She’s pretty and pale and sad and just wants to get home. When you pick her up on the dark wet road, you don’t yet know she’s dead.
Maybe she just tells you where she lives, then sits silently in her dress that’s sometimes white and always the last she’ll ever wear. Maybe she’s chatty, a charming flapper or debutante or hippie, and you fall a little bit in love with the girl you’ll always remember during that dark drive you’ll never forget. Maybe she shivers and you loan her your jacket. Later, you’ll shiver, too.
At your destination, you turn around from looking at the house and she’s gone. Your flashlight shows no footprints in the mud. Knowing what story you’re in, you walk up the wet path to the dark doorway of the dark house and knock.
The person who answers isn’t surprised and tells you the pale girl died decades ago, on that same dark road coming back from the dance that may have been her first and will always be her last, to the home she’ll never reach. Maybe you’re shown an old photo and told the dead girl’s name. Maybe the dead girl said it before leaving your car without getting out of it.
Maybe you later find your jacket on her grave.
She never quite gets home, but she gets around, the ghost girl does, stepping into cars but not out of them in every state in the nation, giving many different names. Sometimes it’s Mary or Laurie, but in Jamestown, she’s Lydia, waiting by Lydia’s Bridge, which isn’t a bridge, but an abandoned underpass about a hundred feet from where the present railway bridge crosses over East Main Street (formerly High Point Road).
Now, writers and ghost hunters Michael Renegar and Amy Greer claim to have found the woman behind the local legend. Their “Looking for ‘Lydia:’ The Thirty-Year Search for the Jamestown Hitchhiker,” published last month by CaryPress International, may surprise those who think they know the oft-told tale of the dead girl on the dark road. They said June 20 marks the 98th anniversary of the crash that killed the woman now famous as Guilford County’s roadside revenant.
The authors believe she still appears there nearly a century after dying on that wet dark road, accepting the assistance of, then spooking, generations of Good Samaritans. But while they consider both her demise and its paranormal aftermath factual, they dispute some details of the story. Renegar and Greer said Lydia was not the name of the woman who died on that Sunday night in 1920.
“I call her Annie,” said Winston-Salem native Amy Greer in a recent phone conversation. “Michael calls her Annie Lou or Annie Ludia [pronounced “Loo-dia”] but we don’t really know what her middle name was.”
East Bend native Michael Renegar, author or co-author of three previous books (two with Greer) on Tarheel hauntings, wrote in an email that he has an idea what the “L” stands for in “Annie L. Jackson,” the name on her death certificate. “Her maternal grandmother Lucinda was known as Ludia, and this appears to have been Annie Jackson’s middle name. Thus, Annie Ludia Jackson, shortened to Annie Lou.”
He also explained that she wasn’t coming back from a dance and that she wasn’t a teenager or college girl. “This is actually the norm,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Truth and legend rarely match closely.”
Renegar wrote that Annie L. Jackson was 35 years old. “She’d been married briefly in 1918, however, it was annulled or divorced quickly, and her death certificate lists her as single.” There were, he wrote, a male driver and another couple in the car that flipped over when negotiating that sharp curve; the others all survived.
In many versions of the story, the ghost of “Lydia” asks the driver to take her to her mother’s house in High Pont, but Renegar wrote that Annie Jackson’s parents died years before she did. Her death certificate lists her as a resident of Greensboro, but Renegar doesn’t think that’s where her ghost wants to go. “We recently found what we believe is the house she asks to be taken to,” he wrote. “Her maternal first cousin lived there at the time; possibly an aunt, too.” He described the house as being in Jamestown near the underpass where Annie Jackson died. “I can’t divulge the location due to a promise to family, as descendants still live there.”
A graduate of Appalachian State University, Renegar said that he first became interested in researching ghosts when he saw one while a junior living in ASU’s “haunted East Residence Hall.” But he encountered Lydia long before that when he found Nancy Roberts’ “An Illustrated Guide to Ghosts and Mysterious Occurrences in the Old North State” in his elementary school library. Roberts’ book, first published in 1959, includes a chapter titled “The Lovely Apparition” that’s the first known account in which the ghost of the Jamestown Underpass is called Lydia. Roberts attributed the story to a High Point resident she called Burke Hardison, who claimed to have encountered Lydia in 1924 while driving home from Raleigh.
In an email, Renegar stated that Roberts made up the name “Burke Hardison” to protect her source’s identity, as he refused to be interviewed otherwise. “There are newspaper accounts prior to that 1959 book. In most early accounts no name is given, or, for that matter, a destination. She simply vanishes from the car.”
Greer said she also first became aware of Lydia from Nancy Roberts’ book, which she found in her school library when she was in the second grade. “Today it makes me smile, to see our books beside hers on the shelves. If you’ve ever read a book of NC ghost stories, it was probably hers.”
During our phone conversation, Greer told me that, when she first began collaborating with the man she now calls her brother (Greer and Renegar consider themselves siblings despite not being blood relations), Lydia was the North Carolina ghost story she least expected to be true, due to its ubiquity as an urban legend.
“The wrong story had been written so many times, and kept getting written and rewritten,” she said. “If you asked me back in 2011, I’d have told you that looking for Lydia was like searching for a needle in a haystack. But Michael put it out there and people came to us with verifiable information, and that’s a beautiful thing. I hope that by finding her truth, we’ve helped Annie find some peace.”
Both writers described “Looking for Lydia,” their second book together after 2011’s Ghosts of the Triad, as a very close collaboration. “It was the result of a decade of research on my part, but Michael had been working on it for 20 years before that,” Greer said. But, she added, “it wasn’t just him and me, but also the public, due to everybody’s love for her. That’s why we wanted her to have her own book, rather than just being a chapter in one.”
Renegar said a major breakthrough happened in 2015 after he appeared in an episode of the Discovery Channel’s Monsters and Mysteries in America about Lydia’s Bridge. After seeing the show, a High Point University student named Emily Manzik brought him and Greer the Greensboro Patriot article about the June 1920 wreck. “The more we looked into it, the more we realized who the victim was,” Renegar wrote.
“I feel like that’s what Annie wanted, that she needed that,” said Greer, adding that she felt personally touched when she read the 1920 newspaper article. “That’s what, ultimately, separates her from the story you hear everywhere, about the girl who wants to go home to mom and is waiting out there in the rain to be picked up from the dance.”
Greer acknowledged that it may be hard for people to separate the real woman from the urban legend she’s been absorbed into. “Not just the story of Lydia the Jamestown Hitchhiker, but all the other similar stories that have been mixed up with hers. But I think she’s glad to have her own story to be told and known.”
But what of the other ghost girls waiting on other roads? In his classic 1981 book “The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings,” folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand traces the titular tale back as far as 1876, with the ghostly girl dying in a carriage accident. The most famous 20th century United States version, at least outside of North Carolina, maybe Mary, the ghost in a party dress who hitches a ride down Archer Avenue to Resurrection Cemetery outside Chicago.
“The Chicago story originates some 14 years after Lydia,” wrote Renegar when I asked him about it in an email. “I think Mary may have gotten tied to our story because of mobsters visiting High Point, aka ‘Little Chicago,’ and hearing about her and talking about their ghost.” Renegar also wrote that he doesn’t consider the ubiquity of such stories evidence they’re untrue. “On the contrary, we tend to see this, especially considering the number that can be traced to a specific person or incident, such as ours, as evidence that this type of ghost does exist.”
Whatever its objective reality, the ghostly archetype haunts pop culture as well as the nation’s highways. One excellent recent example is Gwendolyne Kiste’s 2017 novella “Pretty Marys All in a Row,” available on Kindle and in paperback from Broken Eye Books. I recently asked Kiste for her thoughts on these roadside revenants.
Replying to my Facebook message, Kiste wrote that “there’s an unsettling intimacy to giving someone a ride in your car and then finding out they’re not what they seem,” adding that such iconic figures as Lydia and Resurrection Mary ramp up the inherent pathos of the legend. “She’s wandering along that stretch of highway, looking to assuage her loneliness with these random rides, and she might never be able to truly rest. It’s beautiful, it’s haunting, and it’s tragic. All the stuff that makes for the best ghost stories.”
The first time I heard about a ghostly hitchhiker, it was from a counselor at YMCA Day Camp, who told us how another ghost named Mary haunted a section of the “Old Football Road” between Greensboro and Chapel Hill. She told some of it in the second person, as something that might happen to us kids once we were old enough to drive. That’s the hidden promise of ghost stories, that they’re about what can happen to the listener in the future. And that’s why I adopted that voice for the opening of this article, and return to it now.
If you’re ever driving on one of those dark rural roads that still exist in this age of well-lit highways, maybe you’ll see a woman in a pale old-fashioned dress, staring into your headlights with dark unblinking eyes. Regardless of what she calls herself, she’ll appreciate the lift, even though she’ll never quite get where she asks to go. At least she got some company on her lonely journey. Isn’t that all any of us can ask for?
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.
There will be a book release for “Looking for Lydia” from 3 until 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 23, at Wine and Design on 121 E. Main Street in Jamestown. Michael Renegar and Amy Greer will be signing their book, copies of which are $14.95 while supplies last. The venue is also hosting a Lydia’s Bridge Painting Party beginning at 5 p.m. that day. While meet-and-greet with the authors is free, tickets for the painting event are $35, and available at www.wineanddesign.com/calendars/event.php?id=111491.