In search of Resurrection Mary, Chicago’s ’most famous ghost’

Ursula Bielski, the founder of Chicago Hauntings Inc., shared slides Saturday of some of the more interesting stories in Chicago's paranormal history and hauntings, including this one of Mary Bregovy, thought by some to be the woman behind the ghost story of Resurrection Mary.
Haunted Folklore

Editor’s note: Whether or not you believe in ghosts and hauntings, this is one of several spooky tales of local lore that Shaw Local News Network will be sharing with readers in the spirit of Halloween.

CHICAGO — If you grew up in the south suburbs, odds are that you’ve heard a version of the story.

A car drives down Archer Avenue through the woods. It’s dark, and suddenly the driver sees a young woman in a white dress walking down the side of the road trying to hitch a ride.

The driver stops to pick up the woman, and she tells the driver that she’s trying to get home. She doesn’t say much, and then, just as the car passes the gate of Resurrection Cemetery, she tells the driver to stop.

Just as mysteriously as she appeared, she vanishes without the car door ever opening.

The girl was Resurrection Mary, the Chicago area’s most famous ghost.

Thanks to its infamous spectral hitchhiker, Resurrection Cemetery, the Catholic burial ground in Justice, has earned a reputation as one of the most haunted cemeteries in the U.S. and even the world.

“Unsolved Mysteries,” numerous Travel Channel programs and countless online lists have featured the story first reported in 1939.

Oak Lawn-based paranormal investigator and writer Dale Kaczmarek said this is a slight misnomer, however, since Mary’s exclusive presence and changing location implies that it is, in fact, the road that is haunted, not the cemetery itself.

Resurrection Cemetery is home to one of Chicago’s most popular ghosts, Resurrection Mary. Urban legends are told of Resurrection Mary, who hit and killed by a car walking home from a dance, hitchhiking along Archer Avenue only to disappear as the near Resurrection Cemetery.

“The story goes that she was out dancing at the Willowbrook Ballroom, which was originally the O’Henry Ballroom, [which] burned down recently [in 2016]. She left and was killed by a car, but she is still trying to get home,” Kaczmarek said. “She appears anywhere along the road from right outside what used to be the ballroom to the main cemetery gate, sometimes along the road and sometimes back further in the woods, but when she gets to the gate, she disappears, like she realizes that’s where she belongs.”

Although Kaczmarek said that hitchhiking ghosts are a “staple of American folklore,” he noted that the longevity of Mary’s story, as well as the sheer number and variety of accounts, make this legend more credible.

“This is a lot more than a folktale because a lot of the famous accounts came from people who didn’t already know the story,” said Kaczmarek, who has written two books on haunted Chicago locations and is president of the Ghost Research Society. “One of the most famous accounts is from 1979. A cab driver from the North Side was lost coming home from the airport and picked her up, hoping to exchange a free ride home for directions. He said she was useless for directions and just told him to drive down Archer Avenue, but then yelled for him to stop in front of the cemetery. He did, and when he turned around, the back seat was empty.

“He didn’t know the story, he didn’t even know where he was, but he talked about it anonymously with the Chicago Sun-Times, and those are the kind of stories that make it seem more credible.”

Through the Ghost Research Society, which has investigated paranormal claims across the U.S. and even internationally, Kaczmarek said he has seen thousands of accounts of the ghost, which first piqued his interest in the paranormal.

Oak Lawn resident Dale Kaczmarek is president of the Ghost Research Society.

“This was the first ghost story I was ever told by my parents,” he said. “They were dating back in the late ‘30s when the story started, and my dad would like to go driving past the cemetery looking for her after their dates, much to the chagrin of my mom, who was terrified.”

Although no members of his family ever saw the hitchhiking ghost, Kaczmarek said he has seen enough accounts to believe it is legitimate.

“Obviously, there are a lot of copycats out there, but many of them are completely unique, which makes them seem more credible,” he said.

Stories of Mary encounters range from seeing the glowing specter along the road to giving the mysterious woman a ride. Several people have claimed that they saw her dart into the road ahead of them and thought they hit her, only to find that no one was there.

In all cases, the ghost is described similarly: a pale, blonde woman who appears to be about 20 years old and is dressed in an old-fashioned white dress. In every account, she vanishes without a trace.

One story from the 1970s included physical evidence, which Kaczmarek said recently has been removed.

“On Aug. 10, 1976, a man drove past the cemetery and said he saw a girl standing in the cemetery holding the bars of the fence,” Kaczmarek said. “He thought somebody had gotten locked in by accident when the cemetery closed, which had happened before, so he called the police.

“When the cops arrived, they didn’t see anyone, but they found two bars near the gate had been bent apart and there were handprints seared into them. The cemetery said that a truck had hit the fence and the handprints were left by a welder who tried to bend them back into shape, but that doesn’t make any sense.”

Kaczmarek says that the explanation never made sense because the bars were not only scorched but also still bent.

Bent bars in the gate of Resurrection Cemetery appear to have handprints seared into them.

“She left her handprints on the bars,” he said. “The scorch marks don’t look like the work of a blowtorch, and a welder would be wearing gloves, so specific handprints wouldn’t be there. Over the years, they tried to paint over it, but you could always see the marks. If they really wanted to make the story go away, they probably should have just replaced them, but they didn’t for years.

“It was only within the last year that the bars were taken out, but they haven’t been replaced yet. Now there’s just a gap in the fence, so I’m interested to see what they’ll do with it now.”

While the story of Resurrection Mary persists, Kaczmarek said reports of sightings have dropped off since their peak in the 1970s and 1980s.

“They installed brighter streetlights along Archer in 1985 for safety and to try to stop vandalism at the cemetery,” he said. “Since then, the reports are fewer and farther between because I think ghosts are harder to see in bright light because they are faint apparitions, which are sort of dissolved by it. It doesn’t mean they aren’t there; they just are harder to see.”

It is not know who really is Resurrection Mary but many theorist believe it was Anna "Marija" Norkus, who died in a 1927 auto accident while on her way home from the Oh Henry Ballroom. Another being Mary Bregovy, who died in 1934, although her death came in an automobile accident in the downtown Chicago Loop.

Whatever the reason for the reduced sightings, the story of Resurrection Mary is one that’s never far from the hearts and minds of Chicago-area residents.

After the Willowbrook Ballroom burned down in 2016, Kaczmarek recalled, there was an outpouring of sadness from the community by people who had danced there over the years, including a note on Mary’s behalf.

“I went out there to see what was left, and people had left signs asking for the ballroom to be rebuilt,” Kaczmarek said. “One thing that stuck with me as sad but rather funny was near what was left of the door frame, someone had hung a pair of white women’s dancing shoes and a sign that said ‘Please rebuild the ballroom,’ which was signed from Resurrection Mary.”

If someone does believe they saw Resurrection Mary or experienced any other haunting, Kaczmarek encourages them to share their stories with the Ghost Research Society, but also not to be scared.

“I’ve been doing this for 50 years,” he said. “I’ve seen my fair share, but I’ve never come across a malicious or harmful ghost. I don’t think they’re capable of harming anybody. I think they’re there because of unfinished business or an untimely death, and they just want to show someone that they still exist in some way, shape or form.”