Possible Basis for the Story of Lydia, the Jamestown Ghost?

Since Halloween is approaching, I thought it would be a good time to share something I found a few years ago which just might be the basis for Guilford County’s best-known ghost story, that of “Lydia.”

I well remember reading Nancy Robert’s book An Illustrated Guide to Ghosts & Mysterious Occurrences in the Old North State when I was a little boy, and being fascinated by the story of the “lovely apparition” of a girl dressed in white who occasionally appears to passers-by near the old Highway 70 underpass at Jamestown.

According to Roberts, the story goes back to 1923 when poor Lydia was killed in an automobile accident near that underpass on her way home from a dance in Raleigh.  In later years, travelers on the highway on occasion reported being flagged down at that spot by a young girl looking for a ride home.  But by the time they arrived at her destination, she had vanished.  That, at least, is the story.

There’s always been a lot of interest in the Lydia legend, and a few years ago, since I had an approximate date from the Roberts book, I decided to scan the microfilm of some of our old newspapers to see if I could find anything to support it.

And what I did find was an article on the death of a young man from Asheboro named Harvey Yow, who was killed on his way back from a dance in Carthage in the early morning hours of 29 December 1923.  Two of Yow’s companions were also injured — one, named Robert Bunch, had a serious skull fracture. 

Here I quote from the Greensboro Daily News of 2 January 1924, which described both his funeral and the accident:

The occasion was one of peculiar sadness because the young man met his death in an automobile accident.  He, with two other Asheboro boys, was returning from Carthage where he had visited friends while his companions attended a dance.  In attempting to pass a car Harvey Yow lost control of his car and it went in the ditch.  In attempting to pull it back into the road the car swerved to the other ditch, turning over four times and instantly killing young Yow.    

Yow and the other young men seem to have been of considerable prominence in Asheboro, and they also had Guilford County connections — Yow and Bunch, for example, having both attended Oak Ridge Military Academy.

Of course, the story of Yow’s death only matches a few of the particulars of the Lydia story.  However, local legends often have some basis in fact only to become garbled over time, and if we can resist taking the Lydia story too literally and at the same time keep an open mind, I think the Yow tragedy can at least be offered as a plausible explanation.   

I know I’m not the first person to try to find some evidence for the Lydia story.  For example, one of my colleagues told me that folks have searched Greensboro Public Library’s microfilm for her before.

And a so-called ghost hunter has claimed to have turned up a death certificate in recent years.  According to this website on the Lydia story, Guilford County records include a death certificate for a Lydia Jane M___, who died on 31 December 1923 (or possibly the 23rd) owing to “fatal injuries from a motoring accident.”  My own ancestry.com (available in the library only) search does indeed turn up a Lydia Jane McCarthy who passed away in Guilford on 31 December 1923, but she was 76 and succumbed to heart disease at her residence in the Scott Apartments in Greensboro. 

Anyway, if you’re interested in the story of Lydia and want to conduct your own search, come on down to Greensboro Public Library.  In addition to Nancy Roberts’ book, we’ve got local newspapers on microfilm as well as a vertical file on local ghost stories — all of which can aid your research.


One Response

  1. Another book in the library collection is Haunted Historic Greensboro by Theresa Bane, published in 2009. This includes the tale about Lydia, and the author includes a copy of the death certificate of Mrs. Lydia J. Fields, whom she calls “the only Lydia in the entire Piedmont Triad area who died as a result of an automobile accident in the 1920s.” She notes that the facts of Mrs. Fields’ death do not match the Lydia story.

    As North Carolina Librarian, I have told North Carolina folktales to many groups, including both children and adults, and this story is always a favorite. Usually someone in the audience tells about a friend or relative who saw Lydia.

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