Ellis could be the life of any party.|
A cavalryman stationed at Fort
Concho across the Concho River from the community of San
Angelo, Ellis crossed the stream whenever he had the time and money to enjoy
the various amenities only civilian proprietors could provide. One of those was
Not one to enjoy too little of a good thing, Ellis often became
On one such occasion, the soldier passed out in one of San
Angelo’s many saloons. Several of his friends grabbed available appendages and
carried their comrade back to their barracks, throwing him down on his hay-stuffed
mattress before calling it a night themselves.
When the bugle sounded early
the next morning, the hung-over soldiers dutifully climbed out of their beds,
dressed and assembled on the parade ground. Everyone except Ellis.
dismissing the company, Ellis’ sergeant went to not-so-gently awaken the drunken
trooper and have him escorted to the guard house. But Ellis would not budge.
when the sergeant noticed that Ellis’ muscles had gone rigid. Though still warm
to the touch, the soldiers did not appear to be breathing.
sent a solider to the post hospital to fetch the surgeon. The doctor arrived and
examined the unconscious trooper. Finding no heartbeat or pulse, the surgeon pronounced
Ellis dead from alcohol poisoning and ordered his removal to the small white frame
house behind the hospital, a structure better known as the Death House.
the days before refrigeration and the common practice of embalming, a death house
was a standard ancillary structure at most hospitals. Bodies went to the death
house to be prepared for burial, a process on the frontier that did not amount
to much more than tidying up the newly departed and placing the remains in a pine
coffin for interment in the post cemetery the following day.
Fort Concho had been established in 1867 as part of a chain of forts intended
to protect Texas from Indian raids, most of those who ended up in the graveyard
were people who died from natural causes. For most soldiers, boredom loomed as
a bigger threat than violent death at the hands of Comanches or Kiowas.|
Three years after the Army came to the Concho, the government completed a two-story
stone hospital with a one-story ward on each side, the most imposing structure
on the post. The post surgeon provided the best medical care of the day, but he
could not perform miracles. The only thing he could do for Ellis was complete
the necessary paperwork so that his family could learn of his demise while in
the service of his country.
Ellis had several good friends, most of them
having been present on his spree the night before. In a final gesture of respect,
his soldier pals gathered in the death house to sit with his body.
their sense of loss, the soldiers took turns sipping from a jug of whiskey somehow
slipped past the sentries whose job it was to monitor those who passed between
the fort and San Angelo.
Sometime after midnight, nearly 24 hours after
Ellis’ death, the soldiers heard what sounded like a moan coming from their buddy’s
coffin. Dismissing the noise as the prairie wind, the soldiers heard the sound
again. A moan, no question. Readily prepared to fight hostile Indians, the soldiers
had no interest in taking on inhabitants of the spirit world.
retreated not-so-orderly through the closest window or door, not caring which
as long as they got out of that house and away from Ellis’ ghost. But, as the
saying goes, reports of Ellis’ death had been greatly exaggerated. He had only
been dead drunk, not dead.
Ellis’ friends had found the situation no less
terrifying than Ellis, whose blood-alcohol level had finally dropped low enough
to allow a return to consciousness. Realizing he lay in his dress uniform inside
a wooden coffin just a few hours away from being buried alive, the soldier jumped
from the box and crashed through a window to catch up with his fleeing friends.
damage to government property, not to mention his drinking spree, cost the soldier
some time in the guard house but it also netted him a nickname that lasted the
rest of his long life: “Dead” Ellis.
military abandoned Fort Concho in 1889, the last company of soldiers marching
off to San Antonio. The military reservation became private property and the hospital
was converted into a rooming house. Later, it became a hay barn.
lightning sparked a fire that heavily damaged the building, leaving it a stone
shell. Eighteen years later, the rest of the structure was razed.
like “Dead” Ellis, the building came back to life. Following an extensive archaeological
investigation, the building was rebuilt to its original specifications in 1986-1987.
Now it and most of the other structures at the fort are a National Historic Site.
And docents guiding tours of the reconstructed hospital still tell the story of
Tales" - October 13, 2005 column