What other symbolic color is as versatile as purple? It is the color of royalty, of mourning, and rock stars. It ranges from the deep purple of the Queen’s robes through the mauve of the Decadents and the lavender marriages of closeted film stars. Its violet flames are beloved of occultists and those who study chakras, yet this powerful color is another hue rarely found among the ghosts. Purple UFOs and spook lights are not uncommon, but running Britain’s Paranormal Database through the spectrometer yielded only a few ghostly items, such as:
The Grey House, a private residence in Batheaston, haunted by an old lady in a purple dress, the house’s former owner, who appeared to gardeners, as it was her favorite occupation.
In St. Machar Cathedral, Aberdeen, 1970s, “Three schoolchildren reported seeing three strange purple finges with long black nails, unnaturally long, emerging from the cathedral door. They ran.”
In the 1970s a local legend says that certain Liverpoor-Huyton streets were home to a “blue/purple faced young girl who would follow families with children.”
At Dunluce Castle, Portrush, a man in a purple cloak haunts the towers of the castle.
Burley, New Forest 26 December 20015 While driving around lost, looking for a road sign, a couple passed a patch of purple / blue smoke, around 2 metres by 3 metres in diameter, hovering around 2 metres off the ground. They drove back to have another look, but the smoke had gone.
From a dress historian’s point of view, I find this puzzling. So many ghosts arise from the Victorian era, that heyday of painfully vivid aniline dyes such as mauveine. It was not, as in Roman times, an expensive and rare color and, realistically, we would expect to see more heliotrope hauntings from the Woman in Mauve. Yet, in riffling through the ghostly wardrobe, we find only a classic phantom hitchhiker story in “The Lavender Evening Dress,” (sometimes retold as “Lavender.”) from The Screaming Ghost by folklorist Carl Carmer. Augustus Hare also shared a story of a ghostly woman in a lilac-print gown.
While the phantom world did not find it a flattering shade, occultists and color theorists viewed purple as a color of great power. Too much power, suggested the Welsh:
Purple and shades of “puce,” as they called it, had a tendency to drive men mad, and I heard an old woman saying that if “you look too long on laylock [lilac], you’ll get crazy. Folk-lore and Folk-Stories of Wales, Marie Trevelyan, 1909
Several Italian physicians believed that color therapy—particularly the violet shades—could cure mental disorders:
9TH CASE, OR SERIES OF CASES.-COLORS FOR LUNACY.
The following treatment of lunacy in an Italian Asylum, I copy from a condensed report. The ideas are somewhat vague, but mainly correct as far as they go:—
Dr. Ponza, director of the lunatic asylum at Alessandria (Piedmont), having conceived the idea that the solar rays might have some curative power in diseases of the brain, communicated his views to Father Secchi of Rome, who replied: “The idea of studying the disturbed state of lunatics in connection with magnetic perturbations, and with the colored, especially violet light of the sun, is of remarkable importance.” Such light is easily obtained by filtering the solar rays through a glass of that color. “Violet,” adds Father Secchi, “has something melancholy and depressive about it, which, physiologically, causes low spirits; hence, no doubt, poets have draped melancholy in violet garments. Perhaps violet light may calm the nervous excitement of unfortunate maniacs.” He then, in his letter, advises Dr. Ponza to perform his experiments in rooms, the walls of which are painted of the same color as the glass panes of the windows, which should be as numerous as possible, in order to favor the action of solar light, so that it may be admissible at any hour of the day. The patients should pass the night in rooms oriented to the east and the south, and painted and glazed as above. Dr. Ponza, following the instructions of the learned Jesuit, prepared several rooms in the manner described, and kept several patients there under observation. One of them affected with morbid taciturnity, became gay and affable after three hours’ stay in a red chamber; another, a maniac who refused all food, asked for some breakfast after having stayed twenty-four hours in the same red chamber. In a blue one, a highly excited madman with a strait waistcoat on was kept all day; an hour after, he appeared much calmer. The action of blue light is very intense on the optic nerve, and seems to cause a sort of oppression. A patient was made to pass the night in a violet chamber; on the following day, he begged Dr. Ponza to send him home, because he felt himself cured, and indeed he has been well ever since. Dr. Ponza’s conclusions from his experiments are these: “The violet rays are, of all others, those that possess the most intense electrochemical power; the red light is also very rich in calorific rays; blue light, on the contrary, is quite devoid of them as well as of chemical and electric ones. Its beneficent influence is hard to explain; as it is the absolute negation of all excitement, it succeeds admirably in calming the furious excitement of maniacs.” The Principles of Light and Color, Edwin D. Babbitt, M.D., LL. D., 1896: pp. 305-6
Many of us are familiar with the cursed blue-hued Hope Diamond. Britain has its own version in the cursed Delphi Purple Sapphire, which is actually a brilliantly colored amethyst. A brief summary is found in this paragraph, while a more detailed description of the havoc wrought by the “cursed gemstone,” is found here.
The Delhi Purple Sapphire — “Cursed” Quartz
Credit: Natural History Museum The Delhi Purple sapphire is another imposter, because it isn’t really a sapphire, but an amethyst, which is a type of violet-hued quartz. The mysterious stone is rumored to have been stolen by a British solider from the Temple of Indra, the Hindu god of war and weather, in Kanpur, India, during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It was brought to England by Colonel W. Ferris, whose family then supposedly suffered many financial and health woes. The stone was given to Edward Heron-Allen, a scientist and writer, in 1890, who claimed to have started having bad luck immediately after receiving it. He gave the amethyst away to friends, who were also struck with misfortune and quickly returned the gift back to him. Heron-Allen warned that the Delhi Purple sapphire is “accursed and is stained with the blood, and the dishonor of everyone who has ever owned it.” Wary of its alleged powers, he kept it locked away in seven boxes and surrounded by good luck charms. After his death, Heron-Allen’s daughter donated the amethyst to London’s Natural History Museum in 1943. Along with the stone, she gave them a letter that her father wrote cautioning future owners against directly handling it. The mysterious Delhi Purple sapphire is now permanently on display as part of the Natural History Museum’s Vault Collection of precious gemstones.
William T. Stead in Real Ghost Stories summarized the story of Mrs. A., who, in 1857, suddenly found herself having an out-of-body experience. She wondered at her corpse-like appearance and wandered around a bit, then found herself in the bedroom of a friend:
She crossed Woolwich Common, visited the Arsenal, returned to the barracks, and then found herself in the bedchamber of an intimate friend. Miss L. M., who lived at Greenwich. She began to talk; but she remembered no more until she waked by her husband’s side.
Her first words were, “So I am not dead after all.” She told her husband of her excursion, and they agreed to say nothing about it until they heard from Miss L. M. When they met that lady, two days after, she volunteered the statement that Mrs. A. had appeared to her about three o’clock in the morning of the night before last, robed in violet, and had a conversation with her. (“Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World.”) True Ghost Stories, William T. Stead, 1921
Here is how Footfalls finishes the story:
Colonel A was in company with his wife when, on the next Friday, she met her friend, Miss L. M. It ought to be stated that this lady has from her childhood habitually seen apparitions. No allusion whatever was made to the subject uppermost in their thoughts; and after a while they all three walked out into the garden. There the two ladies began conversing about a new bonnet; and Mrs. A. said, “My last was trimmed with violet; and I like the color so much I think I shall select it again.” “Yes,” her friend replied, “I know that is your color.” “How so?” Mrs. A. asked. “Because when you came to me the other night — let me see: when was it? — ah, I remember, the night before last — it was robed in violet that you appeared to me.” “I appeared to you the other night?” “Yes, about three o’clock; and we had quite a conversation together. Have you no recollection of it?”
This was deemed conclusive, both by husband and wife, in proof that something beyond the usual hypothesis of dreaming fancy was necessary to explain the visionary excursion to Woolwich. Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, Robert Dale Owen, 1872: p. 353-4
Apparently the wandering soul showed its “true colors” when out of the body.
Purple, as one of the colors of mourning, was recognized as a token of death, rather dramatically, in this story:
A writer on psychic subjects had arranged to take tea with us. Her husband was to accompany her. She arrived without him and explained that he had rather a nasty cold and had thought it wise to remain indoors. When she returned home in the evening she found him very much better, and they both enjoyed a good evening meal. About 10.30 p.m. we were sitting in our study reading, when to our amazement we looked up from our books and saw that the walls had become draped with purple and black material. This gave us quite a shock for the moment. But we were quickly made to realize that some one had “passed away.” We waited and wondered. Then came a knock at the front door and a messenger handed us a letter from the friend who had taken tea with us, stating that her husband collapsed immediately after dinner and had “passed away.” She urged that we should go to her at once, which, of course, we did. The Occult Review, December 1921: p. 325
Of course, some killjoy always came up with a scientific explanation for purple visions:
In the Occult Review of May,  W. F. T. asks if any explanation can be given of the cross of purple seen on a wall. Of course some may think it was a warning of the death of the King (purple being the Royal colour for mourning), but I think I can give a very prosaic explanation.
When one looks at anything steadily for a few minutes, especially anything which is against the light, the image of that object is retained, in its complementary colours, for some time, and if one looks at a blank wall that image comes and goes several times just as explained by W. F. T.
As the image seen was that of a purple cross, W. F. T. must have been looking just before at some light yellow object in the form of a cross, either a gilt cross or a gilt picture frame which had a crossing of its sides, or most likely of all, had been looking out of the window.
The fact that it was ” wet and gloomy, the sky a dull leaden grey ” would, the cross-bars of the window being cream colour, give a deep violet cross on a grey ground if the window was first and then the wall looked at. A blue sky would have given an orange background, but grey does not have a complementary colour (it is the only colour, or rather lack of colour, which does not), therefore the background would remain a light grey and be unnoticed.
Would W. F. T. kindly try this experiment and report results?
The Occult Review July 1910: p. 50
King Edward VII died on 6 May 1910. You can find the original letter about the cross of purple in the June, 1910 issue of The Occult Review starting on page 337.
In Shades of Blue, we heard from an elderly couple who saw a spook light turn into a ghastly blue coffin. This particular light, which was said to guard a treasure on an Ohio farm, appeared in a whole rainbow of colors and shapes, including a purple entity. (The entire fanciful tale may be found in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales.)
It is related with declarations of truth that George Beam, a farmer’s boy, who lived close by, once upon a time borrowed a horse and wagon from old man Knouff. George attended a ball at Louisville that night and did not return home until after the midnight chimes had rung. The farmer had reached the Knouff farm late at night. Upon reaching the cross roads he saw the mystic ball of fire hovering about the wagon and carriage house on the farm. But he was a brave lad and not at all afraid of the “light” and so he drove toward the barn. Meanwhile the “light” slowly moved toward the door of the carriage house and beckoned the lad to follow. George, evidently controlled by an unseen power, followed. When the “light” went through the carriage house door the lad opened it and passed within. In a corner of the carriage house, moving slowly up and down, was the ghostly “light.” Going toward it and glancing toward the last corner, George beheld a large iron kettle overflowing with bright gold pieces. Eagerly he sprang forward to grasp the prize, when there was a hissing noise and the “light” turned into a purple-colored, horrible shaped dragon. Not a sound did the frightful dragon make, but its attitude was one of open defiance and threat. The frightened lad gave but one glance, staggered back to the door, half fell outside and ran screaming toward his home, leaving the unhitched horse standing near the stable door. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 28 February 1889: p. 8
A less dramatic, but still vivid spook light appeared near Piqua, Ohio in 1909. (This story is also found in The Headless Horror.)
PURPLE LIGHTS PUZZLE FARMERS
STRANGE “HEADLIGHT” DASHES DOWN PIKE AND
ILLUMINES THE HIGHWAY
Piqua, Ohio, March 10.
Are spooks playing “hob” with farmers in the vicinity of Hetzler’s corners? Or is some practical joker, with a remarkable amount of cleverness, working on the minds of imaginative farmers in that neighborhood?
For some time reports of a strange purple light have been reported in the vicinity and farmers have been wonderfully excited. This talk was all set down to imagination until last night when this phenomenon was noted:
About 7:30 o’clock James Covault, a tenant on the Robert Patterson farm north of Fletcher on the Snodgrass pike, stepped out into his yard and he saw a purple light which seemed to be burning brightly on the pike about a mile west of his house. He called the other members of the family and they decided that some farmer had painted his lantern a brilliant purple for a novelty.
Suddenly the light began moving rapidly toward the Covault house, advancing by spurts, but at times apparently receding. As it came nearer, almost with the velocity of an electric flash, it assumed the size of a headlight on an automobile. When the end of the lane to the Covault home was reached the light was so bright that the people could plainly see the barn and the cattle in the barnyard.
Here the light halted, and while the family was discussing the nature of the phenomenon it suddenly left he pike and began traveling northward with incredible speed across a field in the direction of C.C. Moore’s farm buildings. By the time the purple rays struck the Moore dwelling the light was so brilliant that Mr. Covault says he could see the house and shade trees as plainly as if it had been daylight, although they were over a mile away.
At the Moore house the light suddenly vanished as mysteriously as it came. G.W. Sanders and Mr. H.P. Morgan were other observers of the weird light. Mrs. Sanders thought a building must be burning until she noted the color and quick flashings of the light. She now agrees that she was mistaken, and the entire community is much puzzled.
Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 10 March 1909: p. 7
Our final look at purple in the supernatural record is an excerpt from the “Grave Errors” chapter of The Victorian Book of the Dead about a ultra-violet end to a Brooklyn lady’s corpse. The story is narrated by the deceased’s nurse who claimed to witness these events.
“Well, she was embalmed, and she never looked more beautiful. She was so handsome and life-like, and the color came again, imparting a rosy tint to her cheeks, such as she used to have before she grew sick. It looked so natural, and yet it was not, for she had been dead several days. She seemed to be in a sweet slumber as she lay in that lovely casket.”
“Well, gracious, what happened!”
“Oh, it is dreadful to think of. Her brother went forward to the casket and raised the veil to have a last look at his beloved sister, when instantly he was enveloped in a purple flame which rose from the casket and ascended to the ceiling. The heat was intense, but the flame did not catch the clothing of those standing beside the casket, though my own dress and that of the sister of the deceased lady were both very light. We thought this very strange, but we were all too much stunned to speak for a few moments, and could only look at the curious blaze. There had been no fire near that could have ignited anything in the casket. When the first shock of surprise had in a measure subside, some one suggested water—I believe it was her husband—and a pitcher was immediately brought and dashed into the flame.”
“Did this extinguish it?”
“No; to our consternation, it only acted as fuel, and the flame bulged out on all sides, forcing some of us to leave the room from its intense heat; and some of them were greatly frightened, not knowing what to make of it. The physician who had prepared the powder that seemed to cure her grew pale and was greatly agitated, but he was not to blame, for he did not give it to her until he had a consultation with the others, and we all tasted it. It was delicious, though not sweet. I do not think it could have been the powder.”
“But you have not told me how the flame from the lady’s body was extinguished. Finish that, will you? “ said the invalid, with increasing irritation.
“Oh, it burned out; the doctors were at their wits’ end, when the water made it worse.
“Burned out; what do you mean?”
“I mean that the body of the dear lady was reduced to ashes. Other doctors were called in, and they could only gaze hopelessly at the burning body. It did not take more than half an hour to consume it. It was alarming to see how quickly it was done. They only sprinkled a disinfectant on the floor to prevent the odor, which was very disagreeable at first.”
“The body was reduced to ashes, you say?”
“Oh, the doctors were not so much surprised when it was over and they came to think of it. There have been other cases of the kind, but this lady never used stimulants. She was strictly temperate. Yes, all the soft parts of the body and most of the bones were left in ashes, but the head and hair, except a portion of the neck remained whole and almost as handsome as ever. It was a shocking sight, and her sister swooned.”
“Was there no explanation about it? What did the doctors do? Who was the embalmer?”
“”He was sent for—the embalmer—and examined by the physicians. They wrote down everything he said, but he had used nothing more in the material with which he embalmed than for other persons, except that he had put in a larger quantity of the ingredient, whatever it is that preserves the color and freshness of the skin and complexion, as she had to be sent a great distance out West.” The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 October 1882: p. 2
The curious detail that water did not extinguish the Brooklyn corpse-blaze, but fueled it is a near-constant in stories of Spontaneous Human Combustion. The theme of intoxication is also a common one–the Temperance movement actually used the threat of SHC as one of their deterrents.
Other violet visions or shades of purple? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who has apparently looked too long on laylock.
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.