The White Lady of Stow Lake

October 22, 2019
Ghosts

Have you been to Golden Gate Park? It’s full of giant trees and mist and plants that look like they came out of Jurassic Park. 


It’s best at sunset and in the early evening. It’s even better when you get lost jogging and it gets dark because it’s now daylight savings time AND YOU FORGOT and it’s before the time of Google Maps so you call your Eagle Scout husband and ask him what to do and he tells you to navigate using the position of the moon which COME ON, so instead you ask some homeless guys how to get out. Don’t trust people who tell you the park isn’t safe - it’s mostly fine. Those guys were cool and I lived. 

The sheer size of it is crazy, and there are probably a ton of creepy spots in this enormous greenspace. The most famous one, though, is the White Lady of Stow Lake. Which might actually be La Llorona of Golden Gate Park, but we’ll get to that.

The Park has several lakes and ponds, but Stow Lake is one of the biggest. It’s a beautiful human-made lake (if you’re from somewhere with actual lakes this is a giant pond). It has a boathouse, you can rent little paddle boats and feed ducks and enjoy the coldest fucking weather this side of Hell. Seriously, it’s idyllic but bring your fleece. 

A pagoda sits at the edge of Stow Lake, surrounded by trees. There are tall grasses at the water's edge that obsure the bottom of the pagoda.
A pagoda on Stow Lake

Stow Lake is rumored to be haunted by a ghost known as the White Lady. She’s so famous that the actual city-run Park website has an info page about her. According to stories, the White Lady is the ghost of a woman whose baby drowned in the lake. She brought the baby in a carriage to the park, and sat down to chat with a friend. While she was distracted, the stroller rolled into the lake and the baby drowned. Now the White Lady haunts the lake, looking for her dead baby.

Can we just hold up a minute? This is the most implausible fucking story I’ve ever heard. First of all, this happened a long time ago and we are supposed to believe that a PRAM or some shit was able to four-wheel over the grass and rocks and roll on into the lake, unimpeded? It didn’t tip over or get stuck? AND NO ONE NOTICED?! NEITHER WOMAN noticed a stroller cruising by fast enough to go all the way into the water (SECOND POINT: IS THERE NO MUD IN THIS LAKE) and submerge and it’s gone? Also good to know that mom-shaming goes back to the 1800’s. Nice work, society. 

Katie Dowd at San Francisco Chronicle did an *awesome* deep dive into this story a couple of years ago. Definitely read her piece, but here’s the summary:  the first recorded sighting was in 1908. The closest reference she could find to a drowned baby was a report of floating child, one that was investigated by police and turned up nothing. She also discovered that Golden Gate Park was a popular place to commit suicide at the turn of the century, which reminds me in a very chilling way of Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, but much smaller and IN THE MIDDLE OF A CITY. Shudder. These scary stories may have combined over time to become the tale of the White Lady of Stow Lake. 

Now, do you know the Mexican legend of La Llorona? Because our White Lady sounds pretty derivative of this famous ghost.  In Mexico, and some parts of Central and South America, children are told to beware La Llorona:  a ghostly wailing woman who is eternally searching for her dead children. There are different flavors of the story, but in most, her husband or lover leaves her and she kills her two children in a blind fury. She is overcome with grief and drowns herself. Her ghost is known to wail and cry “Aye, mis hijos!” as she searches for her dead children. 

I asked some Mexican and Mexican American friends about this story, and Andrea gave me THE BEST description of La Llorona. Seriously, I just stopped Googling after I read this shit: 

“She looks like a drowned person and she is semi decomposed. Her dress is white, all ragged and floaty. She has black long hair, wears a veil so you can’t see her face very well. But you can see her blue, bony hands with long fingernails that will grab your feet!!!”

She told me that adults told children to go to bed early, lest they awake and find La Llorona coming to get them - which is A+ parenting in my book, and makes my outbursts about death truths to seem extremely mild. 

Our White Lady of Stow Lake and La Llorona sound similar, right? To recap, both are: 

  • Mothers
  • Wearing White
  • Looking for children
  • Killed/responsible for their children’s death
  • Involving water 
  • Full of disturbing tropes about women’s vanity and incompetence and singular role as mothers and society’s worst fears about a woman who acts out in violence against men’s bullshit SORRY WHAT WERE WE TALKING ABOUT
Two ducks float on Stow Lake. The sun is low on the horizon and highlights the water under the ducks. The lake edge is ringed in trees and grasses. The image has a blue tinted overlay.
Fact: ducks are impervious to ghosts

It’s not surprising that the White Lady story borrows from La Llorona- we’re sitting on what used to be Mexican territory, colonized by the Spanish, and now populated by many descendants of Mexico, Central, and South America. Latinx culture is prominent in San Francisco and California in general, and the state is full of La Llorona sightings. The story is OLD,  too  - with roots going back to Aztec goddesses. It’s had a lot of time to percolate. 

Many people believe that the La Llorona story is based on the life of La Malinche, a complicated person in Mexican history.  La Malinche was an indigenous woman that was born the daughter of an Aztec leader, but was captured into slavery and eventually sold to Hernan Cortes, the Spanish military leader who began the conquest of Mexico. La Malinche was smart and good at languages, and she served as his translator and advisor. For this, she has been pilloried by history as a traitor. She also bore several children by Cortes, though there is no evidence that she harmed them (I’m not going to call her a concubine or a mistress - I doubt she had any choice in this arrangement). You can see how La Malinche is a tempting figure to connect to La Llorona:  she betrayed her people, so she’s turned into a murderer and punished in the afterlife. It gives the story a different type of moral arc. 

In fact, different versions of the La Llorona story that don’t involve La Malinche also feature colonialism and racism in starring rolesLa Llorona is sometimes cast as an indigenous woman who is in love with a Spanish man that abandons her and their mixed-race children for a Spanish wife. A class component creeps into the story, too:  La Llorona is a poor but beautiful village girl, and her lover is Spanish gentry. These stories reflect cultural and class anxieties, but also tell a pretty fucking old tale of indigenous and poor women abused by men with power, and the complicated rage and guilt that those women and the generations of children they bore may feel. 

My friend Nene told me that in her family’s small town in Jalisco, La Llorona is a real person. She’s a mentally ill woman who has pulled all of her hair out and lives in poverty. She has been severely abused in her life  and runs through the desert crying “Mis hijos, mis hijos!” This poor woman is not a ghost sent to scare kids to bed, she a living cautionary tale of what violence does to break people. Which is so much more terrifying than a ghost story.


Court

Ghostess with the Mostess

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