In my little town, we prepare for Halloween in the usual ways: adorning our yards with scary decorations, buying candy (the good kind that makes you secretly hope no kids show up) and setting out pumpkins, which at my house quickly become squirrel food.
But we also engage in the kind of communal mischief for which Manitou is known, which at this time of year takes the form of racing coffins down main street. “Coffin,” in this instance, refers to an astonishing array of vessels built to specifications, kind of: 24 to 46 inches wide and 5 to 8 feet long, which includes the handles by which the wheeled creations are pushed. Anything goes for height, but no functional steering devices are allowed, which explains why some entries cross the finish line sideways or backwards.
Riding within each coffin is a small woman wearing a helmet and, typically, ghastly make-up, a not-quite funereal bow to the only person who gave her life for the event, though there have been plenty of bumps and bruises and more than a few concussions as coffin-pushers tumble to the asphalt in a mad 195-yard dash to the finish.
That woman was Emma Crawford, whose name the races bear. They began modestly in 1994, more than a century after the frail young woman from Boston perished from tuberculosis. Like many Easterners, she had come to Manitou hoping the sunshine, mountain air and mineral springs would provide a cure to the ravages of what was then aptly known as consumption.
For a time, it seemed her hopes would be realized; her health improved, and 19-year-old Emma hiked to the summit of Red Mountain, overlooking our town. Ethereal by nature and given to otherworldly visions, she claimed to have communed there with the spirit of an Indian chief. When she relapsed and died a short time later, in 1891, her fiancé recruited a dozen pallbearers to fulfill her wish to be buried on the mountain.
But Emma’s rest wasn’t quite eternal; her body was moved to make room for a railroad project in 1912. Seventeen years later, her skull and pieces of her casket were discovered washed into the canyon below; either the elements or vandals had disrupted the young woman’s second grave. What was left of Emma Crawford was re-buried in an unmarked plot in the town cemetery, where a memorial marker was placed in 2004.
I sometimes visit her, and I know others do, too; people leave flowers and other mementos. They’re intended partly as respectful remembrances of the usual sort. But I suspect some are meant as gentle apologies for the raucous races that capitalize on Emma’s untimely death and improbable postmortem travels, re-enacted each year with a galloping, ghoulishly good time.