The first known appearance of the ghost at Stow Lake was reported in the January 6, 1908 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, right on the front page.
“Park Ghost Holds Up Automobile Party,” read the headline. The story that followed recounted a peculiar incident in which a group of visitors driving through Golden Gate Park encountered a glowing spirit wearing a “luminous white robe.”
According to their account, one of the passengers noticed the strange sight first: a tall, ethereal woman standing in the middle of the road, barefoot and holding out her arms toward the automobile.
The passengers screamed, and the driver, a man named Arthur Pigeon, floored it, speeding away from the phantom as quickly as he could. Eventually, they were pulled over by police, who noted at the time that Pigeon and his passengers were “wide-eyed and shaking with terror.”
Pigeon tried to explain their hastiness, boiling it down to a simple statement: “We were held up by a ghost!”
Today, that ghost has a name: The White Lady of Stow Lake.
A Tragic Origin
The story of the White Lady may sound familiar, as it’s a variation of one that seems to pop up often in urban legends:
One day, a mother was out for a walk in the park near Stow Lake, pushing her baby along in a carriage. Eventually, she decided to relax for a bit, and sat down at a nearby bench. Not long after, another woman joined her (some say she was a friend, others a stranger). They began talking, and the mother became distracted, and didn’t see the baby carriage as it slowly rolled down into the lake’s water.
Some time later, after the mother finished speaking with the other woman, she looked to the carriage — only to find it, and her baby, missing.
For the rest of that day, she wandered the park, asking anyone and everyone if they knew what happened. Finding no answers, she eventually returned to the lake, and it was there, again, that the cruel truth dawned on her. She swam out into the water, looking for her baby, and seemingly faded from existence. No trace of her or the baby remained.
Ever since, they say the mother — wearing a white robe, hair flowing in an otherworldly breeze — can be seen wandering the park at night, still searching for her missing baby. Her ghost may approach unsuspecting park goers and ask them that same unanswered question, “Have you seen my baby?” One variation of the legend states that if you answer “Yes,” she will haunt you forever. If you answer “No,” she will kill you outright.
In fact, some say you can summon the ghost at Stow Lake by visiting in the dark of night and calling for the White Lady three times. But, of course, I wouldn’t recommend summoning an angry ghost, and certainly not near a large body of water.
In many ways, the story of the White Lady is similar to that of Kuchisake-onna, in that she will appear and ask you a question and your answer will determine your fate. And like La Llorona, she seems doomed to wander between this side and the next, searching for her child. Like I said, similar to a number of urban legends. But is that all it is?
Modern Sightings & Paranormal Activity
How true is the story of the White Lady? The San Francisco Gate notes that, around the time of the White Lady’s alleged origin, Golden Gate Park was known for a number of dramatic suicides.
An incident in 1906 in particular may have led to the legend: A newspaper report mentioned that the body of a drowned baby had been found floating in a pond near Stow Lake, but it’s unclear whether or not this was actually true. Either way, it’s easy to see how such a tale could lead to the creation of an urban myth. Or to a haunting.
After all, there’s more to the White Lady than old stories. Numerous sightings of ghostly and paranormal activity have been reported at Golden Gate Park, and especially near Stow Lake. People have claimed to see the figure of a woman dressed in white hovering near the water. Electrical disturbances, particularly in regards to cars, seem to be common. One individual reported seeing a glowing blue light near the lake.
The official Golden Gate Park website mentions this strange tale and the alleged paranormal activity that still occurs there to this day. “Reports say,” they write, “if you drive there with your friends in a group of cars, all the cars will stall at the same time.”
One retelling of the White Lady legend curiously proposes that the other woman seated at the park bench was herself a ghost — a mischievous spirit who deliberately distracted the mother so she would lose her child, and in the end become a wandering ghost, herself.
But what makes a ghost?
In many cases, it seems traumatic events and terrible accidents, such as with this story, lead to spirits lingering long after the world has moved on. Are they residual hauntings, or confused or vengeful spirits purposely staying behind to haunt the living, out of spite or frustration? Why does the White Lady of Stow Lake continue to wander Golden Gate Park, searching for her missing child?
If you ever find yourself at Stow Lake, maybe you can ask her.