The tale of the vanishing hitchhiker is a classic American ghost story. There is not a single part of the country that does not boast at least one tale about a pale young girl who accepts a ride with a stranger, only to vanish from the car before they reach their destination.
Stories like this have been a part of American lore for many years and tales of spectral passengers (usually young women) are often attached to bridges, dangerous hills and intersections and graveyards. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand calls the vanishing hitchhiker "the classic automobile legend" but stories of these spirits date back as far as the middle 1800s, when men told stories of ghostly women who appeared on the backs of their horses. These spectral riders always disappeared when they reached their destination and would often prove to be the deceased daughters of local farmers. Not much has changed in the stories that are still told today, outside of the preferred method of transportation.
Today, such tales are usually referred to as "urban legends." They are stories that have been told and re-told over the years and in most every case have been experienced by the proverbial "friend of a friend" and have no real basis in fact -- or do they?
Are all of these stories, as some would like us to believe, nothing more than folklore? Are they simply tales that have been made up and have been spread across the country over a long period of time? Perhaps this is the case…or perhaps not.
One has to wonder how such stories got started in the first place. Could any of them have a basis in truth? What if a strange incident --- perhaps an encounter with a vanishing hitchhiker --- actually happened somewhere and then was told, and re-told, to the point that it lost many of the elements of truth? As the story spread, it came to be embraced by people all over the country until it became a part of their local lore. It has long been believed that people willingly provide an explanation for something that they cannot understand. This is usually done by creating mythology that made sense at the time. Who knows if there may be a very small kernel of truth hidden inside some of the folk tales that sends shivers down your spine?
Tales of phantom hitchhikers can be found all over the world but in no area are they as prevalent as they are in and around the city of Chicago, which is home, of course, to America’s most famous ghost, Resurrection Mary. (For the complete story of Mary – and her true identity – see my book on the subject, aptly titled Resurrection Mary). There are a number of mysterious phantoms to be found in the Chicago area, from the typical vanishing hitchers of legend and lore to what some have dubbed "prophesying passengers" -- strange hitchhikers who are picked up and then pass along odd messages, usually involving the end of the world or something almost as dire.
A good example of such a passenger was reported during Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, when a group of people in an automobile told of a strange encounter. They were traveling along Lake Shore Drive when a woman with a suitcase, standing by the roadside, hailed them. They invited her to ride along with them and she climbed in. They later said that they never really got a good look at her because it was dark outside.
As they drove along, they got into a conversation about the exposition and the mysterious woman solemnly told them, "The fair is going to slide off into Lake Michigan in September." She then gave them her address in Chicago and invited them to call on her anytime. When they turned around to speak to her again, they discovered that she had disappeared!
Unnerved, they decided to go to the address the woman gave them and when they did, a man answered the door. They explained to him why they had come to the house and he merely nodded his head. "Yes, that was my wife. She died four years ago,” he said.
The mysterious passenger may have been a ghost but she was obviously not a well-informed one; despite her warning, the Exposition stubbornly refused to slide into the lake.
A tragic murder occurred at streetcar stop at the intersection of Carmen and Lincoln avenues on November 18, 1905, when a young woman named Lizzie Kaussehull was killed by a crazed stalker named Edward Robhaut, who had been pursuing her for three months. During that time, Robhaut had tried unsuccessfully to win Lizzie’s heart. He constantly bothered her, wrote her letters, sent her flowers, and simply refused to accept her rejection. Neighbors later recalled that he frequently waited around the corner of Lincoln and Carmen, waiting for the streetcar that would bring Lizzie home from her job at Moeller & Stange’s grocery store, located farther south on Lincoln. Lizzie did her best to ignore him but he followed her home every night.
Lizzie became so fearful for her life that her family reported Robhaut’s behavior to the police, including the fact that he told Lizzie that he would kill her if she would not marry him. Robhaut was arrested and a restraining order (called a "peace bond" in those days) was filed against him on November 11, but it had no effect on his actions. He continued to follow her home from the streetcar stop each afternoon, begging her to marry him and threatening to kill her if she did not.
On November 18, Lizzie finished her shift at Moeller & Stange’s and, as always, rode the streetcar north on Lincoln. When she reached her stop, she stepped off with several girlfriends, all of them laughing and talking. Then, she saw Robhaut leaning against the wall of a nearby storefront. Lizzie’s friends froze and Lizzie shakily put up a hand and stammered in his direction that the peace bond was still in place against him. Robhaut suddenly ran toward her and Lizzie began to scream.
Robhaut sprang upon her and plunged a knife into Lizzie’s chest. She staggered away from him, but Robhaut attacked again, stabbing her three more times. Finally, her dress soaked with blood, she fell to the sidewalk. Robhaut looked down at the woman that he claimed to love so ardently that he had to kill her because he couldn’t have her, drew a revolver, placed the barrel into his mouth, and pulled the trigger. The back of Robhaut’s skull blew out in a red spray of gore and his body collapsed on top of Lizzie’s. They were finally together – in death.
But this was not the end of the story. According to legend, Lizzie’s ghost has haunted the intersection at Lincoln and Carmen for more than a century now. The stories claim that, on nights of the full moon, Lizzie returns to the former streetcar stop and can be heard screaming – just as she did when she saw Edward Robhaut lurching toward her on the day that he ended her life.
The Flapper Ghost
Another ghostly hitchhiker haunts the roadways between the site of the old Melody Mill Ballroom and Waldheim Cemetery, which is located at 1800 South Harlem Ave in Chicago.
The cemetery, once known as Jewish Waldheim, is one of the more peaceful and attractive graveyards in the area and is easily recognizable by the columns that are mounted at the front gates. They were once part of the old Cook County Building, which was demolished in 1908. This cemetery would most likely go quietly through its existence if not for the tales of the "Flapper Ghost," as the resident spirit has been dubbed.
The story of this beautiful spirit tells of her earthly existence as a young Jewish girl who attended dances at the Melody Mill Ballroom, formerly on South Des Plaines Avenue in west suburban North Riverside. During its heyday, the ballroom was one of the city's favorite venues for dancing and played host to dozens of popular big bands from the 1920s to the middle 1980s. The brick building was topped with a miniature windmill, the ballroom's trademark.
This young woman was a very attractive brunette with bobbed hair and a penchant for dressing in the style of the Prohibition era. In later years, witnesses would claim that her ghost dressed like a "flapper" and this is how she earned her nickname. Legend has it that this lovely girl was a regular at the Melody Mill until she died of peritonitis, the result of a burst appendix.
The girl was buried at Jewish Waldheim and she likely would have been forgotten, to rest in peace, if strange things had not started to happen a few months later. The events began as staff members at the Melody Mill began to see a young woman who looked just like the deceased girl appearing at dances at the ballroom. A number of men actually claimed to meet the girl here and to have offered her a ride home. During the journey, the young woman always vanished. This fetching phantom was also known to hitch rides on Des Plaines Avenue, outside the ballroom, and was also sometimes seen near the gates to the cemetery. Some travelers who passed the graveyard also claimed to see her entering a mausoleum that was located off Harlem Avenue.
Although recent sightings have been few, the ghost was most active in 1933, during the Century of Progress Exhibition. She became active again forty years later, during the early 1970s, and stayed active for nearly a decade.
In the early 1930s, she was often reported at the ballroom, where she would dance with young men and ask for a ride home at the end of the evening. Every report was basically the same; a young man would agree to drive the girl home and she would give him directions to go east on Cermak Road, then north on Harlem Avenue. When they reached the cemetery, the girl always asked the driver to stop the car. The girl would explain to her escort that she lived in the caretaker's house (since demolished) and then get out of the car. One man stated that he watched the girl go towards the house but then duck around the side of it. Curious, he climbed out of the car to see where she was going and saw her run out into the cemetery and vanish among the tombstones.
Another young man, who was also told that the girl lived in the caretaker's house, decided to come back during the day and to ask about her at the house. He had become infatuated with her and hoped to take her dancing again on another evening. His questions to the occupants of the house were met with blank stares and bafflement. No such girl lived, or had ever lived, at the house.
More sightings took place in the early 1970s and one report even occurred during the daylight hours. A family was visiting the cemetery one day and was startled to see a young woman dressed like a flapper walking toward a crypt, where she suddenly disappeared. The family hurried over to the spot, only to find that the girl was not there and there was nowhere to which she could have vanished so quickly.
Since that time, sightings of the flapper have been few; this may be because the old Melody Mill is no more. The days of jazz and big bands were gone by the 1980s and attendance on weekend evenings continued to slip until the place was closed in 1985. It was later demolished and a new building was put up in its place two years later. Has the Flapper Ghost simply moved on to the other side since her favorite dance spot has disappeared? Perhaps -- and perhaps she is still kicking up her heels on a dance floor in another time and place, where it's 1933 every day!
Chicago Avenue Mary
The town of Naperville, an affluent suburb located southwest of Chicago, is home to another of the region’s roadside ghosts. In this case, the spirit in question doesn’t hitch rides with passing motorists, she actually makes her spectral rounds on foot, which has created a romantic legend over the years that just may have a basis in truth.
The story of Chicago Avenue Mary, as she has come to be called, began more than a century and a half ago when a pale, devastated young women was seen crossing Chicago Avenue and vanishing into the gloom of the evening. Mary appeared from a home located on the corner of Chicago Avenue and Ellsworth Street in Naperville that once belonged to the E.E. Miller family. Some have surmised that Mary was their daughter but others believe that her true story is actually much older than that, largely based on the clothing that the phantom reportedly wears. It seems that every year, on what legend held was the anniversary of her death, Mary walked through the front door of the house, down to the sidewalk, turned right and walked to the corner. She crossed Chicago Avenue and walked down the hill, where she eventually disappeared.
In every report, Mary was described in exactly the same way. Every detail of her hair and clothing was alike, even though the sightings occurred throughout several generations to people who were strangers to one another. The stories claimed that she was wearing the same clothing she wore on the day of her death – a long blue skirt of a rough-spun material and a white blouse with puffy sleeves, similar to women’s clothing styles in the middle 1800s. Mary was always described as a pretty young girl, possibly in her early to mid-twenties, with curly, brown hair pulled up in an old-fashioned style.
The other thing that witnesses always seem to remember about the young woman is the look of terrible pain, anguish and desperation on her face. Her eyes are filled with unbearable grief. She appears to be haunted, they say, for lack of a better term.
Mary has been seen on Chicago Avenue for many years but perhaps the most publicized sighting occurred in the late 1970s. Two college students were driving east on Chicago Avenue one night when a woman suddenly walked out in the street in front of their car. The driver slammed on his brakes but was unable to stop in time and he collided with the woman – or would have, if she had actually been there. The woman had mysteriously vanished. The couple searched the area, but there was no woman – injured or otherwise – to be found.
The legend of Chicago Avenue Mary tells of events that allegedly occurred in the middle 1800s, when a young Naperville couple fell in love. Mary and her boyfriend often met at a small, tree-shaded pool ringed with quarry limestone that was not far from where Mary lived. One day, after the two had become engaged, Mary’s fiancée accidentally fell into the pool and struck his head on a rock. The blow knocked him unconscious and before Mary could summon help, he drowned in the cool water. Mary was unable to forgive herself for not being able to save her lover’s life and she slipped into a terrible depression. She refused to leave the house except to walk to the pool where her fiancée had died --- leaving her front door, turning right down the sidewalk, crossing Chicago Avenue and walking down the hill to sit beside the water. She refused to eat or drink. She simply sat there, staring into the water, until her father or mother could come and lead her back home by the hand every evening.
Soon, Mary could stand no more and one night, she locked herself into her bedroom and committed suicide. Some say that she swallowed poison and others claim she hanged herself, but the end result was the same – she believed that she could be with her lover for eternity. Her grieving parents buried her next to him in the Naperville Cemetery.
But Mary’s spirit was unable to find peace. On the first anniversary of her death, locals were stunned to see her leaving her house, walking to the corner of Chicago Avenue and Ellsworth Street and wandering down the hill toward the pool where she had mourned for her fiancée. She appeared year after year. Many brave souls attempted to communicate with her but she vanished when she was approached. After an iron fence was erected around the pool, Mary passed right through it since it did not exist in her place and time.
The romantic legend of Chicago Avenue Mary is often dismissed as a folk story – a tale of a woman with no last name, a fiancée whose name was never known and a series of events that likely never happened. Or did they? E.E. Miller, who once owned the house at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Ellsworth Street had a daughter named Mary, but she did not commit suicide, nor was she ever engaged to man who accidentally died.
So, if Mary is not this young woman, then perhaps she was another? Historical records show that the first house that was built on the corner belonged to Captain Morris Sleight and his wife, Hannah. The Miller House was later constructed by adding onto the home that already existed on the property. The Sleights had a daughter named Rosalie, who died on February 9, 1853, at the age of 23. Her cause of death was not listed, leading some to believe that she might have taken her own life. Her age at the time of her death, and the clothing of the period, leads us to believe that perhaps this is the “Mary” that haunted this particular roadside for so many years.
Whoever Mary might have been in life, she seemed doomed to repeat her annual journey over and over again through the 1960s. After that, Chicago Avenue Mary sightings became sporadic and finally tapered off in the middle 1980s. Many believe that Mary still walks today, but if she does it’s unlikely that she recognizes the place that she once loved – then hated – for so long. The small spring has since been turned into a large pond by North Central College, with a fountain, landscaping and memorial plaques to designate donations from the families of college alumni. The old milk house that once stood at the site, along with the metal bench where Mary and her lover reportedly sat, is gone. The home from which the phantom girl emerged was destroyed in 2007 and was replaced by the Wentz Fine Arts Center, further erasing another remnant of Mary’s past.