Ghost stories from the

Carbonate Chronicle

141 years ago

THE DEATH CHAMBER.

August 1880

*******

A Black man named William Jones, who came to Leadville from Mississippi during the first great rush two years ago, made a remarkable discovery on his lot situated on Capitol Hill one day about two weeks ago.

In making an excavation some twenty feet back of his log cabin for an outhouse, he suddenly encountered a hard substance extending for a considerable distance under the ground at a depth of nearly fifteen feet. Removing the dirt from around it, he was greatly surprised to find that what his pick had come in violent contact with was the upper wall of a vault formed of large pieces of rock cemented together by means of prepared clay which had become almost as hard as the rock itself. His curiosity excited to the highest pitch, but fearing to prosecute his research in the light of day, he suspended his work until the succeeding night, when he returned to the spot with a dark lantern, and by the dim light it afforded, commenced to attack the stone wall of the subterranean catacomb with a pick. For some time the wall resisted his efforts, but he at last contrived to loosen one of the stones and effect an opening large enough to admit his body. Just as he was in the act of withdrawing the huge rock which he had loosened, he heard a noise at the brink of the shaft, and, urged on by an unaccountable feeling to continue his investigation, he removed the stone from its foundation. Directing the flash of his lantern into the interior of the vault, he found the dimensions of the same to be nearly equal to that of an ordinary-sized sleeping room. The walls were well preserved, and presented an appearance of substantiality which centuries might not impair. Outside of a dark mass in the corner farthest removed from him, the vault was entirely empty. After some hesitation, Jones finally crawled through the opening he had made and crossed over to examine the dark object in the corner. As he did so, his foot collided with a hard, movable object which gave forth a clanking sound and convinced him that it was a metal chain. He stooped down to inspect it more minutely, and as he did so he was started by the light of his lantern falling upon the mass and revealing to him a ghastly skeleton reclining in a crouching position against the wall of the subterranean chamber. This convinced him beyond a doubt that he was an intruder in the catacomb of the dead, which perhaps for centuries had slept there in silent, undisturbed repose.

Badly frightened, yet unable to resist the fascination which urged him on, he examined the frightful object with increasing interest. The chain he found to be an ancient pattern, the links being forged square, and was firmly riveted in the wall, the other end being linked in an iron band which encircled the bony waist of the skeleton.

A few feet from the latter, but evidently beyond reach of his arms while life animated the fleshless form, was a rude platter sitting on the floor which appeared at one time to have been covered with edibles of some kind, sustaining beyond question the theory that in ages gone by the unfortunate being whose bones alone remained to tell of his existence had been incarcerated in this place and left to die a slow death of starvation, food being placed almost within his reach to add to the lingering tortures of his horrible fate. Jones found fastened in the nerveless grip of the skeleton hand a piece of parchment nearly consumed by the wear of time, which nearly crumbled to dust as he endeavored to withdraw the tender sheet, only preserving its condition by the exercise of the utmost care on his part.

Jones, being a poor antiquarian, attached but little interest to his discovery, and after reducing the skeleton to powder by a thrust of his foot, he left the vault, only preserving the parchment.

The outhouse was completed and the ancient catacomb made to serve a good purpose.

Probably nothing would ever have been heard about the matter had it not been for a certain party, whose name is by request withheld, who approached Jones on Sunday and asked him what he was doing in the excavation one night some weeks ago. At the same time, this gentleman introduced himself as a secret detective agent who had come in possession of the knowledge of Jones’ nocturnal doings through a person who had secretly watched him. Jones then made an open breast of his discovery, and surrendered the piece of parchment he had found in the hand of the skeleton.

The chemicals with which in times past parchments were prepared to render them impervious to the action of dampness and age had caused the dried-up document to retain the crumpled condition which it had obtained from being clutched in the hand while pliable. Faint traces of writing appeared on one side, and with a view of unraveling the mystery which enveloped the vault and its skeleton tenant, the gentleman submitted the parchment to a chemist. Through some process, the crisp folds were smoothed out without injuring the document, and an effort was made to decipher the writing upon the surface, an undertaking involving a great deal of labor. The writing was Spanish and was executed in a bold hand in imitation of the old English style of printing. It was dated 1746, and the name Marcus Sierta appeared conspicuously in the body of the writing, while another, Alfonso Calrada, constituted the signature. The body writing had become almost obliterated, but several words could still be deciphered: “Mont,” “Dios,” “grace,” “madre,” “rialto,” “sarcophage,” and several lines in intelligent Spanish, enough to convey that Marcus Sierta had by order of Alfonso Calrada been condemned to incarceration in a catacomb until starved to death, and his soul commended to the mercy of the Lord and mother of Jesus. For what offense could not be ascertained.

The parchment has been sent to some reputed professor of antiquarian research to undergo a thorough inspection, and hopes are entertained that the writing can, by a chemical process, be reproduced in its original distinctness, and a clue obtained to its full import.

This story first appeared in August 1880 in the Leadville Daily Chronicle and the Carbonate Chronicle, though the exact publication dates are no longer known. It was transcribed from Don L. and Jean Harvey Griswold’s “History of Leadville and Lake County, Colorado: From Mountain Solitude to Metropolis.”

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