As an aficionado of Victorian mourning attire, I find The Women in Black utterly fascinating; so much so that I’ve devoted chapters in The Face in the Window and The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past, and several blog posts to these Mistresses of the Dark. The Women in Black, briefly, were mysterious entities, clothed in widow’s weeds, primarily haunting villages and small towns from the mid-1860s up to about 1920. They usually wore the veil of the Victorian widow and melted uncannily into darkness when challenged. Sometimes they stalked; sometimes they attacked; often they were regarded as omens of disaster. And they invariably caused panic.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK.
A Black-Robed Specter Holding Sway Over a Haunted District
Eight Valiant Policemen Succumb to the Apparition
A Spectre Dressed in Deep Black
Holds Undisputed Sway Over
The Squares Contiguous to
The Intersection of
“’Tis strange, ‘tis passing strange.”
[New Orleans Picayune]
For the past three weeks the people living within three blocks of the intersection of Rampart and Calliope Streets have been terrified at night by an apparition which appears upon the thoroughfares. Pedestrians are suddenly aware of an unearthly presence, their hair rises unaided by the hand of Lo, and their whole being is possessed of terror. There seems to be something supernatural about this terror. Persons who have never heard of this dread object have, when confronted by it, experienced this same deadly, sickening fear, this fear which creeps over a man’s whole being, and renders him speechless and innate. Little children, residing in the neighborhood, when asked concerning the “woman in black,” the name by which this being is known, tremble and their faces blanch. A story is told by them which would harrow the souls of those many years their senior. Older people, those whose minds are matured, and who well know how to draw the line between simple superstition and the truly supernatural, give accounts more connected and more marvelous. From them we glean our information.
It appears that about three weeks ago people who were obliged to be out late at night began to meet at about the intersection of these two streets a strange object—a woman, white, with a face pinched and haggard, her eyes having a dull, death-like stare, her head bare of any covering, and her person
DRAPED IN BLACK GARMENTS.
One more bold than the others, after meeting her for three successive nights, assayed to speak. The object stopped, slowly turned and looked directly in the eyes of the audacious individuals. That one look was enough. “It seemed to me,” he says, “as though a blinding light met my eyes. My hair stood on end. I could feel my very flesh creep. When I recovered my sight I looked in every direction for the woman, but she was gone.”
A few nights afterward, about 1 A.M., two young men connected with a livery establishment on Rampart Street were going to their homes. They were walking on the banquette and were talking earnestly. They had not proceeded far when they were
CONFRONTED BY THIS APPARITION.
It walked up to them directly, passing between them, each involuntarily stepping aside, and continued on toward the livery. The two young men watched her progress. They saw her pass on toward the stable, and as she came immediately in front, turn and go in. Running back to the stable the young men closed the gates. They had now an opportunity to investigate and discover whether this was a human or wraith. There was no possible chance for the supposed ghost to escape except by dissolution. The young men obtained their lanterns, lighted them, and proceeded to search for this producer of trepidation and weak knees. The young men even went so far as to thrust pitchforks into the loose hay, hoping thereby to induce concealed persons, if any, to make known their presence. The search was fruitless, however. The “woman in black” could not be found. She had vanished utterly and completely, yet she was seen distinctly to enter this stable, and there was no way possible for her to have departed in human form.
On another occasion one young man attempted to enter his own gate, when he was confronted by this weird subject. He tried to induce the lady to move from her position and let him pass, but it was not possible. He requested her to step aside. The black thing only moved its head negatively. He advanced closer, intending to gently push her away. He raised his hand and was about to place the being to one side, when his
ARM DROPPED POWERLESS.
The feeling, he says, was not unlike the shock given by a galvanic battery when strongly and suddenly applied. He naturally “wilted,” in so far as a human being is capable of that action, and left the gate in the undisputed possession of her Satanic Majesty. His manner of leaving was the double-quick. His speed had become so accelerated that on meeting two friends of his he collided with them. Their inquiries led him to state the circumstances. The three repaired to the gate, but it was unguarded. The ghost had disappeared.
On All-Hallow Eve, which everyone knows is devoted exclusively to the trying of spells for foretelling one’s future, matrimonially and otherwise, and at which time the supernatural is in the ascendant, this ghostly visitant made things very lively for the residents of the section in question.
Three gentlemen on that evening were returning to their homes, when at the corner of Melpomene and Rampart Streets, this “woman in black” was espied. The gentlemen had been visiting friends and were greatly “exhilarated.” This, naturally, had the effect of making them all courageous. The subject of the spectre had been their theme and each had vowed his perfect willingness to sift the affair thoroughly, and, if possible, find the real truth of the matter. They had now an excellent chance to put their valor to the test, and, nowise dismayed they did so. The woman was standing on the banquette, at the corner, directly within the rays of the gas light, and also in the path of the gentlemen. They advanced to within a foot of her and the leader, despite her spectral and now
TRULY HORRIBLE APPEARANCE,
Asked her the question, “Who are you?” She waved her arm in a repellent way and slowly stepped backward. They could see now plainly the dread outlines, the every feature of this spirit; the long, bony arm over which hung a black mantle, waving them backward-the long, dishevelled hair—the eyes which seemed to them to flash fire. All was plainly visible and will remain stamped forever on their minds. Every step backward brought her nearer to the gutter. They were spell-bound. Their courage had oozed, and they were incapable of motion. The fumes of their bacchanalian visit had by this time departed from the brain of each, and they saw the being to their minds. At last the final step was taken which plunged her into the gutter. There was very little water there at the time, yet the gentlemen saw a great splash and heard distinctly
FOUR DEEP, DISTRESSING GROANS.
They rushed to the spot. Every feeling of humanity within them was aroused, and they were bent upon giving aid to the poor creature. They stooped and looked where she had fallen. Then each at the same time raised his head and looked at his companion in amazement and terror, and well might they do so, for the woman was nowhere to be seen. In the full light of the gas jet she had vanished. Four gentlemen occupied the same room that night.
That same night a friend of the writer was awakened by a tremendous ring from the door bell. He quickly proceeded to the door and there saw what at first caused him to laugh heartily—a friend living three doors away, clad in his unmentionables, a shivering, truly laughable object.
“Let me in. Quick, for Heaven’s sake!” was the appeal. He was admitted, and in a lighted room, before a brightly blazing coal fire, he told his experience. “Sleeping soundly,’ says he “I was suddenly awakened by a cold touch upon my face. I was no means frightened then: I only thought it the result of imagination. I lay quietly, but soon felt that some one beside myself was in the room. You have no doubt experienced the same feeling. At times you are aware that some one is near you, and turn finding yourself not mistaken. This you will admit is a well-known psychological fact. I was positive that some one was in my room. I began to feel terrified; a vague feeling of awe came over me, and not without cause, for something was just then
DRAGGED ACROSS MY FACE.
It felt like cloth, like a heavy shawl. I was now fully aroused, but terribly frightened. My fright was increased seeming balls of fire in one corner of the room. I was desperate. I sprang for the matches and struck one. It was one of the so-called “parlor matches” and burned up immediately. I saw in the corner what now made me fairly quake—“the woman in black” crouching and staring. She rose up, came toward me. I felt myself coming under her influence. I felt that if that happened I was gone. I made a wild dash for the door, opened it, fairly jumped the stairs, out of the front door, and here I am. I am sure that was no human being. It was a spirit and a devilish one. There was no opportunity for one in the flesh to enter my room unknown to me. I had securely bolted and locked my door before going to bed.”
Such was his version of the occurrence, and it seemed almost necessary to believe him. He is a young man highly respectable, truthful and strictly temperate.
No less than eight disciples of the baton have declined to serve longer on that beat. They cannot endure the cold sweats and trepidation brought on by this black-mantled spirit. One, or, at the best, two encounters with this specimen of demonology suffices for them. Their overcoats are far from thick enough to exclude the shivers. They allege, as their reason for refusing to serve, their inability to cope with the
POWERS OF DARKNESS.
The corporals do not care now to see whether their patrolmen are doing their duty in that haunted neighborhood. The reverberating sound of that baton is heard on the banquette, but several squares from the ghostly quarter. Alas, for the courage of would-be promoters of the public peace!
All these experiences, except in the case of the three ‘exhilarated’ gentlemen, were had by those who were in no way under the influence of the ardent, but in their natural, sober senses. There is no opportunity here to charge these persons with excited imaginations brought on by alcohol, as has been done in former cases.
It seems strange that the experiences of these different people should so accord as to the real case. Can the “woman in black” be one of the Macbethian witches seeking her two sisters?
Portsmouth [OH] Times 15 December 1877: p. 1
While this Woman in Black is unusual in that she does not wear the customary widow’s veil, she still terrifies the public and manages to always disappear without being caught. There is a tinge of levity, perhaps a whistling-by-the-churchyard bravado, in this piece. The Women in Black were linked elsewhere to mine disasters as well as epidemics and other disasters. Like silent banshees, they came to be seen as harbingers of doom. You will note the date. In the spring of 1878 one of the deadliest yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans history broke out, killing some 5,000 people.
Other examples of Women in Black as Omen? E-mail only, please. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. I do not want to find you crouching in a corner of my room when I strike a light.
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.