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Saturday, July 20

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It's a classic ghost story. A young man spends an evening dancing with a girl he has just met. He offers to drive her home, but she insists on getting out of the car when they pass the cemetery gates. She runs off towards the cemetery and disappears. In many versions of the story, the boy discovers the true nature of his dancing partner when he tracks down the girl's parents who tell him their daughter died several years before. But though the story has many variations, they have their origin in the real-life encounter of Jarry Palus who, in 1936, met Chicago's most famous ghost -- Resurrection Mary.

If you went to high school in the city, you may remember participating in the annual Chicago History Fair. During my junior year in high school, some friends and I decided to film a video documentary about Resurrection Mary. We travelled all over Chicago's southwest side, driving down Archer Ave. to Resurrection Cemetery where Mary haunts. We interviewed a cemetery worker, visited the ballroom where Mary liked to dance, and even filmed in front of the house at 4611 S. Damen where the alleged real Mary once lived.

The story of Resurrection Mary describes Mary as a young Polish woman who loved to dance and go to parties. She was killed one night in a car accident while coming home from the Oh Henry Ballroom and buried in her dancing dress at Resurrection Cemetery, 7201 S. Archer Ave. in south suburban Justice, Illinois. Although several young women buried in Resurrection Cemetery fit this general profile, popular belief focuses on a 21-year-old woman named Mary Bregovy who lived near 47th and Ashland on the South Side in what was then a thriving Polish-American neighborhood.

According to a report in the Chicago Tribune dated March 11, 1934, Mary Bregovy was killed when the car in which she was riding crashed into a support column for the El tracks near Lake and Wacker. Three other people were injured in the crash, but Mary was the only fatality. She was buried in Resurrection Cemetery though her exact whereabouts remain unknown. Her grave may have been filled in during renovations to the cemetery in the '60s and '70s or moved by cemetery officials wanting to discourage the curious.

Skeptics, however, point out that Mary Bregovy was a brunette while the woman seen along Archer Ave. is always described as a blond. In addition, the location of the car accident that killed Mary makes it highly unlikely that she was returning home from the Oh Henry Ballroom, now the Willowbrook Ballroom, just down the street from Resurrection Cemetery.

Yet, despite the doubtful attribution of the Resurrection Mary story to the life of Mary Bregovy, one simple fact remains. Most hitchhiking ghost stories are little more than folktales or urban legends. The storyteler may insist the incident happened to "the cousin of a friend of a friend," but the story has no basis in fact. What makes the story of Resurrection Mary so compelling to folklorists and other historians is the sheer number of documented, credible eyewitness sightings of the ghost. Though she may not be Mary Bregovy, it is clear that something strange has been occurring along Archer Ave. for the last several decades.

The first documented sighting of Resurrection Mary was in 1936 when the aforementioned Jerry Palus danced with a young woman at the Liberty Grove Hall in Chicago (now demolished). He offered to drive her home, and Mary directed him to Archer Avenue. When they reached the gates of Resurrection Cemetery, Mary said she had to leave him and warned him he could not follow her. She ran from the car, vanishing as she reached the cemetery gates. Later, in 1939, late-night motorists driving along Archer Ave. complained to police that a woman had tried to jump onto the running boards of their cars.

However, the greatest and most well-documented Resurrection Mary sighting occurred in 1976 when a police sergeant from the Justice Police Department received a late-night phone call from someone claiming a blonde woman in a white dress had been locked inside Resurrection Cemetery and was wandering around just inside the gates. Convinced it was a hoax, the police sergeant arrived at the cemetery only to discover that two of the bronze bars of the cemetery gate had been pried apart. The bars were scarred by scorch marks that bore the unmistakable impression of finger and palm prints. The phenomenon received widespread attention. A year later cemetery employees removed the two bars, sending them away to be blow-torched and straightened. The bars were replaced, but a single depression still remains which many believe is a lingering thumbprint.

Believers say the best time to catch a glimpse of Mary is in the early morning hours, preferably on a full moon night. It also doesn't hurt if you're a man because almost all of the documented sightings of Resurrection Mary have been by men. She may try to hitch a ride, or you might see her walking along the side of the road near the cemetery fence. But no matter who she once was or what form her appearance, she still remains Chicago's most well-known and best-loved ghost.

Sources

Bielski, Ursula. Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998.

Crowe, Richard T. Chicago's Street Guide to the Supernatural. Oak Park, IL: Carolando Press, 2000.

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