by Sarah A. Peterson-Camacho
“Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is…
“In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.”
–Sylvia Plath, “Mirror” (1961)
“…and mind you flee the shrieking Witch of the Sanger River Bottom for fear she carry you off into the eerie fog to the cursed badlands beyond the blood-soaked river…”
—Woody Laughnan, The Fresno Bee, Monday, Oct. 31, 1977, p. 5.
Threading the digital byways of paranormal blogs and websites, ghostly urban legends spring up with surprising regularity. And for every alleged supernatural encounter, there is a Woman in White—or a Vanishing Hitchhiker. These legends linger and mingle in the comments of anonymous storytellers around a virtual campfire, blurring the boundaries of fact and fiction, life and death. They become almost universal in their scope, spanning regions and generations. They connect and overlap with one another, evolving with each and every retelling. And the legend of “La Llorona” is just such a tale…Grief is an abyss that one can easily drown in, dark and bottomless.
And nowhere is this concept more potent (or poignant) than in the Mexican folktale of “La Llorona,” or “The Weeping Woman,” in which a young, jilted mother drowns her own children to spite their philandering father. She, then, drowns herself out of guilt, only to be cursed to wander the waterfront for all eternity, searching in vain for her lost little ones.
Dating back to sixteenth-century Mexico, versions of this tragic tale proliferate across California and the American Southwest. And while individual details may change with each variation, some of the legend’s core elements remain a constant: the water, the wailing, and the woman in white.
As the weather warms up all across the West, people flock outdoors to bodies of water, large and small, for a popular summer pastime: swimming. And every year, drowning becomes an all-too-common feature on the nightly news prompting a seasonal awareness of water safety protocols that seek to save lives before they are lost. But beating the heat can all too quickly devolve into a fight for survival, as seventeen-year-old Phyllis Hendricks found out the afternoon of Monday, June 26, 1922.
Having just finished her junior year at Hanford Union High School, Hendricks joined a party of teens, including her best friend and two of her younger brothers, on a trip to the Cole Slough branch of the Kings River. She had just learned to swim, and waded out into the shallows to put her newfound aquatic skills to the test. But before anyone could warn her or reach her, a deadly current had sucked the girl under, pulling her downstream as she screamed for help. But it was too late.
In the agonizing days that followed, her family and friends joined local authorities in a desperate search for any sign of the missing teenager, employing professional divers to comb the swift-moving waters of the Kings. In the end, however, while out in a rowboat on the morning of Sunday, July 2, it was a pair of the girl’s classmates who discovered her lifeless form caught by an overhanging branch about a mile downstream from where she’d gone under. “The body was in a fair state of preservation, considering the fact that it had been submerged in the cold waters of the river for more than five days” (“River Gives Up Remains,” 1922).The funeral of Phyllis Hendricks was held the next day, exactly a week since she had disappeared beneath the surface of the Kings River. Six of her schoolmates served as pallbearers. And in a final twist of irony, Hendricks’ short story “Into the Depths” appeared posthumously in the 1922 Hanford Union High yearbook, the last line being—“There was a flash of red—like a drop of blood—high in the air, and into the depths sank a priceless stone.” (Hendricks, 1922).
The Hendricks tragedy carried with it echoes of another Kings River drowning eight years previous, in the summer of 1914: that of Wahtoke schoolteacher Inez Jayne, twenty-one, whose body would never be found. That year would prove deadly for those braving the waters of the nearby San Joaquin River as well. By July of 1914, the San Joaquin had claimed the lives of ten, including that of Mrs. Martha Chapman, fifty, who leapt to a watery grave after tying an iron wagon wheel around her neck.Like a pair of blue-green veins threading California’s Central Valley, the Kings and the San Joaquin Rivers run parallel through Madera, Fresno, Kings, and Tulare Counties and branching off in a spidery network of creeks, tributaries, canals, and streams. And with as many drownings as each has witness even in the last hundred years, it is no wonder the sister rivers have found themselves teeming with tales of restless souls caught up in their currents.
One spirit in particular is better known than most: La Llorona of the Kings and the San Joaquin Rivers, also known as the Woman in White. Like two sides of the same coin, both rivers share her legend, but each with its own incarnation of the weeping wraith. The La Llorona lore surrounding the Kings is dominated by a Woman in White narrative involving Channel Road (also known as “Snake Road” for its winding curves) south of Sanger.
“Legend has it that one night a woman was driving down Snake Road with her two young daughters, when she took one of the many curves of the road too fast, drove off the road, and wound up crashing her car into the nearby Kings River.
“Unfortunately, she was unable to unbuckle her seatbelt and drowned at the site of the accident; her children were able to get free of the car, but drowned a mile downstream. There have been reports of a woman crying and dressed in white walking down the windy road, calling out to her lost children—and if anyone approaches her, she asks them if they have seen her children” (Price, 2009).
Also known as the Sanger River Road Witch, this apparition’s tragic backstory has been circulating, in one form or another, since at least the mid-twentieth century.
“The first time I heard the story of Snake Road and the woman in white was in the early 1960’s…when I was six years old, my oldest brother (who was sixteen) went down to the river bottom with two of our cousins to shoot snakes. (The river bottom is the area of Kings River closest to Sanger and Snake Road.)
“The boys came running in that night, white as ghosts, saying they saw a woman wearing white, calling for her children on the river. They were visibly shaken.” (clf626, 2018).
Reports of unearthly screams and foggy apparitions mingle with classic urban legend anecdotes of a vanishing female hitchhiker and of phantom handprints appearing on the steamed-up windows of parked cars, only noticed when the vehicle’s heavy-breathing occupants come up for air. But when it comes to the parallel San Joaquin, the river lore grows much darker, and more ancient.
In a Halloween 1977 account in The Fresno Bee, courtesy of local historian and folklorist Woodrow “Woody” Laughnan (1924-2010), “a woman long ago lost her children in the fog,” and as the “Sanger River Bottom Witch”, she has been looking for them ever since.” (Laughnan, 1977). She is said to come hurtling out of the dense fog, jumping on to the hoods of passing cars, pointing the way through the mist. But should you ever stop for her, Laughnan cautions, she just might steal your children right out of your vehicle.
And then there is perhaps La Llorona’s most chilling incarnation of all.
“A long time ago, before the first settlers came, a stranded woman is said to have cut the throats of her sick, hungry, cold, and starving children, and buried them in a shallow grave beside the creek. A heavy rainstorm swept the creek that night, washing away the bodies, and the woman returns, sobbing and shrieking on every wind-driven rain, panic-stricken because she cannot find the graves of her young ones” (Laughnan, 1977).
Sometimes the scariest stories aren’t the ones penned by famous horror scribes, nor the ones splashing blood across the silver screen. Sometimes, the most shiver-inducing tales are those haunting the digital backwaters of anonymous posts on paranormal blogs, as in this encounter described by an unnamed gentleman in a 2013 post to Michael Price’s Weird Fresno.
“Following up the [San Joaquin] river on the Madera side, back in 1980, I was there fishing for catfish with several friends…our lanterns ran out of gas early, and this fog bank rolled in on us. The frogs were not croaking, the crickets stopped chirping; it was a dead silence…
“Around 2 a.m., we were on an island out in the middle of the river. The fog would occasionally break enough where we could see the other side. We all looked and heard a voice, a woman’s voice. It was saying, ‘help me, I can’t find them’…
“My friend said, ‘Look,’ pointed, and there was this person—similar to what fog looked like, but lighter in density, floating on top of the water. While the fog was rolling downriver, [she] was moving upriver, against the current…
“My friend yelled, ‘Llorona, it’s the river witch,’ and for us to get away from the water…screaming at us. I looked again; the person-thing floating on the water looked at us. It looked like a really old woman, like an old Native woman; she had this headscarf over her head partially.
“Anyways, we left our rods in the water and walked up to our friend…and he told us the story of the river witch…that early morning, we decided to stay to daybreak, and cross when it was daylight” (Anonymous, 2013).
So who is La Llorona? Is she the spirit of Phyllis Hendricks, seventeen, who drowned a century ago in the rushing currents of the Kings?
Or the ghost of Mrs. Martha Chapman, a middle-aged widow in failing health, who tied an iron wagon wheel around her neck before hurling herself into the midnight waters of the San Joaquin?
Or is she a wraith much older—and much more grief-stricken—than any of us can ever imagine?
Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, New Delhi, Auckland: HarperPerennial, 2008.
Laughnan, Woody. “Strange but True.” The Fresno Bee, Monday, Oct. 31, 1977, p. 5.
Price, Michael. “The Legend of Snake Road.” Weird Fresno, Thursday, July 16, 2009. https://www.weirdfresno.com/2009/07/legend-of-snake-road.html
Clf626. Feb. 21, 2018. “I was born and raised 3 miles from Snake Road…” “The Legend of Snake Road.” Weird Fresno. https://www.weirdfresno.com/2009/07/legend-of-snake-road.html
“Popular Young Girl Drowned in Kings River.” The Hanford Morning Journal, Tuesday, June 27, 1922, p. 1.
“River Still Holds Young Girl’s Body.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Wednesday, June 28, 1922, p. 10.
“Divers Search for Victim of River.” The Hanford Sentinel, Friday, June 30, 1922, p. 1.
“River Gives Up Remains of Victim.” The Hanford Sentinel, Monday, July 3, 1922, p. 1.
“Last Rites for Young Student are Conducted.” The Hanford Morning Journal, Tuesday, July 4, 1922, p. 8.
Hendricks, Phyllis E. “Into the Depths.” Hanford Union High School, The Janus, 1922.
“Girl Meets Death in Waters of Kings.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Wednesday, July 8, 1914, p. 14.
“Miss Jayne’s Body Remains in River.” The Tulare Advance-Register, Monday, Aug. 10, 1914, p. 3.
“Ties Weight on Neck; Suicides.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Saturday, July 11, 1914, p. 3
“Ten Drownings is Record Since Jan. 1.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Friday, July 17, 1914, p. 4.
Anonymous. Feb. 8, 2013. “The river witch by the Herndon Bridge…” “The Legend of Snake Road.” Weird Fresno. https://www.weirdfresno.com/2009/07/legend-of-snake-road.html