Location: Resurrection Catholic Cemetery & Mausoleums is located at 7201 Archer Avenue in Justice, Illinois. Chet’s Melody Lounge is located at 7400 South Archer Road in Justice, Illinois. Willowbrook Ballroom & Banquets is located at 8900 Archer Avenue in Willow Springs, Illinois.
[MysteriousHeartland.com] Resurrection Mary is undoubtedly Chicagoland’s most famous ghost. For over 70 years she has hitched rides from unsuspecting commuters along a dark stretch of Archer Avenue between the Willowbrook Ballroom and Resurrection Cemetery. Always virginal, yet slightly dangerous, Mary has inspired the retelling of her spectral carousing in books, novels, movies, song, and in the dingy taverns of Chicago’s southwest side. Yet no one knows if Mary is real ghost—in the classic sense—or only a localized version of a popular urban legend, the Vanishing Hitchhiker. For decades men and women have poured over documents and testimony, searching for the answer.
Mary’s story dates back to the 1930s when the ghost of a burgeoning Polish girl was first seen along Archer Avenue near Resurrection Cemetery. According to Kenan Heise, who would later go on to write a novel about the ghost, “she is a minor cult, a shared belief and an initiation rite for teenagers. When you learn to drive… you test the myth’s reality.” Richard Crowe originally popularized the story in the 1970s, when he began collecting firsthand accounts and theorized that the real-life Mary had perished in a car accident in the early 1930s. “Mary supposedly was killed in a car wreck 40 years ago, and she’s been coming back and going dancing ever since,” he remarked in an article in the Chicago Tribune in 1974. Later, he elaborated that the sightings usually occurred around 1:30am, and that “women rarely encounter Mary… unless they are with men.”
Mary’s paraphysical appearance has been disputed over the years, leading some to speculate that more than one ghost may be involved in the story. According to Peter Gorner of the Chicago Tribune, Mary materializes as “a pretty Polish girl, about 18, with long blonde hair, wearing a white dancing dress.” Michael Norman and Beth Scott more or less agreed, calling her specter a “captivating, blue-eyed, flaxen-haired girl in her late teens” who wears a “long, off-white ballgown and dancing shoes.”
According to Ursula Bielski, however, Mary “wore a beautiful white party dress and patent leather dancing shoes.”6 In the mind of Jo-Anne Christensen, Mary is a “breathtaking blonde with light blue eyes, dressed elegantly in a snowy white cocktail dress with matching satin dancing shoes.” In his Haunted Illinois, Troy Taylor added a “thin shawl” to her appearance. Rachel Brooks romantically portrayed Mary as “an innocent young woman… stranded and alone.” She is “soaked to the bone… with beautiful blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes.” In Kenan Heise’s novel, Mary was a young woman dressed in “a gown of a thin, chiffon-like material,” or a “long, white gown with a cape.”
Which of these descriptions is correct? Either these authors are taking some creative license, or there is a supernatural Macy’s somewhere. It is not uncommon for eyewitnesses to give varying descriptions of living persons they had just seen moments ago, let alone ghosts, so there is plenty of room for speculation.
Despite some minor disagreements, it is generally acknowledged that Mary sightings first began in the 1930s. In 1936, a man named Jerry Palus picked up a mysterious girl at the Liberty Grove Hall and Ballroom in Brighton Park. She instructed him to drive her down Archer Avenue and asked to be let out near Resurrection Cemetery. The young woman reportedly told him something to the effect of, “where I’m going you cannot follow,” before she disappeared through the gates. Years later, Jerry’s brother Chester would claim that a friend, and not Jerry, had been driving the car that night.
Other early sightings included the specter of Mary causing a scene as she threw herself at passing cars. Over the years, Mary would resort to materializing as an accident victim, always vanishing as the bewildered drivers got out of their cars to survey the damage. This bloody behavior either shows two ghosts at work, as Richard Crowe suggested in Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural, or it shows that the ghost of Mary cannot be pigeonholed so easily as just another urban legend.
In July 1979, the Tribune published a letter that claimed the last time the ghost of Mary had been seen was in August 1976 or ‘77, by two policemen near the gate of Resurrection Cemetery. That anonymous writer was probably referring to the most intriguing event of all related to this saga: the night that Mary left physical evidence behind.
Although most accounts of the incident vaguely refer to a “man” or “someone” at “some time” having seen a woman in white clasping the bars of the cemetery gate, Richard Crowe revealed that the man in question was none other than Pat Homa, a Justice police officer who had responded to a trespassing call the night of August 10, 1976 and discovered two of the bars burnt and bent irregularly, with what looked like finger impressions melted into the bronze.
As crowds began to gather, the Cemetery Board tried to smooth the bars with blowtorches, which only made the “handprints” more conspicuous. Finally, the caretakers removed the bars altogether and sent them off to be straightened. According to Crowe, the bars were put back in December 1978, but the discoloration remained. Officially, the incident originated in an accident involving cemetery workers who had accidentally backed into the gate with a truck. The “handprints” were made when one of the workers tried to bend it back into place using a blow torch and heavy-duty gloves.
Sightings of Mary, along with ghostly phenomena attributed to her presence, continue to this day, especially amongst the patrons of Chet’s Melody Lounge, a large pub located across the street from Resurrection Cemetery. Every weekend, its bartenders leave a Bloody Mary at the end of the bar in case the ghost makes an appearance. “A lot of my friends have felt someone tap them on the shoulder when they were the only person in the bar. They turn around: nothing,” Tony Zaleski, a longtime employee at Chet’s, told Michael McCarty and Connie Corcoran Wilson. “Or someone behind them will ruffle their collar and they feel a chill.” In 1973 a cab driver is said to have burst into Chet’s demanding to know where the blonde went that had left him waiting outside. He was rebuffed by the employees, who told him that no such woman had come inside that night.
Mary’s earthly origins are as elusive as her ghost, and several historical candidates have been put forward. A commonly articulated candidate was a 21 year old woman named Mary Bregovy, who died in a car accident while (allegedly) returning home from the O’ Henry Ballroom on March 11, 1934. Mary Bregovy died in downtown Chicago, however, nowhere near Resurrection Cemetery, even though she was interred there. Also, this Mary had short, dark or brown hair and was buried in an orchid dress. According to Ursula Bielski, a cemetery worker had told a nearby funeral director that he had seen Bregovy’s ghost in Resurrection Cemetery during the 1950s. Apparently the two stories became enmeshed and Bregovy was henceforth regarded as Mary’s physical and historical counterpart.
A second candidate was one Mary Miskowski, who was struck by a car and killed on her way to a Halloween party sometime in the 1930s. Another Mary died in a car accident in the 1940s, Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk recently reported, but as they pointed out, the first sightings of the ghost occurred a decade earlier.
The least likely candidate for Resurrection Mary was a 12 year old Lithuanian girl named Anna Norkus, who took on Marija, “Mary,” as a favored middle name. She was killed in a car accident on her way to the O’ Henry Ballroom on July 20, 1927. Her existence as a ghost, according to Bielski, largely depends on a “what if” scenario that might have resulted in her body being mistakenly laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Resurrection Cemetery. Mary the ghost, however, is always described as either at least the age of maturity or between 17 and 21, not a young girl of 12.
To skeptics and folklorists, the story of Resurrection Mary is obviously a retelling of the popular urban legend, “The Vanishing Hitchhiker.” Jan Harold Brunvand, who wrote a book on the subject, explained, “’The Vanishing Hitchhiker’ has international distribution as one of the oldest and most widely told of all urban legends, as such, it has long attracted the attention of folklore scholars.” Brunvand noted that, in the United States, the story often takes the form of a mysterious young woman who gets a ride home from her dancing partner, only to vanish before arriving. In some versions, the unlucky man finds his sweater draped over her headstone after being informed that she died in a car accident years ago. In Alvin Schwartz’s retelling of the tale, the item recovered is Christmas tinsel.
Christmas is an important element to the story, because many of the sightings of Resurrection Mary allegedly occurred in wintertime. In Chicago Ghosts, Ursula Bielski related the story of a taxi driver who picked up a young woman (Mary) outside of a shopping center in January. He was surprised by the girl’s dress, which was inadequate for the cold. “The snow came early this year,” she told him before vanishing. As in the version of the “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” where the man’s sweater was left on her grave, the mysterious girl wore a dress without a coat in spite of the season. The fact that Mary commented on the weather in January, as though she was surprised that it was snowing, indicated that, at least in her world, it was still not quite the dead of winter.
The comment about the weather, alongside Mary’s other eerie final remarks, also reflect a similarity with “The Vanishing Hitchhiker.” In other parts of the country, such as along I-29 in South Dakota and Route 61 in Pennsylvania, the phantom hitchhiker told his startled benefactors that the world was going to end. In those tales, the hitchhiker remained stoic through most of the drive, just like Mary. “Quiet and non-talkative,” as Richard Crowe described her.
That some authors claim Jerry Palus, the first man to have reported an encounter with Mary, went the following morning to the address she had given him to see if she had made it home okay, only to have an old woman inform him that her daughter had died years before, should be familiar to students of “The Vanishing Hitchhiker.” That particular detail is alternatively ascribed to or omitted from different Mary encounters, suggesting that the line between the urban legend and eyewitness accounts often disappears.
But some of Mary’s behavior, such as throwing herself in front of oncoming cars or putting on similar bloody displays, do not match the urban legend, so which came first, the ghost stories or the legend? Did the legend inspire the ghost stories, or did the ghost stories inspire the legend? In truth, they probably possess a symbiotic relationship. Every time a young woman named Mary met her fate along Archer Avenue in the early twentieth century, someone tied her death to the stories of a vanishing hitchhiker along the road. Real events or cases of mistaken identity reinforced the stories, until they became uniquely Chicagoan, especially in ascribing a Polish ancestry to the ghost. In the end, the connection between our ghost and the urban legend blurred if not vanished in our minds.
It is worth noting that Mary is not the only phantom hitchhiker in Chicago. Many annals of local ghost lore also relate the story of the “flapper” ghost of North Riverside’s Melody Mill Ballroom and Jewish Waldheim Cemetery. Like Mary, this young woman died in the 1920s or the early ‘30s and her ghost danced the night away with strangers, vanishing on her ride home, but unlike Mary, she dressed much more flamboyantly and possessed brunette, “bobbed” hair. The ballroom was eventually demolished, but sightings of the flapper continued into the ‘90s.
Whoever or whatever Resurrection Mary was in the past or is today, her legacy will always remain as one of the most beloved specters of Chicagoland. She is our own romantic fantasy—a forlorn young woman, draped in a thin gown, wandering the dark avenues looking for help from her knight in shining armor. As long as the wind whips down Archer Avenue, writers, musicians, folklorists, ghost hunters, and surprised motorists will continue to reinvent and retell her story for generations to come.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 29 October 1982.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 13 May 1974.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 31 October 1985.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 13 May 1974.
Beth Scott and Michael Norman, Haunted Heartland: True Ghost Stories from the American Midwest (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985, 1992), 1.
Ursula Bielski, Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City (Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998), 15, 17, 22, 23.
Jo-Anne Christensen, Ghost Stories of Illinois (Edmonton: Lone Pine, 2000), 48.
Troy Taylor, Haunted Illinois: Travel Guide to the History and Hauntings of the Prairie State (Alton: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2004), 336, 339.
Rachel Brooks, Chicago Ghosts (Atglen: Schiffer Books, 2008), 41, 49.
Kenan Heise, Resurrection Mary: a Ghost Story (Evanston: Chicago Historical Bookworks, 1990), 20.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 2 July 1979.
Richard T. Crowe, Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural (Oak Park: Carolando Press, 2000, 2001), 190, 219, 223.
Michael McCarty and Connie Corcoran Wilson, Ghostly Tales of Route 66: from Chicago to Oklahoma (Wever: Quixote Press, 2008), 18.
Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk, The Illinois Road Guide to Haunted Locations (Eau Claire: Unexplained Research Publishing, 2007), 113.
Jan Harold Brunvand, Too Good to be True: the Colossal Book of Urban Legends (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, 2001), 232, 234.
Scary Stories Treasury: Three Books to Chill Your Bones, Alvin Schwartz, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (New York: Harper Collins, 1984), 5.
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