I stated recently in my post on the skeleton driver of Old Route 40 that phantom automobiles are a rare category in the spectral spectrum. I’m here to (marginally) prove myself wrong with a couple of tales from the United States. What interests me in this category is that, while some cars are unequivocally identified as “phantom cars,” more are described in a way that is quite ambiguous: the sounds of motor and horn are heard; clouds of dust are kicked up—yet no one actually sees a vehicle. Or perhaps the car is seen, but appears luminous or travels at impossible speeds or disappears suddenly in a place with no turnings. These sound like mere misapprehensions—and how much can we trust eye-witnesses in the dark or twilight?
GHOSTLY AUTO STARTLES CITY
Georgetown Possessed of Only Phantom Machine That Has as Yet Made Its Non-Appearance on Any State.
TOOTS HORRIBLY AND RAISES CLOUDS OF DUST
Has Penchant for Suburban Roads, Along Which It Exceeds Every Precedent Established by Scorchers.
Nightly toot-tooting its eerie way through the streets of suburban Georgetown, kicking up a cloud of dust, defying every precedent set by even the most hardened “scorcher” as to speed and rapidly deriving residents to affiliation with Walter A. Hall’s spiritualist society, a phantom automobile for the past four evenings has paid ghostly visits to Seattle’s close-in suburb.
The phantom is the possessor of a horn described as an excellent imitation of the siren fog whistle of a New England lighthouse. The phantom occupants of the phantom machine are evidently of the opinion that the horn is made to use, for Georgetownians assert that life is one continual round of tooting for the ghostly machine. Along the dark roads outside Georgetown simple-minded farmer folk will hear in the distance a succession of soul-stirring toots. They will rush to their doors as the toots grow louder; there will be one ear-splitting toot in front of the house, a cloud of dust will envelop the awe-struck people and then the toots will die away in the distance. An automobile has passed but no one has seen it and the people along the roads know by this that the much-discussed phantom has passed their way.
So far as known the phantom has never passed directly through Georgetown proper. It has a penchant for suburban roads. And it is only after dusk has gathered over the head of rural Georgetown that the weird visitor toot-toots its way out of the unknown.
Tuesday evening marked the premier appearance—or non-appearance –of the ghost auto upon the Georgetown stage. Aimed steadily southward it appeared on the road leading to Renton. Its weird shriek attracted the attention of several residents. They heard the machine pass. They saw the dust—and felt it. But the machine was not visible.
Walter Gray was walking along the road. He made a quick sidestep to the ditch alongside the road when he heard the warning toot. He watched for the automobile. It tooted almost in his ear, the wind form it nearly blew off his hat, but even in the bright moonlight the machine itself was absolutely invisible.
“It’s a ghost,” said Gray yesterday. “My theory is that it is the phantom of some unfortunate automobile that one time went off the Fourth Avenue bridge in Seattle on its way back from Georgetown, was never missed and is now restlessly seeking recognition. No, I had not been at a lodge meeting before the auto went by. Others have heard it, too, so I am vindicated for having any visitors like that after I had been out late.
The theory prevails in Georgetown that the phantom automobile is of the variety known as the “Red Devil” and that it is making a strenuous effort to live up to its name. Seattle [WA] Daily Times 16 August 1908: p. 11
Walter A. Hall was the founder of the First Spiritualist Society in Seattle. I’m not sure if “Red Devil” refers to the tool/oil company and is supposed to indicate the latest, hottest machine, or if it suggests that the red devils of drink have caused hallucinations.
In this story from Massachusetts, the ghostly white car is actually seen, but seems to have the ability to bi-locate. Or possibly it is the automotive version of Spring-heeled Jack: traveling at impossible speeds. Of course, the most reasonable explanation is that it was several cars.
AUTO-GHOST IS NEW SENSATION
West Springfield Midnight Walkers Wonder at Ubiquitous White Car
West Springfield, May 18. A mysterious, ghostly automobile, which apparently travels on the wings of the wind, has been observed in different parts of the town this week, and people are wondering whence it comes and whither it goes. The machine has been observed every night since Monday and, figuring the respective hours that it has put in an appearance in Merrick, Mittineague and other parts of the town, it is difficult to estimate the motive power that would admit of so great speed.
The machine was observed last night at the hour of midnight by Maurice Connors of Bridge street, and he saw it at about the same time the night before. People in Mittineague also claim to have seen it at about the same hour, and give the same description of the machine as does Mr. Connors. The automobile is described as being of unusual length and its coloring is pure white. The lights on the machine appeared to be feeble, and all that was seen was a flash of white as the automobile whirled past. It is believed that person in this town or Springfield are attempting to create a sensation.
Springfield [MA] Daily News 18 May 1911: p. 2
We return to Ohio for a more “traditional” ghost car.
WRAITH HAUNTS DEATH STRIP
Autoists Declare They Have Seen Specter of Dead Racer.
In a phantom automobile, the ghost of Carl Brown, test driver for the B.F. Goodrich Rubber company, of Akron, races nightly along “Death Strip,” 10 miles of road between Twinsburg and Stow Corners. This is declared by various residents of Hudson, who say they have seen repeatedly the wraith of the driver who lost his life last summer dashing along this highway, which has a four-year record of a death for every mile.
Cleveland automobilists who use the Akron-Cleveland pike are on the watch for the spectre as a result of the reports from Hudson. The pavement on “Death Strip” was laid in 1911. The Washington [DC] Post 27 March 1915: p. 6
The unfortunate Brown was actually Fred C. Brown.
CAR SKIDS, TESTER KILLED
Second Member of Family to Meet Violent Death.
Akron, O., Oct. 15.
October 15, 1914 -Fred Brown, 25, car tester tor the B F Goodrich Co., was killed early this morning near Leechs Hill, four miles north of Hudson when his machine skidded on the wet pavement. The car overturned. Several ribs penetrated Brown’s lungs.
Dr. R.B. Chamberlain of Twinsburg was summoned. Brown, unconscious, died on the way to a hospital in Akron.
This is the second violent death in the Brown family within the past three months. Brown’s father-in-law, Mr. Thomas Wolf, was shot and instantly killed by Anthony Olschefski as Wolf was entering Brown’s home last August. Olschefski mistook Wolf for a burglar. The Chronicle-Telegram [Elyria, OH] 15 October 1914: p. 3
The “Death Strip” is now Rt. 91 and still straight as an arrow. Which should not be read as encouragement to go drag race on it.
Dr Beachcombing posted on Ghost Cars recently and his readers shared loads of stories from the UK and beyond, including a short version of this unusual story:
Phantom Car Blamed For An Accident
Sheriff Frank Jones of Christian County Fatally Injured Trying to Avoid Car That Did Not Exist.
Ozark, Mo. June. 20 A phantom car has been blamed for an automobile accident near here eight weeks ago in which Sheriff Frank Jones of Christian county was fatally injured. The theory was advanced after another party barely escaped an identical accident caused when the driver tried to avoid hitting a car that did not exist.
Returning one night to Ozark from Nixa, Mo., where he and his family had attended a show, Fred McCoy noticed a car which he believed was a Ford coupe, directly in front of him and travelling in the same direction, down the hill on which Jones’ accident occurred. McCoy turned out to go around the car, but when he came to where the car should have been, there was nothing there.
He returned his attention to his own car, but immediately he again saw the “coupe” in front of him, going so slowly that a crash seemed unavoidable.
Rather than risk going in the ditch, McCoy cut sharply toward the center of the road, hoping to have no more than a fender collison. Nothing happened. Stopping to investigate, McCoy found no other car than his own in sight.
McCoy and the other occupants of his car at the time are convinced that Jones ran into a ditch to avoid hitting a phantom car, whose appearance was caused by some unexplained optical illusion.
The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune [Chillicothe, MO] 20 June 1933: p. 3
Sheriff Jones’s grave marker says he died in 1933. I apparently do not have the correct newspaper databases: I cannot find a published story of his death, except variants of the ghost story above.
What sort of “optical illusion” could cause such a sighting? The story says nothing about fog or mist, which has been implicated in “Brocken Spectre”-type automobile apparitions. Thoughts? Pass carefully to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
You’ll find stories of Ohio’s “Headless Motorcyclist” in Haunted Ohio (which has a chapter on transport ghosts) and startling revelations about that tale in The Face in the Window. The chapter titled “The Spook on a Bicycle: Spirits of Road and Trail,” in The Ghost Wore Black, tells of some road and transport ghosts.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.