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The "weird" law against killing camels in Arizona

Dana Rovang

It is a true fact that there was once a law in Arizona making killing a camel a crime.

But, what if you didn’t know what a camel was? What if you had never seen a camel before?

Antiquated laws always have a rich, hidden history behind them; while this law is no longer active, it turns out that this one weird law can shed a good deal of light on what life was like in the American Southwest during the second half of the 19th Century. To heighten the mystery of Arizona’s law, camels were not even initially meant for Arizona at all. Instead, they were imported into Texas, then later sent to California and Nevada.

Camels: you're in the Army now

A two-humped dromedary with a machine gun attached.
From the "Morning Democrat" interview with Admiral D.D. Porter (October 17, 1889).

On March 3, 1853, the US Senate (in Document 62 of the 34th congress, third or extra session) approved a request to import camels for the purposes of “military transportation,” allotting $30,000 for purchasing and importing the camels from the Middle East. Evidently, it had been observed that the French and British had made use of camels in their own expeditions, and it was thought that the camels would do well in the Southwest of the U.S. As Jefferson Davis (of later Confederate presidency) was the U.S. Secretary of War at this point in time, and it became his job to put the funds to use. For context, the U.S. was not that far removed from the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Mexican-American war that ensued in the aftermath. The camels were slated for Texas.

In 1855, Admiral (then Lieutenant) D.D. Porter and Major Henry C. Wayne were sent to Egypt to obtain camels. In a delightful interview with Admiral Porter, he explains their ignorance of the camel trade, and how they were swindled a few times before getting wise to the vagaries of the camel business. Under the congressional mandate, 75 camels were imported into the US, and stationed with the Army at Camp Verde in Texas. In 1857, the herd was split, with about half going to California.

A drawing of a camel kneeling on the deck of a ship.
From the "Morning Democrat" interview with Admiral D.D. Porter (October 17, 1889).

This is may account for how the camels arrived in the U.S., but - again - why Arizona? It seems that plans for additional imports were not fulfilled, in part because of what Arizona Historian Marshall Trimble explained as a formidable “mule lobby.” This lobby fought hard in Washington against more imports, due to the impact they had on their business - camels could carry enormous loads, travel tricky terrain, and could survive on infrequent food and water; they spelled disaster for the mule trade.

While they did seem to be quite useful to the Army, they proved too cumbersome to maintain. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the camel unit was quietly disbursed to private interests. They were sold to menageries, zoos, carnivals, and, importantly, private mining outfits.

Protecting Camels for Arizona Mining - The origins of the law

The camels that arrived with the Army were not the only imports. More were purchased from the Middle East by Comstock mining in Virginia City, Nevada, who made great use of them in the tough terrain. They were affectionately known as “ships of the desert”. However, with the coming of the railways, the camels were no longer in demand in many mining locations.

According to a contemporary account, one small herd from the Comstock Nevada mines was sold to a lumber outfit in Mexico, but they were terribly abused and three died. A “Frenchman” from Dayton on the Carson River took pity on them, and bought them all to rehabilitate them. He let them range freely, where they “waxed fat” and multiplied. The herd had grown to 36 in number when he sold them to an ore packing company in Arizona.

According to the University of Arizona, the Arizona Mining and Trading Company started a new phase of mining in the U.S. in 1854, and within a decade almost 25% of the non-native male population were prospectors. Despite the demand for pack animals to help move ore, unfortunately, camels did not handle the more rocky terrain well; they were deemed “useless” and set loose to wander the deserts.

Presumably, though, laws against killing camels were to protect mining interests in Arizona.

However, what if you don’t know what one looks like?

One newspaper account of the day (The New York Sun 04 Mar 1894) tells the story of a German immigrant, “Hans,” who came to his fellow prospectors in a state of terror with an account of a “monster elk” he had killed. When they went to see the monster, his fellow miners laughed, and told Hans that he had killed a camel from a nearby mining camp. Hans, thinking the camels had a bounty on them, was geared up to kill the remaining nineteen in the herd. He had to be restrained while it was explained to him that it was not a reward, and he was likely on the hook for $1,000 to repay the camp for their loss. While it’s not known Han’s fate, the other miners certainly mocked him for his ignorance, and there is no mention of Han’s being arrested for his deed in the account.

The Red Ghost

Headline from a newspaper: "Mystery of the Red Ghost," San Francisco Examiner (February 19, 1893).
"Mystery of the Red Ghost," San Francisco Examiner (February 19, 1893).

While camels might have been known to miners, other people would likely not have had much exposure to them. This is demonstrated by the stories surrounding the nefarious “Red Ghost” that terrorized Arizona in the 1880’s. While on its surface the legend of the Red Ghost seems salacious and on par with the mysterious chupacabra, it’s actually a tragic tale of animal mistreatment and abuse.

The legend began in 1883 with the early morning shock of a rampaging animal in a small mining camp. The miners found mysterious hoofprints, but soon lost the trail in the rocks. Then, many miles away, the Red Ghost appeared again and trampled a woman to death at a sheep ranch. The other woman who was with her recalled with horror the gigantic shape "ridden by the devil." A mangled human skull "with flesh and hair on it" was said to have fallen off it in its haste to get away.

The Red Ghost was spotted sporadically over the next decade. He charged a man who tried to capture it, getting away, and he was known as Fantasia Colorado by the Mexican miners. The odd lump on his back disappeared, so that he blended in with other camels. An account in the San Francisco Examiner (Feb. 19, 1893) says that he was finally killed by a rancher, Mizoo Hastings, while raiding his turnip patch. When Hastings came up to the dead camel, he found "a perfect network of knotted rawhide strips," some of which were embedded in his flesh, which was covered in scars.

This contemporaneous account also reveals that the strange lump on the back of the Red Ghost was not "the devil," but a human corpse that had been lashed to its back. It was either placed there as a way of removing an unwanted body, or the person had died on the animal's back. It is probably safe to say that the poor animal was likely rampaging due to this macabre factor, not because of innate temperament. As the account reads, the Red Ghost "evidently had a very hard time."

Enforcing the law

It is a difficult task to track down the precise language of the law that is commonly circulated as clickbait on the internet as a "weird law" in Arizona. We have one mention that it was part of the revised Arizona law in 1901, Section 578, which applies to any person who “hunts, pursues, takes, kills or destroys” a camel.

However, the law as it applies to camels (and those who would harm them) prior to this is obscured in the past. One account that was printed in the "New York Sun," August 26 of 1900, is entitled "Close Season on Camels: An Arizona Game Wardens Discovery of an Old State Law." Presumably it had been a law for years for it to be considered "old," but it's also one of the few accounts we can find of it being enforced. To make things more confusing, it was enforced in what appears to be a boastful shakedown by an unnamed "Game Warden," who was calculating in his approach to "recoup" money from a traveling circus.

After being hired off the street by the Governor for the post, the unnamed Game Warden was told that it wasn’t a paid post, but that he could keep any fees he obtained by prosecuting lawbreakers.

"Now, when I came to study up the law, I saw there was a whole lot of things I couldn’t do. Do you suppose if a prospector stumbled on an antelope or a bunch of quail that I was going to prosecute him? Why, you couldn’t get a jury in the whole territory to convict in such a case. I soon saw that my fees weren’t going to be too big."

However, he studied up on the law, he was prepared “if only a certain contingency were to happen. It was bull luck, but that very thing did come to pass.” The bull luck was that a traveling circus happened to have had about a dozen camels with it, working as pack animals and as exhibits.

This circus came into the state after a swing through Mexico, and the Game Warden calculated that it had made “slathers of money.” So, after the circus had passed through several cities, he coordinated with rail officials to see to it that it was halted at the railway station and got warrants signed by a judge.

The head of the circus was completely baffled by this hold-up, and things got heated with the Game Warden. The circus man asked to see the law that he was being accused of breaking.

“Then I showed him first section 6 of the law, which prohibits the killing at any time of a camel, among other animals.”

“‘But Great Caesar’s ghost, man!’ He exclaimed, ‘nobody wants to kill my camels, they are worth entirely too much money and I need them in my business.'”

After a back and forth, the Game Warden smarmily explains that it wasn’t the circus man who stood to be punished, but the railway employees, who would be complicit with the death *at any time* of a camel being transported, amounting to “ninety-six fines.”

“Well, the circus man showed an appreciation of the way in which public business should be conducted, particularly with officials on a basis of renimneration dependent on fees. … He recognized that he had a business man to deal with, and he dealt according.”

Due to this “business,” the Game Warden gave the circus a free pass for everything else in the Territory. Helpfully, the Game Warden does conclude his account with the reasons for the existence of the law, citing the importing of camels “for use at the outbreak of the Civil War,” but says that it was a failed experiment.

“Nobody knows for certain that they have bred in their new home, but every once in a while some prospector reports having seen a bunch of wild animals which answer to the general description of camels. That is why the game law puts them in the list of animals that are not to be killed.”

It would seen that while the laws punishing those harming camels were on the books, they were at the mercy of an arbitrary system of governance that only prosecuted those who were “not friends” in the state, or who were likely to have the means to cover the exorbitant fees levied by officials.

More questions than answers

These antiquated laws are always on the books for a reason. An analysis of the "it's illegal to kill camels in Arizona law" reveals a complicated and variegated history of the state, but it also leads to more questions. Why did this law appear here, and not in other states like Texas? Texas had a law that only applied in Galveston about not letting camels run loose, because when they arrived they would wander unattended and this became a problem. Nevada, where they were used in mining towns, only has a law prohibiting camels on public roads, presumably because they were big and could cause hold-ups in traffic. From the Game Warden's account, camels were one of many protected animals, presumably alongside mules, horses, cattle, and other beasts that were thought to be useful or high-value animals.

While this law yet remains unclear in its origins and application, looking into its shrouded past sheds a great deal of light on what life was like in the American "Old West."


Do Your Own Research



Primary Sources

Newspaper articles

"Interview with Admiral Porter," The Sun (New York, May 14, 1898)."

Interview with Admiral Porter," Morning Democrat (Davenport, Iowa, October 17, 1989).

"Camels for the American Desert," The Sun, (New York, May 4, 1898).

"Camels for America," San Francisco Chronicle (June 9, 1893).

"Mystery of the Red Ghost," San Francisco Examiner (February 19, 1893).

"Wild Camels in Arizona," The Sun (New York, March 4, 1894).

"Close Season on Camels," The Sun (New York, August 26, 1900)

Secondary Online Sources


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