In the early morning hours of March 10, 1934, a young woman who died in an automobile accident went on to become the original source for Chicago’s most famous ghost – Resurrection Mary. Her name was Mary Bregovy and she was a young Polish factory worker from the Back of the Yards neighborhood, but her death created a legend that is still being told today. There is no ghost in Chicago history that is as famous as “Resurrection Mary,” the beautiful spirit who hitches rides along Archer Avenue on the Southwest Side, but for many years, her origins remained a mystery.
After more than a decade and a half of research, however, I have come to believe there are actually two different young women (and perhaps more!) whose combined deaths created the legend that we know of as “Resurrection Mary.” One of them was Mary Bregovy…
Many would dismiss this story as nothing more than an urban legend gone awry, a bedtime story that has taken on a life of its own over the years. Others would argue this and recount the most widely told version of the tale, never wavering from the idea that they believe the story to be true. Unfortunately though, the story of Resurrection Mary is filled with mystery --- and myth --- and nothing about it is simple. It’s a complicated tale of two young women and a single legend that became, without question, American’s greatest ghost story.
|The Willowbrook Ballroom on Archer Avenue, which started out as the Oh Henry Ballroom in the 1920s|
The legend of Resurrection Mary began at the Oh Henry Ballroom (now known as the Willowbrook Ballroom), a popular place for swing and big-band dancing during the middle 1930s. The ballroom is still located today on the south stretch of Archer Avenue in Willow Springs. Many years ago, this was a somewhat secluded place, nestled among the trees in a small town with a “wide open” reputation for booze, gambling and prostitution. Young people from all over the south side came to the Oh Henry Ballroom for music and dancing and owner John Verderbar was known for booking the hottest bands in the Chicago area and the biggest acts that traveled around the country.
The story goes that Mary came to the Oh Henry one night with a boyfriend and they spent the evening dancing and drinking. At some point, they got into an argument and Mary stormed out of the place. Even though it was a cold winter’s night, she decided that she would rather face a cold walk home than another minute with her obnoxious boyfriend. She left the ballroom and started walking up Archer Avenue. She had not gotten very far when she was struck and killed by a passing automobile. The driver fled the scene and Mary was left there to die.
Her grieving parents buried her in Resurrection Cemetery, wearing her favorite party dress and her dancing shoes. Since that time, her spirit has been seen along Archer Avenue, perhaps trying to return to her grave after one last night among the living. Motorists started picking up a young woman on Archer Avenue, who offered them vague directions to take her home, who would then vanish from the automobile at the gates to Resurrection Cemetery.
But is there any truth to this legend? Did a young woman actually die after leaving the Oh Henry Ballroom and then begin haunting Archer Avenue? Many say that none of this ever happened. They speculate that “Mary” never existed at all. They dismiss the idea of bothering to search for her identity and believe she is nothing more than an “urban legend” and a piece of fascinating folklore. She is, they say, nothing more than Chicago’s own “vanishing hitchhiker”.
While the story of Resurrection Mary does bear some resemblance to the classic bit of American highway lore that we call the “vanishing hitchhiker”, the folklorists have forgotten an important thing about Mary’s story that other versions of the don’t have --- credible eyewitness accounts, places, times and dates. Many of these reports are not just stories that have been passed from person to person and rely on a "friend of a friend" for authenticity. In fact, some of the encounters with Mary have been chillingly up close and personal and remain unexplained to this day.
In addition, the story of Mary includes something that the urban legends leave out --- actually physical evidence of her presence. I’m not referring to the mythical coats and lettermen’s jackets that have been found neatly folded over gravesites but actual physical happenings that have been attributed to her ghost, as well as handprints that have been left behind, scorched into the bars of an iron gate.
And Mary, unlike our highway legends, springs from real-life counterparts for which evidence remains about their lives --- and deaths.
Historically speaking, the first reports of Resurrection Mary came from the late spring of 1934. It was at this time that motorists on Archer Avenue, passing in front of Resurrection Cemetery, began telling of a young woman who would appear on the roadway, as if trying to hitch a ride. On some occasions, she became frantic as cars passed her by and many times, actually desperate. Motorists told of the woman running toward them across the road, trying to climb onto the running boards of their automobiles and sometimes, even trying to climb into the open back windows! They all described her in the same way, wearing a light-colored dress and having curly, light brown hair that reached to her shoulders.
What made matters worse is that many of the people in these automobiles, who were residents of the southwest side, actually recognized this young woman. Her name was Mary Bregovy and some of these motorists were her friends. They laughed with her, drank with her and often danced with her at their favorite spot, the Oh Henry Ballroom. Of course, that had been in the past because when they began seeing Mary trying to flag them down on Archer Avenue --- she had been dead for several weeks!
Newspaper images of Mary Bregovy from the 1930s
Mary Bregovy was 21 years-old in March 1934. She had been born on April 7, 1912 and attended St. Michael’s Grammar School, a short distance from her home. She lived in a small home at 4611 South Damen Avenue, which was in the stockyards neighborhood of Bridgeport. She was of Polish descent and was employed at a local factory, where she worked hard to help support her mother, father and two younger brothers, Steve and Joseph, during the early days of the Great Depression.
Friends would later remember her as an extremely fun-loving girl who loved to go to parties and loved to go out dancing, especially to the Oh Henry Ballroom, which was her favorite place. Her friend LaVern Rutkowski, who grew up with Mary on the southwest side and lived just two houses away from her, recalled in a 1984 interview: “She was personality plus. She always had a smile and you never saw her unhappy.”
Mrs. Rutkowski, or “Vern” as she was commonly known, spent Mary’s final day with her on March 10, 1934. The two of them spent a lot of time together and years later, Vern would vividly recall going out with Mary to dance halls all over the southwest side. Ironically, Mary’s parents had forbidden her to go out on the night of March 10 and Mary might have listened to them if she and Vern had not met a couple of young men earlier that day. These two men, who are believed to have been John Reiker and John Thoel, were in the car that night when Mary was killed.
The former Goldblatt’s store at 47th and Ashland, where Mary and Vern spent their final day together.
Mary and Vern spent that Saturday afternoon shopping at 47th Street and Ashland Avenue and it was in one of the stores located here that they met the two boys. After getting into their car to go for a ride, Vern took an instant dislike to them. She said: “They looked like wild boys and for some reason I just didn’t like them.” Vern added that they drove recklessly, turning corners on two wheels and speeding down narrow streets. Finally, Vern demanded to be let out of the car a few blocks from home. She asked Mary if she planned to go out with the young men that night and Mary said that she did. Vern urged her to reconsider, not only because she didn’t like the boys but also because Mary’s parents had already told her that she couldn’t. Mary shrugged off her friend’s warnings. She simply replied: “You never like anyone I introduce you to.”
Vern stood watching on the street corner as Mary and the young men roared away in the car. It was the last time that she would ever see her friend alive.
The Bregovy home was located here in this row of modest homes in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
No one knows how Mary Bregovy spent the rest of the day but a few clues have emerged from family members over the years. The wife of Mary’s younger brother, Steve, reported in 1985 that she had received a letter from a friend of Mary’s years before that stated Mary planned to attend a novena at church before she went out dancing that night. The Bregovy’s were devout Catholics and this would not have been out of the ordinary for Mary to do. She also said that she believed Mary had been going to the Oh Henry Ballroom that night.
But did she ever arrive there? No one knows for sure but tradition holds that Mary and her new friends, which now included a young woman named Virginia Rozanski, did go dancing at the Oh Henry Ballroom that night. After the ballroom closed, it is believed that they drove into the city, where most of the clubs stayed open much later. In the early morning hours, they were leaving downtown, traveling along Wacker Drive, likely headed for Archer Avenue, which would take Mary home to Bridgeport, when the deadly accident occurred. One has to wonder if alcohol, combined with the reckless driving described by Vern Rutkowski, combined to cause the crash.
A short piece in the March 11 edition of the Chicago Tribune described the accident:
Girl Killed in Crash
Miss Marie Bregovy, 21 years old, of 4611 South Damen Avenue, was killed last night when the automobile in which she was riding cracked up at Lake Street and Wacker Drive. John Reiker, 23, of 15 North Knight Street, Park Ridge, suffered a possible skull fracture and is in the county hospital. John Thoel, 25, 5216 Loomis Street, driver of the car, and Miss Virginia Rozanski, 22, of 4849 South Lincoln Street, were shaken up and scratched. The scene of the accident is known to police as a danger spot. Thoel told police he did not see the “L” substructure.
The accident occurred along Wacker Drive, just as it curves to the south and away from the Chicago River. At the point where Wacker crosses Lake Street, there is a large, metal support for the elevated tracks overhead. If a driver was coming along Wacker too quickly, it could be easy to not make a complete turn and collide with the support column, which is almost in a straight line around the curve. This is apparently what happened to John Thoel that night.
When the automobile collided with the metal column, Mary was thrown through the windshield and instantly killed. She was also badly cut up by the glass. Before her funeral, the undertaker had to sew up a gash that extended all of the way across the front of her throat and up to her right ear. Tragically, Mary was not even supposed to be sitting in the front seat when the accident occurred. Her parents would later learn that she had switched places with Virginia Rozanski because she didn’t like John Thoel, who she had been sitting next to in the passenger’s seat. She had asked Mary to sit in front with Thoel and Mary had agreed. Unfortunately, her good-natured personality would turn out to be fatal for her.
Vern Rutkowski accompanied Mary’s mother and her brother, Joseph, to the morgue to identify the body. Mary was taken to the Satala Funeral Home, located just a couple of blocks from the Bregovy home, to be prepared for burial. The owner at the time, John Satala, easily remembered Mary. In 1985, he recalled: “She was a hell of a nice girl. Very pretty. She was buried in an orchid dress. I remember having to sew up the side of her face.”
The Satala Funeral Home, where Mary Bregovy was prepared for burial
Mary was buried in Resurrection Cemetery and this is where some of the confusion about her story comes along. According to records, Mary was buried in Section MM, Site 9819. There was a Mary Bregovy buried here, but it was not the young woman who was killed in March 1934. A search for this gravesite revealed that the Mary Bregovy laid to rest here was a 34 year-old mother who was born in 1888 and died in 1922. This is a different Mary Bregovy altogether! Family members of Mary Bregovy said that Mary was actually buried in a term grave and never moved. After World War II, when space was needed for more burial sites at Resurrection Cemetery, some of the term graves were moved but others, like Mary’s, were simply covered over. For this reason, according to Mrs. Steve Bregovy, the location of Mary’s grave is unknown. Could this be one of the reasons that her spirit is so restless?
The stories of Mary Bregovy’s ghost began a very short time after her death. In April 1934, a caretaker at Resurrection Cemetery telephoned funeral home director John Satala and told him that he had seen the barefooted ghost of a young girl walking around the cemetery. She was a lovely girl with light brown hair and she was wearing a pale, orchid-colored dress. The caretaker was positive that the ghost was the woman that Satala had recently buried. Satala later said that he recognized the description of the girl as Mary Bregovy.
Soon after, other reports began to appear, like the earlier mentioned accounts of a woman matching Mary’s description who was trying to hitch rides in front of the cemetery. These Archer Avenue sightings also included reports from people who actually recognized the ghost as Mary Bregovy.
I’m convinced that these reports were the beginning of the Resurrection Mary legend. These were the first stories of a young woman hitching rides on Archer Avenue and thanks to the destination of many of these motorists, combined with the fact that the Oh Henry Ballroom was Mary’s favorite dance spot, the story began to grow. I believe that many of the reports of a ghostly woman being seen around Resurrection Cemetery can be traced to Mary Bregovy --- the “original Resurrection Mary”.
But Mary Bregovy does not haunt this stretch of Archer Avenue alone…
As you may have noticed from Mary’s description, she doesn’t fit the description of a pretty blond, which is standard in the Resurrection Mary legend. However, the other girl who haunts Archer Avenue does…
The rest of the story of Mary – and the solution to the mystery of the two ghosts – can be found in THE GIRL BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, available as a new Kindle title in the "Hell Hath No Fury Series."