Meet Resurrection Mary, the ghost of Archer Avenue | Feature | Chicago Reader

Meet Resurrection Mary, the ghost of Archer Avenue 

Chet's Melody Lounge still pours a Bloody Mary for her every Sunday.

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Just southwest of Chicago, on Archer Avenue in Justice, Illinois, across the street from Resurrection Cemetery, is a bar called Chet's Melody Lounge. Chet's is a classic roadside tavern, with a pool table, a jukebox, a popcorn machine, and a large clientele of bikers. But Chet's has an unusual tradition: every Sunday, the staff leaves a Bloody Mary at the end of the bar for a ghost. The ghost's name is Resurrection Mary, and she has haunted this stretch of Archer since the 1930s, when she picked up young men dancing to the big bands at the Oh Henry Ballroom.

An old south-sider named Vince was still telling his Resurrection Mary story to paranormal investigators half a century after it happened. When he did, he sounded just as haunted as he'd been the night he met the ghost. Before he went out dancing that evening, Vince put on his favorite suit-a double-breasted gray number with squared-off shoulders-and his most colorful tie, red with Hawaiian hula girls in grass skirts. He cruised Archer Avenue with the top down on his Chevy Cabriolet. The night was warm, and he'd slicked back his hair with enough Brylcreem to keep the wind from mussing it. The Oh Henry Ballroom was going to be jumping, as it always was on Saturdays. Vince had danced to some of the biggest of the big bands there: Harry James, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey. Tonight was just Chet Barsuitis and His Merry Men, from the southwest side of Chicago, but even the local combos knew all the hot numbers on the hit parade.

Inside the ballroom, Vince spent the first half hour downing enough Cuba Libres and smoking enough Lucky Strikes to work up the courage to ask a girl for a dance. By the time the band got started on "Jumpin' at the Woodside," he was in a bold state of mind.

Spotting a pretty blond girl in a white dress, he said, as casually as he could manage, "Hey, it ain't right to stand still for Count Basie. Why don't we cut a rug on this one?"

The girl smiled, and they joined the jitterbugging throng on the parquet floor. The band played a few more fast numbers-"Boogie Woogie" and "Jeepers Creepers"-so Vince didn't get a chance to talk to his partner. That he didn't mind too much. Sometimes girls asked what he did for a living. He was a bookkeeper at the Union Stockyards. Even though he didn't work anywhere near the slaughterhouse, that gave some girls the willies.

When the band segued into "Begin the Beguine," Vince was finally able to get close to his partner. Her name was Mary, and she lived, she said, on Damen Avenue in the Brighton Park neighborhood. That wasn't far from where Vince lived, in the house he shared with his parents (something else he didn't like to tell girls). As they slow danced, he noticed, for the first time, that the girl's hands were cold, her skin brittle. Mary seemed to notice that he noticed it, so he made what he hoped was a lighthearted remark: "Cold hands mean you have a warm heart."

Mary smiled, and they danced together for the rest of the evening.

After the final number, Vince offered Mary a ride home; her place was just a straight shot up Archer. But after they had driven north for a few miles, Mary insisted he pull the car over, outside the locked gates of Resurrection Cemetery, the graveyard of Chicago's Polish community. Vince was baffled, but he complied. Mary opened the door, and stepped out onto the roadside.

"I have to go, and you can't follow me," she said.

Then she walked toward the gates, laid a hand on the iron chain that bound the gates together, and vanished.

click to enlarge Chet's Melody Lounge, as seen from Resurrection Cemetery - FACEBOOK/CHET'S MELODY LOUNGE
  • Chet's Melody Lounge, as seen from Resurrection Cemetery
  • Facebook/Chet's Melody Lounge

Vince spent the rest of the night driving his Chevy up and down Archer Avenue, looking for a blond girl in a white dress. He drove until dawn, and then, when the cemetery gates opened, he drove through the rows of tombstones engraved with crosses and angels and names such as Butkowski and Gwiazda and Pietrzyk. He was impelled not simply by the mystery of having seen a ghost, but by the hope that the girl he had danced with was not a ghost, that he could dance with her again on some future night. Catching no sight of Mary, he decided finally to drive to the address she had given him before they got into his car. It was a brick bungalow, on a street of nearly identical houses separated by concrete gangways a few feet wide. Only the adornments on the porches and in the yards-an American flag, a statue of the Virgin in a half bathtub-differentiated the dwellings.

Vince rang the doorbell. His eyes were red with sleeplessness, his dark beard had not been shaven for a day, and his hair had fallen loose over his forehead. The middle-aged woman who answered the door looked startled by the young caller's dishevelment. She looked even more startled when Vince asked, "Is Mary home?"

"Mary doesn't live here anymore," said the woman, who looked old enough, and enough like Mary, to be her mother. "Mary died in a car accident four years ago. Who are you?"

"I knew Mary in high school," Vince lied; it was the only plausible story for why he had been unaware of her death.

"And you didn't know?"

"I went to college downstate after I graduated," he said. That much was true: he had attended Illinois State University, in Normal. "I just moved back to Chicago."

Looking past the woman, who was still blocking the doorway, Vince spied a framed photo resting atop a piano in the front room. It was the girl he had danced with the night before: an ever-youthful face, never to age. The face of a ghost.

"I am sorry to be the one to tell you," the woman said. "Mary went out dancing with some boys she worked with at Brach's, but they never made it to the dance hall. One of the boys crashed the car into the el at Wacker and Lake. Mary was thrown through the windshield and died on the way to the hospital."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Vince said, retreating down the steps. "I'm sorry for your loss."

"If you want to visit Mary's grave," the woman added, "she's buried in Resurrection Cemetery."

Vince never returned to the Oh Henry Ballroom. Or to Resurrection Cemetery. (He had never learned Mary's last name, so he could not have located her tombstone.) In fact, he was so shaken by having danced with a ghost that he never set foot in a dance hall again. But Resurrection Mary, as the girl's ghost came to be known, continued to haunt Archer Avenue. When the big-band era ended, after the war, Mary rested quietly in her grave, because the music she had hoped to dance to on her final night among the living was no longer heard at the Oh Henry. But in the 1970s, her ghost rose again.

Mary's family, not being wealthy, had buried her in a "term grave," a rented plot that only held remains for a quarter century. By the time the term expired, all of Mary's loved ones had joined her in the cemetery, leaving no one alive to renew it. During a renovation, Mary's coffin was removed to an unmarked grave in a remote corner of the cemetery. One night, a suburban police officer received a report of a woman in a white dress walking through the grounds of Resurrection Cemetery. When he arrived at the gates, he found two bars pried apart, with scorch marks where a pair of hands would have gripped them. The following year, a couple driving down Archer Avenue saw a girl, wearing the same white dress, lying in the street. The man at the wheel swerved to avoid her, but she disappeared before his tires could make contact. In the 1990s, the owner of Chet's Melody Lounge was pulling out of the driveway when he saw a man running up the road, waving desperately.

"I need to use your phone," the man said, in a stricken voice. "I hit a woman back there, but I can't find her body."

"Was she a blond woman in a white dress?" the owner asked.

"How did you know?"

"That was Resurrection Mary. Don't worry, you didn't hit anyone; you saw a ghost."

Despite these reappearances on Archer Avenue, Mary has yet to drink her Bloody Mary at Chet's. When a ghost is roaming your neighborhood, though, you have to be ready to soothe her restless spirit.   v

Excerpted with permission from Folktales and Legends of the Middle West by Edward McClelland (Belt Publishing, 2018). Illustration by David Wilson.

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