and found upon his arrival there the owner of the mine, a man by the name of Hobart, whom he had never met before. As Mr.Vining was most anxious to see the mine and ascertain its value, he departed in a two-horse buggy for Black canyon on the evening following his arrival at Prescott, accompanied by Mr. Hobart.
No railroad then covered the line of travel between Prescott and any of the smaller towns to the south. Only a stage road existed. A rugged, sandy road it was, but if travelling under foot was unpropitious, all inconvenience was compensated for by the glories of the night on which Mr. Vining and his companion commenced their journey. About 9 o’clock in the evening they reached a point seven or eight miles south of Mayer’s station. Far to the left nothing was visible but the purple sands of the desert meeting and commingling at the horizon with the cloudless ether of the sky. To the right, and about two miles distant, was clearly to be seen the rising ground of the Apache reservation, lit up at intervals by the starlike campfires of the Indians. Almost directly at the zenith swung the full moon, shedding a halo of dreamy beauty over the landscape. A stillness almost solemn prevailed, but slightly broken by the hoofs of the horses and the wheels of the buggy as they sank and made headway through the thick sand of the stage road. The travelers conversed in whispers; they seemed to be under the spell of the place and hour. And now appeared the strange phenomenon which Mr. Vining called the black shadow or omen. Through a broad defile in the rising ground to the right a dark object was seen to approach. What at first appeared to the travelers a horse and buggy, now as it drew nearer, assumed quite a different and, to men in their position, an almost horrifying aspect. It was nothing else than a seemingly solid black body about ten feet square and impelled by some invisible power. Imagine their horror when it took up a position a few feet away and maintained an equal rate of speed with their own. Although Mr. Vining was thoroughly frightened himself, he describes his companion’s condition as truly pitiable. The poor fellow was shivering from head to foot; his knees were knocking together; his teeth chattered and his one piteous cry to Mr. Vining was to drive on, to “drive on for God’s sake.” Mr. Vining did not heed the pleading of Hobart, but, determining to shake off the unspeakable terror fast taking possession of him, succeeded, after much trouble, in reining up the almost unmanageable horses. Then, to his great surprise and joy, the thing slipped back to a distance of fifty feet, but there came to a halt.
Mr. Vining whipped up the horses again and the frightened animals broke into a furious gallop, straining the traces to the uttermost and making such progress as the sandy road would allow. His hair fairly stood on end as he glanced over his right shoulder, only to see the black apparition rapidly advancing and finally taking up its former position by his side. For full ten minutes this mad race was kept up, until human endurance could stand it no longer. Scarcely knowing what he did, he stopped the fatigued horses, and, forcing Hobart to hold the reins, he sprang whip in hand to the ground. As the horses came to a stand the apparition began to recede. Mr. Vining closely pursuing it. At one time he was so close he could almost have struck it with his whip, but just then it began to rapidly retire, and gradually fade away in the distance. Mr. Vining watched it for some time, until it finally disappeared through the defile into the hills, whence it came. With the disappearance of the desert phantom he rejoined Hobart, and together they continued their journey. Arriving at Black canyon the next day the mine was duly examined, and Mr. Vining bonded it for three years. What troubled him greatly during the latter part of his stay at Black canyon was the strange, eccentric conduct of Hobart. He would disappear for whole days at a time, and would be generally found hiding in the sagebrush at the outskirts of the settlement. This continued until Mr. Vining was ready to depart for Prescott, and neither entreaties nor expostulations could induce Hobart to accompany him on the way back. It was plainly evident that his sensibilities had been so wrought upon by his desert experience as to go a great way in shattering his nerves, if not his reason. Mr. Vining, it must be confessed, did not wish to cross the desert alone, and after some days of waiting, induced two prospectors to accompany him as far as the Mayer’s Station. In his own mind he would have ample cause for self-congratulation could he make that distance without difficulty.
Nothing worthy of note transpired during the first half of the journey, but to his extreme mortification one of the horses broke down at this point, thus leaving him with only one available animal to complete the distance to Mayer’s Station. The prospectors, only too glad to avail themselves of his distressful predicament, and placing, besides, no reliance in the terrifying powers of moonlight apparitions, flatly refused to accompany him further. Mr. Vining, fully realized the situation he was placed in. The day was drawing to a close, and he was obliged, in order to reach Mayer’s Station, to cross the same tract of lonely desert in which he saw the appalling black phantom. Did he retrace his steps it was only to leave himself open to the ridicule of the prospectors and the friends he had just left at Black canyon.
Ridicule is, to a generous spirit, perhaps a greater incentive to heroic action than the pursuit of riches or of glory. Mr. Vining felt this as he left his disabled horse with his buggy on the plains, and mounting the remaining horse in any way he could, bravely started for Mayer’s Station. He made but slow progress, hardly knowing the way, and depending in part on the instinctive sagacity of the animal he rode to accomplish the journey in safety. The air for the Arizona desert was chilly, the sky somewhat gloomy and overcast. The waning moon would soon climb over the far-distant hills, and after midnight, if the clouds permitted, it would be brighter. Just at midnight the air became warmer, the clouds rolled away in black masses to the horizon, and the moon arose, faint and sickly at first, and with a dull, yellow glare. As it ascended higher in the sky, it gradually lighted up the waste of sand with something like the effulgence which silvered the road before Mr. Vining as he first traversed it on his way to Black canyon.
He could not now pass the same way with the same feelings, for to his left began to arise the dread hills of the Apache reservation, and from the defile whence it came before, what did he see, to his unutterable horror, but the same black phantom approaching. This time it approached more rapidly than on the occasion of his former appearance, and, instead of taking up a position on the left, as Mr. Vining considered, if it were shadow, it naturally would, it retreated and again took up its place on the right, and only two or three feet distant. Mr. Vining this time was too palsied from sheer terror to attempt anything in the way of investigation. He rained blow after blow on his tired and frightened horse to try and outrace if possible, the phantom. It was all in vain, however. In truth, if anything, this awful midnight visitant was in the lead. The horse at this juncture shied and left the road, but he was soon sunk to his knees in white sand and sage-brush, and unable to make any headway. Just at this moment the thing vanished over the plain, and Mr. Vining, almost dead from fright and averting his eyes from the dreadful fading figure, saw rapidly approaching him three Apache Indians who had broken away from the reservation.
These Indians were all well armed and mounted. Mr. Vining had by this time dismounted, seeing that if he had ghostly enemies to contend with before it was impossible to escape from mortal ones now. As the Indians came nearer one of them raised a rifle, which his nearest companion pressed toward the ground with his hand. Upon coming up to Mr. Vining he showed him his watch, which they at once took. A pocketbook containing $127, a linen duster, a coat, overcoat, two large flasks of whiskey and about a hundred cigars went the same route, and in this wretched though somewhat ludicrous plight poor Vining was ordered to mount his horse. What seems almost incredible, he was told to proceed on his way, but this generosity on the Indians’ part may be attributed to the first influences wrought upon them by the quantities of whisky which they consumed.
Mr. Vining might have attempted to escape from the Indians had not his horse become worn out with fatigue. It may have been his salvation, however, that he acted as he did. At any rate, he was glad to get away, and, frightened, dispirited, and penniless he reached Mayer’s Station about 4 o’clock in the morning. There he remained some days, and the first advice from the south was word that poor Hobart and the two prospectors were murdered by the three roving Apaches. It seems that Hobart wanted, all the time, to return to Prescott in other company than that of Mr. Vining; that he wanted to avoid him on account of the desert phantom seems very probable. At what particular part of the road he met the prospectors is merely conjecture. Whether with his dying eyes he again saw the hideous lethal monster of the desert is likewise conjecture. But one thing is certain, that at the very spot of the desert where the phantom first appeared to Mr. Vining, the mutilated bodies of Hobart and the two prospectors were found.
San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 13 February 1898: p. 10
Now the literary quality of this article suggests that it might have been fiction presented as fact. That well-known gentleman whose single avowal is the best warrant for its absolute truth and the inclusion of the word “thrilling,” almost guarantees us a Ripping Yarn.
I look for patterns in such thrilling tales of the supernatural; most follow well-worn paths. The solid black box spectre is not the road ghost usually found in travelers’ tales. If an invention, why a black box? Why not ghostly Apaches, dead prospectors, or a headless horseman?
Alden R. Vining ran a real estate and mining agency in San Francisco in the 1890s. In 1896 he appeared in the San Francisco papers in connection with some jiggery-pokery about the sale of Mexican mine shares by his mother, Mrs. Burrel, “an elderly lady of respectable appearance” Here’s the sensational story:
“Sacramento. The Bee tonight will publish a story of school teachers and other women of this city who, during the past two weeks, have invested heavily in a mine in Mexico. The parties who had the mining stock for sale told a wonderful story of immense hidden wealth and claimed that its whereabouts was made know by a Jesuit priest, who pledged them to sell stock only to working women. [!!!]
The mine was claimed to contain the richest ore in the world, and in addition, its shaft was filled with precious gems thrown there by Jesuits when they were compelled to leave Mexico. These Jesuits, it is claimed, took their secret with them, and a priest over 100 years old, who told the parties who were selling the stock, alone knew the whereabouts of the shaft.
Over ten shares were sold in this city to a half dozen or more well-known women, and those who sold it carried away at least $1000. Those who sold the stock were a man and a woman. The man gave his name as Professor George W. Martin, and said he lived near the corner of Fourteenth and Myrtle streets, Oakland. The woman gave the name of Mrs. T.P. Burrell, and claims to be an aunt of E.P. Vining of San Francisco. The parties left the city on Tuesday.….E.P. Vining, general manager of the Market-street Railway Company, says he knows Mrs. Burrell well but knows nothing of her mining ventures….
Mrs. Burrell has an only son, Alden R. Vining, who is associated with her in several mining ventures. He has an office in the Daniel Meyer building, on Pine street, where he conducts a real estate and mining agency, and when seen there yesterday afternoon consented to talk freely of the Mexico mining enterprise in which his mother has interested herself.
“This Mr. Martin, is, I believe, a man of reliability and a well-known resident of Oakland, “ he said. “He claims to have some valuable mining property in Mexico, which includes a rich ledge and a placer mine. He has been trying to get together enough capital to operate the mines, and approached my mother with a proposition to put in some money and interest some of her friends in the venture. I advised her not to do so, for there is that element of chance in mining speculations which sometimes upsets an investor’s calculations. Just what success Mr. Martin has met with in his effort to interest capital in his mines, I do not know, but I know that no stock has been sold, for the reason that no company has been organized as yet. Several people have promised to put money into the concern, but as far as I know no money has been put up as yet. San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 26 January 1896: p. 21
About this time several of the lady school teacher investors demanded their money back and the Oakland and Sacramento police interested themselves in the doings of Professor Martin and Mrs. Burrell. In March of 1896 it was reported that a local mining engineer named Chestnut visited Mexico with Martin. On his return, he said he was disgusted to discover that the mine was not valuable and was already being worked by others.
I’ll leave it to you judge whether Mr. Vining was an honest mine appraiser or a man who did not see any harm in embellishing the truth or in indulging in a (black) spot of early science fiction.
I found a strangely similar black box specter in connection with ghostly black coaches—or the Death Coach, as the apparition was called—in Ireland:
I now propose to take what I may call the depositions of a man who has passed away since the date of the incident referred to, and I do so because he had an exceptional opportunity of seeing and describing the Black Coach, and I believe his testimony can be corroborated by men who are still living. The late James Roche, Aughawillian, Co. Leitrim, was well-known far beyond the borders of his native county, and I give the story as he related it to an intimate friend.
“We were driving calves home from the fair of Blacklion, and it was late, somewhere about twelve o’clock, when we reached Killeshandra. It was a stormy night, with driving showers of rain, and while we were passing through the town there came a regular tempest, and we ran to the market house for shelter. We stood under the arches close to the street, and while we were standing there we heard a sound, like that of an approaching coach, coming up the street from the direction of the old church. It came rapidly toward us, and we had a distinct view of it, and it seemed more like a black box or chest than a coach. It was about four feet in height and carried no lights, nor was there any light coming from the inside. It passed quite close, not more than three or four yards from us, but I could see no sign either of horses or driver, nor could I see any wheels. It made a great noise as it passed by the market house, and vanished up the street, and after that we saw no more of it. Immediately afterwards the rain ceased and we started for home.”
Mr. Roche’s account of the appearance of the Black Coach differs materially from that of the other witnesses. To them it bore the appearance of an ordinary coach, to Mr. Roche it looked like “ a black box or chest,” of comparatively small size, and on this occasion it carried no lights nor was there any light coming from inside the coach.
The Occult Review February 1907: p. 81-9
These four-square phantoms act a bit like spook lights in their plaguing of travelers, although we would have to style them the spook light’s antithesis, a spook black-hole. While I vaguely remember similar subfusc phenomena in connection with UFO sightings, I’m not au courant with the literature–the best I can do is the featureless black monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other cubical creatures? Think outside the box and send to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.
Mike Chamberlin wrote with this:
My pet theory about “black box” apparitions is that they are errors in the computed simulation we inhabit. Paranormal experiencers always seem to bring something of their own memory to an event. Often the event seems to be masked by an image that the experiencer can comprehend. But what if this “cover” imagery is masking some failure in the fabric of our reality that we unable to perceive or comprehend? What if the black cube is just a boring null version of what later would be “flying saucer”?
[I’m old-school. I think of a burnt-out TV tube… Thanks, Mike!]