As someone who has been wearing mourning for the victims of the Black Death since 1972, I am an admirer of that classic supernatural entity The Woman in Black. She has a long and distinguished history: The Erinyes, the avenging Greek goddesses of the netherworld wore the long, black robes of mourners. Black-clad Celtic battle furies and prophetesses were described by Tacitus. Victorian murdereresses and the Vamps of the ‘20s seduced in black satin. Banshees, witches, the Grim Reaper, Black Widows: all wear darkness.
For several decades between 1870 and 1910, ghostly female figures in mourning clothes and veils caused panic wherever they appeared. Like the contagious UFO flaps of the 1960s, as soon as one town had a ghost scare, othersreported similar apparitions.
There are common motifs in the Women in Black panics: the creatures almost always appear out of doors. They move noiselessly and disappear quickly. They are often described as tall and skeletal. They are usually heavily veiled.
I have collected a number of reports on WIB from around the country, and included a chapter called “Death in Black Silk” in The Face in the Window: Haunting Ohio Tales. (WIB panics from other parts of the country will be covered in the upcoming The Ghost Wore Black.)
In the course of this research I found a series of articles about Massillon Ohio’s Woman in Black panic. This is Part One; Part Two will appear on Thursday. The excitement began in the summer of 1895. We pick up the thread in September.
Charles Richter is the latest victim of the Plum Street ghost. As Mr. Richter was returning home on Sunday evening at a rather late hour, he was rudely awakened from a reverie into which he had fallen by the sudden approach of a figure in black with an unusually small head, and which insisted on walking by his side. Mr. Richter saw that the only thing to do was to run, and he did so, never stopping until he was safely quartered beneath the paternal roof. In the future Mr. Richter will return home at an earlier hour, and will choose some other route than Plum Street. The Independent [Massillon, OH] 5 September 1895: p. 5
A WOMAN IN BLACK.
CAREFUL OBSERVERS RELATE THE EXACT FACTS
IS IT A GENUINE GHOST?
The Problem One That is Answered in Different Ways by Peter Ertle and James Myers, Jr.
The Latter Presents Expert Testimony
Some little time ago Peter Ertle stood on the corner of Prospect and Plum Streets conversing in low but impassioned tones with a young woman who listened with an eagerness that did not prevent her from taking mental note of a woman in black, who appeared with mincing steps and hovered near as though to listen. The first impulse of the couple thus rudely approached was one of indignation, but a second glance evoked curiosity, as it showed that the creature wore garments belonging to quite another generation and its head seemed ridiculously small, no larger than Peter Ertle’s manly fist. When the interest shifted and the young people began to scrutinize the strange apparition, the latter gathered up its skirts and floated rather than walked in the direction of Cedar Street. Mr. Ertle and his companion followed, somewhat gingerly, it must be confessed, and after following it through the labyrinths of Kendal town returned again to their corner and resumed the thread of their purely personal discussion.
And then something strange occurred. Although they so stood that every avenue of approach was under their eyes, they became conscious all at once of a presence close at hand, and turning, discovered to their amazement this same woman, man or spirit, grinning and listening as before. Again it fled and again it strangely disappeared. Mr. Ertle submits the opinion that this woman in black is a sure-enough woman, afflicted with some malady of the head, which causes her to roam the streets at night.
But Peter Ertle and that particular young woman no longer carry on conversations in low and impassioned tones at the corner of Prospect Street and Plum.
Also it is worthy of note that James Myers, Jr., scouts at the theory which has been advanced and makes bold to claim that it is a ghost of the orthodox variety. The opinion of Mr. Myers is entitled to respect. Ghostly experiences run in his family. Years ago his wife’s grandmother’s sister was bequeathed a brick house and a plat of land in which was buried a pot of gold. The condition was imposed that only the beneficiary might dig for the gold, on pain of a manifestation of the displeasure of the testatrix. Now, Mr. Myers’ wife’s grandmother’s sister was a frail woman, and fatigued with digging, she called to her aid her brother-in-law. Immediately the spade was jerked from the brother-in-law’s hand and a huge ball of fire bowled in their direction, whereupon the sister of Mr. Myers’ wife’s grandmother was terror stricken and the pot of gold is still in the ground.
This is a digression, but it proves Mr. Myers’ right to speak with authority. Besides, Mr. Myers is janitor at the Massillon Club, which is directly opposite the point where Peter Ertle saw the woman in black and for three years he asserts that he has seen this same apparition at irregular intervals and has looked upon its face. It seems to set forth in its ghostly rambles from William Yost’s barn which is connected with Plum Street, between Prospect and East. Mr. Myers declares that its head is no larger than a big pippin, and its face is seamed and the expression set as if some deep seated anguish had fixed itself upon the countenance. Mr Myers has often chased the black spirit, but it has always baffled him. He does not despair of ultimate success, however, and sooner or later believes that he will be able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the most skeptical that there are such things as ghosts. The Independent [Massillon, OH] 12 September 1895: p. 4
The reports, which were picked up by other papers, all emphasize the ghost’s tiny head and how the ghost would suddenly appear, grinning, and disappear.
There are two other, minor motifs in many ghost panics: armed citizens go in search of the spook and someone thinks it would be good fun to impersonate the ghost, just to add some ambiguity to the proceedings. As we find in the following story:
A HARROWING SCENE.
When Henry Ryder Shot the Ghost.
A True Tale of Real Blood.
Impersonators of the Prospect Street Woman in Black Come to Grief Saturday Night—
Frank Webb Wounded at the Hands of a Friend.
Henry Ryder shot a ghost consisting of Frank Webb and William Conrad Saturday night, and after carefully throwing away his revolver, went home and fainted. One of the ghosts walked without delay to a surgeon’s office, where a ball was extracted from his arm, and the other put himself to bed. The effect of this misadventure has been to dampen the ardour of the ghost hunters who have been haunting Prospect Street and vicinity, and cause them to cling more steadfastly to the columns of The Independent for their information about the supernatural. Another effect has been to induce parents to inquire more closely of callow offspring whether they carry fire-arms upon their persons, a practice by the way, that is more general than is commonly supposed, and a third effect has been to point anew the unpleasant consequences that are certain to overtake the practical joker.
Ever since the publication of the story about the mysterious “woman in black,” first seen by Peter Ertle, and endorsed as a genuine ghost by James Myers, Jr., on the strength of the experience of his wife’s grandmother’s sister-in-law, throngs of people have patrolled Prospect and Plum Streets, hoping to see and capture the wild weird thing. Saturday night a large party of ghost hunters set forth, and among them young Henry Ryder, of East Street. Thereupon Frank Webb, who lives on the corner of Main and East Streets, and William Conrad, who lives farther down on Main, thought it would be great fun to frighten the girls by personating the unhappy spirit.
To help their enterprise through, they told several of the boys of their intentions. Then they secured black cloth, and with Master Conrad mounted on Master Webb’s shoulders, the two being well draped, a splendid imitation of a real ghost was produced.
The ghost hunters were stationed in Plum Street, between High and Cedar Streets, when the spook appeared, waving its long arms like the witch of Endor. Although prepared for an imitation ghost, Henry Ryder’s each several hairs stood on end when he saw this creature, and surmising that not the imitation ghost but the real thing was bearing down upon him, he bravely pulled his 32 calibre revolver and began to shoot. He never stopped shooting until he had emptied his weapon, and then turned and fled.
The ghost had not counted on such a warm reception, and although it did not cry out it was badly frightened. It uncoupled itself at once, and Master Conrad, who had felt the sting of a passing ball, sat down on the green sward and removed one shoe to determine whether his wound would prove fatal or not. It was a sad scene, and many tears were shed. Master Webb being of a practical bent of mind, immediately began to assist in the inspection of his comrade. No wounds were found upon him. In a moment the tingle of pain in Master Webb’s arm told him that he had been winged, and so it proved. One ball had lodged in his forearm, and it was extracted a few minutes later. He spent Sunday in close retirement.
While all this was going on friends of the late ghost were after Henry Ryder, who was overtaken and given the tidings. He was filled with remorse, and throwing his weapon from him with all his strength he returned to the battlefield, where he tendered all sorts of apologies, all of which were accepted. After that, as before told, he went home and fainted.
There was no more ghost hunting on Saturday night. It might be stated, as many have jumped at another conclusion, that the boys who were shot at are not the “woman in black,” and masqueraded as such for the first time in the manner here described. They will not do so again. Massillon [OH] Independent 12 September 1895:p. 4
On the same page in the Massillon Independent where the article above appeared was this stern editorial:
While it is unwise in these piping times of peace, for real or imitation ghosts to go stalking forth, they undoubtedly have the right to parade the streets, if they so desire, as long as they refrain from committing deeds of a disorderly character or of violence. It does not appear that the “woman in black” has misbehaved herself very seriously, and there is therefore no urgent necessity on the part of anybody to shoot promiscuously at objects which may or may not be mysterious. Young persons whose enthusiasm and courage are of a soda water variety should not be entrusted with fire arms for the purpose of exterminating ghosts or any other animate objects. Revolvers are made for policemen and Wild West cowboys. Other people have no earthly excuse for carrying them, and their possession entails more trouble than it does good. Parents are warned that many of their young sons are inclined to disagree with these doctrines, and it is their duty to assist in bringing about a complete disarmament. Under conditions that give assurance of personal security, let the ghost hunting proceed.
A faux-phantom had been unmasked, but the Woman in Black still walked. The town was at a fever pitch of excitement with women and children afraid to venture out after dark….
Stories of unexplained Women in Black are found in The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past. 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 Amazon and other online retailers. It is also available for Kindle. If you’d like to check out the table of contents–there are reports of many different types of ghosts and paranormal entities in the book–see this introduction to the book. You’ll find a general index here and a state index here.
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.