Most Hispanic children in southern Arizona can tell you about La Llorona, the crying phantom who wanders in the dry desert washes looking for her drowned babies. Many adults may know of Charlotte, the restless apparition who haunts Carleton House at Fort Huachuca, the old Army post at Sierra Vista, and some will even know of El Tejano, the bandit ghost who fiercely guards his stolen treasure in the Tucson Mountains.
But one of the most venerable of Arizona's ghosts is a phantom known only to underground miners.
Talk to a miner who just worked a holiday on the graveyard shift in a tunnel 4,000 feet under the desert and sooner or later you will hear about White Boots, a phantom who first turned up in the underground mine at Miami Copper in central Arizona, and later traveled to underground mines in Superior and San Manuel in the hills northwest of Tucson.
"Nobody claims to see anything except a pair of white boots walking down a drift [tunnel]," said Onofrio Tofoya, a miner who worked with Magma Copper in San Manuel.
The first time I heard about White Boots, that was all I saw, too, but I wasn't in an underground mine. I was in the lodge at Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle, a place that once was a rustic resort and now is a cooperative art community. The lodge was filled with paintings by various artists who have lived at the ranch. On the kitchen wall hung a painting that looked more like a small black and white photograph. The only identifiable object in the picture was a pair of wide white boots.
"What's that?" I asked Marilyn Nelson, who was showing me around the place.
"That's White Boots, the ghost who lives in the underground at the San Manuel Mine," she said, referring to the phantasm as though he were no stranger than a neighbor's dog that periodically wanders into her yard.
"They say it's some kind of restless ghost walking around underground," Nelson added.
White Boots walks the graveyard shift
Everett "Slick" Petty lives in Mammoth, the small town directly north of Oracle. Petty worked in underground mines in Arizona for 40 years and admitted, "It's kind of eerie underground on graveyard [shift], especially if you're off by yourself a bit. Even the old hardened miners who've been there for many years feel it. You get down there on the graveyard and you're by yourself, things get kind of funny.
"Over at Magma in Superior they had some drifts that were 2 to 3 miles long, and the rock temperature down there was 140 degrees, so you would get way off by yourself like that and you would hear a piece of timber break, a little rock would fall . . .
"Underground, where you have timber, the ground is constantly moving a little and the timber is cracking a little, and you can always hear it crack and break. Or if you have a track, a railroad, which most of these places do, a train might be a mile or a half-mile away from you, and if they spin their wheels -- which is not unusual -- it makes a funny noise on a track. Especially when a rock falls, a lot of guys construe that to be White Boots out walking. 'Hear the white boots?' they ask."
Grant Kempton, also a veteran of Magma, said of White Boots, "There are fatalities in mines, and the belief is that these are the spirits of dead miners."
Many of these beliefs are nurtured by the atmosphere underground.
Kempton noted: "Especially on holidays, an underground mine can be a very spooky place. On a regular workday you go down there and everybody's around and everything is normal, but on a holiday, you're often down there alone riding through the tunnels on a battery-powered locomotive and you ride from one place to another checking pumps and switches, and you're watching everything and you see things, you hear things, and it gets pretty spooky. There's also a superstition about working the last shift before a holiday. A lot of guys won't do it."
Slick Petty agreed. There are fewer people in the mine on a holiday and they're likely to be newer, less experienced miners who are easier to scare.
"It's just easy to get those guys thinking about something, so they start talking about White Boots, and the stories just grow and get bigger and bigger," Petty said. "I knew one fellow named Arnie Forsman. He was a Finlander and he actually believed in White Boots. He didn't talk the best English in the world, and he always had a mouth full of snuff, and it was hard to understand him. But you could always understand him when he said White Boots because his eyes would get big and he would get all excited and he'd hear something and he'd say, 'That's White Boots walking around up there!'"
From Mexican "gold spirits" to Arizona's "white boots"
Underground mines, of course, did not suddenly become spooky places. In recent years they've evolved to cavernous factories that bear little resemblance to the low tunnels where the only illumination was provided by the beam of a carbide lamp that rose and fell on the dark walls with each step you took through a dank drift.
Those older mines provided fertile soil to grow and develop fantastic creatures and wild stories. One of the most chilling of these was known as El Espiritu del Oro, "gold spirit." This ghost was believed to haunt gold mines in Mexico, and the story probably made its way into Arizona with the many Mexican miners who moved north.
The Arizona Enterprise of September 21, 1893, carried this description of El Espiritu del Oro: "By common report, this ogre is a dwarf of most hideous aspect. His head, far above the natural size, is fronted with a face more hideous and horrible than any other gnome or goblin in the Aztec or Mexican category of mythical devils. His eyes are eyes of firelike resplendence glowing like coals in the darkest recesses. His arms are long, reaching almost to his feet when standing erect and his strength is so phenomenal that no man, though giant he might be, has ever yet been known to get away once in his clutches.
"He inhabits the dark drifts and passageways in the deepest and richest gold mines where, without other light than emitted by his luminous eyes, he passes from point to point remaining invisible when he so wishes. When he meets a miner carrying his load of precious mineral climbing up some ladder unaccompanied . . . he pounces upon him and chokes him to death. . . ."
By contrast, White Boots, the Arizona apparition, rates about as frightening as Caspar the Friendly Ghost.