The Ghost of Elizabeth PollyThe Ghost of Elizabeth Polly

from Ghost Stories of the Old West
by Dan Asfar

Sarah Jasper was in her car on a summer night in 1995, driving nowhere in particular, the headlights of her Toyota Corolla small in the immense blackness of the surrounding plains. Sarah was a recent nursing graduate who had just started working in Hays, Kansas, as an emergency room nurse. Having studied at a Canadian university, she was new in town and didn’t know too many people, so she spent many of her nights driving through the surrounding countryside, letting the hum of her tires over the highway and the vast Kansan night calm her. Events on this night, however, would be far from tranquil.

The apparition appeared on a back road when Sarah was just south of Hays. It came out of nowhere—a woman in a blue dress crossing the road, illuminated by Sarah’s headlights for an instant before the Corolla flew into her. In one horrific moment, Sarah took note of the lacework on the woman’s bonnet just as the grill of the car passed through the apparition. Sarah would later recall that there was no jolt of impact, that it was as though the car passed straight through nothing at all, but at the time, the young nurse reacted quickly. Telling herself to ignore her pounding heart, she slammed on the brakes, hit the hazard lights and ran out onto the road. But where the bonneted woman should have been was only a deserted road. Sarah was alone in the blustering wind of the Kansas night.

She did not know it at the time, but Sarah had just had an encounter with one of Hays’ most enduring spirits: the “Blue Light Lady,” a legendary ghost dating back to the town’s earliest years, when Fort Hays was a wild and wooly military base in Sioux territory. People knew her when she was alive as Elizabeth Polly, a hard and humble frontier woman whose actions during an 1867 cholera epidemic in Fort Hays turned her into one of the West’s folk heroes.

She and her husband, Ephraim, had been in town for only a few months when the epidemic hit Hays, but Elizabeth quickly took the matter personally when men began to die. Dubbed the “Angel of the Plains,” Elizabeth worked tirelessly among the afflicted soldiers, providing care and comfort to the mortally ill men in the fort. Pretty well all her waking hours were spent tending to the sick, but whenever she got any time to herself, Elizabeth would light to the hills south of Hays, where she would look west as the sun set. It was during these serene moments that Elizabeth fell in love with the wild land—when the enormous crimson-streaked sky colored the short-grass prairie in shades of red, and the blowing wind washed the death of the day off her. It was then that she was at peace.

Many chroniclers have written that Elizabeth knew her death was imminent. “When my time comes, Ephraim,” she would say to her husband when they were alone, “bury me atop the south hill.”

To the dismay of all, Elizabeth’s premonition came true. She contracted cholera before the year was over and was on her deathbed soon after that. The whole fort mourned the demise of Elizabeth Polly; rough soldiers would lower their voices when they spoke of the sick young woman dying within their walls. Men more inclined to brawling and boozing bowed their heads and doffed their caps when they went in to visit their ailing angel of the plains.

And then one day, her light went out. There was a somber mood in Hays and throughout the surrounding plains as the funeral procession marched out to her favorite lookout point south of the fort. They tried to bury her on the hilltop but found that the ground was too rocky for a suitable grave. So they interred Elizabeth Polly at the base of the hill instead, planting a wooden headstone at her gravesite. The exact location of her remains, however, has become something of a Hays mystery. Years after she was buried, a prairie fire blazed over the hill, completely incinerating her tombstone.

Although her remains are lost, her legacy has remained in the local chronicle. A park on Hays’ Schmaller Avenue was named after the town’s first spark of civility, and in 1968 a monument for Elizabeth Polly was erected atop Sentinel Hill, the promontory she loved so much when she was alive. And despite her absence from any formal historical record, Elizabeth Polly’s story has been passed through the generations, becoming one of the area’s prominent folktales. Of course, the fact that the ghost of Elizabeth Polly is believed to wander the area has done much to keep her alive in the minds of Kansans.

Bob Wilhelm, director of the Fort Hays Museum, considers the story of Elizabeth Polly’s ghost to be an undeniable part of Hays’ history. “It was in the 1890s when Elizabeth’s ghost first appeared in print. The story about two guys working on top of Sentinel Hill appeared in a local paper. They were just finishing up their labors when they saw a dark-haired woman walk along the top of the hill. She walked along for a few yards before vanishing right in front of them.”

Over the years, her apparition has appeared time and again. The description is always the same: an austere-looking woman with dark hair, a long dress and a bonnet tied tightly around her head. Locals began referring to her as the Blue Light Lady because of the blue light seen shimmering around her. While she has often been spotted atop Sentinel Hill, many have seen her anywhere between her lookout point and the town of Hays. Farmers working their fields late have stared wonderstruck at the sight of the blue-lit woman gliding over their crops. Couples looking for seclusion have been startled out of their courting when the glimmering woman in the anachronistic dress drifts by them. More than one motorist driving south of Hays at night has seen her moving along the side of the road. Some, like young Sarah Jasper, have been scared half to death believing that they struck a living woman.

Elizabeth Polly seldom appears for long. Witnesses claim that she is visible for only a couple of minutes at most. It is said that the sight of her always causes a distinct feeling of fear and unease that far outlasts the few moments she appears. When she vanishes, she always vanishes suddenly, leaving no trace of her passing.

No one can say for sure why Elizabeth Polly’s spirit continues to haunt the area. There are all the obvious guesses. Some say that the compassionate young woman was so attached to Sentinel Hill that she hasn’t been able to leave it behind in death. Others have stated that her spirit is unsettled because her body wasn’t buried atop Sentinel Hill as she requested. Another guess is that the ghost of the dutiful nurse is convinced that there are still cholera-stricken men in Hays, and it continues to make the trip into town hoping to help.

Whatever the case, Elizabeth Polly’s ghost has appeared with such regularity over the years that she may be considered Hays’ oldest resident. Certainly, her tale has become woven into the history of the Kansan town. “There are some people who think the legend of Elizabeth Polly is silly,” Bob Wilhelm says, “but it’s been around for so long that she really has become part of this town. We can’t deny the legacy of this brave young woman on the plains.”

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