The final chapter in my just-released book The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past tells of a little-known 19th-century panic over those mistresses of the dark, The Women in Black. They were the female equivalent of Spring-heeled Jack, without the flames and (sometimes) the leaping, and they terrified communities across the United States from roughly 1865 to 1915. This story illustrates some of the features of a WIB: clothed in widow’s weeds, unusually tall, sometimes skeletally thin, seen outdoors at night, does not speak (the hissing is a particularly dire touch), bullet-proof, and evasive. As is often the case, a “solution” (i.e. “boyish prank”) is bruited by the locals. There is also the obligatory speculation as to whether the WIB is a man or a lunatic.
WOMAN IN BLACK
RHINEBECK IN TERROR OF A WOMAN IN BLACK
She Is over Six Feet Tall, Preternaturally Slender, Goes Abroad Only of Dark Nights and Hisses at Those She Meets
MANY HAVE FLED FROM HER
Abundant Testimony by Well Known People to Prove the Appearances, but So Far No One Has Dared to Investigate.
ONE SHOT FIRED AT HER
Rhinebeck, N.Y., Dec. 30, 1892. You have heard the story as Irving tells it of the headless horseman who spread consternation through Sleepy Hollow. This is a story of a mysterious woman in black who is exciting as much fear among the people of this peaceful village, sixty miles further up the beautiful valley, as did Irving’s ghost.
It is the story of a strange creature who glides noiselessly along the country roads at dead of night. She has never been known to address anybody although she has met many. Her language is the language of signs. She invariably halts long enough to stretch out her long arm from beneath a black veil and make a hissing noise. She might say more if any one hesitated long enough to give her the chance, but nobody has tarried as yet. This strange apparition is described by those who have seen it as a thin woman, at least six feet four inches tall, with a slight stoop and a long stride.
HER FIRST APPEARANCE.
The woman in black, as the apparition is known, first made her appearance in Rhinebeck about six weeks ago. She had been parading the streets of the villages just north of Poughkeepsie for several nights prior to that time, and the people of Rhinebeck thought she was a myth. John Judson, who lives in Chestnut Street, was the first to behold her here. As he was going home late one night he heard a noise in Walter W. Shell’s front yard. He looked around and was started to see a tall black object standing perfectly still. Judson hurried home and arrived there in a cold sweat. The next day the news was all over Rhinebeck. The women and children shivered and the men laughed, but that same night as David Ackert, one of the best known business men in the village, was going home, he met the black robed object in Main Street. Ackert is six feet tall himself, and he says he had to look up at the woman.
She shrank from him with a hissing sound, he declares and he passed on without saying a word or again looking around.
Davis Ackert’s word is as good as an affidavit in Rhinebeck. “I wasn’t scared, boys,” he said to a group of listeners the next day, “but I felt a shivering sensation, for she was so tall and slim and piratical looking.” The four village constables—Bill Sleight, John Hebb, George Wheeler and Murray Dederick—and Night Watchman Seneca Taladay heard Ackert’s story and vowed to capture the creature that very night. But the woman discreetly kept off the highways and was not seen the following night either.
Thomas Sinclair was the next reliable person to encounter the strange woman. He met her on the outskirts of the village about ten o’clock at night. She was pacing in the middle of the road with her head bent low and her long arms clasped behind her. He merely took one look.
Next James Traster met the mysterious creature in a side street about ten o’clock one night. He did not stop and speak to her because, as he says, he didn’t think of it until after she had disappeared. He is a tinsmith, and one of Rhinebeck’s most reliable citizens.
Things have been running along in this way ever since. No one has taken advantage of his opportunity to address the woman, and no one, so far as I can learn, has deliberately set about an investigation.
WHAT A WOMAN DID.
The first woman to see the black apparition was Miss Florence Welch, the pretty young teacher at Miller’s school a mile and a half from here. Miss Welch dismissed her scholars at four o’clock on last Thursday and then went to call on Mrs. Herman Asher, who lives on a farm nearby. She remained there until shortly after five o’clock, when she started to walk home. It was about dusk as she passed her school house and she glanced through the window.
There sat the woman in black on one of the benches. Miss Welch remembered distinctly that she had locked the school house door. She did not stop to see if it had been opened, but ran for her life. She is sure she was not laboring under a delusion.
Nathaniel Post, who works for Frank Kern, went to Rhinecliff on Saturday evening to meet Mrs. Kern. In the flats, while they were driving home, the woman in black suddenly sprang into the middle of the road. Post pulled up the horse and asked Mrs. Kern to hold the reins while he jumped out to fathom the mystery. Mrs. Kern was too frightened to give her consent and the woman scaled the fence and started across the meadow.
Charlie Martin, who carries the mail on the eastern post route from Rhinebeck, met the woman in almost the same place on the following night.
A SHOT AT A SHADOW.
Robert Shriver, the village blacksmith, who had been spending last Saturday evening with friends in Rhinecliff, started for Rhinebeck at ten o’clock. In the outskirts of the village he saw a tall black object standing beside the roadway. He didn’t stop to give warning, but drawing his pistol fired three shots at it. It was the woman in black and she ran across the meadows.
The next day was Sunday, and the villagers had a good chance to discuss the subject of the intruder. Several of them decided to ask ex-Constable Gus Quick to go to work on the case. He hesitated and still hesitates, but he told me to-night that he “guessed” he would take up the matter and if he did he would soon get to the bottom of it. “I won’t stand any monkey business,” he said. “I’ve got my suspicions. Of course they are merely suppositions and are based on what I think, but when it comes to a thing of this kind I usually think pretty near right. Now, I have thought that this woman in black was no woman at all. I had an idea that she was a boy got up to frighten people. We have several boys in this village who are just about her height.
“I cross-questioned ‘em pretty closely and I thought I had hit the nail on the head, but darn if one of the villagers didn’t come in just then and shout she’s been seen out more than ten minutes ago on the river road.’ Of course my suspicious persons had proved an alibi without saying a word.”
Every resident of Rhinebeck is perfectly satisfied that the woman in black is a reality, but not one of them can think of who she can be. There is nobody near here who answers the description of the mysterious creature and there is no family that harbors a crazy person. The nearest asylum is at Poughkeepsie, sixteen miles away, and no lunatic has escaped from that institution. To add to the mystery the strange creature is never seen abroad in the daylight and no one has stumbled upon her in any hiding place.
New York Herald 31 December 1892: p. 3
Any Women in Black—historic or current–in your neighbourhood? Give me a hiss at chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. I’m pondering a book on the creatures and would appreciate any stories you might have. The Ghost Wore Black is available in book form from this link, at your local Barnes & Noble (ask your other bookstores to order it), and from online retailers. It is also available for Kindle.
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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.