The bone chilling legend of the Donkey Lady claims a half-woman-half-donkey-like creature persistently haunts the concentrated woods amid the Medina and San Antonio Rivers just south of the Alamo City. The south Texas tradition of searching for the terrifying Donkey Lady–or by now, perhaps her ghost–has been a faithful teenage ritual going as far back as the late 1940s.
A few years back, Harlandale High School classmates and residents of the 1940s and 1950s sat at their local favorite lunch hangout on the south side, Bud Jones Restaurant, at Military Drive and Commercial discussing their youth. The conversation turned to the Donkey Lady.
“To this day I swear it wasn’t just a made up deal,” claimed Archie Mabry, a retired electrician, who recalled “going out there as far back as about 1952 or 53. We decided we were going to ride out bicycles out there and actually camp because we wanted to find her.”
“The story we were told by our older brothers, sisters and classmates, was that there was a man and woman, who lived with their small children near Elm Creek about where Jett Road and Applewhite Road was,” Mabry said. “It was right after World War II and the husband had come back home messed up in the head after being in the battles in Europe.”
“Well, the man was abusive and drinking all the time. One night she became scared when he came home drunk. She pulled a kitchen knife on him to protect herself and the kids. It ticked him off so he went and set the damn house on fire.”
“I guess fate, or what you call karma, took care of him because the husband and the two children died in the fire,” his friend, retired San Antonio police detective Walter ‘Corky’ Dennis added. “Supposedly, they found her barely alive and just severely burned all over. Someone finally took her to what was either called Brooke General Hospital, or Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) back then, on base at Ft. Sam (Houston). Now it’s a major trauma center.”
“She was so scarred up and disfigured that she looked somewhat like a horse or donkey,” Dennis emphasized. “But I don’t think we started calling her ‘Donkey Lady’ until after the drowning at the bridge.”
The old classmates shook their heads agreeing to this version of the story.
“It was a wailing, crying, howling donkey. We could hear it back there in the trees and it was coming closer; right at us.”
“That’s right,” affirmed Mabry. “When she healed her face kind of drooped, baggy-like and her fingers fused together like hooves.”
Others around the table explained that when the woman was released and went back with no home, she “really no choice but to settle camp style, wild-like, and isolated.”
“We grew up wondering if she would ever make her way into town where we lived,” laughed Dennis. “On summer nights, around campfires, we talked about how she needed to come look for food. We just knew she was out there in the dark waiting for the last one of us to go to sleep, or if one of us needed to walk away for a minute to go to the restroom.”
Stories spread over the generations of students throughout Harlandale, Burbank, McCollum, South San and Southside High Schools. Mutilated by the fire, and absolutely insane from the death of her children, her appearance, the beatings from her husband, and then the isolation in the woods, people reported she would wear a bonnet, scarf or hood during the day to hide her eerie form. Shop keepers nearby said if she came into their stores, it would be with her beloved donkey. She’d remain unnervingly silent placing purchases on the counter, pay, and simply walk out.
However, at night, the sightings were treacherously different—even sinister in the descriptions. Those who dared to venture over the Applewhite Road Bridge crossing Elm Creek in the dark were terrorized by the sound of animals, especially the unnatural wailing of a donkey.
One of the classmates told about the bicycle trip that he, Mabry, and two other young Harlandale Indians freshmen took to find the Donkey Lady.
“We thought we were on a safari or witch hunt,” the gentleman announced. “We loaded our bikes up with everything we thought we needed to camp out and find the Donkey Lady: lanterns, bedding, slingshots, food, matches, cowboy canteens, just everything you could imagine.”
“We were something out of the ‘Little Rascals,’ now that I think about it,” laughed Mabry. “But we peddled ourselves way out there.”
“I bet we hadn’t settled down more than 30 minutes before we started talking about how she would come out like a wild lion and pounce on one of us, chewing and ripping one of us apart–and then we heard the sounds.”
“It was a donkey,” Mabry swore. “It was a wailing, crying, howling donkey. We could hear it back there in the trees and it was coming closer; right at us.”
The boys all started yelling and ran to their bikes.
“Crud, we got on those bikes, left the fire burning. We left our things there, everything and took off,” Mabry recounted. “Hell, we even left our slingshots and lights there. We had to ride all the way back home in the dark and that was plenty of miles, scared as hell and in the dark.”
“Yeah, and we didn’t have that many lights on back then as we do back then, but it sure was a blessing to make it back to town,” the old classmate grinned. “For years, I thought I could hear that old donkey snorting and crying it’s growling grumble outside my window.”
Another childhood classmate explained that “none of us really called her The Donkey Lady until someone told us the story about how her donkey bit a boy.”
“In retaliation, the father and uncles decided they were going to send that donkey down the river,” he pointed out. “They caught that lady with her donkey crossing the bridge and tried to take it from her. The donkey fell in the creek and the men held her. That’s when her bonnet fell off and they saw how disfigured she actually was. They let her go and she jumped in after her donkey. They never saw her again.”
“We would dare someone to pee off the bridge. Then we’d drive off and leave them there.”
Through the years, the legend has changed, evolved, and split up into various accounts. By the 1960’s and 70’s, it was a common ritual to park your car next to the bridge at night with your lights off. Either the Donkey Lady, or her ghost, would anger thinking you might be like the men who tried to take her donkey when it fell into the water. Some testify they hear hoofs on the ground, brush rustling, and a crying donkey. Others report hoof prints or dents on their cars. Occasionally, people swear they saw her stalking them through the trees.
“We would dare someone to pee off the bridge,” Raymond Bobby Glass, a McCollum Cowboy from the 1970s, admitted . “Then we’d drive off and leave them there. We broke many a hard-ass there.”
Debbie Gonzales, from the McCollum Class of 1980 remembers that in junior high, “Walter Fewell Sr. dropped off his brother Ray” before some friends arrived.”
“Ray laid back in an open grave with a white sheet and, oh yes, when we got there walking around Ray jumped up out of the grave,” Gonzales described. “Wow, did we run. Walter, Tammy, Marty, my sister Lisa, and my little brother Sugar and myself…AND we ran out of gas over the Donkey Lady’s bridge. The fun went on all night.”
Terri Laskowski Gould tells of the boys who went to the camp near there.
“Well, at ghost story time during the camp out, a father changed his brother’s contact information on his cell phone to read ‘Donkey Lady,’” she explained. “He sends his brother a text and as he is finishing the story of the Donkey Lady.”
“All the boys on bended knee are listening intently to the story when his phone rings,” Laskowski-Gould revealed. “He threw it down amidst them: ‘OH MY GOD! SHE’S CALLING! SHOULD I ANSWER?’ with the boys shouting ‘YES! YES!’”
“He answers and his brother made the most hideous ‘donkey’ noises,” she laughed. “That night the boys were going to camp together in a tent. Not a one of them would part their parent’s side. I cannot even mention the donkey lady to my 10 year old and this was 2 years ago! Lol. I say the name and he says, ‘SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHE IS GOING TO CALL US AND FIND US!’”