Stranger than Fiction

Hair-Raising Local Lore

No doubt about it. Washington folks have plenty of strange stories to share. The kind that cultivate goose bumps and run chills down your spine. The kind of stories you sort of don’t want to hear, but can’t quit listening to. Stories, real or not, that are terrifying to think about late at night, even though you’re now an adult. And unfortunately, Washington also is home to some of the most notorious real-life murderers in American history. You can quit reading now. Or can you?

Mima Mounds

The landscape at the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve near Littlerock looks extraterrestrial (and it might be). This Thurston County prairie is quilted with hundreds of 4-to-6-foot mounds bursting under the earth, and a convenient walking path for up-close examination. Scientists still bicker about the original cause of the mounds: Pocket gophers? Seismic activity? Shrinking and swelling of clay? Glaciations? Some scientists recently blamed the mounds on vegetation spatial patterning.

The “Hand That Rocks the Cradle”

The 1992 thriller was shot right in our backyard. Filming locations included Issaquah, Seattle, and Tacoma.

fictionGalloping Gertie

In 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed into the Puget Sound. Today, the remains of the bridge have created an artificial reef protected by the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s teeming with wildlife, include the giant Pacific octopus — which has taken on a life of its own. Read more here.

The Grave of Willie Keil

The gravesite of young Willie Keil boasts a history that can only be described only as Faulkneresque. The 19-year-old man died just days before his family was to set out for Oregon, from Missouri. Fulfilling a promise he had made his son, Willie’s father, Wilhelm, placed the boy’s body in a lead-lined coffin filled with whisky and put it on a transcontinental hearse at the head of their caravan. Willie was laid to rest some months later when the group finally reached Washington, and his grave can be visited in Willie Keil’s Grave State Park off Washington’s Highway 6, about 3 miles outside of Raymond on a lonely hillside.

D.B. Cooper

On Nov. 24, 1971, a Boeing 727 flying from Portland to Seattle was hijacked by a man known only by the name on his ticket: Dan Cooper. Cooper received $200,000 in ransom for the lives of the passengers on the flight, then parachuted into the stormy Northwest night, never to be seen again. The investigation into Cooper’s identity and whereabouts, as well as the location of the ransom money, is still ongoing.

Thornewood Estate

This sprawling estate in Lakewood has been featured in a few different films, and has an odd history unto itself. Thornewood was built by Mr. Chester Thorne, one of the founders of the Port of Tacoma, for his wife, Anna. The estate was completed in four years (1907-11), made from an Elizabethan manor Mr. Thorne had shipped, brick by brick, from England to Lakewood. The castle was featured as a set for the Stephen King film Red Rose, and the exterior of the estate can be seen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood. It’s a popular place for ghost hunters as well — and is said to be haunted.


Perhaps the Northwest’s most enduring legend, Bigfoot has been seen more times in Washington than anywhere else in the world, according to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. With more than 605 sightings statewide, Bigfoot has been seen most frequently in Pierce County: 69 times. The reports span from as early as 1967, to as recently as March 2014. So, on your next trip to Mount Rainier, keep your eyes peeled for a Sasquatch.

Green River Killer

In 2001, Gary Ridgway, now infamously known as the Green River Killer, confessed to murdering 71 women in the ’80s and ’90s. He acquired his nickname when his first five victims were found near the Green River, which flows through Auburn, Kent, and Tukwila. Ridgway pleaded guilty to 48 counts of aggravated first-degree murder, and was sentenced to 48 consecutive life sentences by a King County judge in 2003. Ridgway is considered the most prolific serial killer in American history.

cresetnLake Crescent

There is a dark history lurking in the colorful waters of Lake Crescent. The second-deepest lake in Washington — with depths in excess of 1,000 feet — is notoriously reluctant to release its victims. In 1929, a couple disappeared while driving near Lake Crescent — in 2002, the couple’s 1927 Chevy was found more than 160 feet beneath the lake’s surface. In 1940, the body of Hallie Illingsworth, a Port Angeles waitress, settled on the surface of Lake Crescent. Illingsworth had disappeared in 1937, her corpse weighted down and sunken in the lake’s deep center. When her body surfaced, her skin had taken on an ivory soap-like appearance. The minerals of the lake, mixed with the fats in Illingsworth’s body, had turned her skin into a jelly that could be scooped away from the bone in handfuls. This bizarre reaction, a process called “saponification,” captured local and national intrigue. The woman became known as “The Lady of the Lake.”

Mount Rainier UFO

The first modern-era UFO sighting occurred right here in Washington. In 1947, Kenneth Arnold, a respected local businessman and experienced pilot, was flying from Chehalis to Yakima when he saw a group of nine flying objects he did not recognize. Performing tests from his aircraft, Arnold estimated the objects to be greater than 100 feet in length, and moving at a rate of more than 1,700 mph. There were at least 16 other UFO sightings reported in the Washington area the same day as Arnold’s experience, and there’s still no definitive explanation for what he saw that day. Arnold’s description of the objects provided the media with the term “flying saucer,” and is one of the most reliable UFO accounts to date.

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What is your favorite local mystery — real, silly, or unproven? 


Illustrations by Alex Schloer

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