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
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
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
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
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
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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Ghosts of the Prairie Home Page
Bielski, Ursula - Chicago Haunts (1998)
Coleman, Loren - Mysterious America (1983)
Taylor, Troy - Beyond the Grave (2001)