Mysterious Woman in Black
The Strange Appearance of the Ghost of Young Lady Each New Year’s Eve.
[Chicago Record Herald.]
In the spring of 1884 my father and mother moved into a large four-story brown stone house in a side street just west of Fifth avenue, New York. The house was similar to a thousand others that were erected at the same period, planned with a large parlor and dining room on the first floor and two large rooms and two hall bedrooms or a hall room and bath on each of the upper floors.
As I was away at school most of the time the top floor hall room was assigned to my use when home and the large front room was reserved as a sort of den and book room. The large room in the rear of the top floor was occupied by two servants, both of whom had been with the family for more than ten years.
My parents were hardly settled in the house when both servants raised objections to their rooms and wanted to change. At first they would give no reasons, but when questioned separately they told of queer noises both at night and during the day, of mysterious movements of the furniture, of whispered conversations which were perfectly audible, but could not be understood in words. Neither of the servants would enter the room alone at night, and both declared that they felt the presence of a third person there at all times, although they did not have any such feeling in any other part of the house. So at their request they were given the little hall room next to the rear chamber, and in this room were apparently free from uncanny visitations.
All of this occurred while I was away at school, so that when I came home for the Christmas holiday I knew nothing about it. In fact, it was not until after the incident I am about to relate that my father informed me of the servants’’ complaints. I had been home more than a week and had slept nightly in my little hall room, undisturbed from the hour of my retirement to the clang of the rising bell in the morning. But on New-Year’s Eve I was awakened from a sound sleep to discover that the light was burning brightly in my room, and sitting up in bed to try to ascertain why it was lighted (I had turned it out when I retired), I was amazed to discover a woman standing in the window alcove and looking out into the street. She was tall, slender, dressed entirely in black, which contrasted strangely with a mass of blonde hair dressed high on her head. She held her hands to her temples, as if to shield her eyes from the light that she might see better out into the darkness; so I could see none of her features. There was no such person as this in our household, and as I made an effort to speak and inquire who she was or what she wanted, I suddenly found myself sitting up in bed in utter darkness, the entire vision having disappeared in an instant. I jumped from bed, lighted the gas and looked about me. Everything in the room was perfectly normal and there was no evidence of any one having entered or left it. I tried to persuade myself that it was a dream—although I knew it was not—and reluctantly returned to bed, leaving the gas burning low.
Next morning at breakfast I related my experience to my father and mother, but received only ridicule in return and was accused of having eaten too much mince pie and of dissipating during the holidays &c. However, my father cautioned me very particularly not to mention the incident to either of the servants or to anyone likely to communicate it to the servants, and I never did.
On my return to school I soon forgot the incident, and the following year I returned home for the Christmas holidays and occupied the same room without a thought of my mysterious visitor in black. This season I was at home and in my room nearly every night, for, being behind in my studies at school and conditioned in my examinations, my father insisted that I should put in all my spare time on study. New Year’s Eve came, and I remained in the parlor with the family and some friends who were watching the old year out. We were holding our glasses high, drinking a toast to the new Year, when one of our guests, Miss Vickers, standing near me, asked suddenly, “Who was that?”
“Who was what?” I inquired, looking about and seeing no one near. “Why, some one just passed the door and went upstairs.”
“It must have been one of the servants,” I explained. “No,” she persisted, “it was a young woman, about 18 or 20, dressed entirely in black, with lace sleeves and a long train.” I took a woman to gather in all the details at a glance. I felt my knees knocking together, although I could not say why, but, fortunately, the conversation soon changed, and about 12:30 o’clock our guests departed. Just as they were going Miss Vickers turned to me, laughingly, and said: “You didn’t tell me who the pretty blonde is you are secreting from your friends.” “Is she pretty?” I asked. “As though you didn’t know.” “Yes,” she replied, ”I think her very pretty, and very interested in you. Now, tell me, who is she?’
“How can you judge so much when you only saw her flit past the door and up the stairs?” I inquired.
“She didn’t flit past the door. She stopped and took a good, hard look at you as you stood there clinking glasses with me and then she turned and ran lightly up stairs.” At this point Miss Vickers had to join her friends and the company departed.
I slowly climbed to my room, where, without closing the door, I sat down and lit my pipe to meditate. I now remembered that it was New Year’s Eve a year ago when this lady had appeared to me before, and although I had not seen her myself on this present occasion I felt reasonably sure that I might soon. At any rate I kept plenty of light going and decided not to go to bed. Suddenly, I don’t know whether I had fallen asleep or not, I saw a figure, as before, in the window, lace on her sleeves that Miss Vickers had described. This was no vapory ghost. It was absolutely opaque and no part of the window sash or white wainscot showed through it. Every detail was absolutely distinct. Incidentally I could feel every hair on my head bristling, the perspiration was coming out on my forehead in big drops, and though I clutched the arms of my chair tightly and was almost paralyzed with fright. I had too much pride to call out, as I knew I would receive nothing but ridicule for my pains. I finally found voice enough to ask in an ordinary tone, “Who are you and why are you here?” I think I said a lot more, though I don’t remember what, for as soon as I heard my own voice I dreaded the silence that might ensure after I ceased speaking.
I received no reply, however, but the figure began to disappear, not suddenly as before, but slowly, so that I could gradually see the muntins of the window sash through the black dress until the dress itself merged into the outside darkness of the night, and blond tresses seemed to dissolve in the light of the room. Scared as I was, I remember distinctly that the performance reminded me of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. After she had entirely disappeared I distinctly heard close to my ear a loud whisper, “Wait!” but it didn’t wait. I jumped from my chair and flew downstairs to my father’s room in record time.
The old gentleman was asleep and not at all pleased with my sudden entry, characterized my story as nonsense and ordered me back to my room. I returned reluctantly, but was troubled no further that night, nor in fact didn’t the incident repeat itself during my stay.
The following year was my last at school, and during my Christmas vacation home there was much company at our house. All of our spare rooms were occupied and the large back chamber, so shunned by our servants for three year, was given over to a girl cousin of mine from up the country near Albany. The Christmas week was a gay one, with dances and parties, and ended on the eve of the new year with a dinner dance at our house. My cousins’ room was set on that occasion as a coatroom for the gentlemen, and during the evening several of them retired there from time to time for a quiet smoke. After the last guest had departed, however, my father and I lingered in the dining room discussing the success of our entertainment.
My cousin had gone upstairs to bed. When I finally started to retire my mother informed me that she had made up a fresh bed and directed my cousin to sleep in my room that night, as the back room was so impregnated with tobacco smoke. I thought of the possibilities of the annual appearance of the woman in black and told my father of it. He looked grave, but decided as my cousin was probably in bed and asleep it would be impossible to make any excuse to awaken her. So we all finally separated to our several rooms, the large back room falling to me by virtue of the change of my cousin. However, I knew nothing of the servants’ objections to this apartment and felt only misgivings as to what might be seen by my country relation, so I cheerfully entered the room and proceeded to undress. There was a great different of arrangement between this and my own room. This apartment was large and square, had two windows facing the north and opening into the back yard. The bed extended from the wall out into the center of the room toward the fireplace, in which a coal fire was burning in the grate. To the left of the fireplace was a marble-top table with a few books on it, and between the windows was a bureau or dressing table.
Each side of this dressing table was a glass bracket, while a six-light chandelier hung in the center of the room. My own room, where my cousin now slept, was small, about seven by ten. A single window occupied one end and the bed extended lengthwise with its foot toward this window, so that in sitting upright in bed I had my first full view of the mysterious apartment.
During the night I awoke. Every jet of the chandelier was burning brightly, as well as the two wall brackets. In the farther window, posed as before, stood the mysterious figure in black, but partially screened by lace curtains that hung from each side. Her profile was toward me this time, but I could see none of her features, owing to the screening position of her hands. Strange to say, I was much less frightened than either time before, but, nevertheless, I made a desperate effort to get out of the room. As I did so I found myself suddenly in darkness, save for the feeble glow of the fire, which was nearly out. I lit the gas and seated myself in a big armchair in front of the grate, wondering how things fared with my cousin in the front room. Presently I became conscious of a creepy feeling and was possessed of an almost irresistible desire to look behind me.
This temptation I successfully withstood as I knew there was nothing there and to give way to such feelings would only increase my nerve tension. I reached for a book to distract my mind, but when I opened it I was confronted by a full page illustration of Poe’s black cat, and with a shudder I hastily threw it on the table. Then I lit a cigarette and took another book, but I couldn’t’ read. After a while I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. I awoke in the morning very little refreshed, still sitting in the chair. The gas was still burning, but as daylight was apparent I turned the light out. At breakfast I found my parents ahead of me and both remarked upon my haggard appearance. I told them my experience, but neither of them said a word. Presently as my cousin’s step was heard on the stairs, my father cautioned me not to mention the incident while she was there.
However, she had scarcely greeted us before she broke out, saying: “I had a most remarkable dream last night, or more strictly speaking, a vision, for I am sure I was wide awake. I awoke in the night to find the gaslight burning brightly, although I was sure I had turned it low before going to bed. So I started to get up and lower it, when to my surprise I discovered that the partitions between me and the rear chamber were perfectly transparent, and I could see in there plainly. Louis was sitting there undressed in the big armchair before the fire. He was smoking and reading a magazine, while behind him stood a tall woman in black looking over his shoulder.”
During this recital the cold shivers ran up and down my back, and when it was finished my heart was beating so hard one could hear it across the room. My father passed the description off as a joke, but after breakfast called me aside and for the first time discussed the matter seriously. It was then he told me of the aversion the servants had for that room. It was finally decided that the next year we would put a watch party in both rooms and hold a thorough investigation. But this never occurred, for, on account of business reverses my father gave up the house in May and moved up town.
Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 14 December 1907: p. 14
The sudden scrim-like transparency of the wall between the two rooms is an unusual detail in a story of this kind.
Like Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve was said to be a time when spirits wandered abroad and if you sat in the church porch, you would see the procession of all those who would die in the year ahead. This particular Woman in Black seems a bit more benign than the usual omen-of-death that stalked and terrified communities throughout the country. It is a pity that a thorough investigation was never held. Perhaps the WIB was the omen, not of physical death, but of the family’s business reverses. It seems a bit of overkill, like sending a banshee to announce the onset of a cold.
The Women in Black are a special study of mine; you’ll find some nastier WIB here and here. There are a number of reports of the mysterious Women in Black in The Face in the Window: Haunting Ohio Tales and in The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past. You’ll find links below.
Other, non-death-omenesque Women in Black? 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.