WHY I HATE HATTIE THE HITCHHIKER
(Hate is far too strong a word. There are very, very few things that I actually hate and a phantom girl stranded along the road in need of a ride isn't one of them, but for the sake of alliteration, let it be. This is, however, one popular ghost story – a staple of local Halloween columns, ghost tours, young adult books, and more – that just doesn't impress this fan of local spooks.)
When I was in grade school, I had a little book of ghost stories. It was a skinny softcover with cheap newsprint pages and it was probably ordered through one of those student book clubs like Troll or Scholastic. The cover depicted a young lady with a chalky complexion and dull, frizzy blonde hair. She wore a billowy white gown as she hovered in a blue-gray churchyard. I might still have this book, packed away in a box in the basement.
Among the spooky tales in this book was the story of two young men who picked up a hitchhiker one night. The passenger was a young woman who gave them an address near a cemetery. It was chilly so one of the lads let her borrow his varsity sweater. When they neared her home, she asked to be let out by the cemetery gate. The next morning, the young man remembered his sweater and the boys went to the address she'd given them. When they asked for her at the house, they were told by her parents that she was long since dead and buried in the nearby cemetery. Of course, the young man found his sweater lying on her grave.
The story didn't give specifics such as names and places. It wasn't my favorite story in the book, but it wasn't my least favorite, either. It was one I always remembered, though. In fact, for some reason, my young mind loosely associated with a story I'd heard growing up – a frustratingly vague story of a young lady who'd appear at the intersection of Lark and Hamilton Street, only to simply vanish.
Years later, I came across the hitchhiker story again, probably in a late October issue of the Metroland (which is a mere ghost itself, now, having been seized for taxes last year). This time, the story had detailed. The ghost was named Hattie. She was picked up on Lark Street and the cemetery was Graceland on Delaware Avenue just before the Normanskill Bridge.
I was a little surprised and pleased to learn this famous ghost story was an Albany haunting.
Except it's not.
Some time after the Metroland story, I came across the tale of the ghostly hitchhiker again. Only this time, the story was set in Los Angeles. I was a little dismayed. While it wasn't my favorite ghost story, there was a certain amount of hometown pride attached.
Then I came across the story again. This time it was Chicago where the poor ghostly girl is sometimes known as “Resurrection Mary.” Later still, I read some ghost stories from Toronto and, once again, there was the same tale of two young men, a pretty young hitchhiker, a cemetery and a sweater (or, in some versions, a jacket). Details and names varied, but the basic story was always the same.
Clearly, unfortunate Hattie is not an Albany ghost after all, but an urban legend repeated over and over again across the country and beyond (there's a version from Toronto, too). Locally, the story is told in Albany (with my beloved Albany Rural Cemetery sometimes standing in for Graceland), Schenectady (often with Saint Patrick's Cemetery or the beautifully eerie Vale Cemetery as the site of the hitchhiker's tomb), and Troy (with Oakwood or the infamous old Forest Park Cemetery filling the Graceland role).
Often, the story is related by a person who knew someone (usually a friend of a friend, an uncle, an older cousin, or their grandmother's dentist's golf partner's veterinarian's brother-in-law) who was directly involved in the supernatural encounter.
The story turns up almost every year when Capitol Region news outlets do their Halloween-themed stories. It also appears in the very entertaining book, Traveler's TalesTraveler's Tales - Rumors and Legends of the Albany-Saratoga Region by Mark MacGregor Steese and Sam McPheeters which begins the account at Lark Street and ends it at Graceland. The book's young authors point out:
“This is only one version of the ghost story which is probably the best-known of our modern legends, the 'Phantom Hitchhicker.” She is known throughout most of the United States and many other countries as well.”
The story is an old one and there are as many versions as there are locations. A study was made of the legend by a pair of folklore scholars in the early 1940s, publishing their research in the California Folklore Quarterly. There are many variations on “The Vanishing Hitchhiker.” Sometimes, the mysterious passenger asks to be dropped off at an address which daylight will reveal to no longer exist (the ruins of a burned house or a vacant lot where a nice residence once stood). Sometimes the passenger is a strange old lady who leaves her rescuers with a prophecy (such as the end of a current war). In Hawaii, the passenger is often revealed to be the goddess Pele incognito (and she will usually depart with a blessing, a curse, or a warning depending how she was treated by the driver).
There is even a version from the Hudson Valley where a vanishing passenger near Kingston is identified as Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini! According to another study of the tale made in 1966, nuns are a rather popular variations on the story.
The story dates back to antiquity. The Albany version goes back to as far the 1920s (at least in print), but there are versions of it concerning Romulus and Remus (the legendary founders of Rome). There are Biblical versions, too, and it's believed the modern version might trace back to stories of Saint Christopher (carrying a mysterious child across a river; the child is then revealed to be Jesus) and the Apostle Philip. Later, there were European accounts, usually involving travelers on horseback or in carriages giving assistance to a mysterious person stranded along a dark, lonely road. In some countries, the story merges with that of La Llorona. From England to Ethiopia, from Kentucky to Texas, it seems most places have their own version of this mysterious and, often, unfortunate traveller.
Some common variations are collected here.
In more recent times, the story has been used by Washington Irving, Orson Welles and The Twilight Zone. A reversed version appears in Pee-wee's Big Adventure when a hitchhiking Pee-wee Herman is picked up by Large Marge, a phantom trucker. The legend has figured in numerous songs and appeared in many compilations of ghost stories such as the one in which I first encountered it. It even has its own entry at Snopes.com which uses an example from Baltimore. It's been the subject of several books, most notably The Vanishing Hitch-hiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand.
In short, Hattie The Hitchhiker is not a local ghost story. No deceased girl walks Lark Street at night, looking for a kindly stranger or two to drive her to her parents' home near Graceland. She's one take on an urban legend heard 'round the world.
Which isn't to say urban legends do not, like folktales and campfire stories, have their place in our world. But, often, it seems that Hattie is presented as the best, only, or truest ghost story we have around here.
Halloween is coming and, as usual, local media will trot out a few spooky stories. Hattie will be among them, of course, along with the oft-repeated “Seven Gates of Hell” story about Forest Park Cemetery (another one of my pet peeves for All Hallows' Eve).
Albany is a very historic city and an old city with centuries of written history should have a fine selection of ghost stories of its own. We have the unfortunate Samuel Abbot, the night-watchman who still keeps vigil in the State Capitol and, the doomed Jesse Strang wandering near the place of his execution for the 1827 Cherry Hill Murder. There's also the Dutch soldier haunting a Ten Broeck Street townhouse, the pipe-smoking priest of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and the phantoms of the Schenectady Massacre said to wander the streets of the Stockade.
But it's Hattie The Hitchhiker, an urban legend that isn't even exclusively ours, that seems to have ingrained itself in local memory. Maybe it's tinged with a bit of nostalgia characters are people we related to, ordinary drivers encountering a seemingly ordinary girl.
Hattie is a good enough story, if one that's a bit over done. Still, there are better spooky tales to be told and many more ghosts to haunt our autumn imaginations.
Paula S. Lemire, September 2016
Disclaimer: I do believe is ghosts, but personally prefer the ghosts of people we know really existed at some point or those with some sort of historic connection (or...ahem...ones that can sing beautifully). I've compiled some of Albany's hauntings here:
gardenalley.net - Haunted Albany
albanynyhistory.blogspot.com - A Handful-of-Hauntings
albanynyhistory.blogspot.com - Haunted Halloween
Albany Rural Cemetery hauntings
The Ghost of 49 Ten Broeck Street