"Skeleton and Ghost": Just A Poem…Or An Account of A Denver Haunting?

Cellar, undated. Photograph by Harry Mellon Rhoads, Rh-2224

Cellar, undated. Photograph by Harry Mellon Rhoads, Rh-2224
Within the closed stacks of the Western History and Genealogy Department (WHG) lives a mysterious, rust-colored book with the simple title Poems engraved in gold on its cover. Inside is the work of Denver writer Jessie Adeline Cole Phelps (1864-1936), who also wrote City And Country’s Joy, Grief And Romance (1929) and Madam Moral’s Views, And My Belief (1931).

Poems by Jessie Adeline Cole Phelps (1864-1936), 1885.

Poems by Jessie Adeline Cole Phelps (1864-1936), 1885.
Within the book’s chapter, “Colorado Poems,” is a piece entitled “Skeleton and Ghost.” If the poem’s title doesn’t cause fright, its preface certainly will:

A boarding house at No. 267 South Fifteenth Street was said to be haunted, and ever since the owner, Dr. Williamson, had deserted it, no family lived there more than a month, for they declared they saw and heard ghosts.
Finally, Mrs. Perry moved there and kept a boarding-house. One day, she and her two daughters were paid a visit by a ghost, (so they said), and immediately after, a skeleton was found in the cellar. At any rate, whether the first part was reality or not, a skeleton was found there, and they declare its discovery was made by obeying the commands of a “spook.”


“Skeleton and Ghost” (poem) by Jessie Adeline Cole. Reprinted from Poems (1885).

“Skeleton and Ghost” (poem) by Jessie Adeline Cole. Reprinted from Poems (1885).
Was Phelps’ poem “Skeleton and Ghost” simply the product of the author’s imagination? Or, was it based on events reported in Denver? 
Luckily, WHG has the resources to investigate!
Was a skeleton really found in the cellar of 267 South 15th Street? We came up empty-handed trying to locate a news article on this event in the Western History Subject Index and in the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. This, however, doesn’t mean that one does not exist, as both the Western History Subject Index and the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection have not captured information from every article in every local publication. 
The poem mentions that Mrs. Perry sent for Coroner McHatton, and that the skeleton was then taken to McGovern’s. Are there any records from the county coroner or mortuaries in the archives? Coroner McHatton was the county coroner in 1884, and we found his reports in the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Ledger, 1879-1891 (WH538; online index to the ledger). Alas, we did not find a report of a skeleton being found in a cellar. E. P. McGovern Undertakers sold to Horan Mortuary in the late 1880s, and while WHG has the Horan Mortuary Records, 1891-1960 (WH842), these records do not date to the time period in question.
Did a “Dr. Williamson” and a “Mrs. Perry” really live at 267 South 15th Street in Denver? Using our collection of directories, we were able to confirm that a physician named Dr. Williamson did live in Denver during the 1880s. Dr. John W. Williamson had an address, however, of “267 South Eleventh Street” in the 1881 and 1882 Denver city directories. The directories do not indicate a Mrs. Perry living at that address either.
The verdict? Perhaps writer Jessie Adeline Cole Phelps used the inspiration of real Denver people and places to create one very haunting poem!

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