Sure, the old Cowtown Coliseum is gray — she is, after all, covered in stucco, and she hosted the world’s first-ever indoor rodeo, in 1918. Over the years, President Theodore Roosevelt visited. Chief Quanah Parker and 36 Comanche braves let curious white folks ogle them. Enrico Caruso’s opera, Bob Wills’ Western swing, and Elvis Presley’s rock ’n’ roll reverberated through the big room. Bob Hope joked, Doris Day flashed her dimples, and Fritz Von Erich used the iron claw during Monday night wrestling matches. In short, if a building can soak up vibe, this one should be thrumming like some big bass string. So while historians and Stockyards fans are starting to gear up for the Oct. 5 centennial celebration, a smaller group of people recently invaded the coliseum for more ethereal endeavors. For months, ghost hunters had been nagging coliseum honcho Hub Baker to let them stay overnight and try to contact spirits from the great beyond. He finally agreed.
“Who am I to say it’s not real?” the old cowboy said. “Everybody still says Quanah, Elvis, and Teddy Roosevelt come by to see what’s going on.” Four members of Quad Cities Paranormal Investigations arrived just before dark on a recent evening, armed with video recorders, still cameras, tripods, audio recording systems, motion detectors, and any number of gadgets. They were all middle-aged women, friendly and enthusiastic about their mission, even though Baker had turned off the air conditioning to save money, making the temperature inside the coliseum a sweltering 100 degrees. Baker skedaddled before the women arrived. “I’m afraid of ghosts,” he said with a laugh. The women, too, had fears. Before the night’s paranormal investigation began, they made sure everyone was wearing a cross. They sprinkled kosher salt on the door threshold to keeps ghosts from following them home, then held hands in prayer on the coliseum steps. Tarrant County Historical Commission member Clara Ruddell stopped by, partly out of curiosity and partly to show the investigators around as a favor to Baker. During the tour, Melody Phillips pulled out a small locket and held it out in front of her. Spirits have been known to move pendants as a way to pass messages from the beyond, she said. “Somebody is saying, ‘No,’” she said, eyeing the pendant intently.
Suddenly, she called out a name: “Claudia?” Ruddell’s eyes widened, and she appeared slightly uncomfortable. Like the reporter beside her, she assumed Phillips and her pendant were addressing the dead. “Claudia?” the woman said again. Ruddell wasn’t sure what to do, and so she said nothing. Finally, a funny look crossed Phillips’ face. “Isn’t your name Claudia?” she asked. She had been speaking to Clara Ruddell, but botching her name. Only a ghost of a misunderstanding had vibrated, briefly. After Ruddell finished the tour and left, Phillips and the others spent more than an hour setting up their equipment. Infrared cameras covered various angles, tape recorders were placed strategically around the arena, extension cords were patched together and stretched up the stairs. Sweat flowed from the women, and the humidity made it hard to breathe, but they kept working. Coliseum maintenance worker Mark Melton dropped by to check on them, and, after some prodding, admitted that he’d heard ghosts several times while working alone late at night. He’s heard muffled conversations and the sound of spurs clanking on the walk-around, even though the coliseum was empty, he said. “I just try not to think about it,” he said. “I’m usually headed out the door and all the lights are out; I just go on out.”
Once the gear was set up, the women cut off the lights. Finally, all was dark and quiet except for the hum of an ice machine and the occasional cry of a barn cat. Ghost hunting is similar to fishing — the equipment is expensive, and the wait can be long. Of course, people who fish often end up with a tangible bounty. Ghost hunters who get lucky bag something untouchable. They get excited about little white spots that appear in the background of photos. They call them “orbs,” or low-energy spirits. Skeptics call them light tricks caused by flash cameras reflecting off flecks of dust or pollen. The women are among a growing number of paranormal investigators spurred by the convenience of networking on the internet and the popularity of shows such as Ghost Hunter, Medium, Ghost Whisperer, and Most Haunted. As a novice ghost hunter, I stuck close to Lisa Olive, who was wearing a coal-miner’s headlamp, an American Indian medicine bag for protection, and a determined look. She seemed most likely to convince Elvis’ spirit to shake a vaporous leg our way. We made our way up a spiral staircase to the elevated stage at the coliseum’s north end, where Elvis stood when he gave his youthful shows in the mid-1950s. My attempts to take a picture failed — my flash wasn’t working. Damned ghosts. “A lot of times they mess with your equipment,” Olive said. “They like to draw power from objects.” The ghosts probably had a guilt complex by night’s end.
Olive and the others blamed every dead battery, faulty camera, or slow-booting laptop on the spirits. They spread out and walked around, taking pictures in the dark. If one of them made a noise, the others called out — “Who’s that? Is that you?” — making sure it wasn’t a ghost. Alas, the ghosts weren’t biting. Seems the spirits aren’t fond of brutally hot temperatures. Often their “appearances” are prefaced by a cool whisk of wind. I would have given a hundred bucks to be surrounded by an army of apparitions, just for the breeze. Around midnight, Olive became more proactive. “Elvis, are you here?” she called out. Under her breath, she said, “I wonder if he would show up as the large Elvis or the skinny Elvis?” But Elvis had apparently left the building, and so she spoke to the spirits of the many cowboys who had roped a calf or ridden a bull in the arena during the past century. Spirits, she said, can go wherever they want and often visit favorite places. “If you’re here, make a sound, knock on the table, shake the curtains,” Olive instructed them. No response. Maybe a bribe would work. “If you do, I’ll bring some whiskey next time,” she said. “I know a bunch of you cowboys liked whiskey.” Perhaps a cold beer would have made better bait.
Nary a cowboy let out a ghostly yee-haw. After midnight, the women gave up. The coliseum was too hot for ghosts and their hunters. Maybe the historians will have better luck this fall, when they show up at the centennial celebration looking for something altogether different — a time capsule buried behind a granite cornerstone. Historians are pretty sure where to find it. Newspaper stories from Oct. 4, 1907, refer to the capsule’s location, and the Fort Worth Fire Department’s bomb squad recently X-rayed the spot and saw evidence that it’s still there. But nobody really knows its exact contents or whether the items have survived. A 1942 flood brought water up to the second floor of the building and might have ruined the contents. “You take these time capsules out sometimes and they are full of mud,” Ruddell said. Who knows what else they’ll find in there. Claudia? Are you there, Claudia?