- ghosts of the prairie -

GHOSTS OF THE ST. JAMES HOTEL

BY JILL SWEATMAN

In 1862, upon the recommendation of Ulysses S Grant, President Lincoln appointed a young Frenchman named Henry (formerly Henri) Lambert as his personal chef, a position Lambert held until that fateful day in 1865.

After Lincoln's assassination, Henry made his way west in search of gold. However, instead of discovering gold, he discovered he could make a very good living cooking for the miners in a small New Mexico boom town called Elizabethtown (E-Town). While passing through E-town, Lucien Maxwell, land baron of New Mexico Territory, had the opportunity to taste Henry Lambert's cooking. Lucien was so impressed he offered Lambert a job cooking for him in nearby Cimarron (Spanish for "wild" or "unbroken").

Henry accepted the offer and moved to Cimarron. In 1872, while still working for Lucien Maxwell, Henry began building Lambert's Saloon and Billiard Hall. It wasn't long before Lambert's Saloon became wildly popular, catering to the cowboys, traders, miners, frontiersman, and many others traveling this last leg of the Sante Fe Trail.

The Saloon did so well, in fact, that in 1880 Henri added 30 guest rooms and the St. James Hotel was born. The hotel, considered at the time to be one of the most elegant, luxurious hotels west of the Mississippi, soon became as popular as the saloon itself.

Before long the hotel guest registry read like a who's who of the Old West;

- Jesse James stayed there often, always in room 14 and always signing the registry with his alias, RH Howard

- Buffalo Bill Cody met Annie Oakley in Cimarron and they both stayed in the hotel while planning and rehearsing their Wild West Show. They took an entire village of Indians from the Cimarron area with them when they took the show on the road

- Wyatt Earp, his brother Morgan, and their wives spent 3 nights at the St. James on their way to Tombstone. After leaving the hotel they made their way to the small town of Las Vegas, NM (about 30 miles southeast of Cimarron) where they met, and became friends with, a gentleman named JJ "Doc" Holliday

- Zane Grey penned his novel "Fighting Caravans" while staying at the hotel

- Lew Wallace, Governor of New Mexico Territory, wrote part of Ben Hur there.

Other famous, and infamous, guests included Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson, Kit Carson, Clay Allison, and Pat Garret.

Probably the most famous unknown person to stay at the hotel was Bob Ford. Doesn't ring a bell? Bob Ford's claim to fame was that he killed Jesse James.

Not surprisingly, with this combination of guests, the hotel boasts a violent history. At least 26 men were killed in gunfights at the hotel. The ceiling of the Saloon (currently the dining room) still has 22 original bullet holes in it. Luckily, when Henry built the hotel he had the foresight to add 3 feet of hard wood above the tin ceiling of the saloon to keep stray bullets from penetrating the floor of the upstairs guest rooms!

As times changed, railroads began taking the place of horse and buggy, mining and ranching became less profitable, and Cimarron's popularity begin to dwindle. Eventually, the once popular and elegant St. James Hotel fell into disrepair. Through the years it went largely uninhabited and passed from owner to owner until the mid 1980's when the beautiful old hotel was purchased and restored to it's former luxury.

Today, the hotel is once again a hotel, but, much to it's credit, it is far from being modern. There are no phones, no radios, no televisions. Almost all of the furniture is original to the hotel, from the antique chandeliers, to the beds and dressers in the guest rooms. A stay at today's St. James Hotel is eerily similar to a stay during the heyday of the Wild Wild West.

Tales of the St. James

Room 18
As the story goes, one night in 1881, the owner of the St. James was playing cards with some men in the 2nd floor card room. It was getting late, the men had imbibed a fair amount of whiskey, and the stakes were high. So high that, confidant he would win, the owner bet the hotel. However, a guest of the hotel, Mr. Thomas James (TJ) Wright also felt he had a winning hand and stayed in the game when all the others folded. When all bets were made and the cards were shown, TJ proved victorious. Satisfied with his win, TJ decided to retire for the night. As he made his way down the hall and began to turn the corner towards his room he was shot from behind. TJ continued on to his room, room 18, shut the door and slowly bled to death.

Room 18 is considered the most haunted room in the hotel. So haunted, in fact, that nobody is allowed to enter the room, much less sleep in it. It is said that residing in the room is TJ's very angry, malevolent presence. The employees of the hotel say that no one is allowed in the room because whenever anyone goes in something bad happens in the hotel.

I have, however, heard rumors from long time New Mexico residents who say that while it probably is true that bad things happen in the hotel when the room is entered, the real reason they won't let people sleep in it is because over the years they have had more than the average number of mysterious deaths in the room. But, like I said, this is just a rumor.

I have spent many hours trying to confirm, or refute, the fact that a man named TJ Wright died in Cimarron in 1881. Unfortunately, at that time in the history of New Mexico (remember, it wasn't even a state yet), strict record keeping was not a priority, and as of yet I have had no luck. I did, however, find out that a TJ Wright was born in New Mexico in 1859, and one of the original guest registries found during the 1980s restoration does show that there was a TJ Wright staying at the hotel for 3 nights in 1881.

The Mary Lambert Room
Mary Lambert was the wife of Henry Lambert, the man who built the St. James Hotel. She lived many years in the hotel, gave birth to her children there, watched at least 2 of her babies die there, and eventually, in December of 1926, died there herself. The people that work at the hotel call her the protector. They firmly believe her presence is still there and they believe she watches out for the hotel and the people in it.

It is said that you can often smell Mary's perfume when her presence is near, and many staff members, previous owners, and guests swear they have indeed smelled it - myself and my daughter included. It is also said that if you are staying in her room and you leave the window open she will tap on it incessantly until you close it.

The Kate Lambert Room
The employees of The St. James are given the option of living there. I talked to a girl named Lisle who was currently living in the hotel. Here is her story:

When Lisle first came to the St. James Hotel she took the Kate Lambert room which is the last room on the right at the end of the 2nd floor family wing - directly across from the Mary Lambert room, and directly next to room 18. She told me that right from the start she had problems sleeping in the room. Many times every night she would awaken, although there was nothing specific, such as a noise, that would wake her. As time went on she found herself waking up more and more often to the point where she was exhausted the next day. Ghost hunters and psychics often visit the hotel, so she asked one of the psychics to come to her room. The psychic told her that TJ was trying to posses her and that she was lucky because Mary Lambert was protecting her from TJ. She said that this nightly spectral battle was what kept waking her up at night. Lisle liked the room and didn't want to move so she asked what would be the worst that could happen. The psychic told her that TJ could eventually succeed and posses her. Lisle moved to a different room that day and no longer wakes up numerous times at night

Non-Specific Hauntings
In addition to the "known" spirits haunting the St. James, many non-specific hauntings occur on a daily basis. There are cold spots, things are constantly falling off of walls and shelves and the computer and phone at the front desk behave erratically. Cameras and video equipment often break or don't work correctly (As a matter of fact, when we stayed at the hotel, a family from Iowa also staying the night had brought 2 cameras with them. Both of the cameras stopped working within hours of arriving at the hotel).

The dining room, which used to be the main saloon, still houses the original mirrored bar. Many guests have reported seeing the reflection of a cowboy sitting at one of the tables only to look around and discover there is no one else in the room.

Hanging above the 2nd floor landing is a large crystal chandelier. During restoration, one of the previous owners discovered that every time she would turn it off before leaving, it would be on again by the time she got to the parking area. This happened repeatedly, even though there was no one in the hotel. Since they were in the process of restoration she thought maybe it was an electrical problem, but the electricians found nothing that could account for the light coming on by itself. Now the staff just leaves it on 24hrs a day.

The Annex
Apparently, the original hotel is not the only place with strange happenings. In the 1980's a modern 10 room annex was built onto the hotel. The rooms in the annex have all the amenities, including phones and cable TV. I talked with two girls who were staying in the annex. They told me this story of their previous stay:

The first girl was taking a shower when the other girl opened the bathroom door. The first girl yelled for the second girl to close the door and knock it off. The door shut, but a few minutes later it opened again. By the time the girl got out of the shower this had happened 3 or 4 times. She got out, prepared to yell at the other girl for continuing to open and shut the door, but the other girl wasn't in the room. She later found out that the other girl had not been in the room the entire time the bathroom door had been opening and closing.

My Visit To The St. James
Northeastern New Mexico has changed little over the past 100 years. As we turned off the Interstate and headed down the small two lane highway towards Cimarron, the past gradually came into view.

Gazing across empty plains to the horizon, my view broken only by the snow capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristos, I could imagine myself galloping a horse through the Old West. I could picture herds of buffalo, grazing deer, and Apaches wearing war paint eyeing me as I passed. Up ahead, the small town of Cimarron, once known as the Cowboy Capital of New Mexico.

As I pulled the car up alongside the old hitchin' post in front of the St James Hotel, the fresh snow shimmered in the bright sunlight. We walked up the wood plank sidewalk and entered the lobby through a double set of wooden doors.

The air is different in the St. James, it virtually pulsates with the energy of the past. In the lobby, velvet drapes frame the windows, thick green carpet covers the old wooden floors, and gold brocade wallpaper surrounds the room. Chaise lounges and sturdy chairs, originally built to withstand the nightly abuse of rowdy guests, surround heavy wood coffee tables. A huge mounted buffalo head gazes down from the wall through the ambient light of the crystal chandeliers. I could almost hear saloon music being played on the antique piano resting against the 2 foot thick adobe wall.

We checked in, and as we walked across the carpeted wood floor to the double doors separating the lobby from the guest rooms, it creaked and groaned with our weight. As we entered the 1st floor guest room area we met a family from Iowa. As it turned out, they were the only other guests staying in the hotel that night. They would have the entire first floor of the hotel to themselves, my daughter and I would have the entire second floor.

When we told them that we would be staying in the Mary Lambert room they got very excited and asked if they could take a look inside. So, the five of us carefully made our way up the steep old staircase to the second floor landing where we noticed an abrupt drop in temperature. We then walked down the hallway to the last room on the left, in what was once the family wing of the hotel.

I opened the door to our room, and as we entered we were all overwhelmed by a musky, flowery scent. The fragrance permeated the air in the entire room.

After we settled in, we decided to roam around and take some pictures. The hallways of the guest area are decorated with deep red carpets, and red brocade wallpaper. The small ventilation windows above the doors are hand painted in different western scenes. Antiques, most original to the hotel, abound. Such wonderful pieces as 5 ft tall iron candelabra lamps, vintage chairs, a pump organ, even a roulette table that used to be in the gambling area of the original saloon, are scattered throughout the hallways. On the walls are framed photos of the famous guests the hotel once catered to.

The rooms are all named after former guests. For instance, repeat customers such as Buffalo Bill Cody, Jesse James, and Zane Gray, often chose to stay in the same room each time they visited. These rooms they were partial to now bear their names.

As the sun began it's western descent we headed back to the room to change into warmer clothes for the evening. Again, just as when we had first arrived, there was an abrupt drop in temperature once we stepped onto the 2nd floor landing.

As we turned left and walked down the hallway of the family wing I noticed another place where this same phenomena occurred, only much more pronounced. From the landing, the temperature remained constant until about three feet before reaching room 18. At that point the temperature dropped dramatically. It was like walking through a door from a warm house into a cold January night. However, if you turned right on the landing and went down the other hall to the guest rooms and card room, the temperature remained constant.

I mentioned it to one of the staff and she said they could never seem to warm up that end of the family wing hallway. They even had a stand alone heater and electric blanket in the Mary Lambert room because guests so often complained about how cold it was.

Once back in the room, my daughter and I both immediately noticed the smell of perfume was no longer in the air. We didn't smell it in the room again the rest of the time we were there. However, once, when I opened the door to leave the room, we walked through the smell. It was as if a person wearing the perfume had been standing in the hall right in front of the door. But, as the wood floors creaked whenever anyone walked on them, I knew no one had been on the 2nd floor since we had entered the room.

After changing clothes we headed down to the saloon and pool hall (located where the original gambling hall had been). The family from Iowa was there, as were many Cimarron locals. Almost everyone I talked to, who had spent any amount of time at the hotel, regaled me with stories of strange experiences they have had.

After eating dinner and having a few drinks, several of us went up to the card room and played poker at the very same table Clay Allison, Bill Cody, Pat Garrett, and countless others had once played. It was at this table fortunes had been won and lost. It was in this room many men had been killed.

It was also in this room that we found a Ouija board tucked inside a cabinet. The woman from Iowa and I thought it would be interesting to try it, so we brought it out and started asking questions.


A Roulette Table from the old St. James Saloon

In a nutshell, we asked if anyone was there and we got a yes. When we asked who was there the planchette moved to the T then to the J. We asked if he was angry and we got a yes. We asked why and the planchette spelled out Y-O-U. We asked what that meant and it spelled Y-O-U-A-R-E-H-E-R-E. I asked, you are angry because we are here? The planchette moved to yes. We stopped playing with the Ouija board.

By that time it was getting late and we decided to turn in for the night. My daughter and I went back to our room and settled in, comfortably surrounded by Mary Lambert's belongings.

Earlier in the day I had planned to go exploring, maybe take some more pictures and such, after my daughter went to sleep. However, once she was asleep I became conscience of just how still and quiet it was. I could actually feel a negative energy coming from the other side of the door and I just couldn't force myself to open it.

Now, I am not an easily scared or spooked person. I mean I did take my 5 year old and myself up to a haunted hotel to spend the night in the off season when we were the only guests on the second floor. I did specifically request the Mary Lambert room knowing it was supposed to be haunted. However, I will concede, perhaps I let my imagination get the better of me. Perhaps when night fell, and I was alone with the stories of the day, I just plain chickened out. It's possible.

On the other hand, perhaps what the staff believes is correct. Perhaps Mary Lambert does protect the hotel and the people in it. I had such a feeling of peace, calm and comfort in her room, and had such a bad feeling about walking out into the hallway that night. Perhaps that was Mary's way of protecting me. I don't suppose I will ever know, but I imagine I will spend many hours mulling it over.

The next morning, after we packed up, my daughter and I took one more glance around the room and thanked Mary for sharing it with us for the night.

We carefully made our way down the steep old staircase to the first floor. We walked out the double doors into the lobby as the carpeted wood floor creaked and groaned with our weight.

We exited the lobby through the pair of double wood doors, walked down the wood plank ramp, and reluctantly re-entered the 21st century.


The Graves of Henry and Mary Lambert

Stories of Cimarron

Reverend Tolby
This story is paraphrased from articles by William Keleher in Maxwell Land Grant: A New Mexico Item (Sante Fe: Rydal Press, 1942, pp. 75-82), and Ruth Armstrong in her book, The Chases of Cimarron (New Mexico Stockman, 1981, pp. 39-41).

One evening, Francisco Griego, a deputy sheriff and political cohort of the powerful politicians of the Sante Fe Ring, killed three soldiers in an argument over a monte game at the St. James Hotel. Although there were many witnesses, and Griego was obviously guilty, he was never indicted for the murder.

The first minister of Cimarron, Reverend Tolby, who was renowned for publically speaking out against injustice, often criticized the courts in his sermons. A few days after the murders of the three soldiers, Tolby met a judge on the street. In front of many townsfolk, he said to the judge, "I tell you, sir, that I intend to see that Griego is brought to trial, not only for the murder of the three soldiers, but another murder to which I was a witness."

A few days later Tolby's body was found in a thicket in Cimarron Canyon, shot in the back.

A friend, and fellow preacher, of Tolby's, Reverend O. P. McMains, made it his mission to track down Tolby's killer. He learned that a substitute mail carrier, Cruz Vega, had been hired for that one day when Tolby was shot. Vega was a nephew of Franciso Griego. After investigating further, McMains became convinced that Vega had killed Reverend Tolby.

Toward evening on Oct. 6th, 1875, McMains and Clay Allison led a group of men to find and question Cruz Vega. Vega would not confess to the murder, nor would he give them any information about those involved. Things got out of hand, and two weeks to the day of after Tolby's murder, Vega's body was found hanging from a telegraph pole. He had been badly beaten and was missing clumps of hair from his scalp.

Two nights later Franciso Griego and Clay Allison met up at the St. James Hotel. "You lookin for me?" Allison asked. Griego nodded.

"What do you want?"
"I want to kill you senor."
"Let's have a drink first," Allison said.

They went into the hotel and had a drink together. Immediately afterwards, they set their glasses on the bar at the same time, and with movements so swift no one could tell who drew first, each reached for his gun. Allison was quicker and Griego fell to the floor dead. As the bar patrons fled, Allison shot out the lights in the saloon. The bar was locked up and Griego's body was not retrieved by relatives until late the next day.

Reverend Tolby's body was recovered from the Canyon and buried in Cimarron's Mountain View Cemetery. Sometime over the passing years, his original headstone was broken and was replaced with a large, modern headstone which still stands today. The two pieces comprising the original headstone now rest in the first floor hallway of the St. James Hotel.

Charles Kennedy
This story is paraphrased from an article by Tom Hilton in, Nevermore Cimarron, Nevermore (Ft. Worth: Western Heritage Press, 1970, pp. 37-43).

Charles Kennedy drifted into the Moreno Valley of Northern New Mexico around 1865. He chose an isolated area on the Taos Trail, at the foot of Palo Flechado Pass, to build a dilapidated cabin as a home for himself, his wife Rosa, and their 3 year old son.

Since the trail was used mainly by lone cowboys and desperados it is uncertain how many of them may have disappeared without a trace. However, once gold was found in the area, the trail became well traveled by minors heading out to make their fortunes. It was at this time rumors started about lone travelers, last seen headed for the pass, never to be seen again.

Then, during the winter of 1871, a prominent citizen of Taos headed down the trail to the Moreno Valley. He was never heard from again. An investigation was started and the Taos man's belongings, horses, and pack mules were found on the property of Charles Kennedy.

Kennedy explained this by saying he found the animals wandering alone and assumed the Apaches had killed or abducted the owner. The searchers found this very suspicious because, while it was true there were often Indian attacks in the area, the Apaches were known to love mule meat. They found it strange that they would have abducted or killed the man and not taken his animals. But, with no concrete proof, the men headed back to town.

A few weeks later a stranger who had stopped at a nearby spring to drink some water noticed Kennedy's shack. He decided to have a closer look. As he approached he saw Kennedy's small son out front and asked him, "What's that smell, your pappy a trapper?" The boy replied that his pappy was not a trapper, that the smell was the Indian his dad had killed earlier (around the same time the prominent Taos man would have been traveling in the area) and hadn't had time to chop up and burn yet.

Unfortunately, Charles was around the corner and overheard the conversation between his son and the man. He quickly rounded the corner, shot the man in the head, then grabbed his son by the heels and slammed him up against the rock chimney several times until his head was nothing but a lifeless bloody pulp.

Charles then proceeded to get falling down drunk. When he finally passed out, his wife ran from the cabin and traipsed 15 miles to the nearest town, Elizabethtown. Frantic, half frozen, and babbling incoherently, she burst into Herberger's Saloon where Clay Allison and David Crockett (nephew of frontiersman Davey Crockett) were having a drink.

She told them what had happened, told them that there were the bones of twenty men buried on their property, and told them that Kennedy had killed their other two children before moving to the area.

The men rode off into the night and hauled Charles Kennedy, and a bag of blackened bones, back to E-Town. The next day a trial was held but the jury could not reach a decision so a mistrial was called (many said a good deal of money exchanged hands to insure a quick trial and a hung jury).

Charles was taken to the jail to await another trial. That night the men of the town, led by Clay Allison, had a lynching party with Kennedy the guest of honor. Allison then took Charles' head off with the blade of a long knife, threw it in a burlap bag, and headed off with Crockett to Cimarron.

When they arrived in Cimarron they took the head to Lambert's Saloon . Allison tried to convince Henry Lambert to hang the head over the door of the Saloon but Lambert refused. He was willing to compromise, however, and the head was secured to a pike pole and stuck at the southwest corner of the building where it resided for over a year.

Kennedy is said to have murdered between 15 - 100 men before he was discovered. He always took their belongings, but he was never known to spend much money. Most likely he buried the money, waiting for a time when he could spend it without suspicion - a time which never came for him. They say the money is still buried somewhere near the rubble of his shack, deep in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

There are old men and women who remember tales told of this place. They say that of a night, when wind rustles a thousand leaves and the moon becomes hidden behind scudding clouds, the screams of the dying can be heard. That the smell of burning flesh permeates all things, and walking in search is a body that has no head.

(C) Copyright 2001 by Jill Sweatman. All Rights Reserved.

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Ghosts of the Prairie (C) Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.