Urban legends: the vanishing hitchhiker, graveyard watcher and ladies in black or white

By Rick Hinton

How does one proceed in claims of mysterious occurrences when many seem to possess a common element, and for the most part, a familiar similarity in multiple states? This common element often makes for a good campfire story! Is there a direct correlation between an urban legend and an actual haunting experience?

The entrance to Stepp Cemetery just outside of Martinsville. (Photos by Rick Hinton)

Folklore had its beginnings on a purely oral level, passed down by word of mouth. Eventually it evolved into print, finding an even wider audience. These days, media and the internet have made the ability to pass these stories down to larger masses. However, an urban legend is firmly rooted in the past – developed in a more innocent time when life was simpler, and imaginations ran rampant. Here is one with a common thread:

The Vanishing Hitchhiker

A hitchhiker is offered a ride. The hitchhiker is noncommunicative and has an unworldly appearance (disheveled, pale in color, period clothing). Usually a female, they offer an address and are quiet for the rest of the ride. Upon arriving at a residential address the ride-giver is shocked to find his “ghostly” passenger has vanished! Instead of peeling away at top speed, the driver plays detective and inquires at the home. This is what gives the final whammy to the story. They are often told by the confused, and most likely weeping homeowners, that the person they gave a ride to either had left home, never to return, or had died and was buried in a nearby cemetery. For special embellish, the cemetery is where the hitchhiker was picked up. A produced photo of the spectral passenger always turns out to be the hitchhiker. Bone chilling! A good, creepy story when you consider there is never any happy resolution or reconciliation with the distraught homeowners. Another of the many urban legends with variations from county to county:

Yes .. .there actually is a grave for Baby Lester.

The Graveyard Watcher

Why a spirit would stand watch over their mortal remains puzzles me. But then again, I’m not currently a ghost, so I don’t know the agenda as of yet. Indiana reports a multitude of spooks that appear to reside on a plot of ground where their mortal remains were interred. They choose to stay. What is their intent?

There are tales of Stepp Cemetery – located deep in the Morgan Monroe State Forest of southern Indiana – of a Lady in Black diligently guarding the grave of her infant son, the infamous Baby Lester. It’s a great urban lore with some meat on it, drawing nearby Bloomington’s Indiana University students in a consistent summer cavalcade of ghost hunting, booze and Saturday night dates; and also tolerated (currently) by the Indiana DNR; at least until 11 p.m., when you have to leave. There are strange oddities in this cemetery for sure. Unfortunately, I have never experienced the Lady in Black. I have, however, shared a beer with a college student.

The mood of the cemetery changes dramatically at night.”

There have been sightings of a Lady in White prowling about outside the fence of Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. She’s also reported to have been inside the fence trying to get out; it depends upon whom you talk to. Sometimes in the realm of urban legends the Vanishing Hitchhiker and The Graveyard Watcher will merge. The Lady in White is said to on occasion hitch a ride from unsuspecting drivers on West 38th Street to a residence nearby. The results are always the same, and it always turns out she is buried in Crown Hill.