As I promised recently on my Facebook page, I'm presenting some of my favorite tales of hauntings, monsters and all-around bizarre stuff leading up to Halloween and the launch of my second book, The Men in the Trees.
I'm starting with the 1901 case of Charlotte Anne E. Moberly and Eleanor F. Jourdain, two English academics whose strange experiences at the palace of Versailles outside Paris became a sensation. I thought this was a great story to start with since these ladies' experiences in France also culminated in a book.
Miss Moberly was the first principal of St. Hugh's College, a prestigious all-women's institution inside Oxford University. Miss Jourdain was Miss Moberly's assistant and ultimately succeeded her as Principal when the latter retired in 1915. Both were daughters of English clergymen and considered themselves devoutly Christian and opposed to the Spiritualism movement which was sweeping Europe and America at the time.
In August 1901, the Jourdain and Moberly headed to France on vacation. They had limited experiences with the country and, by their own admissions, little knowledge of its history and culture. (Part of the reason for the trip was to educate themselves on both.) On August 10, they visited Versailles, the sprawling estate created by the French monarchy before it was abolished in 1792. After the French Revolution which culminated in the execution of King Louis XVI and his unpopular queen, Marie Antoinette, the palace and its gardens were made public. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Versailles was a popular destination spot for tourists.
After touring the main palace, the two women decided to see the Petit Trianon, the estate-within-the-estate created for Marie Antoinette. The reconstruction of this area began shortly after Marie Antoinette married Louis at only nineteen years of age. The queen was easily bored by the intrigues of the royal court, so the entire parcel was reconfigured to entertain her. It contained palatial homes, mysterious grottos, picturesque lakes and trickling streams. One entire hillside was replanted with pine trees to simulate the Swiss mountains the queen remembered from her childhood. Other areas simulated the French countryside, replete with farmlands and a working dairy. All in all, it was an extravagant melding of nature, architecture and imagination... and proof positive of the excesses that led to the Revolution and Marie Antoinette's own death.
As they wandered, Jourdain and Moberly encountered a variety of individuals, buildings and events that appeared to be at least one hundred years removed from their own time. Highlights included:
Unable to explain their experiences, Moberly and Jourdain returned at least three times to Versailles and spent four years quietly researching its history. Although they shared little, even with close friends and family, they finally made their account public in 1905. The book was entitled An Adventure. But its publication came with risks. As women in sexist Edwardian society, they were open to ridicule and even the destruction of their careers. Ultimately, they chose to publish under the pseudonyms Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont.
Although it quickly became a best-seller, reaction to An Adventure was mixed at best. The prestigious Society for Psychical Research was critical, stating (correctly) that much of the supporting documentation could've been known to the authors prior to visiting Versailles. Others claimed that the whole account was some kind of mutual fantasy produced by repressed homosexual desires or that they had stumbled upon a fancy-dress party and were too naive to realize it. A more charitable theory supposed that the women experienced a time-slip, a paranormal phenomenon where a living person inadvertently steps through a portal into another era. (For more on this, please reference any of a dozen episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
It ultimately boiled down to a chicken vs. egg argument. Did the women manufacture a carefully researched hoax? Or did they have a legitimate paranormal experience which they attempted to prove through careful research?
Interestingly, James H. Hyslop, Secretary-Treasurer for the American Society of Psychical Research recommended the book, although with some reservations:
"...We can only commend reading [An Adventure] to every one interested in psychic research, regardless of explanations. Of course the first question which every one will ask himself is: "Is this romance or reality?" As the stories are told they seem perfectly incredible, tho psychic researchers are accustomed to quite as startling phenomena. But the manner of telling the story at first suggests a romance and it is only the preface and the appended note by the publishers that tend to inspire trust in the seriousness of the incidents..." – Journal of the American Society of Psychical Research, Volume 5, No. 7, July 1911, pp. 405-06
So does AN ADVENTURE recount a true haunting? Versailles was a place of great drama and suffering, a excellent stage for ghosts of all kinds. To this day, strange phenomenon is regularly reported on the grounds. Moberly and Jourdain even note a long history of hauntings around the Petit Trianon, including sightings of Marie Antoinette:
"That evening when I was preparing to write down my experiences, a French friend whose home was in Paris came into my room, and I asked her, just on the chance, if she knew any story about the haunting of the Petit Trianon. (I had not mentioned our story to her before, nor indeed to anyone.) She said directly that she remembered hearing from friends at Versailles that on a certain day in August Marie Antoinette is regularly seen sitting outside the garden front at the Petit Trianon, with a light flapping hat and a pink dress..." –Personal account by Frances Lamont (Jourdain) in An Adventure, page 21-22.
The controversy around this ghost story has never been resolved. If it is a hoax, it has the distinction of being one of the best researched of all time! If you're interesting in reading An Adventure for yourself, you can do so by clicking here.