The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise
The Victorian widow, swathed in her “habiliments of woe,” was a familiar figure on the streets of the nineteenth century. The dull fabrics, the crape, the veil: all marked the wearer as one touched by Death and entitled to special consideration. Mourning garb both protected the wearer from the public gaze and elevated societal expectations for the widow. This made it all the more shocking when mourning dress was used as a criminal disguise.
Let us look at the rogues’ gallery of crimes committed in the United States from about 1860 to 1929 under the cover of crape. The list is a long and distressing one: Assault, inducing panic, menacing threats, armed robbery and pickpocketing, burglary, kidnapping, arson, murder, and most heinous of all to a 19th century audience: transvestism.
Why was mourning such a useful disguise for criminals?
The phrase the “Woman in Black” was in common use by the 1870s, referring to a series of mysterious black-clad apparitions who stalked and startled people in the dark. They usually wore the veil of the Victorian widow and melted uncannily into darkness when challenged. There was ambiguity as to whether “The Woman in Black” was some flesh-and-blood woman in mourning clothing, a man in disguise, or a supernatural omen of death. Inexplicably—since widows were scarcely an uncommon sight—these appearances often escalated into full-scale panics, and, as the New York Times of 7 January 1887 wrote, afforded “unscrupulous and criminally disposed persons an opportunity to do their wicked work under the mask of the Woman in Black.”
These veiled supernatural horrors apparently provided inspiration for copy-cat wearers of crape because it is apparent from newspaper reports that, far from being ghostly, the Women in Black were corporeal enough to commit assault.
For example, a veiled Woman in Black attacked citizens of an Illinois town in 1898. A man and his wife were confronted by the woman and, “without making the slightest sound, except the rustling of skirts,” the creature “struck the wife a sharp blow on her cheek.” …The assailant was described by multiple witnesses as nearly 6 feet tall, wearing a solid black gown with a heavy veil reaching almost to the bottom of her skirts. Her step was noiseless, and, said the papers, “she invariably strikes a blow with her hand as she peers into the face of any one she meets.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 December 1898: p. 4
Not something you would want to meet in a dark alley…
“Menacing threats” was another crime associated with The Woman in Black. I have collected many examples of the lost art of the “crape threat.” This is the practice of hanging mourning crape streamers on the door of an enemy as a threat, rather like sending funeral flowers to a rival mobster. In one classic case, for nearly five years a veiled woman in black stalked Mrs. Amy Thornley of Brooklyn, lurking around her house, hanging crape on the door and throwing threatening letters into her yard. One of the letters read: “Murder for you. Crape is for Amy T. May you soon be sleeping with your dead son.” Mystifyingly, despite several witnesses who also saw the Woman in Black, the case was never solved. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 20 January 1906: p. 3
Moving from menacing threats to felonies, we find a woman at the peak of her disreputable profession: In 1887 a woman nicknamed ‘The Widow’ used to attend the funerals of the rich wearing a long black veil drawn over her face. When the time came for the friends to take their last look at the departed she contrived to be among the last in line. “When she came opposite the head of the coffin she would sob passionately, and fling herself on the bier so that her veil covered it.” Under the cover of the mourning veil, she would loot the corpse of jewelry and valuables. Lawrence [KS] Daily Journal 15 December 1887: p. 2
Pick pocketing was another fertile field for widow impersonators. In 1875 a besotted reporter on a New York street car described how he could not take his eyes off “the most saintly looking widow that I ever set eyes on,” wearing “the sweetest little widow’s cap imaginable.” When another widow boarded the car, the saintly widow kindly made room for her to sit down. “The car stopped, and widow No. 1 got out; she was hardly out of the car when widow No. 2 discovered that her pocket had been picked by that saintly widow who had been sitting by her side. Bruce [NZ] Herald, 12 January 1875: p. 3
The Women in Black were not afraid to use firearms as this story from 1911 shows.
A woman, or a man in female attire, armed with a small revolver and with a heavy black veil covering the face, entered the store of the Sanitary Grocery this morning about 7:40 o’clock, held up two woman clerks and the porter, and robbed the cash register of about $10.
So quietly was the robbery perpetrated and so slowly did the robber walk away from the store after getting the money that neighbors and passers-by knew nothing of the occurrence until the clerks gave the alarm. Evening Star [Washington, DC] 3 April 1911: p. 1
One of the most adroit American burglars was a lady who wore widow’s weeds. Her name was Ellen Gibbons; she was described as one of the “most notorious female house-breakers” in the country. She went by many aliases, but was best known as “the woman in black,” because often she “dressed in the deepest of black, and was closely veiled when she committed her depredations.” Wherever she went, her neighbors would be startled by a sudden surge in robberies and burglaries. Although the police initially thought the thefts were the work of a well-organized gang, it was quickly realized that a veiled woman dressed in mourning was frequently seen near houses that were robbed. Gibbons’ house was found full of plunder that she had spirited out of homes under cover of crape. She was repeatedly arrested, sent to prison, then repeatedly pardoned. I’m not sure why, except she claimed to be a kleptomaniac and she was said to be the wife of a police officer in Brooklyn. In 1877 The Chicago Daily Tribune paid her a well-earned tribute: “Her long-continued life of crime ranks her with the most daring and skilful of male robbers and burglars.” Chicago [IL] Daily Tribune 14 October 1877: p. 11
A far more dire crime was that of kidnapping. A widow’s garb is frequently mentioned in high-profile stories of child enticement. For example, the terrifying “Black Ghost” of Toledo was reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer:
A “woman in black” has put in an appearance on the East Side… and is causing a reign of terror. The mysterious stranger is believed to be a man. ..This morning while Johnny Barror, aged 12, was hurrying on his bicycle for a doctor, he was seized by the “black ghost” and pulled from his wheel and told that he would be instantly killed. The black-robed figure tried to carry the lad away, but the little fellow fought like a tiger and broke away, and after a chase of several blocks met two policemen, who hurried to the place… but the “black ghost” was gone…. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 November, 1902: p. 1
Mourning costume was particularly alluring to murderesses. In 1896 a St. Louis family was nearly poisoned by a veiled woman in black who gave their little boy a pie to give to his family. When his mother cut the pie, she found green powder under the upper crust, indicating Paris Green. A chemist examined the food and found that it was laced with arsenic. No one was ever charged with the crime. St. Louis [MO] Republic 29 February 1896: p. 6
In 1914, in Newark, New Jersey, 20-year-old Hazel Herdman donned a mourning veil to hide her face, and shot dead the wife of the man with whom she was infatuated. The veil effectively confused the police, who spent a day rounding up other suspects before Herdman, who had swallowed poison, confessed. Seattle [WA] Daily Times 7 February 1914: p. 1
One of the most startling murderous crimes by a veiled woman in black was an attempt in 1892 to blow up the residence of Charles D. Irwin, a wealthy speculator in Chicago. The woman was interrupted at her fiendish work by passers-by and ran toward the lake, leaving behind a container filled with 10 pounds of high explosive, more than enough to have blown the building to atoms. The description given to the police was that she was attired in deep mourning and wore a heavy black veil that fell below her waist.” Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 5 August 1892: p. 5
Once again, there was no capture of the black-clad bomber.
You will have noticed that none of the veiled criminals in the preceding cases were conclusively identified as a man disguised in mourning. While some male criminals wore women’s clothing, usually to avoid detection after a crime had been committed, only rarely are they described as wearing widow’s weeds. The criminal Women in Black I’ve studied are sharply divided between women criminals and male transvestites.
The newspapers are full of stories of plucky girls who tucked their hair up under a cap and put on boy’s clothing to escape an unhappy home life. Boys who put on girl’s clothes, however, never do so except with evil intent. And donning widow’s weeds was an unmistakable signal that the men so dressed were up to no good. A common theme of the Women in Black panics I mentioned earlier is the ambiguity of the sex of the veiled spectres. While never explicit, the coded language used in reporting these panics reflects this:
1866 It was a terrible creature, shrouded in black, the garments of a female and the stature of a man, moving awfully about the streets o’nights, and creating panic… Freeport North West July 19, 1866: p. 2
1911 A man disguised as a woman and out for a sinister purpose…Greencastle [KN] Herald 29 November 1911: p. 2
1912 A man is masquerading in women’s clothing and is either crazy or is trying to perpetuate a huge joke on the community. New Castle [PA] News September 26, 1912: p. 1
1886 There are yet others who suppose that the “woman in black” is some evil-minded man who is masquerading in female attire for the purpose of frightening timid persons. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 12 November 1886: p. 5
1903 One of the current theories in the village is that the masquerader in mourning is a man, who is either bent on mischief or is mentally unbalanced Boston [MA] Herald 15 October 1903: p. 8
“Mentally unbalanced” may have been a euphemism for “transvestite.” Cross-dressers were considered mentally aberrant and were sometimes sent to lunatic asylums. In 1848 Columbus, Ohio, was one of the first cities to pass anti cross-dressing laws; some 40 other cities soon followed their example, making it illegal to wear clothes contrary to one’s sex. Penalties became increasingly severe. In San Francisco, for example, Revised Orders 1863 said that cross-dressers would be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction, would pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars. In 1866, the penalty increased to a $500 fine or six months in jail; in 1875, it went to a $1000 fine, six months in jail or both (General Orders 1875)
Of course none of these laws stopped men from dressing as women. Few were criminals trying to escape detection, but the act of wearing women’s clothes made them criminals. As Clare Sears writes in “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco,” public, but not private cross-dressing was against the law and, she notes, “As such, cross-dressing was marked as a deviant and secretive practice, rather than a public activity and identification.”
A widow’s garb was the perfect cover for a transvestite, who, given the usual domestic organization of a 19th-century working-class household, had little privacy or time for cross-dressing. It allowed him to walk abroad publically, dressed as a woman; hiding in plain sight. The act of wearing widow’s weeds was, for transvestites, both a criminal act and the concealment of that criminal act.
In addition, mourning clothing was readily accessible. A man might borrow the weeds his wife had at home. Mourning goods could be purchased second-hand or through the mail. And security was guaranteed by the fact that few persons would have the courage or the impudence to walk up to a veiled widow in the dark and remove her veil. I found only a single case among hundreds of spectral Women in Black sightings, where a young Connecticut woman pulled the veil from the face of what turned out to be a well-known young man in widow’s weeds. His motive for doing so was elided by the newspaper.
What were the advantages to a criminal of donning widow’s weeds? Why not simply wear some other disguise or perhaps an automobile veil, a medical mask or a traditional burglar’s mask?
There are two primary advantages: First, of course, the physical concealment offered by the veil. Second, the social barrier created by the societal expectations and status of widows.
Let us look at the physical concealment advantage. While there was much discussion among physicians about the hygiene of mourning textiles, a widow in deep mourning generally wore a thick veil, of near opacity, made of or bordered with crape. We can see by the surviving fabrics—which in practice were often doubled–that the veil effectively obscured the face when lowered. This all-encompassing veil was the defining symbol of the widow.
Unlike the ordinary fashionable veil, which was thin or semi-transparent, the mourning veil was meant to conceal the face, not for nefarious purposes, but for the protection of the widow.
In 1907 The Illustrated Milliner wrote: “The sorrowing when death comes, turn instinctively to the protection of the mourning veil.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer 1899 commented about mourners:
“the struggle to retain one’s composure is a cruel one. Against it crape is the only protection.” Philadelphia, [PA] Inquirer 30 December 1899: p. 11
The mourning veil protected the painfully sensitive widow from the prying eyes of the world. It conferred anonymity, even invisibility. It explained and it excused. The veil was psychologically impregnable, leaving the widow shrouded and shielded in grief and crape.
What made mourning clothing such a powerful social barrier? The answer lies in the communal expectations of widows. Leaving aside the “Merry Widow” jokes endemic in 19th-century popular culture, if we judge by what we read in newspapers, etiquette books, and popular fiction the average person, on encountering a widow in the street, might feel pity for one who was too often struggling to raise her family alone and in poverty. A woman in mourning was essentially an invisible woman, yet one who had the instant sympathy of all right-thinking spectators.
Victorian literature is filled with quotes emphasizing that a widow was thought to be more spiritual, closer to heaven, than an ordinary woman. Mourning costume assumed the status of a religious garment:
Harriet B. McKeever wrote in 1867, in her novel Heavenward-Earthward, “now in her widowed state she was invested with a holy sanctity.” And McKeever described a widow “In her mourning-dress, an expression of holy resignation resting upon her face,”
“The Mourning Veil,” an 1857 short story by Harriet Beecher Stowe, makes the connection even more explicit. When a mourning veil is delivered by accident, a beloved dying child says to her mother: “Oh, mamma, that veil was for you; our Father sends it, and he knows best. Perhaps you will see heaven through that veil.” [Source: “The Mourning Veil,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1857]
There was an odd dichotomy between the wink-and-nudge widow jokes and the adjectives and phrases often used in literature to describe the widow, which emphasize her passivity and harmlessness: delicate, sad-faced, pale and careworn, weak, helpless, and unprotected, gentle, sanctifying.
Widows’ weeds sanctified the wearer, who was assumed to be patiently submitting to the will of Heaven. Few would dream of invading the privacy of one so dressed. And so it was the perfect criminal disguise.
A criminal might exploit these two facets of mourning garb and operate in perfect safety, knowing that while wearing mourning, she could not be identified and as a widow, she might be given the benefit of the doubt long enough to perpetrate the crime and escape. Who could possibly suspect a woman of “sanctified affliction” of any criminal act? And while the black mask of the penny-dreadful fiend or the kerchief of the desperado would be highly conspicuous if worn in the street, the veiled widow was a familiar and disarming sight.
While I have emphasized the female Women in Black, some male criminals, too, found crape a convenient disguise, although they tend to be less well-represented in the papers, except by inference. Of course, today we draw a sharp distinction between the “crime” of cross-dressing and criminals trying to escape detection; it is the difference between an enthusiast who enjoys passing as female in public and, for example, an embezzler wearing widow’s weeds, trying to evade capture, as was reported in the Macon Telegraph:
A Missouri railway express agent named William Page stole $8,000 in cash. He donned the full mourning his wife had been wearing for her father, and hopped a train. “In this costume he started on his travels, but his walk gave him away to the train men, and the conductor telegraphed to the chief of police here. Detectives met the train and took the charming young widow into custody, when she weakened and confessed.” Macon [GA] Telegraph 1 January 1886: p. 4
I finish with one final mourning costume disguise: that of grieving innocent. There are stories of an unsettling number of murderers taking their places in the witness box wearing mourning for their victims to give the illusion of innocence. In 1872, accused serial poisoner Mrs. Emily E. Lloyd, “The Leesburg Borgia,” on trial for giving arsenic to her husband, aunt, and four children, appeared in court dressed in deep mourning, weeping piteously.
One man asked to wear his “Sunday Blacks” at his execution, as a mark of respect for the wife he had murdered.
In 1929 Jane Weyler, who killed her husband after an orgy was reported as wearing “deep mourning, with just a wee bit of white under the rim of her widow’s bonnet to match the pale cream of her face. Her eyes were delicately penciled to express black sorrow.” Auckland Star, 28 December 1929: p. 3
Sadly for our sense of mystery, the Women in Black no longer roam our dark back alleys. Rising hemlines and the First World War’s ban on deep mourning for considerations of morale meant that the veil went the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Female pickpockets and male transvestites clothed as “The Women in Black” had to find some other method of disguise. The very term “The Woman in Black” slipped to the level of a journalist’s catchphrase for any mysterious or seductive female and as an undertaker’s euphemism for “widow.”
What strikes me most in reflecting on the cases of criminal Women in Black I have studied is this: Mourning dress was an exceptionally effective method of concealment. I have searched for follow-up stories, but very few of the women in black were ever caught or brought to justice. Those mistresses of the dark had, under the shelter of their veils, discovered the perfect criminal disguise.
Other examples of Victorian criminals disguised as widows? Or of confirmed men in crape? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
This post is adapted from my presentation “The Woman in Black: Victorian Mourning Dress as Criminal Disguise,” given in 2015 at the fall symposium of the Southeastern Chapter of The Costume Society of America, a professional organization for historians of dress and costume/textiles curators. Parts are included in The Victorian Book of the Dead and The Ghost Wore Black.
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.