AMERICA'S VANISHING HITCHHIKERS

PROPHESYING PASSENGERS
Who are these Elusive Forecasters of Doom?


 

One has to wonder how such strange stories of vanishing hitchhikers got started? In the introduction to these articles, it was mentioned that such beings have been around since the days of covered wagons but perhaps it was even earlier than that - for young women on their way home from dances are not the only vanishing hitchhikers that have been encountered over the years.

There have been many reports of "prophesying passengers" over the years - strange hitchhikers who are picked up and then pass along odd messages, usually involving the end of the world or something almost as dire. Many of them are described as looking "christ-like" or like biblical prophets and in fact, one such enigmatic figure was even nicknamed the "Hitchhiking Jesus" by the press in Palatine, Illinois as they reported alleged encounters with the man. He was always dressed in white clothing and had long hair and a beard. If someone offered him a ride he would climb into the back seat and after riding in silence for a time would shout "the end is near" or "sinner repent" or some such thing. Then, he would simply vanish.

There is also a tale of a prophesying nun from Chicago. A cab driver once told a strange and unsettling fare that he had in December 1941. He was cruising the downtown streets one night and he pulled over to pick up a nun who was dressed in the traditional garb of a Catholic order. She gave him the address that she wished to be taken to and they drove off. The radio was on and the announcer was discussing the events that had taken place at Pearl Harbor a short time before and the preparations that the United States was making for war.

The nun suddenly spoke up from the back seat. "It wonít last more than four months", she said and then didnít speak again for the rest of the ride.

When the cabbie pulled up to the address, he got out to open the door for the lady. He was surprised to discover that she wasnít there! Afraid that the little old lady had forgotten to pay her fare, the driver climbed the steps of the address she had given him and discovered that it was a convent. He knocked on the door and was brought to the Mother Superior. He then explained his predicament to her. "What did she look like?" he was asked. She told him that none of the sisters had been downtown that day.

As the driver began to describe her, he happened to look up at a portrait that was hanging on the wall behind the Mother Superiorís desk. "Thatís her," he said, obviously thinking that he was going to get his fare after all... but he couldnít have been more wrong. The Mother Superior smiled and quietly said, "But she has been dead for ten years."

And the nun, like those passengers who tell of the end of the world, are never correct in their predictions. One has to wonder if these beings are truly supernatural, then perhaps they should consider another source for their upcoming events! Another passenger from the Windy City had her own strange prediction to make:

During Chicagoís Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, 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 say that they never really got a good look at her because it was dark outside.

As they drive along, they get into a conversation about the Exposition and she oddly tells them that the "fair is going to slide off into Lake Michigan in September". She then gives them her address in Chicago and invites them to call on her anytime. When they turn around to speak to her, after this doom-filled warning, she had disappeared!

Unnerved, they decide to go to the address the woman gave them and when they do, a man answers the door. They tell him why they have come and he merely nods his head. "Yes, that was my wife", he tells them. "She died four years ago."

And while such stories may be different than the typical vanishing hitchhiker tale, they still donít provide the clues as to how stories of strange and vanishing figures (especially those with dire warnings) fit into the American culture. For that, we may have to go back centuries to a mysterious figure who came to be known as the ďWandering JewĒ.

There is an old Christian legend that tells of a man who has been forced to travel the world preaching the gospel and who is doomed to wander until Christís second coming. The story is very old and is based on the legend of a Jewish man who scorned Christ as he was carrying the cross to Calvary.

Out of this story has grown a great amount of legend and lore that has the Wandering Jew appearing as an old man with a beard and tattered clothing who preaches the word of God, heals people, rescues them from danger and makes dire predictions of events to come. The stories are very widespread and while the last recorded appearance of this figure was in 1900, the story seems to have taken root and has become not only the tales of prophesying passengers but other strange figures who make predictions as well.

One such figure was man, according to the story, who appeared after a thunderclap in Lexington, Tennessee in May 1878. The man (described in newspaper accounts) was said to be about 30, slender, of medium height, with fair skin and brown hair and a beard. He came into town that day and announced that he would be holding a religious service. Rumors quickly spread about this man who called himself Robert Edge and many came to see him.

His sermon that night was unlike anything these simple people of Tennessee has ever heard before. He attacked the principles of the modern church, called for a return to the primitive church of Jesusí disciples, condemned the Freemasons and then explained biblical prophecies, letting everyone know that the end of the world was coming soon.

He attracted a following and roamed about the countryside, preaching and warning of future dangers, without ever asking for directions. And while the end of the world was not exactly around the corner in 1878, Edge did seem to have advance knowledge of the dangers coming in his direction from the many enemies that he made. One day, he simply vanished and was never heard from again.

In 1890, another such stranger (or perhaps the same one?) came to the city of Augusta, Georgia. He was said to have been an old man with white hair and a neatly trimmed beard and he also spoke of coming dangers and great threats to humanity. He did his preaching in the Market Place, which consisted of two large connecting sheds known as the Upper and Lower Markets. Here, farmers brought goods from their fields and towns people purchased their groceries.

One day, the old man predicted that a storm would destroy the Lower Market and leave only the southwest pillar of the shed standing to prove that he was a prophet of God. Not long after, an electrical storm caused lightning to strike the Market Place and the Lower Market burned to the ground. Only the southwest pillar remained and the "Pillar of Prophecy", as it was called, survived another fire in 1916 and stood until 1920. As for the old man, he was never seen again.

But there is no story of mysterious strangers as American as the Mormon legends of the Three Nephites. Mormonism, later known as the Church of Latter-Day Saints, got its start in upper New York State in the early 1800ís. It was started by a man named Joseph Smith, who claimed to be visited by angels and had revealed to him some golden plates that were translated into the Book of Mormon. The book claims to be the record of the first inhabitants of America, descendants of the Israelites who led a rebellion and were cursed with dark skin. These Lamanites (as they were called) became the American Indians and they warred against the righteous men,

who were descended from Nephi, who were faithful and became disciples of Christ.

An important part of the Book of Mormon is the story of Christís ministry in the New World. Three of the disciples that Jesus gathers around him are Nephites and they ask that they be allowed to remain on earth to continue their ministry until Christ returns. In this way, the story parallels the story of the Wandering Jew, except they asked to be here by choice. According to the Book of Mormon, the three Nephites made many appearances over the years but the legends really took hold after the Mormons settled in Utah in the late 1840ís.

One recorded story involving the Nephites occurred in April 1852, after a long period of hardship for the Mormons. One day, an old man knocked at the door of a local family and asked if he could eat with them. There was little food but the woman shared what they had, bread, water and onions. When the man finished, he asked what he could pay the woman for the food and she would take nothing. With that the man blessed her and walked out of the house. The woman asked a neighbor, who had been visiting, to look out and see where the man had gone, but he had vanished. After that, the womanís family survived the famine and when he neighbors were starving, she had more than enough to feed them and her family too. She was convinced that she was being repaid for her kindness toward the old man, which legend holds was one of the Three Nephites.

In the summer of 1874, another Utah woman was alone at home and turned around suddenly to find an old man with a white beard standing in her kitchen. He asked her for food and she prepared something for him. As they talked, and the old man ate, the woman mentioned that she had not been feeling well. The old man replied that her illness was caused by her liver, but that it would not be bothering her any longer. After eating, the old man blessed the woman and left. She looked out moments after he went through the door, but the man was gone. She came to believe the man was one of the Three Nephites. Her health problems ceased soon after and her family began to prosper. When the woman died at age 89, her wealth was enough to provide for all of her childrenís families for life.

And there were many other stories of mysterious men helping out Mormon families, speaking of their work on earth and making predictions of things to come. No matter what you believe about the stories of the Nephites, or Mormonism in general, itís not hard to see how legends of the Wandering Jew became the Three Nephites and progressed into the more modern day versions of the prophesying passengers in automobiles.

The strange parallels between all of the stories seem to point to a common theme and perhaps even one based in truth.

(C) Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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Sources:
Bielski, Ursula - Chicago Haunts (1998)
Coleman, Loren - Mysterious America (1983)
Taylor, Troy - Beyond the Grave (2001)