When he asked a beautiful blonde girl in a white dress to dance with him at a Chicago area ballroom one night in 1939, Jerry Pallas didn’t realise he was about to have an experience that would stay with him for good. The pair danced all night, but the girl was somewhat reticent when Jerry spoke to her. All she was willing to tell him was that her name was Mary, and that she lived near Archer Avenue. The other strange thing was her hands being extremely cold to the touch. When the evening ended, Mary accepted Jerry’s offer of a ride home. They had driven a few miles up Archer Avenue, when Mary told him to stop suddenly at the gates of Resurrection Cemetery. Getting out the car, Mary informed a confused Jerry that he couldn’t follow her. He watched as she walked towards the cemetery gates, evaporating into thin air without warning.
And so began what is probably the most famous ghost story to come out of the United States, the tale of Resurrection Mary. To quote one supernatural fiction writer, “It’s so famous; it’s almost in the big book of ghost clichés.” The experience of Jerry Pallas is perhaps the most famous encounter with the mysterious Mary, and one Jerry attested to until his death in 1992. But his is just one of many reported over several decades from Justice, Illinois, a few miles from Chicago, where Mary roams.
The basic gist of the story goes like this. During the early 1930s, Mary and her boyfriend had gone out to a dance at the O’Henry ballroom, but the pair had a row. Irate, Mary left the O’Henry to get away from her lad, walking home alone along Archer Avenue. At some point along the way, she was killed by a hit and run driver, whose identity was never discovered. Her grieving parents had her interred at the Resurrection Cemetery, which lies on the same road she where she died. She was buried in the dancing dress and shoes she was wearing that fateful night. A few short years later, her spirit began appearing at the O’Henry ballroom (though Pallas himself was actually at the Liberty Grove and Hall in Chicago), dancing the night away with happy young men, who only realised why she was cold to the touch after she mysteriously vanished from their cars when they drove her home.
This was one of Mary’s favourite things to do in her earlier haunting days. Later on, she would follow the classic phantom hitchhiker motif of being picked up by drivers taking pity on her standing at the roadside, then vanishing as they drove by or stopped at Resurrection Cemetery. One famous incident occurred in 1976 at midnight one snowy evening. A taxi driver was driving along Archer Avenue after dropping off a fare and saw her standing near a shopping mall. Given she was wearing only a ball gown and dancing shoes to protect her from the weather, he assumed she was a young woman experiencing car trouble and stopped to give her a ride home. He found she was vague in her directions, and was surprised when she asked him to stop outside the cemetery gates. He looked out to where she pointed, but could only see a shack. When he looked back, she had disappeared. The car door hadn’t even been opened.
A rather more dangerous trick Mary has gotten up to is running out into the path of oncoming cars. The drivers would brake, anticipating the accident. Some would feel their cars hit something, and would get out to look for her body, only to find the road empty, or Mary would vanish a split second before impact. In the 1930s, around about when Jerry Pallas encountered her, drivers would complain, not only of this, but also of a young woman trying to jump on the running board of their cars as they drove by the cemetery. Resurrection Mary was creating quite a stir.
In the 1960s, Chet’s Melody Lounge opened in the old tavern building directly across the road from the Resurrection Cemetery gates. The bar seems to have played host to Mary in a roundabout way. Several times, angry taxi drivers have stormed in, demanding to know where the young blonde girl who had skipped out on her fare on arrival outside the bar was hiding. One minute they would be driving along with her in the seat, the next, she would be gone. On other occasions, upset drivers would run in to ask bar staff to call the emergency services, believing they had hit someone, when it was Mary running in front of their cars. These days, bar now holds Resurrection Mary events and sells T-Shirts devoted to her.
Reports of sightings and encounters of Mary escalated during the 1970s, when many people would see her walking by the roadside, or have her jump out in front of their cars. Troy Taylor, the Illinois ghostlorist, stated in an interview with the Travel Channel, that during the 1970s, the ‘term’ graves of Resurrection Cemetery had been dug up and moved elsewhere. Term graves are temporary plots rented out to families to lay their loved ones at rest, until they were able to buy a gravesite. Taylor reckoned that Mary’s body had been in one of the removed term graves. The re-siting had confused her, causing her ghost to be more active as it couldn’t find its resting place. She also reverted back to dropping in on local nightspots in 1973, when she was seen in Harlow’s nightclub on Cicero St in Chicago.
In 1976, a motorist driving past Resurrection Cemetery late one night saw a young woman standing behind the locked cemetery gates, looking out as she held on to the bars. Thinking someone had been locked in by accident, the motorist stopped in at the local police station to raise the alarm. An officer was dispatched to check it out, but saw no one there. What he did see, however, in the beam of his torch, was that two bars on the cemetery gates had been bent back, complete with scorch marks, which also had two small hand prints in the middle. This brought a lot of curious visitors to the cemetery gates. The cemetery operators had the offending bars removed to discourage sightseers. This led to questions of what they had to hide, embarrassing the city council, who ordered the bars be returned. The story told by the council was that sewage maintenance workers had backed their truck into the gates by accident, whilst carrying out repairs in the area. The scorch marks were the result of the workers using a blowtorch to bend the bars back into shape. Not many were convinced. The gates were repainted, but the paint didn’t cover the offending marks for long. Also, people were still seeing the imprint of hands in the centre of the marks. The offending bars were on the gates until recently, when they were removed for good.
Mary kept quite active during the 1980s. In 1980, Claire Lopez-Rudnicki, her husband and two friends were driving along Archer Avenue, when they saw Mary walking by the side of the road very slowly, her hair and dress luminous in the dark. Claire remembered the old tales of Resurrection Mary and was terrified. Her husband, Mark, noticed that when he looked, there was a dark space where Mary’s face should have been. On turning back for another look, the figure was gone. At the end of the decade, in 1989, Janet Kalal and a friend decided to go for a drive one night. They were passing Resurrection Cemetery, when they saw a young girl racing out the cemetery gates and into the path of the car. There was no impact. Janet’s friend knew exactly what was going on, having been told the story of Resurrection Mary by her father, who had read newspaper reports of the ghost in 1939.
From the 1990s onwards, Mary became less active, though motorists still reported the odd encounter. She is still around, however, surprising people when they least expect it. One incident during the 1990s was definitely not the ghost. Cook County Sheriff Department officers caught a man wearing a blonde wig and dress covered in glowing liquid in some trees by the side of Archer Avenue. He was in the company of friends, one of whom was carrying a camcorder. It turned out that unlikely group had been walking down Archer for almost ten years every Hallowe’en, one of them dressed as Mary in order to scare motorists. Seeing the funny side, the officers let the gang off with a warning not to do it again. Unfortunately, they didn’t listen, and one of their number, dragged up as Mary was arrested. He was handcuffed and shown into a cruiser, replete with blonde wig and glowing dress…
The complexities of Resurrection Mary’s tale highlight a ghost story that has really been taken into the heart of the public. She has also made quite the impact on popular culture. Three songs have been written about her, The Ballad of Resurrection Mary, which can be heard on the jukebox in Chet’s Melody Lounge, Blackmore Nights I Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore and Ian Hunter’s Resurrection Mary, both of which can be found on YouTube. She is also the subject of a 2005 horror film Resurrection Mary, which has the questionable plot of her being a murderous ghost. Seeing the trailer was enough for me!
She is quite a popular target for ghost enthusiasts, who regularly visit the cemetery, Chet’s Melody Lounge and the O’Henry ballroom, now renamed the Willowbrook. Several people, notably Ursula Bielski, have carried out extensive research in an attempt to identify who Mary was in real life. There were three candidates, all successfully discounted. The first is Mary Bregovy, who died in a car accident in 1927. She was perhaps taken to be Mary thanks to one John Satala mentioning in an interview that he had spoken to a cemetery caretaker who had seen Resurrection Mary a few times, believing her to be Mary Bregovy. However, Mary Bregovy died in Wacker Drive, Chicago, when the car she was in struck a raised railway support, Mary flying through the windshield. This particular Mary was a brunette and was buried in an orchid coloured gown. The ghost in question is blond and wears a white gown, and reputedly died in Archer Avenue.
Anna ‘Mary’ Norkus is another name given for the ghost. She supposedly died in a car accident on Archer driving home after an evening at the O’Henry, which her father treated her to for her 12th birthday in 1934. The age of Anna at her death rules her out rather quickly, as well as records telling a different story to her tragic end, which actually occurred in 1927. The ghost appears to be much older than 12. There are also a number of other myths surrounding Anna as Resurrection Mary, but I feel its best not to retell them. A third candidate is Mary Miskowsky or Miskowski. Family of this Mary have claimed that she died around 1930 after a car accident when she was crossing the road to go to a fancy dress party. Another dig through the records by Chicago enthusiast have put the skibosh on that, as it seems Mary Miskowsky either didn’t exist or was a misspelling of another name.
It all shows how mythology can build up around a popular ghost story. Facts are separated from the truth and absorbed into the spooky grapevine. The retelling of a story also adds some interesting extras. Resurrection Mary is the classic phantom hitchhiker tale turned up to eleven and given extra fancy parts. For instance, some later versions of Jerry Pallas’ night with the mysterious girl end with Jerry going to the address she gave him on the ride home. An old woman answered the door, but denied that a young woman fitting that description lived there. However, as leaves, Jerry catches sight of a photo of Mary, only to be told that the girl in the picture was the elderly lady’s daughter, who had died in a crash five years earlier. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be any need to go trawling through Chicago’s death records to find out more about Mary Bregovy and company.