History Ghost Story

How a turn-of-the-century Denver gadabout, who also happened to be a self-promoting, wife-killing fabulist, helped create one of baseball's greatest myths—and, just maybe, a specter that still haunts the streets of the city.
July 2010

In 1905, Albert Spalding, sporting goods Goliath and publisher of the popular Base Ball Guide, set out to discover the "true" origins of baseball by placing articles in newspapers and sports magazines across the country and soliciting ex-ballplayers to submit their earliest recollections of the game. Over the subsequent months dozens of letters poured in, but none of them made a greater impression than an account written by a Denver mining engineer named Abner Graves.

Graves claimed that, around 1839, when he would've been five years old, he witnessed the first game of baseball in Cooperstown, New York. That's when, according to Graves, another Abner—an older boy (and future Civil War hero) with the last name of Doubleday—busted up a game of marbles, scrawled a diamond in the dirt, and proceeded to explain the rules to something he'd devised called "Base Ball." Graves' vividly recounted tale included "a six foot ring within which the pitcher had to stand and toss the ball to a batsman swinging his hand below his hip," and a ball "covered with leather or buckskin, and having plenty of bouncing qualities, [from which] wonderful high flys [sic] often resulted." A few years after Spalding's call for testimony, a panel of the game's elders issued a final report based on the letters, declaring Cooperstown baseball's point of origin and Abner Doubleday the game's inventor. Although Graves wasn't mentioned by name in the report, he was recognized as the "reputable gentleman" whose "circumstantial statement" provided "the best evidence obtainable to date [that the game] was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839."

More than a century later, it seems clear that Abner Graves was either mistaken or lying. Yet despite the ongoing efforts of baseball scholars to debunk the Doubleday myth, it persists for many people, as does the local legend that the Denver engineer's other misdeeds, ones that are considerably more, well, grave, than merely fabricating a baseball game, may have left some eerie specters lingering around central Denver.

"Denver is a city that has always been full of schemers, dreamers, and suckers," says Phil Goodstein, author of several rambling tracts on local history, including The Ghosts of Denver: Capitol Hill. "It's also been a place of great opportunity." His catalog of Denver's ghosts and legends includes a small parking lot near the intersection of East Colfax Avenue and Logan Street that, some say, is doubly haunted by Graves' spirit and a glowing "ghost ball" that allegedly hovers and spins in midair. But despite devoting his career to these pursuits, Goodstein says he doesn't believe a word of the Graves legend. "I haven't seen a thing; I'm a total skeptic," he says, thanks largely to Graves' dubious biography.

About 45 years before settling in Denver, Graves headed west from New York in search of gold in California, taking a ship around Cape Horn to become an original '49er. He claimed to have ridden with the Pony Express in 1852—eight years before it was formally established. From the 1860s through the 1880s, Graves lived in eastern Iowa, where he married a girl from a wealthy family and took to ranching and farming.

When Graves finally arrived in Denver in 1894, the bottom had fallen out of the silver and real estate markets, and the city was mired in panic and recession. But Graves thrived. He abandoned agriculture for mining and worked as a consultant in the Bank Block building at 17th and Arapahoe streets. He also prospected for copper and gold in Mexico and Nevada, accumulated coalfield claims in southern Wyoming, and had the wherewithal to build a railroad spur that accessed properties he owned near Medicine Bow.

After his wife died around the turn of the century, the 75-year-old widower married a 33-year-old named Minnie—her last name remains a mystery—and the couple moved into a house at 1535 Logan St., just north of East Colfax Avenue. Among the couple's neighbors in this ritzy part of town were steel magnate and Colorado Senator Simon Guggenheim, streetcar mogul Rodney Curtis (for whom Curtis Street is named), telegraph tycoon Benjamin Woodward, Henry Miller Porter of Porter Hospital renown, the "unsinkable" Molly Brown, and Thomas Patterson, Colorado's first congressman and onetime publisher of the Rocky Mountain News.

Although he accumulated (and eventually squandered) a small fortune—along with a measure of fame after the release of the Mills Commission report—Graves' twilight years turned murderously dark. The cantankerous octogenarian became increasingly frail yet volatile, walking with a crutch and taking wild swings at anyone he caught staring. In 1924, the 90-year-old Graves shot Minnie during an argument. She died soon after telling authorities—"with her last conscious breath," as the Denver Post reported—"Tell Abner I forgive him." Graves justified his actions by saying that Minnie had tried to poison him. "I had to do it," he said. "One of us had to go."