Author tells Montana ghost stories

Historian Ellen Baumler visited the Miles Community College library this month to speak about her new book, “Ghosts of the Last Best Place.”

Her new book has 10-12 stories including ones about gold camps, Brush Lake and a famous cowboy artist who still haunts his home. 

Baumler is a historian at the Montana Historical Society in Helena. She said she has always had an interest in the paranormal. 

“Nobody does quite what I do because I am a trained historian with the Montana Historical Society,” said Baumler. “Nobody else that I know of are historians. And none of them look at the historical context and really create stories, true stories around the incidents. That’s what really sets me apart from the other authors that are interested in the paranormal.”

Currently she has written five books on Montana ghost stories. 

Her interest in Montana’s paranormal began in 1988 when she, her husband and young daughter moved to Helena. Her husband was hired as the state archaeologist with the Montana Historical Society which brought them from Tucson to Helena. 

“We sort of felt like we were pioneers. We packed everything in the station wagon and moved. We got to Helena and we had three days to find a place to live,” said Baumler. “We looked at everything on the market but just couldn’t find anything. The realtor said there was one more house he could show them but it was rather big for three people.”

According to Baumler, they went and looked at the house and from the moment they walked in they knew this house was meant for them. 

It wasn’t long before the family heard the phantom radio.

According Baumler, there was static with occasional music and talking that sounded like interviews. The phantom radio continued for the next two years and was heard at random.

In those two years the family had befriended the elderly brother and sister that grew up in the house. During their friendship, Baumler learned that this house had been passed down through the family for three generations.

On one visit the brother shared that he had Helena’s very first radio operation in one of the rooms upstairs. It was then that Baumler decided to tell him about the phantom radio.

According to Baumler, he wasn’t surprised. Instead he told her that where energy goes when something is turned off can’t be explained. And the radio’s energy was probably absorbed into the walls. Still to this day the Baumler family hears the radio.

After this experience her interest was piqued. 

Since then she has researched and written many ghost stories. In her presentation at MCC she told several stories from her previous books.

One story had a connection to Miles City. 

“The person who may or may not be haunting the former women’s prison is a woman by the name of Lucy Cornforth who lived in Miles City in 1929,” said Baumler. 

According to Baumler, Cornforth had a 10-year-old daughter. She got into an altercation with her neighbor who threatened to tell the police and have her sent to jail for the rest of her life. 

Cornforth wasn’t well educated and believed her neighbor. She decided that the only thing she could do was to commit suicide, said Baumler. She went to the hardware store, bought rat poison, came home and mixed the poison in a cup. She then told her daughter what she was going to do, telling her daughter that she would be better off without her, said Baumler. At the last moment she changed her mind but the daughter grabbed the cup and drank it herself saying that she wanted to go with her.

According to Baumler, the daughter was dead within 15 minutes. Cornforth was then charged with first degree premeditated murder. She was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

After looking at the transcript and order Baumler saw that the judge wrote on the outside of the order that Cornforth should never be paroled or pardoned. 

She was sent to Deer Lodge women’s prison for about 15 years when a teacher came forward and said that she would sponsor her if she could be paroled. The judge declined parole claiming that Cornforth was a threat to the community, said Baumler.

For the next few years several people came forward offering to sponsor Cornforth but each was denied. 

Baumler has been unable to find a death record for Cornforth but is pretty sure that she died while still in custody at Warm Springs. According to Baumler, Warm Springs didn’t keep very good records. 

Electronic voice phenomenons (EVP) taken in the former women’s prison have been known to pick up a woman’s voice whispering the name Lucy, aid Baumler. 

“It’s a really tragic story,” said Baumler.

Another story is about a cabin in Virginia City that was known to have a bloody female apparition appear in the bathtub. The landlord at the time approached Baumler asking for her help.

Baumler began her research which led to many interesting stories but only one could explain the bloody apparition. 

There was a couple, Frank and Amanda, who lived in the house for several years. According to Baumler, they had a very happy marriage in the house until Frank died of the Spanish Flu in 1918.

After her husband’s untimely death Amanda traveled to Butte and purchased a revolver. She then proceeded home, entered the bathroom and killed herself. 

“There was the reason for the apparition in the bathtub,” said Baumler. “While not all the residents of the house have seen the apparition they will tell you that the bathroom has a very weird feeling to it.”

Currently the house is vacant.

“When things happen to people in the present that they can’t explain, if you look to the past you can sometimes explain those things,” said Baumler. 

Not everyone will see full figures. Many people after taking pictures will see what is called orbs in the actual photographs. Orbs are balls of energy. According to Baumler, it could be a person or it could be another type of energy. 

Another story she presented was about Forest Vale Cemetery in Helena. 

“Cemeteries aren’t usually haunted because who wants to hang out with their headstones but this story does have some credibility,” said Baumler. 

A woman in Helena was known for her kind heart as she was nursing two children who had severe diphtheria around 1885. This was her undoing as she herself caught it. There was no cure until 1894.

Her tombstone is located along with the children’s in the cemetery. 

One Sunday afternoon the cemetery board was in the cemetery doing clean up when a woman outside the gate waved several members over claiming to see other people walking around the cemetery. This group was dressed in 19th century garb and was watching the clean up. 

The woman also told them about a woman she saw standing by a tombstone with two children on either side of her. 

The members of the cemetery board dismissed this woman’s claims until a board member stumbled upon an old article that Baumler had written about the diphtheria epidemic.

“Then it all clicked,” said Baumler. “It stands to reason that they may walk between the two sets of tombstones.”

According to Baumler, several years later a professional photographer took a series of five photographs of the tombstone area. In one of those photographs there is a clear mist hanging in the air. There was no one around smoking nor was it cold enough for icy breath, said Baumler.

She continued on to tell stories about the Meade Hotel in Bannack and the old prison in Deer Lodge. 

Baumler’s visit was part of MCC’s library speaker series. The program is funded by Humanities Montana through grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Montana’s Cultural Trust and private donations.