GHOSTS OF THE PRAIRIE
Throughout American history, we have been troubled by stories of strange figures who are picked up along roadsides and then who vanish without a trace from the interiors of automobiles, from carriages and even from the backs of horses! Are these stories simply "urban legends" with no basis in truth - or is there more to the enigma than meets the eye?
On a cold and rainy night, a young man is on his way to a party at a local dance hall and on his way there, he happens to offer a ride to an attractive young woman who agrees to go with him to the dance. Everyone at the party found her to be very charming and after the dance was over, the young man offered to drive her home as the night had turned quite chilly. She accepted and because it was so cold out, he gave her his coat to wear.
He asked for her address and she gave it to him and a short time later, they pulled into the driveway of the house where the girl said that she lived and the driver turned to tell her that they had arrived. To his astonishment, she was gone! The passenger seat of the car was empty, although the door had never opened - the girl had simply vanished.
Not knowing what else to do, the man went up to the door and knocked. An elderly woman answered the door and he explained to her what had happened. Right away, she seemed to know exactly what he was talking about. The young girl he had taken to the dance was her daughter - but she had died ten years before in an auto accident.
The horrified young man didnít believe her, even though the name of the girl he had taken to the dance and the womanís daughter were the same. In order to convince him, the old woman even told him where to find the grave of the dead girl in the local cemetery. The young man quickly drove there and following the directions he had been given, found the stone with the girlís name on it. Folded neatly over the top of the marker was the coat that the girl had borrowed to ward off the night chill!
Stories just like that one have been with us for many years for without a doubt, the greatest addition to haunted highway lore is the phantom hitchhiker. Tales of these spectral passengers (usually young women) are often attached to bridges, dangerous hills and intersections and graveyards. There were stories of "vanishing hitchhikers" being told as far back as the late 1800ís, when men would tell stories of ghostly women who appeared on the back 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.
We Hope to Add More Tales of Vanishing Hitchhikers in the future.. but if you have a story to recommend for this section - email Troy Taylor!
When I moved to Alton, Illinois in 1998 (located just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis), I was not surprised to find that there already existed at least two vanishing hitchhiker legends in this area.
Two vanishing young women are also reported to haunt area graveyards. The first, a classic vanishing hitchhiker tale, is said to haunt the Green Mount Cemetery, south of Belleville. They say you can allegedly pick up a ghostly rider if you drive around the cemetery three times on a rainy night with the door open. The story goes on to say that on the third trip, a young woman, dripping from the rain, will appear in the passenger seat. By the time the third trip around is over, the girl will be gone, but the pool of water on the seat will remain!
There is also a story of a figure seen along the road of a cemetery in Lebanon, Illinois. The story goes that a young man is driving past the cemetery at night and spots a young girl in the road ahead of him. He slams on his brakes and tries to stop before hitting her, but he canít. He hears the terrible thud as she hits the front of the car and rolls beneath it. He manages to stop the car and he jumps out to look for her, but he canít find her. Mystified, he searches the surrounding roadway and the ditch, but the girl is nowhere to be found. The legend continues with the man going to the local police station to report the accident. He explains to the officer on duty what happened and that he needs help to go back and look for the little girl. The officer shakes his head and smiles sadly, then explains to the young man that the girl was killed there by a car five, ten years before. She is sometimes still seen there on foggy or rainy nights. Still in shock, the man leaves the police station and walks outside. On his way to his car, he happens to look down and notices something strange - imprinted in the bumper on the front of his car is the mark of a very small hand!!
As most readers are well aware, such tales are usually referred to as ďurban legendsĒ. They are stories that have been told and re-told over the years and in most every case have been experienced by the proverbial ďfriend of a friendĒ and have no real basis in fact.... or do they?
In the links at the bottom of this article, youíll find a number of stories of alleged vanishing hitchhikers and often they are stories that been attached to various highways and roadways in America. But are all of these stories, as some would like us to believe, nothing more than folklore? Are they simply stories 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.
There is no question that many ghostly stories do not purport to be true. They are often tales told by people, who believe them to be true, which makes them legends or oral folklore. However, I cannot help but wonder how many of these stories got started in the first place. Could any of them have a basis in truth? What if an incident like one of these 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 was embraced by people all over the country and became a part of their local lore. It has long been believed that people 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 of the folk tales that sends shivers down your spine?
So I will ask you to keep an open mind and look at the heart of every legend and peel away the outer layer of fiction to see if there remains anything at the center. As you might imagine, in most of these stories, there is little of relevance that does remain. The stories often occur to "friends of friends" or happened "many years ago" in an unnamed place to unknown people. Could any of these type of stories be true?
Itís unlikely, but not all of the stories are the same. In fact, some of them are not only filled with details, but actually list names, dates and locations. What do we make of these tales?
For instance, along Highway 48 in South Carolina, a vanishing hitchhiker has been seen by concerned motorists who claim to have spotted a young girl carrying a suitcase walking along the road. They stop and offer a ride and she tells the driver that she is going to visit her sick mother in Columbia and gives an address there. She vanishes at the outskirts of the city. A couple who picked her up went to the address and described the girl to a man who lived there. He said that it was his sister and that she was killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking to visit their sick mother. This happened to several independent witnesses over a three - year period in the 1950ís.
Could all of these people be (as the debunkers would have us believe) drunk, stupid or insane? How do we explain independent sightings by witnesses who are not connected to one another and yet who all claim to experience the same thing? And what about incidents of vanishing hitchhikers who leave real physical evidence behind? I donít mean the proverbial scarves and jackets of the urban legends, but real signs of the fact that they exist - as the ghost known as Resurrection Mary did at the gates to the cemetery?
If there is a point to this cautionary piece - it is this. Be careful about disregarding a story that sounds entirely too good to be true. There may be more to the story than first meets the eye!
(C) Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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Bibliography & Sources:
Bielski, Ursula - Chicago Haunts (1998)
Bielski, Ursula - More Chicago Haunts (2000)
Bingham, Joan & Dolores Riccio - More Haunted Houses (1991)
Bingham, Joan & Dolores Riccio - Haunted Houses USA (1989)
Brunvand, Jan Harold - The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981)
Brunvand, Jan Harold - Curses! Broiled Again (1989)
Brunvand, Jan Harold - The Mexican Pet (1986)
Coleman, Loren - Mysterious America (1983 / 2000)
Courtaway, Robbi - Spirits of St. Louis (1999)
Genge, N.E. - Urban Legends (2000)
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen - Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (2000)
Hauck, Dennis William - Haunted Places: The National Directory (1996)
Kaczmarek, Dale - Windy City Ghosts (2000)
Norman, Michael & Beth Scott - Haunted America (1994)
Norman, Michael & Beth Scott - Historic Haunted America (1995)
Scott, Beth & Michael Norman - Haunted Heartland (1985)
Taylor, Troy - Beyond the Grave (2001)
Taylor, Troy - Haunted St. Louis (2002)
Winer, Richard - Houses of Horror (1983)
Winer, Richard & Nancy Osborn - Haunted Houses (1979)
Winer, Richard & Nancy Osborn Ishmael - More Haunted Houses (1981)
Personal Interviews and Correspondence