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Conrad Clough

J. M. Bates, The Lynched Ghost of Steilacoom

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For over a century now people have reported seeing the ghost of J. M. Bates, a noose around his neck and a rope trailing behind, walking in the woods or on the street near where the old jailhouse stood. Local lore states that Bates is still plaintively looking for the lost cow that led to his demise at the hands of a vigilante mob.

The Ghost Story of J. M. Bates

Paranormal investigator Jeff Dwyer gives a fairly a typical version of the Bates ghost story; Dwyer starts with a bit of graphic detail about the ghost himself, such as that the head and neck are kinked at an awkward angle, there is blood on the rope, and that a ghost hunter getting a close enough look will note that Bates’ eyes look as if they are ready to pop out of his head. Then Dwyer goes on to relate the tale of how J. M. Bates came to be a ghost in the first place.

J. M. Bates had only one possession of value, a cow which he sold the milk of to make what little money that he lived on. One day in 1888 the cow came up missing, and Bates asked a stranger if he had seen it. The stranger told Bates that he had seen the cows head at the slaughterhouse owned by Andrew Byrd. Taking this bit of misinformation to heart Bates searched the local saloons until he found Byrd. A heated argument ensued and it ended up with Bates shooting Byrd down in the street.

With his dying breath Byrd reportedly asked the gathered crowd to let Bates go without punishment, because his simple mind had simply been overcome with frantic emotions and temper. Byrd’s dying plea was ignored, however, and Bates was arrested soon after Byrd expired. After a few drinks in the local saloon, Byrd’s friends formed themselves up into a vigilante mob and stormed the Jailhouse. Dragging Bates outside by a rope around his neck the mob lynched him nearby. Bates’ cow was found, alive and well, the next day down by the railroad tracks that led past town. Dwyer ends by saying that the ghost of Andrew Byrd has never been seen, but the Bates has been seen many times, still looking for his cow, or perhaps his victim.

The Real Story of the Lynching of J. M. Bates

Unlike many long ago tragedies that spawn ghosts, the lynching of J. M. Bates is based upon a real, verifiable historical event. In fact, the hanging of Bates is one of the best documented cased of vigilante justice to have occurred in Washington. It was written about in the newspapers of the time, and some of the people that participated in the lynching even wrote about it in memoirs and newspaper articles. While essentially correct over all, Mr. Dwyer’s ghost story above is unfortunately inaccurate when it comes to the details.

Bates really did shoot Byrd because he had lost his cow, and been told that Byrd had taken it, but the shooting did not occur on the same day that the cow came up missing. It had been some weeks since Bates had confronted Byrd about the cow. Bates had made little attempt to hide is anger toward Byrd, and had even been heard to talk about killing him when next they met, yet the townspeople of Steilacoom considered Bates to be a half-wit that was incapable of such violence and ignored him until it was too late.

The man who told Bates that Byrd had taken the cow, although unnamed in the papers of the time, was unlikely to have been a stranger to either man, and he is listed in several different accounts as a known ‘enemy’ of Andrew Byrd’s. The ‘enemy’ is noted as having fled to Oregon the night that Byrd died, and at least one member of the lynch mob is said to have regretted that it was Bates and not the instigator that he helped string up.

The shooting of Andrew Byrd happened on 21 January, 1863, and he died the next day on 22 January. Andrew Byrd was a very well respected member of the community, with a sterling reputation. Byrd owned not only the slaughterhouse already mentioned, but a wood mill, and a grist mill. He had come to town from his home about a mile away to conduct some business, a practice that he normally followed once a week or so, and Bates had been waiting for him at the post office every day for the previous three days, leaving little doubt in anybody’s mind that the shooting was premeditated.

Byrd made no death bed attempt to have Bates spared, although he did indicate to his family that he knew who had instigated Bates to shoot him, and that the instigator should be allowed to go free. Byrd died on the 22nd, and a huge crowd gathered in town. Far from being a few of Byrd’s friends with some drinks in them, the lynch mob consisted of about 100 of the townsmen and men from the surrounding area. While the mob did use a local tavern as its gathering area, it is unlikely that they were all drunk, as the lynching occurred fairly early on the morning of 23 January, and none of the first person accounts mention drinking heavily. Finally, none of the sources mention Bates’ cow ever being found.

Does J. M. Bates Still Walk Steilacoom?

Although the tragedy behind this particular ghost story in more historically sound than many, or even most, other ghost stories, there is little real evidence that the spirit of J. M. Bates still walks the earth. The ghost’s existence is almost like an urban legend, in that you will hear many claims that others have seen him, complete with noose and leader rope for the missing cow, but will find very few claims of people that have actually seen the ghost themselves. In the end, whether the ghost is real or not is less important than the fascinating real story behind the ghost story.


Athow, Leland J. A brief history of the Adam Byrd branch of the Byrd family. Tacoma: Athow, [1953]

Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunters Guide to Seattle and Puget Sound. Gretna: Pelican [2008]

Light, Erastus A. Early times in Pierce County / by Erastus A. Light ; as published in the Tacoma Sunday ledger, June 19, 1893; edited with notes by Gary Fuller Reese. Tacoma: Tacoma Public Library, [1983]

“The Murder” The Puget Sound Herald, 29 January 1863

Vaughn, William D. “The Byrd Murder” Tacoma Weekly Ledger, 17 February 1893

Here is a LINK to my original article.

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I enjoyed reading that account of events which led to. Bates alleged haunting.

The rope he was lynched with still round his neck is a nice touch too.

I reckon its a tale which has been passed down through generations, but think thats all it is.

Not his spirit/ghost, simply an interesting tale

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Apparently the ghost, should it exist, only appears on nights when there is a clear full moon in the sky... I have thought about going down to Steilacoom some night and waiting by the location of the old jail (no longer there, but the location is known) to see if it shows up for a while now, but Washington weather and the dates of the full moons have conspired to make finding a clear full moon and having the option of being out all night elusive.

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Nice read! I enjoyed it.

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