The young woman walked slowly along the shoulder of the road, loose gravel crunching under her feet. Her oversized green jacket, a gift from her brother last Christmas, was a little warm for the weather. She tried not to let it bother her, but as the day got more humid, it became harder and harder to ignore.
The skies had been a dull gray since mid-morning, and that ugly color promised rain. Sure enough, as soon as she started thinking about it, the woman felt the first few sprinkles tease her skin. She had planned to just walk the next few miles into the next town, but she didn’t want to walk in the rain, either.
Pulling her jacket collar up around her face, she made her decision. Turning, she stuck out her thumb as the next car passed by on the road. As luck would have it, the car, a blue sedan with rust holes over the wheel wells, slowed down and pulled over on the side of the road about ten feet in front of her.
Smiling, the woman slow jogged to the passenger side door and looked in.
The driver was a balding man with a thick mustache. He was middle-aged and wore a faded sweatshirt and jeans. Looking at him, the woman couldn’t help but think of her Uncle Mike.
“Where ya’ headed?” the man asked her.
“Not far. Just the next town over,” she replied.
“I’m passing right through there. Hop in!” The man gestured to the door.
The rain began to pick up as the she lifted the door handle and stepped inside the car.
Similar situations were played out over and over again all throughout America for most of the 20th century. For years, trains had been the king of long-distance transportation. But as they started to become more common and roads improved, automobiles began to replace trains as the preferred way for Americans to travel and move goods.
During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, many people had little to no money. They couldn’t afford to pay for a train ticket. Granted, they could run the risk and sneak onto an empty car, but that was illegal. Many people didn’t think that the risk was worth going to jail or getting beat up by the railroad dicks or be arrested. Or both.
Instead, people began getting rides in cars and trucks travelling from place to place. It wasn’t against the law, and they felt mostly comfortable doing it. For years, individuals had regularly found themselves put into train cars seated next to a group of strangers and thought nothing of it.
Hitchhiking quickly became a common practice. It was so common that the federal government even opened a Transient Bureau for the purpose of assisting hoboes and hitchhikers. By 1936, the Bureau was operating about 300 centers around America.
Even Hollywood showed that hitchhiking was a perfectly normal, safe way to travel in such films as The Grapes of Wrath and It Happened One Night. It seemed like everyone was hitchhiking, and few were even giving it a second thought.
Until the stories started. Stories about people that seemed friendly when they picked you up, but became entirely different once that door was shut and you were headed down the road with them, trapped in their car. People talked about stories they had heard about hitchhikers being robbed, raped, or even murdered.
At first it was just a few stories here and there, easily ignored. Soon enough, however, the trickle of stories became a flood, and people started to become increasingly wary about hitchhiking. Still, people kept doing it, just maybe not as many as there had been.
Gasoline and rubber rationing during World War II helped keep the practice popular. Even if people did have their own cars, they didn’t have the gas to waste on frivolous trips, or they might not be able to get repairs if they broke down or blew out a tire.
It was especially popular with soldiers. Returning home from the service, soldiers were often dropped off at an army or navy base far from home, and had to find their own way back. For them, hitchhiking must have been kind of a godsend. As far as dealing with potentially dangerous drivers, many of them had just come back from combat in Europe or the Pacific, and had already been living with the reality of having people wanting to kill them.
Although people still hitchhiked, it started to become less common over the next few decades. More and more people began to buy cars of their own, especially in the 1960’s. With their own car, they didn’t need to rely on other people to get around as much anymore. Better roads allowed much faster speeds, especially the new interstate system that had been run in the mid-1950’s. It was now easier than ever for paranoid drivers to speed past hitchhikers.
It was also during this time that law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, began a campaign discouraging people from the practice. Laws were already in place along the interstates preventing people from walking along the shoulder of the road. Although this was probably mainly for safety reasons, it also effectively prevented hitchhiking along the nation’s interstates.
In some states, laws were passed that prohibited hitchhiking along any highways, and some states banned the practice altogether. The idea that a driver or hitchhiker being a potential murderer, rapist, or thief that had been around since the 1930’s began to be emphasized to a generation that was spending an increasing amount of time on the road.
By the 1970’s, people were aware of the potential dangers, but kept doing it. Many of them were young and loved the sense of adventure. Not only that, there were several who couldn’t afford their weekly groceries, let alone their own car. But that wasn’t going to stop them from getting around.
They wanted to see the country and the wider world. You just had to be careful doing it, and where didn’t you have to be careful? Just like their hitchhiking counterparts through the 1930’s and 1940’s, they weren’t going to let their economic and geographical circumstances hold them back from what they wanted to do.
Mary K. Schlais was one of them.
Mary was an extremely intelligent, beautiful young woman. She spoke three languages – Dutch, German, and English – fluently, and had just started to learn Japanese. Mary graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota in 1973 and had started working toward her masters degree.
She loved to travel and see new places, and had been all over the United States. Mary had even had the chance to tour Europe. Most of that had been done hitchhiking.
While there can be little doubt she had heard stories of strange or slightly sketchy people on the road, Mary had seemingly never had any truly bad run-ins with anyone. Overall, it must have been a positive experience for her. More than likely Mary, like many experienced hitchhikers, probably even had a few stories of her own.
When she wanted to take a trip to Chicago to attend an art show in early 1974, Mary didn’t hesitate. She planned to hitchhike to Madison, Wisconsin, and then make her way down to Chicago from there. On the morning of February 15, 1974, Mary Schlais said goodbye to her roommate in Minneapolis and set out for Illinois. She never arrived.
Later that day, a man named Dennis Anderson was just coming home from doing some shopping near his home in Dunn County, Wisconsin. He and his dog were enjoying the ride, so Anderson decided to just keep driving around.
Eventually, he found himself driving down a dead-end road. As Anderson drove along, he noticed a gold-colored compact car parked alongside the road. Nearby, there were two men fighting.
Anderson kept driving, but the more he thought about it, the more it bothered him. There was something very wrong about what he had just seen. Slowing the car, he turned around and drove back to where he had seen the two.
By the time he reached the spot, the car was gone. However, Anderson saw that there was someone lying in the ditch. Thinking that they might be hurt, Anderson sped back toward home.
Once there, he dropped off his dog and told his wife what he had seen. Enlisting the aid of a neighbor, a man named Dan Murphy, the two headed back out to help the person in the ditch.
When they arrived, they found the prone body of a young woman. It was fairly obvious that she was dead, and it looked like she had died violently. Anderson and Murphy went to a nearby home and called the sheriff’s department.
When law enforcement arrived, they immediately began to investigate what was very plainly a murder.
Finding tire tracks from what they presumed to be the killer’s car, they took photographs and measurements of the tire tread. Although they tried to take a plaster mold of them, the freshly-fallen snow hampered the process, and the molds were nearly unusable.
A black and orange stocking cap was found nearby that contained several hairs. Mary’s coat and purse were missing. Beyond that, there wasn’t much of note for investigators to follow up on.
An autopsy of Mary’s body revealed that she had been stabbed 15 times in her neck, back, and stomach by a thin-bladed knife. She also bore the evidence of a brutal beating. Her nose had been broken and she had several bruises all over her body and face.
In spite of having been so badly attacked, Mary had also put up a tremendous fight, as evidenced by several cuts on her hands. She had scratched her killer in the fight, and blood and skin samples were removed from under her fingernails and preserved.
Mary’s body was returned to her family and buried in Minnesota.
Police followed up every lead and suspect that they possibly could. The hair samples found at the scene were compared to twelve or more suspects as the investigation wore on. Unfortunately, none of them matched.
No matter how hard they tried, investigators hit on nothing that helped them find Mary’s killer. Eventually, the leads played out, and the case went cold.
The police never let the case rest over the years, and, if some people are to be believed, Mary’s spirit didn’t rest, either. Over the years, many locals in Dunn County reported seeing strange things in the area near where Mary’s body was found.
Some individuals have claimed that they’ve seen a young woman with long, brown hair walking alongside the road where Mary was found. She looks as solid and real as anyone, but when they glance away and look back, the woman is nowhere to be seen.
Some say that they see the same woman hitchhiking in the area, trying to catch a ride. She, too, is said to vanish when someone looks away.
In one instance, two fishermen were sitting close to the Elk Lake Dam nearby. They sat in silence, keeping things quiet so as not to disturb the fish. One man, tired of staring at the water, turned his head to look behind him.
Calmly, he looked back at the water and told his companion that there was a woman standing close behind them. She was, quite literally, glowing. The other man nodded, never taking his eyes off the lake.
“I know,” he replied. “But I’m not turning around.”
In 1994, twenty years after the death of Mary Schlais, an elderly woman named Virginia Hendircks began to tell a very strange story.
She claimed that everyday a young blond woman would come and visit her in her garden. The visitor always wore the same thing – capri pants and a pink sweater. She said her name was Mary.
Virginia told people about the visitor, but no one else could see her. Sadly, she was suffering from dementia, and it was assumed that the young woman was simply a hallucination.
One day, Virginia’s daughter found out about the unsolved murder of Mary Schlais and immediately thought of her mother’s visitor. As compelling as the story was, however, Mary died wearing denim slacks and a maroon sweater.
Does the ghost of Mary Schlais still walk the area where she met her untimely end? Is her spirit restless knowing that her murder was never solved? Perhaps.
Whether or not her ghost wanders the area around Elk Lake Dam is debatable. That she still haunts the hearts and minds of the residents of Dunn County is indisputable.
Craig Koser, lead investigator for Dunn County for several years, never gave up hope on finding Mary’s killer, even after forty years. He kept a photograph of Mary on his desk as a reminder that her case was unsolved, and that justice had not yet been served.
Hitchhiking in America has long since fallen out of vogue. Still, it hasn’t died out completely. Some young people do it as a kind of social experiment, a continuous expression of trust in the goodwill of their fellow human beings. Many others though, still refuse to do it.
They seem to feel that trust is something that’s earned. Their paranoia is most likely a combination of being told to never get into a car with a stranger and to never allow a complete stranger into your car. While they might admit that most people are okay, all it takes is one bad apple to ruin your day.
For Mary Schlais, her belief in people’s goodwill was mostly well rewarded, until one bad ride with the wrong person ended her life.
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Ganzel, Bill. Wessels Living History Farm. www.livinghistoryfarm.org, 2003
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Osberg, Molly. The End of the Open Road: The Inside Story of How Hitchhiking Died. www.talkingpointsmemo.com, May 11, 2015
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Car used in slaying may have been found. Leader-Telegram, Feb. 19, 1974
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Elk Lake Dam, Wisconsin. Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State, 09/29/2012