Chicago's Flapper Ghost of the Roaring
by Marlon Heimerl
and the din of clanking glasses fill the air of a steamy 1920s Chicago
ballroom. Faces streak in and out of view in a sea of bodies washed over
with the Charleston, the Black Bottom and the Shimmy. Amid them, the
rosy-cheeked complexion of a young 20-something Flapper girl is glimpsed
as she strides into the night past bristling guards shoving a dapper man
out of the front door.
leaves an impression in the dimness of the streetlamps. Smooth features,
bobbed brunette hair and an extravagant flapper dress are keen
attributes as she rounds the corner.
She vanishes into obscurity giving one backward glance before hitching a
ride down Des Plaines Avenue in a clambering automobile. Or so the
imagery of surrounding the legendary “Flapper Ghost” of Chicago would
lead us to believe in our most fantastical imaginings.
Beyond the Veil
At 1800 South Harlem Avenue, our fabled Flapper is reported to reenter
the scene.¹ That’s Jewish
Waldheim Cemetery in suburban Forest Park, her stated stomping grounds
for a century of spotty sightings to follow.
"Flapper Girl" by Kristie Bateman on
Of course by
now, our fair lady is quite dead – a legendary regional ghost of
Chicago. Yet like many legendary specters from a romanticized time and
place, the story of the “Flapper Ghost” takes a nearly formulaic
narrative turn. Consider the account documented by Troy Taylor, author
of Haunted Illinois: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Prairie
State and owner of
"This fetching phantom has been
known to hitch rides on Des Plaines Avenue and most often has been seen
near the cemetery gates… In the years before World War II, she was often
reported at the Melody Mill Ballroom, where she would dance with young
men and often ask for a ride home. After they drove her to the cemetery,
the girl would explain that she lived in the caretaker’s house (since
demolished) and then get out of the car. Often with her admirers in
pursuit, she would then run out into the cemetery and vanish among the
The notion of
a hitchhiking flapper ghost is clearly romantic and rich with nearly
unmistakable urban legend motifs. Ignoring the notion of a hitchhiking
Flapper Ghost in America's most infamous city for gangsters, speakeasies
and all around 1920s Tom Foolery is admittedly difficult. Not to
mention, it clearly mirrors the "Vanishing Hitchhiker" urban legend
quite closely, which certainly should not be undermined. In short, it
has the earmarking of a regional urban legend that varies depending on
Nonetheless, there is a second set of speculation that is easier to
ignore for unmovable skeptics in the case of the Flapper Ghost: that the
reports surrounding her could indeed be based in some truth.
Could the 'behavior' of the alleged Flapper Ghost give us a glimpse into her
possible origins? There are essentially two paths to take here.
On the one hand, we can think of her as an archetypal picture of the Roaring
Twenties and thus, a nice addition to a rich cultural heritage. The inherent
'spooky' qualities certainly help to spread the story, and in this scenario,
the origins of the Flapper Ghost are just that - a story or urban legend.
For many, the tale ends here.
"Jean Ackerman – 1920s – Ziegfeld by Alfred Cheney Johnston" by ky_olsen on
Then of course there is the path less traveled; the path that 32 percent of
Americans take as reported by
Gallup in 2005. Indeed, that is the 32 percent of Americans that believe
in the existence of ghosts.
A reported belief by nearly one-third of the population is hard to slough
off in any situation, and while certainly the number of people who would
believe in a hitchhiking ghost off hand is probably fewer, the case is still
worth some examination.
For the 32-percenters out there attempting to trace the Flapper Ghost's
origins, prevailing theories on the 'nature' of ghosts reveal a few basic
assumptions that are employable. Ghost theory often states that Earth-bound
spirits emulate an impactful life event from beyond the grave, or even, the
very moment of death itself. In so doing, they often resemble a moment in
time where they either died or experienced a life altering event.
In the rare instance that they become full-bodied apparitions and
materialize, they are sometimes theorized to emulate those moments. There is
a ring of rationality there, that if you've accepted the assumption that
ghosts exist at all, and if someone died in a way or experienced something
so traumatic that it prevented them from moving on to the other side; they
might reassume that moment in their "trapped" state.
The theory is so
engrained in the ghost community, after weighing the evidence and accepting
the assumptions, not much more needs to be said on this side of the debate.
The final conclusion given the above logic above would thus be that this
young woman met an untimely death, probably after a night at the "ballroom"
in her fabled Flapper dress, and thus, when seen today as an apparition,
reassumes that form.
That is of course speculation and one's gut instinct when considering the
nature of the sightings. Yet by sifting through the handful of documented
eyewitness accounts of the Flapper Ghost, another story quickly emerges.
Our Best Bet
to Taylor, the Flapper Ghost was most active during the Century of Progress
Exhibition in 1933, in the years leading up to WWII and again, in 1973.
In this case, Taylor places her possible point of origin as a Melody Mill
regular that eventually "died of peritonitis, the result of a bust
appendix." The same girl, as legend has it, was buried at Jewish Waldheim,
which then brings the point of origin full-circle.
Under this account, our fabled flapper in the fantastical lead of this
article was actually driving off to the safety of her home until at last, a
medical malady claimed her. In the end, if this is her accepted point of
origin, we can only assume her restless spirit returns to spend time with
the living in a place she was happiest. (That is a comforting idea that goes
cross-current in view of your usual horror ghost story.)
Upon her passing, staff members
at Melody Mill reported seeing the young woman at the ballroom. Taylor
writes: "A number of men actually claimed to have met the girl there, after
her death, and offered her a ride home. During the journey, the young woman
During the Century of Progress in 1933, she was again active at the ballroom
in much the manner explained above. One account relayed by Taylor even
places a young man back at the caretaker's house the day after his initial
encounter with the mysterious woman.
"He had become infatuated with her," writes Taylor, "and hoped to take her
dancing again another evening. His questions to the occupants of the house
were met with blank stares and bafflement. No such girl lived, or had ever
lived, at the house." (Based on the timeline, we can naturally assume that
this was before the caretaker’s house was demolished.)
Other accounts by Taylor include a daytime sighting in the early 1970s by a
family visiting the cemetery. In this account, the family reported seeing a
woman dressed like a flapper disappearing as she walked toward a crypt.
Following the destruction of the Melody Mill after it was closed in 1985,
the accounts generally fizzled out, perhaps, as Taylor put it, because the
spirit had “moved on” following the removal of her main haunt.
Tangled into the story of our Flapper Ghost are two other legendary
hitchhiking ghosts native to Chicago - "Resurrection Mary" and the vanishing
little girl on the CTA bus in Evergreen Park.²
Each surely fits into the same puzzle, or should at least be mentioned in
the same story, given their obvious affinities and the general tendency of
storytelling to spur offshoots with time.