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The Vanishing Hitchhiker


A dozen miles outside of Baltimore, the main road from New York City (Route Number One) is crossed by another important highway. It is a dangerous intersection and there is talk of building an underpass for the east-west road. To date, however, the plans exist only on paper. Dr. Eckershall was driving home from a country-club dance late one Saturday night. He slowed up for the intersection, and was surprised to see a lovely young girl, dressed in the sheerest of evening gowns, looking for a lift. He jammed on his brakes, and motioned her to climb into the back seat of his roadster. "All cluttered up with golf clubs and bags up here in front," he explained. "But what on earth is a youngster like you doing out here all alone at this time of night?
"It's too long a story to tell you now," said the girl. Her voice was sweet and somewhat shrill - like the tinkling of sleigh bells. "Please, please take me home. I'll explain everything there. The address is __ North Charles Street. I do hope it's not too far out of your way."
The doctor grunted, and set the car in motion. He drove rapidly to the address she had given him, and as he pulled up before the shuttered house, he said, "Here we are." Then he turned around. The back seat was empty!
"What the devil?" the doctor muttered to himself. The girl couldn't possibly have fallen from the car. Nor could she simply have vanished. He rang insistently on the house bell, confused as he had never been in his life before. At long last the door opened. A grey-haired, very tired-looking man peered out at him.
"I can't tell you what an amazing thing has happened," began the doctor. "A young girl gave me this address a while back. I drove her here and..."
"Yes, yes, I know," said the man wearily. "This has happened several other Saturday evenings in the past month. That young girl, sir, was my daughter. She was killed in an automobile accident at that intersection where you saw her almost two years ago..."

The vanishing hitchhiker is an urban legend, probably one of the most famous ones out there. As shown above, in the story an individual (or occasionally more) meets a hitchhiker on the road, who later vanishes without a trace, often from a moving vehicle. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvald has suggested that the story can be traced back as far as the 1870s, while others believe that the first occurrence of the vanishing hitchhiker legend was in 1602, in the manuscript Om the tekn och widunder som foregingo thet liturgiske owäsendet, or About the signs and wonders that preceded the liturgical event, written by Joen Petri Klint, a priest and collector of omens in Linköping, Sweden.



It has also been suggested that a very early version of this story appears in Acts 8:26-39 of the New Testament. In this passage, an Ethiopian driving a chariot picks up the Apostle Philip. Philip baptised the Ethiopian, and then disappeared ("...the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.") Throughout the years, stories of vanishing travelers have come from places such as England, Ethiopia, Korea, France, South Africa, Tsarist Russia, and in communities such as Chinese-Americans, Mormons and the people of the Ozarks.


Variations on the vanishing hitchhiker story as seen above often include details such as the mysterious hitchhiker either leaving an item in the vehicle, or borrowing an item to protect against the cold, which disappears with them. This borrowed item is often found later on, draped over a gravestone or memorial. In some stories, the hitchhiker gives away some piece of information that allows the driver to track down their family and learn the tragic truth of their passing. The hitchhiker's death is nearly always due to a car accident of some sort, and the encounters usually take place on or around the anniversary of their death. One particular variation is unique to Hawaii, where the hitchhiker is actually the goddess Pele, who was said to travel the rodes in disguise and would reward those who were kind and helpful to her or others.


In 1942-43, American folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey studied the story of the vanishing hitchhiker. They collected 79 different accounts of the story from across the United States. They found "four distinctly different versions, distinguishable because of obvious differences in development and essence."


  • A. Stories where the hitchhiker gives an address which the motorist later investigates and learns they have given a lift to a ghost. 49 of the stories in the study included this detail, from 16 US states.

  • B. Stories where the hitchhiker is an old woman, who predicted either a disaster or the end of World War Two; this old woman also turns out to be deceased. Of this category, there were nine, and eight of them came from the Chicago area. The ealiest of these tales were from around 1933. Two predicted a disaster at the Chicago World's Fair of 1933-34; another predicted a disaster at a more generic "World's Fair". Another predicted that Northerly Island, in Lake Michigan, would be submerged.

  • C.Stories where the girl is met at a dance or similar event, and leaves an item such as an overcoat borrowed from the motorist on her grave, as proof of the hitchhiker's identity and the reality of the event.

  • D. Stories where the hitchhiker is revealed to be a local deity, such as Hawaii's Pele variation.


Beardsley and Hankey also noted that, in the vast majority of the stories, the hitchhiker was female and the driver male. In their sample, 47 hitchhikers were young women; 14 were old women; and 14 were "indeterminate".


Some of the more famous cases of vanishing or phantom hitchhikers include:

  • The ghost of Blue Bell Hill is said to be the ghost of one of three young women who died after a road accident at Blue Bell Hill on the A229 in Kent in 1965. Numerous drivers have reported either giving a lift to a young woman who disappears; or hitting a young woman in the road but finding no trace of them.

  • The "white woman" of Belchen Tunnel in Switzerland; an old woman (originally a man in the earliest reports) dressed in white, who would be picked up by drivers, only to disappear from the car. Sometimes she was said to predict disaster.

  • The Niles Canyon ghost is an archetypal vanishing hitchhiker story centered on Niles Canyon, off the 680 freeway in Sunol, California. The girl is said to have died on February 28, and haunts the area on that day every year.

  • Resurrection Mary is another archetypal vanishing hitchhiker in the Chicago area. Said to be the ghost of a girl called Mary, who was killed in a hit-and-run while walking home from a dance. Her parents had her buried in Resurrection Cemetery in her dancing dress and shoes, and she has been reported since at least 1939, nearly always disappearing by the cemetery. In 1999, author Ursula Bielski suggested that "Mary" might have been Anna "Marija" Norkus, who died in a car accident in 1927 while returning from the Oh Henry Ballroom.

  • The Lady of White Rock Lake is said to be the ghost of a woman who drowned in a boating accident in the 1930s. She wears a soaking-wet 1930s-style evening dress and asks to be taken home. When she disappears, her seat is always left waterlogged.

Of course, there has never been any tangible evidence for any of these encounters. No-one can produce any of the items these vanishing hitchhikers supposedly leave behind, and nearly all the encounters seem to happen at night to lone drivers, so there are rarely, if ever, any corroborating witnesses. Paranormal investigators and skeptics aline feel that the vast majority of cases can be put down to hallucinations, hearsay, or hoaxes. Until someone comes forward with real, tangible proof of a vanishing hitchhiker, it's likely to remain that way as well.

Sources:

Brunvand, Jan Harold. (1981). The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York: Norton.

"Philip and the Ethiopian": Acts 8:26-39 (New International Version)

Beardsley, Richard K.; Hankey, Rosalie (January 1943). "A History of the Vanishing Hitchhiker". California Folklore Quarterly

Belchen Tunnel (Wikipedia)

White Rock Lake (Wikipedia)






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