The Quick and the Red
In our discussion of the colors of the paranormal, can we make a case that red is the most supernatural color? We read of the Little Red Man of the Tuileries who plagued Napoleon; a “Red Lady” who betokened death at Darmstadt for Princess Alice of Hesse, daughter of Queen Victoria, and Le Nain Rouge, the malignant demon of Detroit. There are the red eyes of Mothman and Black Dogs the world over; the red lanterns of the inevitable headless conductors; the blood-red hair of some banshees; and a hideous red-coated camel who haunted the deserts of Arizona with a dead man on his back.
The color is a fashionable one for ghostly Ladies in Red who haunt theatres, campuses, and, in one memorable case, a makeshift morgue. And that’s not even touching on entities like the malevolent Scottish Red Caps or the fairies who wear red.
Red is a color of mourning in Brazil, but a lucky color in many parts of the globe.
Red a Lucky Color.
[Dr. Grace Peckham in August Home Maker.]
Red was considered very potent in warding off the evil eye. In a time of trouble, when the evil eye was especially triumphant, all the red tape in a certain country of England was bought up to ward off its baleful influence. The remains of this superstition still prevail, for many people believe that a red string around the neck is an excellent remedy for asthma, measles and mumps.
The preservation of faith in red still exists, as is shown in the great confidence which obtains in the medical virtues of red flannel and the belief that the milk of the red cow is better than that of a cow of another color. The German peasant, if he cuts himself, thinks he staunches the blood better with a red ribbon. This may be accounted for not only because of tradition, but the fact that blood would not form so startling a contrast when wetting a red ribbon as when wetting a white one.
A Southern friend tells me that the negroes make a doll of red flannel, with the five needles stuck in it crosswise, and place it inside of a child’s bed or mattress to keep off all of the disease to which children are subject. The Boston [MA] Weekly Globe 21 August 1889: p. 6
The color palette of the Seven Deadly Sins is splashed with the red of Anger and the Scarlet of Lust. And red is, of course, one of the Devil’s favorite colors. But one theme in particular stood out while investigating the paranormal aspects of the color red: a series of ghostly visions of little old women in red cloaks appearing to the living.
These appearances were apparently well-known to nineteenth-century physicians studying epilepsy and blindness.
Fallacious Perception in Psychoneuroses.—Concerning the occurrence of hallucinations in neurasthenia, opinion is still divided, but there can be no question as to their frequency in psychoneuroses. In epilepsy they are specially characteristic of the aura which precedes the attack, and though often little more than vague sense-impressions (red light in a case of Gowers’, the noise of machinery in one of Bennet’s), they not infrequently occur as fully developed hallucinations. Generally they are of a disagreeable nature. Thus Gregory [of Edinburgh] mentions the case of a patient in whom the seizure was always preceded by the apparition of a hideous old woman in a red cloak, who advanced and struck him on the head with her cane, whereupon he fell to the ground in convulsions. In another case the devil appeared in a shadowy form. Hallucinations and Illusions: A Study of the Fallacies of Perception, Edmund Parish, 1897: pp. 32-3
A very remarkable modification of this class of illusions has been communicated to me by Dr. Dewar of Stirling. It occurred in a lady who was quite blind, her eyes being also disorganized and sunk. She never walked out without seeing a little old woman with a red cloak and a crutch, who seemed to walk before her. She had no illusions when within doors. Inquiries Concerning the Intellectual Powers, and the Investigation of Truth, John Abercrombie, 1841: p. 379-80
Another sighting was related by a phrenologist about a the health of a lady disappointed in her marriage. The symptoms suggest migraine.
This disappointment, and great excitability of the heart and circulating system, are assigned as the causes of her disease, which was ushered in by excruciating headache, throbbing in the head, and confusion of thought. Before the period when she observed the puzzling appearances about to be detailed, she was tormented by frightful dreams, in all of which she was tormented by an old woman in a red cloak: That is, before the mind or other powers were so far enfeebled as to receive or for a moment give credit to false impressions in a waking condition, deviations from healthy action took place during sleep, when the mind is least able to discriminate as to the nature of the impressions imparted, and altogether incapable voluntarily to introduce or exclude particular trains of thought. The Phrenological Journal and Magazine of Moral Science, v. 14 1841: p. 78
Still another case reported by a “Professor G.” stated frankly that he had had an “illusion” of this sort before, falling seriously ill with an undisclosed illness afterwards.
From Professor G.
February 11th, 1891.
“Saw an old woman with red cloak, nursing a child in her arms. She sat on a boulder. Place: a grassy moor or upland, near Shotts in Lanarkshire. Date: over twenty years ago..Early autumn in bright sunny weather. Made several attempts to reach her, but she always vanished before I could get close up to the stone. Place far from any dwelling, and no spot where anyone could be concealed.
“[I was] walking; had been slightly troubled with insomnia—which afterwards became much worse. Age about 30.
“No one [was with me.] I hearda vague report that a woman with red cloak was sometimes seen on the moor. Can’t now remember whether I had heard of that report before I saw the figure—but think I had not. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 10, Society for Psychical Research, 1894: p. 103
A noted scholar acknowledged the illusory nature of the little old woman in the red cloak with a bit of humor. He died of an “apoplexy;” possibly some early symptoms triggered the vision.
[Richard] Porson, the famous [classical] scholar, used to have as his constant companion, a little old woman in a red cloak. She accompanied him on his daily walks abroad, and was usually with him in his study, sitting on a chair. Realizing that the apparition was a mere creation of his own brain, he was accustomed to amuse himself with it, sometimes poking his stick through it. Richmond [VA] Dispatch 6 March 1898: p. 14
But “illusions” aside, these little red riding haunts often played a sinister role.
The Little Woman in a Red Cloak
The Mystery of the Parish Prison
[From the New Orleans Bulletin, December 26.]
The Parish Prison, or rather the building once entirely occupied by the criminals of our city, is now divided in two, and the northern side has been given up to the officers of the Fourth Metropolitan Precinct for a station-house, in which to lodge prisoners before their arraignment.
Why is it that such a dread should hang about this latter portion we can not say; but so well known is this dread of criminals against being locked up there they frequently go beyond the limits of the precinct before transgressing the law.
It appears that, a number of years ago, an old woman, clad in a ragged calico dress, was locked up there, charged with being drunk and disturbing the peace. During the night she, with the strips form her dress, managed to suspend herself to the iron bars of the window until life was extinct. Since that time a pall seems to hang over the place, and it was but a short time afterwards when, in the same cell, another prisoner attempted to take his own life.
After he had been cut down and brought back to life this would be suicide stated that there had appeared to him this same old woman with the red cloak, and it was due to her persuasion that he attempted suicide. This report spread, and the superstitious people began to wink and nod, as much as saying, “I told you so.” The turnkeys knew of the dread existing about these cells, and so, to put the matter to a crucial test, when two English sailors were brought in drunk they put them in the haunted cell, in order to thoroughly put the ghost matter at rest. Singular to say the two sailors hung themselves that night, the turnkeys who were watching cut them down in time to save their lives. Since that time fully twelve persons have taken their lives in this place. In fact, so strong has the belief become, it was deemed necessary to nail up the door of No. 17, so that no more prisoners might follow the unfortunates who had seemingly followed the beckonings of the mysterious “old woman in a red cloak.”
But a few nights since a patrolman passing into the yard thought he saw a figure moving along the gallery, on which the cells open. He at once went upstairs, and although he saw a fleeting shadow, nothing was found. With the other mysterious stories about this place, it is related that some three weeks ago a prisoner, who had been locked up for fighting, suddenly made his appearance down stairs in the office, and when questioned as to how he had broken out, said that an old woman, in a red cloak, had unlocked the door, and told him to go home.
How much of all this is true we have no means of knowing; but one thing is evident, that all the officers are satisfied that any prisoner locked up in No. 17, will, before day, attempt suicide. Cincinnati [OH] Daily Times 29 December 1875: p. 4
Then there is this story–are the Fourth Precinct and the Sixth Station actually the same prison? Or was there an epidemic of old women in red cloaks in New Orleans jails?
Margaret Kearney Hangs Herself in a Cell at the Sixth Station.
Did She See the Little Woman in Red?
At a quarter past 8 o’clock last night Margaret Kearney released herself from the bars of a prison cell by hanging herself to the window with her stockings. She was what the police style an old stager, and the reporter can bear witness that their assertions are correct, for many an item has Margaret Kearney furnished for the New Orleans press.
This time Margaret was recorded for being an habitual drunkard and a constant disturber of the public peace. She was arrested at the instigation of her husband. She had no sooner been placed in the cell than she tied her stocking around the window bars and then connected the other two ends by a strong knot. After placing a box under the window she stepped upon it, and then placing her neck in the loop, kicked the box from under her feet. The fall was not sufficient to break her neck and she died of strangulation.
The turnkey of the prison made his rounds as usual, and on arriving at the cell in which Margaret was incarcerated found everything quiet, and believed that the whisky which she imbibed had put her to sleep passed on to the next cell. On his next round, to make sure that Margaret was all right, he turned the key in the heavy padlock, and the massive black door swung back on its hinges, and the next thing that his eyes fell upon was the lifeless body of Margaret Kearney, rigid in death, suspended by the neck to the bars. The corpse was immediately cut down, so that if there was a spark of life left she might be resuscitated; but, alas! it was all over with her.
Of course there is no cause that can be assigned for this woman’s rash act, except that she was tired of being imprisoned. But as the legend runs, the cell in which she was confined was many years ago known as the haunted cell of the Sixth Station. In those days a number of persons committed suicide in this cell and a number were caught in the act of self-destruction. Each one that was frustrated invariably related the oft-told tale of their predecessors, that a little woman with a red cloak, a second Red Ridinghood, appeared to them and related the beauties of the other world, and before parting with them urged them to take their lives and join her, which they invariably attempted to do. Perhaps if Margaret had not succeeded in destroying herself, she too would have repeated the story of the little woman in red. The New Orleans Daily Democrat 5 August 1879: p. 8
Margaret, who had a long criminal history of burglary and theft, had tried suicide the previous year so perhaps the little woman in the red cloak did not have to be that persuasive.
That Attempted Suicide.
Margaret Kearney, the woman who attempted to commit suicide by hanging herself with her petticoat, from the posts of her bunk in her cell in the Second Precinct Station House on Wednesday evening, and who was cut down by Officer Stanley when life was supposed to be extinct, has so far recovered that she is able to sit up and converse.
When the reporter of the Picayune saw Sergt. Galvin, of this precinct, at the fire, at 1 o’clock this morning, the woman was represented by him to be so low from the effects of the strangulation that her death was momentarily expected. Since then the unfortunate woman has so far recovered as to be declared by Dr. Beard out of danger, and by this physician’s order Margaret Kearney was conveyed to the Charity Hospital, as he considered that she would required for some time careful nursing and constant medical attention. The Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 28 March 1878: p. 2
Some interpreted the red-clad creatures as banshees:
DO YOU BELIEVE IN GHOSTS?
A Banshee that Foretold a Death
Margaret E. Sangster
Copyright, 1906, by Joseph B. Bowles
A picturesque story is told about an Irish country house. It was a great house, famous for hospitality and the hosts were never happier than when many guests were assembled under their roof. There was a wide hall at one end of which an open fireplace made the social center for young and old, particularly at the hour of five o’clock tea. Opposite this, at the other end of the hall, there was a staircase leading to a gallery into which opened the doors of various guests. One rainy afternoon when the fun was at its height, a lady observed a little figure wearing a red cloak with a hood concealing the head and face. This woman, who seemed to be young, quickly passed the groups of people, none of whom took any notice, being occupied with themselves and the story of the day.
The little figure in the red clock went upstairs, opened the door of a certain room and entered. The room was that of a very popular officer who at the moment was the gayest of the gay in the circle around the fire. At dinner that evening, the lady who had seen the visitant, being seated next her host, casually mentioned the incident and asked who it was in the neighborhood who came and went with such freedom, wearing a scarlet cloak. The host turned very pale, gave a vague reply and changed the subject. No wonder, for the visitor was no less a personage than the immemorial family banshee, who never crossed the threshold or entered any room unless to foretell the untimely death of one she singled out. This death was sure to happen during the next twelvemonth. It was as if the judge had put on the black cap. The story runs that the captain whose room the banshee selected died in battle not long afterward. The Charlotte [NC] News 14 July 1906: p. 7
This group of cases, which is by no means complete, begs the question: “Why old women in red cloaks?” (We’ve run into this kind of question before in the stories of phantom carpenters.) Are they a manifestation of Charles Bonnet Syndrome? A species of aged banshee? Norns longing for a hint of color?
By the 19th and early 20th century, a red cloak had come to be a symbol of the “quaint” 18th century, but there does not seem to be any consensus about what these ghostly women symbolized or why they continued to appear. It would be fascinating if, even today, patients with neurological problems reported being haunted by women in red cloaks.
Other red ghosts or superstitions about the color? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.