The Cursed Letters of Arizona’s Secret Slave Plantation

Only one person has ever read and published on the Chiricahua Peak Plantation Letters. Despite the attachment of a substantial — and still growing — academic grant dedicated to their study, only one person — Dr. Robert Fullerton — ever has managed to read and publish on them in their century of known existence.

Perhaps that’s because the letters are written on leather reputed to be human skin. Perhaps it is because the letters themselves contain a curse on the “sons of Lincoln” their author hated so much. Perhaps it’s simply because they’re so hard to find.

Or perhaps it’s because Dr. Fullerton lived all of a week after his paper’s publishing before he died in a car accident the authorities described as “self-inflicted.”

Perhaps that is just bad luck.

Yet at the heart of the institutions designed to debunk such legends, Arizona’s three great public universities, the letters are treated with deadly seriousness — so much so that finding them is deliberately the most difficult task in the state’s academia. The next hardest is finding a copy of Dr. Fullerton’s paper.

In 1929, after a decade of misfortune and misdeeds associated with the letters, the three university presidents of Arizona State University, Northern Arizona State Teachers College (which has since become Northern Arizona University), and the University of Arizona met in secret. They wrote a specific schedule that would see the letters permanently tossed back and forth across their campuses, spending most of their life in postal transit. It was a formula that, apparently, put an end to the effects of the so-called curse: until, that is, Dr. Fullerton intercepted them in the mid-1970s.

Thanks to Dr. Fullerton’s 1979 paper, “The Last Slave Plantation in America,” we at the very least know what is in the letters, even as we are denied the full contents of them. Fullerton’s last work is remarkably difficult to find, existing only in paper copy in Arizona State University’s archives, and having but three copies on hand. Attempts to photocopy the work, it is said, results in blank paper products. Photographs fail to capture the words. Spoken recordings play back static.

There are three copies of Dr. Fullerton’s paper, and no more, all produced by Dr. Fullerton himself. That, at least, is thrice the amount of the original letters, of whom no known copies exist.

Accessing Fullerton’s paper requires a combination of luck, determination, and intrepidness. Unlike the original letters, squirreled away by an ancient compact, one who is determined enough may still read Fullerton’s article, even if they cannot do much but take meticulous notes on it.

The Chiricahua Peak Planation Letters were written from 1876 to 1903 by Herbert Guidry, originally of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. The first remarkable detail is Guidry’s birthdate, which Fullerton records as 1789 — making him perhaps 115 years old when he was last seen in 1904. Such a long-lived life is all the more remarkable considering the harsh, water-starved environs of Chiricahua Peak, a sky island in Cochise County, Arizona, not far from famous Tombstone and Bisbee.

Guidry reportedly lived the average life of a genteel southern slave owner, up until the Civil War and the Union’s occupation of New Orleans in 1862 spurred him to consider a race westward to escape the encroaching blue coats. A windower whose three sons had already died fighting for the South, Guidry took what he considered his strongest slaves on a trek west in early 1863. Using an outdated map, and believing himself to be in Mexico — when, in fact, the territory had become firmly American after the Gadsden Purchase in 1854— Guidry and his 40 or so slaves settled on the slope of Chiricahua Peak around spring 1864.

Fullerton’s paper is less clear what happened after that. He writes vaguely of Guidry coming across a lost Spanish settlement — although he refers to it as a “site with European connection” — and discovering what Fullerton calls “the survivor.” We know very little of “the survivor,” except that Guidry was quite taken with this person. They are not mentioned again by Fullerton.

Whatever “the survivor” said or did, we are unsure. But we know the experience profoundly changed Guidry — and his relationship with his slaves.

His slaves, of course, did not know the South had lost the war, nor that they could be freed by any of the passing wagons that were beginning to appear on the horizon. Surrounded by desert in what they all believed to be Mexico, the slaves became subject to the mad designs of Guidry, who, through brutal forced labor, constructed a crude plantation-style home between the valleys of Chiricahua.

Little grew there besides corn and potatoes, and hunting parties scoured the mountain for animals to keep the plantation fed. But the peak’s small size brought famine quickly to the little settlement— a famine that Guidry apparently weathered in good health, even as his slaves dwindled in number. Fullerton writes:

By the 1880s, Guidry had chosen the strongest slave females as his wives, and had produced a small litter of children to carry on his legacy. The men, meanwhile, were almost wholly gone by then, dead from starvation or from Guidry’s grotesque new uses for them.”

Those ‘grotesque new uses’ include, apparently, the production of the leather letters, made, it is rumored, from their skin.

By the turn of the century, Cochise was becoming crowded. Chiricahua Peak was rumored to hold a vein of gold, and interest in it compelled exploration. A Southern Pacific Railroad survey crew went missing, attracting the attention of the local sheriff, H.P. Bedding, of Bisbee. Bedding, along with his two deputies, found it difficult to explore the peak, which kept coming under the lash of inopportune or unseasonal rain and snow storms. But despite such obstacles, in 1903, Bedding and his men came upon the planation, finding not only the survey crew impaled high on stakes, but the remnants of a traumatized slave community led by women, half-crazed with isolation and brutality.

They also found Guidry, who, Fullerton writes, “looked no older than 60, even as he claimed to be well over 100.”

Bedding’s attempt to arrest Guidry led to violence, and Bedding, having lost a man in the scuffle with Guidry’s slaves, retreated to Bisbee, where he gathered up a troop of cavalry from Fort Huachuca. Returning to Chiricahua later in 1904, Bedding found the site abandoned — and Guidry nowhere to be found. The bodies of the surveyors had turned to bone, the slaves had vanished, and only the letters remained, addressed to “The Accursed Sons of Lincoln.” Bedding and the soldiers burned the planation to the ground, and not long after the gold rush town of Paradise, Arizona was founded nearby on the peak.

The letters were taken for examination by court officials in Bisbee, but a mysterious fire at the courthouse resulted in the death of a secretary in 1906. The letters vanish from the record until they reappear in the marshal’s office in Tombstone in 1914. They are associated with a string of misfortune, including the choking death of the marshal himself in 1915. As Guidry was never seen again, the letters were packed away to Phoenix and Arizona State University for safe keeping.

Throughout the 1920s, the letters are associated with numerous terrible events, including: the scalding death of a professor’s child in the bathtub in 1921, after the professor took the letters home to examine them; a sudden cancer that took a graduate student’s life in mere weeks in 1922; an accidental discharge of an antique rifle that cost a university dean most of his jaw in1924; a freak coyote attack that killed an undergrad transferring the letters from the same dean’s office to the university library that year; a bout of insanity for the first professor who attempted to publish on the letters, and who promptly hanged himself in the building now known as Old Main in 1925. Injuries, illness, financial ruin, and other rumors swirled around the letters, until, in 1929, the university’s provost, in conjunction with the deans and presidents of the state’s other universities, decided that the letters were too unsafe to remain in any one set of hands, and created an elaborate — and permanent — system of distribution that would see them bounce from university to university, from department to department, so often that they could never gather the strength to do harm to any one person.

The record of incidents and accidents largely ends there, except for in 1945, when, during a wartime postal disruption, the letters sat too long in Northern Arizona University’s education school. An aspiring young teacher was found with her throat slashed, apparently self-inflicted, after a late night session of study in the room in which the letters were being stored.

For the next thirty-five years, nobody examined the letters. They were passed from place to place, as per the 1929 schedule, until Dr. Fullerton happened upon the minutes of the very meeting that produced the routine.

Fullerton also discovered the Guidry Grant — an overlooked legacy grant of $50,000, which enjoying an average annual return of some 5% as it sat in a bank account, waiting to be tapped into. By Fullerton’s day, it was worth some $180,000 — not a small sum for an academic like Fullerton who struggled to find a tenured position. An Arizona historian in a very limited job market, Fullerton found the grant too tempting to pass up.

But the grant demanded that the taker study the Guidry Letters — and Fullerton finally found them sometime in 1978. Where is not known exactly — at which of the three universities, or at which of its staging points. Fullerton only writes in his introduction that “The letters are subject to a rigid and unpredictable schedule of transfer, devised as a means to mitigate insurance liability.”

That was not Fullerton’s last understatement. Shortly after publishing his article, he wrote a letter to the Arizona Republic, which was not published, and was only discovered after his death. Much of it is ramblings, but one sentence in particular stands out for its coherence:

I must recommend to avoid the corners of things, the corners of rooms, because that is where the worst work was done. When you find yourself in a corner of the room, you tend to see the Master’s work, illuminated by the dark lights of history.”

The Republic turned the letter over to the police. As for the Guidry letters themselves, they apparently went back into their 1929 rotation, and have not been firmly sighted since.

What has been seen is an increased instance of odd sightings and strange sounds around Chiricahua Peak. As hikers have taken to the mountain more and more often, the dark legends that surrounded the peak have proliferated — including the disappearance of Paul Fugate in 1980.