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Dead Ellis

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Private 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 booze.

Not one to enjoy too little of a good thing, Ellis often became over served.

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.

After 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.

That’s when the sergeant noticed that Ellis’ muscles had gone rigid. Though still warm to the touch, the soldiers did not appear to be breathing.

The sergeant 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.

In 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 buildings and Historical Marker
Fort Concho

Photo courtesy Lou Ann Herda, 2002
Though 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.

To assuage 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.

The troops 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.

The 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.

The 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.

In 1911, lightning sparked a fire that heavily damaged the building, leaving it a stone shell. Eighteen years later, the rest of the structure was razed.

But 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 “Dead” Ellis.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - October 13, 2005 column

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