Mysterious Shadow Figure Hidden in Old West Photo

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Tony Maples Photography


Who or what is the mysterious shadow figure in the background of this old west photo? Those who only glance at this 1886 image will likely miss the strange form behind the Apaches. Look closer, however, and you’ll spot it: a dark, mysterious figure rising over the fourth Apache from the right, behind the frame of the wickiup. Can you solve this historical mystery?

The photo in question was taken during negotiations between Geronimo and the U.S. cavalry for the old shaman’s surrender in 1886. Famed Tombstone, Arizona photographer C. S. Fly captured the image of the kidnapped boy Santiago “Jimmy” McKinn standing in front of a group of Apache children and warriors. The photo is one of the most striking images of the old west, but until recently the mysterious shadow figure in the background apparently went unnoticed. Then last year the photo was featured on the cover of an acclaimed historical novel.

Video: YouTube/Max McNabb

Far Blue Mountains by Texas novelist Max McNabb showcased a colorized version of the image on its cover, and readers started wondering about the strange photo bomber in the background. Far Blue Mountains is the astonishing story of the last free Apaches, who lived in hiding in the Sierra Madre well into the 1930s. The novel was inspired by the true events of the Fimbres Apache conflict of the 1920s. McNabb’s novel is the story of an injured Apache girl adopted by a powerful rancher and the kidnapping of the rancher’s son by the last free Apaches—in 1926. That’s 1926, not 1826. It may sound like something out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but it’s historical fact.

Mysterious Shadow Figure Hidden in Old West Photo

The final band of unsurrendered Apaches kidnapped a rancher’s young son and carried the boy high into the Sierra Madre to be raised as one of their own. TexasHillCountry.com named Far Blue Mountains the Year’s Best Beach Read, and AuthenticTexan.com called it the finest historical novel of the decade. Get your copy here!

The boy in the 1886 photo was named Santiago McKinn, the son of an Irish father and a Mexican mother. Eleven-year-old Santiago was taken captive by Geronimo’s band of Apaches on September 11, 1886. In a valley east of the Mimbres Mountains in southwest New Mexico, the Apaches killed Santiago’s 17-year-old brother and kidnapped the younger boy while the brothers were herding cattle. All told, Santiago spent six months with his captors before they gave him up to the U.S. Cavalry. Capt. John Bourke wrote of seeing a group of young boys in the Apache camp, and “one of them seemed to be of Irish and Mexican descent.” Bourke wrote, “After a little persuasion, he told… that his name was Santiago Mackin (sic) and he had been kidnapped in Mimbres, New Mexico; of his young companions, he seemed to be treated kindly, and no one tried to stop our conversation…”

Santiago refused to leave his Apache captors. He’d become assimilated into the band—a beloved captive. When the Apaches tried to give the boy up to the cavalry, he acted like “a wild animal in a trap” and would speak only Apache. Finally in April 1886, Santiago boarded a train with his former captors, who were bound for prison in Florida. The train stopped in Deming, New Mexico, where Santiago’s parents John and Luceria picked up the boy, who wore only a breechclout. The McKinns took him to the mercantile and dressed him in new clothes before carrying him home at last. Santiago McKinn grew up to marry a woman named Victoria Villanueva and fathered four children. He passed away in Phoenix, Arizona, on December 10th, 1941, at the age of 66.

Tell us your explanation for the mysterious shadow figure in the photo! Possible solutions to the mystery range from a hide covering draped over the wickiup to more supernatural suggestions. Those inclined toward the supernatural have speculated that the figure might be one of the legendary Mountain Spirits of Apache mythology. As part of their religious ceremonies, Apache dancers wear crowned masks to portray the supernatural entities known as Mountain Spirits. Pictured below are several Apache crown dancers in a historic photo by Edward Curtis, featured on the cover of Deathsong, the second book of Max McNabb’s Beloved Captive trilogy of historical novels.