It was a few weeks before Christmas, 1980. Outside the sleepy town of Byron, Illinois, the massive cooling towers of the nearby nuclear power plant were still under construction. Kim Anderson turned down Kennedy Hill Road and headed for home after attending church early Sunday morning. Snow drifted across the country road and ice glistened on the barren fields. As her driveway neared, her mind wandered to thoughts of getting inside and cooking a hot breakfast.
Without warning, she noticed a young woman around the same age walking down the road toward her driveway. The woman had long, blonde hair, and strangely, wore a pair of light colored shorts. Kim pulled her car into her driveway and ran into the house. She threw open the curtains on the front room window to see if the woman was going to come up the driveway. She didn’t. Instead, she continued walking toward Byron. Kim didn’t think much of the encounter after that, until she began to hear the rumors.
Between mid-December and early January, dozens reported seeing a young woman in various stages of dress walking down Kennedy Hill Road. By January 20, 1981, the sightings had reached a fevered pitch. Wild reports circulated around Ogle County, and motorists parked their cars in the frigid temperatures along the narrow rural road to catch a glimpse of what became known as “The Phantom Lady of Kennedy Hill Road.” Newspaper reports reached as far away as Chicago, and the Rockford Register Star ran five consecutive articles on the sightings.
Kim Anderson was one of the first to spot the scantily-clad woman, but other reports soon followed. Register Star correspondent Diane Moats diligently collected dozens of eyewitness accounts from what she described as “credible” regular folks, “not the kind you’d think would make up something like this.” Years after the sightings, she told Bill Rowe of Rockford Magazine, “Each of them claimed to have seen the woman walking alongside the road. By the time they stopped to see if she was OK, she had disappeared.” The woman was always described as being inappropriately dressed for the weather, and occasionally barefoot.
While many encounters with “the phantom” seemed down to earth, many more crossed the line from reality to fiction. At least 20 individuals with whom Diane spoke fell back on a familiar folklore motif; that of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. They told the reporter that they each knew someone who picked up the young woman and drove her home, only to find out upon arrival and after speaking with her mother that she had died years earlier. In all instances, the mysterious hitchhiker vanished from his or her car when they arrived at their destination.
While those particular encounters were obviously driven by hearsay and wild speculation, the majority of sightings were simple and straightforward. Many of the passing motorists were genuinely concerned for the young woman and turned their car around to ask her if she needed help, but she was then nowhere to be seen. For all, it was too incredible to believe. What would a living, breathing person be doing walking along the roadside in the dead of winter, and how could she just disappear? “Usually if you meet someone just walking along the road, there’s a car out of commission somewhere, but there was no car on the road whatsoever,” a waitress and eyewitness named Betty Lingel told the Register Star. “I thought it was kind of goofy, just walking down the road like that. It was cold, below zero.”
Dave Trenholm and his friend Guy Harrigan were driving down Kennedy Hill Road the night of January 2, just goofing off and talking about the day’s events. Suddenly, a spritely young woman about 5 feet 7 inches tall jumped out of the brush along the side of the road and began jogging south. Incredibly, she appeared to be barefoot and dressed only in black panties and a black scarf. “I almost wrecked my car trying to stop,” Dave told reporter Diane Moats. “I thought maybe someone was in trouble and then maybe it was a gag, because it appeared to me that she jumped the fence and it must be five feet.”
If it was someone’s idea of a joke, the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department, along with some local residents, were not amused. People began to drive out to Kennedy Hill Road, sometimes bumper to bumper, hoping to see the woman. In their attempt to stay warm during the vigil, they left behind a trail of empty beer cans and candy wrappers. Sheriff’s deputies patrolled the road, arrested a few people who were blocking driveways, but found no sign of a wandering woman, clothed or otherwise. “In the last three weeks we have only received three or four calls and we’ve investigated,” Lt. James Drymiller of the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department told the local newspaper, the Northern Ogle Tempo.In a letter to the editor, Dave “Sick of the Phantom” Osadjan complained, “When you live on a four-mile-long country road, a road that is populated by 15 or 16 families, the last thing that you expect is a major traffic jam… if you are planning on going ‘ghost hunting’ in the near future, be forewarned. The police will be on duty in the area.” In the latter half of January, rumors began to circulate in Byron High School that the phantom had been run over by a sheriff’s patrol car. The patrolman inside allegedly heard the crunch of bones, but saw no body when he got out to investigate. The story was “preposterous,” Lt. Drymiller told the Register Star.
On the morning of Friday January 16, a man named Steve McQuewlin, claiming to be a psychic and parapsychologist for “Sonnet Corp.” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, called into WYFE Radio during the Dick Bascom show and told the disk jockey his firm was sending him to Rockford to investigate the phantom sightings. That night, McQuewlin and Bascom met the editor of the Ogle County Life and a reporter from the Register Star in Byron and headed out to Kennedy Hill.
None of them saw the phantom, but after they went home empty handed, the Register Star reporter called Milwaukee to investigate McQuewlin’s credentials. It turned out that no one in Milwaukee had ever heard of McQuewlin, Sonnet Corp., or the man he said was his boss. The Register Star confronted McQuewlin, and he admitted the whole thing had been a hoax. “I didn’t want anyone to get hurt,” he explained to Diane Moats. “You guys (the media) are making so light of the situation, I wanted to see if I could stop anyone from getting hurt.”
Explanations for the phantom were as diverse and as strange as the situation warranted. One of the most popular theories among local teenagers was that the phantom lady was the ghost of a woman who was buried in a nearby cemetery that had been plowed over. She now prowled the road, searching for her grave. Another explanation, put forward by Mary Elson of the Chicago Tribune, was that the lady was a mentally disabled girl who had gone missing from her home in Oregon, Illinois around the same time the sightings began. “She reportedly had been seen in Rockford, but had disappeared before police arrived,” the Tribune reported. But the Kennedy Hill Phantom had been seen at various times between December 10 and January 15. How could the missing girl have survived outside on her own for that long?
A third and final theory, even more bizarre than all the rest, was that the phantom lady wasn’t a lady at all. A Rockford man named Ken Rogers told Diane Moats that a friend and he had offered a ride to the “phantom” the day after Christmas. “She said ‘No’ and when we asked her if she was sure, she said ‘yeah,’” he recalled. “My friend said it looked like she was a he, had a very rough voice and was the ugliest person he had ever seen.” Years later, Ms. Moats revealed that she had received threatening phone calls from a transvestite who claimed to be the one causing the disturbance. “His girlfriend had been killed in a skiing accident and after she died this guy took on the persona of the dead woman by dressing in woman’s clothes and running around outside,” she explained to Bill Rowe. The man moved away in January, right around the time the sightings of the phantom stopped.
The Phantom of Kennedy Hill Road was never seen again. A decade after the last sighting, Dale Kaczmarek and Howard Heim of the Chicago Ghost Research Society traveled out to Byron to investigate the story. They took pictures of the road and interviewed eyewitnesses, but found nothing. After so much time, the trail had gone cold. “I wanted to see the terrain for myself and examine possible hiding places and rule out the possibility of optical illusions,” Kaczmarek wrote in his book Windy City Ghosts.
The Phantom Lady of Kennedy Hill Road proves that folklore is continually being created. An event does not have to take place in the distant past to constitute a legend. It can have a very modern setting and even be caused by a few unusual, but very real encounters that are repeated and distorted until they take on a life of their own. The phantom may have vanished forever, but her story will live on as one of the strangest chapters in the folk history of Ogle County.
Bill Rowe, “Was Byron’s Barefoot Phantom Merely a Masquerade?” Rockford Magazine 11 (Fall 1996): 24-25.
Register Star (Rockford) 20 January 1981.
Register Star (Rockford) 15 January 1981.
Register Star (Rockford) 16 January 1981.
Northern Ogle Tempo (Byron) 21 January 1981.
Northern Ogle Tempo (Byron) 28 January 1981.
Register Star (Rockford) 17 January 1981.
Register Star (Rockford) 18 January 1981.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 22 January 1981.
Register Star (Rockford) 16 May 1992.
Dale Kaczmarek, Windy City Ghosts: An Essential Guide to the Haunted History of Chicago (Oak Lawn: Ghost Research Society Press, 2005).