Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Leavenworth’s Mad Catherine

Like many American families in the late 19th century the Sutler’s packed their wagon with everything they owned and left their home in Indiana hoping to make a new and better life in Oregon Territory. In the summer of 1880 they left behind everything familiar and like so many before them faced the unknown bravely.

The trail they traveled was kind at first. Early that fall they reached Leavenworth, Kansas, a major stop along the way west. They planned to stay a few extra days before taking the Oregon Trail because they had relatives at the fort.

But it was here a major tragedy befell the family--one that assured they would never go further west than Leavenworth.

As morning light welcomed their first day at the fort Mrs. Sutler was cooking breakfast as her son and daughter emerged from their tent rubbing their eyes. Without taking her eyes off the food she prepared she ordered than both to go find firewood.

The two obediently headed toward the bank of the Missouri River to do their mother’s bidding.

Catherine’s husband Hiram was making repairs on their wagon when his wife called him to breakfast. The couple waited for their children, Ethan and Mary to return but when they didn’t they started to search.

Having no luck by midday they were worried. By sundown they were desperate. Early the next morning a search party was formed to help. For the next week these searchers looked from dawn to dusk but it quickly became apparent that the Sutler’s young children had probably been swept away by the Missouri River’s rapid waters.

Hiram at first was in a state of shock. Catherine refused to believe her children were gone. She spent her days searching the fort, the cemetery, the banks of the river and the surrounding area for her children.

Old Fort Leavenworth

The locals at the fort often watched with concern as she searched. Even the dark did not prevent her quest. She was seen clutching a cloak tightly to her as she raised a lantern to light her way at night. Her shouts of “Ethan, Mary” were heard repeatedly.

Fall passed to winter and still Catherine searched. Her husband tried to reason with her stating that there was no possibility that the children were still alive but she scoffed at his attempts and replied in madness, “Can’t you hear them calling?”

As the first snow fell, Catherine weak and thin relentlessly continued. Regardless of what Hiram tried he could not dissuade her. Desperate he requested the authorities at the fort lock her up but his request came too late.

Catherine was found unconscious lying in the snow near the riverbank. Sick with a high fever she died of pneumonia shortly after. Hiram took his wagon and headed back to Indiana.

But this tragedy didn’t end here.

The following spring a soldier from Fort Leavenworth arrived at his new farm to inform him his children had been found. The children had fallen into the Missouri River and had been swept downstream many miles. A group of Fox Indians spotting them fished them out--saving their lives.

Hiram rode back to Fort Leavenworth with the soldier to reunite with his children. As they traveled he now knew Catherine had been right after all, the children were alive.

Unfortunately, this fact appears to be of little comfort to Catherine for her spirit still wanders Leavenworth and the surrounding areas in search of her children.

Countless witnesses over the years have seen her ghost walking along the banks of the Missouri River holding a lantern. She is also seen in the cemetery holding her lantern.

Her cries of, “Ethan, Mary” are still heard today.

The Trails West Golf Course was built on land that was once a farm located at the fort. Witnesses have seen Catherine's ghost on this course.

Catherine is seen wearing the clothes she wore while alive. She is described as very pale and her eyes are vacant--it seems she is still mad. Her gaze has startled more than one witness.

Ghost Stories of the Old West, Dan Asfar

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