Chicago’s Flapper Ghost of the Roaring Twenties

by Marlon Heimerl

Brassy tunes 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.

Her beauty 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.

Flapper Girl

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.

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 PrairieGhosts.com:

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 tombstones.”

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 the teller.

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.

Weighing the Options

Could the ‘behavior’ of the alleged Flapper Ghost give us a glimpse into her possible origins? There are essentially two paths to take here.

Jean Ackerman - 1920s - Ziegfeld by Alfred Cheney Johnston

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.

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.

Origins & Eyewitness Accounts

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

According 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 always vanished.”

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.

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