Irish ghosts of America: Oatie the Ghost, Oatman Hotel, Arizona

You know what they say about Oatman: Burros in the streets, ghosts in the sheets.

It’s not enough to have a ghost town unless you’re also going to offer ghosts, and Oatman, Arizona, claims a doozy: The ghost of Clark Gable, who was a fan of the town. He spent his honeymoon there with Carole Lombard and was supposed to be a regular visitor to the town, and they say you can still hear him and Lombard laughing when you visit the Oatman Hotel.

But Oatman is a former mining town — it had been prospected since 1863, and struck a rich vein of gold in 1915. The town and its surrounding hills produced $2.5 billion in gold before it dried up in 1941. The town reinvented itself as a tourist attraction, plucking tourists from Highway 66, which ran along the town, and it has had intermittent success with this ever since. Nowadays, visitors to Oatman can feed burros that wander freely, descendants, they say, of the pack mules used by prospectors.

And the Oatman Hotel boasts another ghost, beside Gable and Lombard, that draws from the town’s mining past. They call him Oatie, but say he is the uneasy spirit of an Irish miner named William Ray Flour, who is supposed to have drunk himself to death outside the hotel when his family died en route from Ireland.

Is any of this true? Well, the Gable and Lombard claim is falsifiable, as Gable himself described his wedding night: “We were married at three-thirty that afternoon and left at five-thirty, getting home the next morning at three. Carole‚Äôs mother was there, all excited, which kept us up till five. Finally we got to sleep, only to be awakened at nine to discover forty cameraman, three newsreel men and twenty reporters waiting out in the front yard to interview us.”

So they did not spend their wedding night at the Oatman Hotel, and, if Gable made Oatman a regular haunt during his lifetime, it went undocumented.

As to William Ray Flour, I can find no mention of him in newspaper archives, even though he is supposed to have died in 1930. It is possible his death was regional news that didn’t make any of the big papers, and hasn’t made it into any online archive, and I would say to hotels that boast ghosts the following: Post your documentation online. If you have a yellowed old newspaper with an obituary of a dead miner that has taken up postmortem residents in your business, scan it and put it up on your web page. After all, the early 20th century were not a time of coffin ships — travel from Ireland was no longer fraught with danger, and an entire Irish family dying en route would likely have been remarkable enough to be reported.

The puzzling thing is that Oatman was the site of a well-documented tragedy — in fact, the town is named after it. I will only mention it in passing, as I can find no evidence the Oatmans were Irish-American, but they were an Illinois family who were an offshoots of the Mormons called Brewsterites. The Brewsterites believed California to be the intended location for the Mormons, and, while headed west in 1850, the Oatmans were attacked by Indians. The parents were murdered and one of the girls, Olive, was taken into captivity. Olive was later adopted by Apache Indians, and had her arms and chin tattooed, as was the tribal custom. Olive was later “rescued” by the US military, although she didn’t really consider it a rescue — she had a deep affection for her adopted family. He story became wildly popular for a while, and Olive herself, with her distinctive blue tattoos on her chin, became something of a celebrity.

Oatman was named after Olive, and if you’re going to have ghosts knocking about your hotel, short-sheeting beds and slamming doors, why not have the spirit be a girl with facial tattoos?

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.