Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Vanishing Hitchhiker- Is There Real History Behind It? Or Just Another Urban Legend?

So, I am sure at one point or another in your life you have heard of a story about a vanishing hitchhiker. Some stories tell of young maidens in distress, being picked up on the side of a dark desolate road and offered a ride home, only to the dismay of the driver of the car when he realizes she has vanished. There are also tales of even men or old women being picked up on the side of the road and sometimes they foretell events that may take place, only to later disappear after giving the driver their “message.”

I remember as a kid hearing about the “Prom Night” hitchhiker, the lonely girl on the side of the road who gets picked up by a young man. They converse in the car, sometimes the driver becomes “attracted” to the young girl, only to find that she was never really there. Some stories tell in more detail the way the girl looked, or dressed, the smell of her perfume or the color of her attire. More often than not, the story goes on to tell that the driver continues on to the destination the girl had given him directions to only to either find the girls home or a graveyard.

In the scenario where the boy arrives at the girls home, he is often greeted by the girl’s mother who inevitably explains that her daughter died years ago and on this night every year a young man shows up at her doorstep dumbfounded that he picked up a girl only to have her vanish before his eyes in his car on the ride over.

In the scenario about arriving at the graveyard, usually the boy walks around only to find his jacket he had previously gave to the young woman to keep warm, is laying on a grave. When he picks his jacket up he realizes the name on the grave is that of the girl he had just given a ride to, and she had been dead for a long time. This scenario was even played out on a television episode of “Growing Pains” in the early 1990’s for a Halloween themed show, and I remember this one well because the real name of the girl who played the vanishing hitchhiker in the show was Jamie, and my name is J’aime, too.
Where Did The Story Come From?

The Urban Legend of the “vanishing hitchhiker” has been going around for nearly 75 years or longer, so the stories say. In 1941, the “Orson Welles” show aired a debut broadcast of Lucille Fletcher’s “The Hitch-Hiker.” In that story, the driver was the ghost whereas the hitchhiker was alive. An episode the “The Twilight Zone” used a similar adaptation of that story in one of their episodes in the 1960s.

Local Legends- California "Niles Canyon Ghost"

Around the early 1940’s allegedly a local journalist admitted to having invented the story of a “ghost girl” roaming the remote area known as Niles Canyon in Alameda County as publicity ploy to drive sales for the paper. Then in 1947, Radio personality Mel Ventner spoke of a ghost story in Northern California, known as the Niles Canyon Ghost. As the story goes, there was an automobile accident on Niles Canyon Road on February 26, 1938 where a young woman was killed. Some say she was coming from or going to a dance in Sunol, while others claim she was on her wedding night. The unsuspecting driver pulls over to offer the young lady a ride, by the time they get to the Dumbarton Bridge, she vanishes. By February of 1950 the local paper in Fremont, California known as the “Township Register” had published an article with similar details as the previous radio broadcast by Ventner.

This article inspired a young teenager by the name of Clarence Chivers and his friends to go out to Niles Canyon to parade around with a sheet on himself, pretending to be the “ghost girl” only to give the local police a good scare. Upon arriving, the officer started shooting his gun in the air to scare the boys down off the hill. The boys were arrested for their shenanigans and the whole ordeal catapulted this ghost story into an even more infamous tale.

Over the years, there have been many people, including a friend of mine who claim to have seen this lady. I am not discrediting what they firmly believe they saw because I am sure they saw something, however, I don't see recorded history showing that this story of this girl having ever taken place over there.

History or Hype?

I am such an avid history researcher that whenever I hear about stories such as these I have to look into it to see if I can find real evidence to support the history behind the story.  I did find a story of a lady by the name of Annie Londonderry, who was injured, but didn’t die on April 11, 1895 during a bicycling accident in Niles Canyon after being hit by a horse drawn carriage. Again, this lady did not die.

A Real Death In Niles Canyon

I did find one death out in Niles Canyon, but this accident involved a man, not a woman. On May 23, 1906, Stockton resident, William Harris died from his injuries after falling off a trestle in Niles Canyon late that previous evening after inspecting his daily work with his lantern before planning to retire for the night. All the other members of the surveying party had gone to bed, so no one knew he had gone missing until they found him the next morning. He had fallen 30 feet and lay there until he was found and later died.  He was an employee of Western Pacific Railroad.

Another possibility....

I found a rumor, again there is no way to know for sure about this, that a man named Bronco Billy Anderson (Max Henry Aronson) that ran  Essanay (S and A) Studios out of Chicago and yes, Niles Canyon, may have been involved in this tale.  From the stories that went around, there had been some sort of Halloween party at the studio down there in Niles Canyon and a young aspiring actress that was dressed in a white gown, dolled up to be Cleopatra had come to the party to confront Anderson and his wife. She had allegedly been having an affair with Bronco Billy and decided to "come out" with their affair in public. Whether there was an exchange of words, or some other means of humiliation the girl ran off crying into the night, never to be seen or heard from again.--- Again, this is a great story, but I can't find proof of this either.  However, in this time period, given the amount of power one in the movie business could have access to, the fact Niles Canyon was basically in the middle of nowhere, I wouldn't put it past anyone if her death, be it an accident or foul play was covered up to avoid scandal.

Other Similar Accounts

According to information published by American Folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey in the 1940s, they had come across 79 different, yet similar accounts of this “vanishing hitchhiker” all across the United States.  All accounts were categorized in distinct versions:

1.      The hitchhiker gives an address to where he needs to go, whereas upon reaching this place he then learns he had given a ghost a ride.

2.      The hitchhiker is an old lady who foretells a disaster or future event.

3.      A girl meets a boy at an event or place where she gets a ride home with him. She is given some sort of token (usually a jacket of the driver) and the driver later finds the token on the girls grave.

4.      The hitchhiker is identified as a local divinity.

5.      Finally where a driver picks up a girl, drops her off only to remember that she left her sweater or scarf in the car so he goes back to the house to return it to her but no one is there or he speaks to her mother who tells him that she died many years ago.


Do I believe that there are people who have had “experiences” that cannot be explained? Yes, I don’t doubt that for a second. I believe the people who have seen things out there on the canyon, really did see something. The fact that I didn't find any proof of this mystery woman dying in Niles Canyon, doesn't mean that a girl didn't die there in that vicinity at another time. Obviously something happened out there on that road in Niles Canyon at one time or another, it's just that no one has found out who, when and what, just yet.  I am determined to continue searching for answers regarding the Niles Canyon mystery.

I do believe that these Urban Legends were not conjured up just by imagination. Whoever started this story must have been influenced by a legend he or she had heard, perhaps from another town or area, with similar details. Most stories come from some fact based account, and over the years they develop into their own “larger than life” tales that spread like wildfire. These stories intrigue, scare or fascinate the reader or the recipient who is told the story, whether it be heard around a bonfire while camping or told as a bedtime story while you are tucked away in a warm bed on a dark stormy night.

This story, I am sure, will continue to be told and many will venture out to Niles Canyon at night for a glimpse of this “vanishing hitchhiker." 

To learn more about all the urban legends of Niles Canyon, please purchase your copy of "Stories of the Forgotten: Infamous, Famous & Unremembered" today on Amazon! 


(Copyright- Dreaming Casually)

San Francisco Call, 5/24/1906
San Francisco Call 4/12/1895
Niles Canyon Ghost Revealed- David Mostardi 2/26/2012
Around Sunol- Victoria Christian 2/26/2007
“Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends And Their Meanings”- Jan Harold Brunvand
“Haunted San Francisco: Ghost Stories From The City’s Past”- Rand Richards
“California Folklore Quarterly”- Volume I, No.4,  Volume II, No. 1, Volume II, No. 4.- Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Gangster Squad: Who Were They? And Was The Movie Truly Accurate?

Gangster Squad (John O'Mara on bottom row/1st on left)
The film “Gangster Squad” came out recently, and being the 1940’s lover that I am, I went to see it. I have got to say, the director and producer did a great job giving the film that true Hollywoodland feel to the film. From the cars, the streets, the buildings with the old signs, the clothes, the actors demeanor and etiquette to the very music being played on screen—it was all on point!

However, upon leaving the theatre, never having heard of this “Gangster Squad” or the intricate details of Mickey Cohen’s reign of terror (or end of his reign), it left me asking questions. Since I just happen to be an investigative writer, who happens to love history, I took it upon myself to look into this story and found so many discrepancies.

Jack Whalen aka Jack O'Hara
Yes, Hollywood has to make movies to entertain, but to me it’s a sell out when you dilute or corrupt true events in history to make it more appealing to the viewer. If you do your research you will see that the events that take place in the movie either didn’t take place, or took place at a different time and in a different way.  Remember, this movie is said to take place in 1949. The entire movie is set for that one particular year, because John J. O’Mara’s wife is pregnant and towards the end of the movie she has her baby. So going by that timeline, most of the story in the movie is historically inaccurate based on the limited time frame of the movie.

Take for instance, the part of the movie where Mickey Cohen’s muscle Karl Lennox swarms into mafia boss Jack Dragna’s residence and murders him and his wife on the floor, that didn’t happen. The history of Dragna’s death does not even come close to the portrayal in the film.  In fact, Dragna died from a heart attack in his Los Angeles home on February 23, 1956.

Rondelli's on Ventura Blvd.
Another discrepancy was Jack Whalen’s death. In the movie you see Jerry Wooters’ love interest (played by Emma Stone) who is hiding from Mickey Cohen at Jack Whalen’s home, waiting to get out of town. In the movie, Cohen and two of his thugs show up at Whalen’s home and a fight ensues. Of course, Whalen takes down the two thugs and offers Cohen a shot at boxing one last time. Remember, Whalen was known for saying he was called "The Enforcer" because he was "so tough he didn't need a gun."  As the scene plays out, Cohen laughs and says “My boxing days are over,” while pulling out his pistol and shooting Whalen in the gut. He then throws him in the pool and shoots him two more times.

This is not how Jack Whalen died in real history. In fact, Whalen didn’t die for another 10 years! He met his end at Rondelli’s in Sherman Oaks (13359 Ventura Blvd.) when Cohen and some of his associates: Sam Frank LoCigno, George Piscitelle, Roger Leonard and Joe de Carlo, among others were present as a Whalen took a bullet in between the eyes.  Of course, although Cohen and his thugs were charged for the murder they were later acquitted.

As far as the actual Gangster Squad:

John J. O’Mara was a real person, and yes he headed the gangster squad, but it was even admitted by the writer of the screenplay that the many exciting shootouts in the movie didn’t actually take place in real life. Lieberman did admit that O’Mara did sleep with a Tommy Gun under his bed, though.

Jerry Wooters
As far as the rest of the squad- Jerry Wooters was married, so the idea he was sleeping with Cohen’s “etiquette teacher” is absurd. It was also said that according to Wooters’ military file, he was shot down over the ocean during WWII and he did float along on a raft until being rescued….how much of that is a fact we may never know for sure being that most military files are confidential and I find it highly unlikely that a journalist just happened to get the military to make an exception to open his file just for him. Maybe that story is true, maybe it isn’t, but I am not going to argue on that.

Conway Keeler, the member of the gangster squad who was the wire tapping genius, didn’t get murdered in his home as the movie portrays. In fact, he may be still alive, since I read he was interviewed by the screenwriter Paul Lieberman when he was researching to write the story. 

I tried to look into old newspaper archives to see what I could dig up on Max Kennard, the iconic Texan who joins the gangster squad and came up on nothing. I was actually disappointed about that, being he was my favorite character in the movie. The other two characters, Officer Ramirez and Officer Harris seem to be added characters to the cast that probably didn’t exist as I cannot find any information on them as well. 

The Shootout at the Park Plaza Hotel

In the near final scenes of the movie, O’Mara attempts to serve an arrest warrant for the murder of Jack Whalen (which in fact doesn’t happen until 1959) at the Park Plaza Hotel. The gangster squad and Cohen’s thugs shoot it out on the street in front of the hotel and in the lobby of the building. 

Mickey Cohen
I have looked into this, and cannot find any proof that this happened. In fact, there was mention of a shoot out at the Hotel Roosevelt in 1947 after Bugsy Siegel’s murder. It was said that Cohen showed up at the lobby of the hotel and demanded that Siegel’s assassins come down and face him. He allegedly fired many rounds into the lobby, however no one came down to face him. 

In the movie, the scene at the Park Plaza hotel is supposedly set in 1949. It’s obvious that if O’Mara had served a warrant, it wasn’t for the homicide of Jack Whalen, being that Whalen didn’t die for another 10 years. I know that Cohen was arrested in August 1949 for “disturbing the peace” in Los Angeles where he paid the $100 bail out of his own pocket to be released, but there is no mention of him shooting or causing a ruckus during his capture. Cohen was arrested again in Chicago at the Ambassador Hotel in August of 1950, alongside Johnny Stompanato aka “Johnny Stomp,” and later arrested and sent to prison for a short four years after being convicted for tax evasion through the Kefauver Commission U.S. Senate Committee that indicted him.

Once Cohen was released he became a celebrity and owned many “legitimate” businesses in the L.A. area. Unfortunately, Cohen couldn’t seem to keep his hands clean and when Jack Whalen died, he was thrust into the spotlight again as a notorious criminal. Although he was acquitted on murder charges, he later faced more tax evasion charges and was convicted on those charges in 1961, when he eventually was sent to Alcatraz. It was then that another inmate attempted to end Cohen’s life with a lead pipe to the head. Cohen survived the attack. 

Cohen arrested for the murder of Whalen
So you see, the movie was great as far as giving you that total 1940’s Film Noir feel. However, accuracy-wise it was lacking. If you are going to make a film about TRUE EVENTS, why not tell the truth? Isn’t it owed to your audience to teach them the real story, and not fill their minds with misleading information? I don’t know, I just don’t get it. I am a truth seeker and I research my stories and tell the history of whatever I find, regardless of whether it is “entertaining” or not. Sometimes I find out information about someone or something that is hard for me to believe or changes how I look at them. Perhaps, I find something that is disturbing about someone I have looked up to, however, it doesn’t mean that just because I don’t want to hear it, that it didn’t happen.  With the same token, we cannot fill our minds with fictionalized or romanticized tales of  history and think we can also preserve the past accurately. You can’t “have your cake and eat it, too.”  Either tell the story right, or don’t tell it at all.

--(Copyright 2013- J'aime Rubio,  Dreaming Casually)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Oak Alley Plantation: A Hidden Mystery

One of Oak Alley Plantation’s Hidden Stories
When you think of the South (U.S.) during the late 1800s what do you imagine? Perhaps you think of antebellum mansions, long dirt roads accompanied by rows of weeping willows or old oak trees. Maybe, you think of that beautiful “Southern Belle” type strolling along a bricked path with her parasol in hand and a mint julep in the other? One thing one might never think of when imagining the “Old South” is the Mafia.  However, I bet you wouldn’t believe that the Mafia was in fact very much residing the South in the late 1800s and even up to the time of Prohibition in the 1920s.

Brief History of Oak Alley

I have always been enamored by the plantation known as “Oak Alley” in Vacherie, Louisiana. As most of my readers know, I am a huge history detective and when I fall in love with a place, I want to know all there is to know about it. I read the history of Oak Alley that is available on so many websites and books, as well as Oak Alley’s very own website. However, I noticed that there was a gap in history of the “Big House” from the late 1800s to the early 1920s.

The plantation, originally named "Bon Sejour" meaning "Pleasant Stay" in French, was built between 1837-1839, by George Swainey for a man by the name of Jacques Telesphore Roman. Roman was the brother to the Governor of Louisiana, Andre Roman. The Architect who designed the home just so happened to be Jacques father-in-law,  Joseph Pilie. The Roman family occupied the home during the mid 1800s, and later John Armstrong purchased it at auction in 1866.

This is where the grey area comes in. Several sites state that other owners occupied Oak Alley following Armstrong’s departure of the property, but there is never any mention how many or by whom. It does state that by the 1920s the home had fallen into disrepair from severe neglect of the premises and that is when Andrew and Josephine Stewart took on Oak Alley’s restoration as a “labor of love,” making it just as grand as it may have been in the days of the Old South.

The history of Oak Alley is vast, and each owner of the home has their own significant and interesting stories to tell of the place. However, I was intrigued by that shady time period between the late 1800s and the 1920s, so I set out to find out if there was a reason the home lay abandoned for so long.

Assassination Among the Oaks

According to several newspaper archives in July of 1895, there was a double murder on the very property of Oak Alley. In fact, the murder was Mafia connected, or so the papers read. According to reports, a man by the name of Stefano Hendo (or Hendlo) and his wife were driving out from their home in Lacena Plantation to visit their daughter and her husband at Oak Alley, where the young couple were residing. It was stated that before leaving his home, Stefano cleaned and loaded his shotgun. According to the authorities, they believe that Stefano knew he was going to be expecting some sort of trouble when he got to Oak Alley. Upon arriving at the property, the couple’s vehicle was fired upon and they were shot to death, riddled with bullets. The newspapers concluded that a rigid investigation would be made, although there is never any further mention in any of the archived newspapers that I could locate.

It’s quite interesting that this double murder isn’t mentioned in any other historical texts or websites regarding Oak Alley’s many interesting tales. It makes one wonder, why was this story covered up? Did Stefano know his killers? Why, if he was coming to visit his daughter, did he feel the need to bring a loaded shotgun? The world may never know the truth. It’s been so many years and without any further evidence or information in regards to who Stefano, his wife, his daughter or son-in-law were, we may never be able to put all the pieces together.

Personally, I thought this story was very interesting. I had never heard of the Mafia being so far south in the U.S. during that time period, and that made it all the more exciting to investigate it. Upon my investigating this subject I found some of the earliest mentions of the Mafia in the United States were of several families in the New Orleans area in the early 1870s, who immigrated from Sicily and other areas.  However, there really is no way to know if Stefano and his wife had any connection to anyone tied to the Mafia in Louisiana during that time, but it does make one wonder, doesn’t it? 

The newspaper headlines read:

Omaha Daily Bee, July 24th 1895-
“DEADLY WORK OF THE MAFIA: The Mafia has begun its work in St. James Parish and already two persons, a man and his wife, have been found murdered. Sunday morning Stefano Hendo and his wife, as was their custom, left their home at the Lacena Plantation near Vacherie station to visit their daughter, who resides with her husband on Oak Alley Plantation about four miles distant. Stefano before leaving cleaned his shotgun and loaded it. The reason for his doing this is not known, but the impression now is that he expected trouble. When the couple reached Oak Alley, a lonesome place, they were fired upon and killed by the assassin who was concealed by the roadside. A rigid investigation of the tragedy is being made by authorities.”

So as time has gone on, over 117 years to be exact, this couple who were murdered at Oak Alley have been long since forgotten, left in the archives, awaiting a mystery or history detective to stumble upon it and write about it.  I hope that you enjoyed this article that touches on just one of the hidden stories at Oak Alley that most people have never heard or read about before, but now you know!

Newspaper Archives and Sources:
Omaha Daily Bee,- July 24th 1895 
St Paul Daily Globe-, July 23, 1895 
Los Angeles Herald- July 24, 1895
Oak Alley Website- (
New Orleans Crime Family- (wikipedia)
New Orleans Crime Boss Index-

(Copyright 2013)- Dreaming Casually