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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, December 2022

The Woman In Black

by: Susan Demeter

A fresh look at the infamous Morton case of Cheltenham, England.

Apparitions and haunting experiences, including all the associated phenomena that fall under the umbrella of the word ghost, have been reported since the earliest times of recorded human history. People relating first-hand encounters with ghosts represent every country, every culture, all major religions, socio-economic circumstances, educational backgrounds, and ages. And while belief in ghosts has never been considered fully respectable in general society, all attempts by both religious and natural, scientific philosophies to give an explanation to the phenomenon have failed to either dissuade popular interest in the subject or disrupt the phenomenon from occurring and being reported.

Experiences with ghosts, ghost stories, and myths of hauntings have been occurring without break or end throughout known human history. The overwhelming anecdotal evidence points to the reality of the existence of the phenomenon called ghosts; it is what the ghost and haunting experience actually is that is still very much hotly debated.

While there have been many theories and opinions on what ghosts are, from the natural to the PSI-based, there is little consensus among scholars and the public in general on the true origin or nature of the experience. The most popular notion of what a ghost may be is the belief it is representative of a deceased person’s personality. We can call this the D.P.H or dead person hypothesis, and much like the E.T.H (extraterrestrial hypothesis) with UFO experiences, it is firmly entrenched as the popular “paranormal” belief, and very much supported throughout Western culture. Both the D.P.H and the E.T.H may have merit. In fact they may even be the true cause of their respective events. No one can say with 100% certainty, however neither of these hypotheses have brought us any closer to an understanding of these strange happenings.

While I do not pretend to have any firm answers, I do propose that we think outside of the box so to speak, and with this post I will attempt to have a different perhaps fresher and much needed look at the infamous Morton case of Cheltenham, England ie: The Woman In Black, in the hope that at the very least it may spur some discussion and new thinking. For those who may be unfamiliar this is one of the best documented hauntings on record. And I feel it is important here to give the reader a good background on this case before I put forward my thoughts on its possible nature.

The Morton Case

The Morton case from Cheltenham, England is so named by the Society of Psychical Research after the pseudonym chosen to protect the witnesses at the time it was first reported. The haunting was initially documented by a 19-year-old medical student named Rosina Clara Despard, and it involved her own family. Rosina chose to report the case under the pseudonym Miss R. C. Morton, in order to protect her family’s privacy at the time her reports were made to the SPR. Rosina documented several eyewitness accounts that later received independent verification from SPR founder Frederic W. H. Myers.

From approximately 1882 to 1889, Rosina and several members of her family repeatedly saw the apparition of a woman, which would wander through their home. The following is a firsthand account from Rosina:

“The figure was that of a tall lady, dressed in black of a soft woolen material, judging from the slight sound in moving. The face was hidden in a handkerchief held in the right hand. This is all I noticed then; but on further occasions, when I was able to observe her more closely, I saw the upper part of the left side of the forehead, and a little of the hair above. Her left hand was nearly hidden by her sleeve and a fold of her dress. As she held it down a portion of a widow’s cuff was visible on both wrists, so that the whole impression was that of a lady in widow’s weeds. There was no cap on the head but a general effect of blackness suggests a bonnet, with long veil or a hood” (Morton, 1892)

The specific and repetitive pattern of the path the apparition took is noteworthy: “The path began on the second floor of the house near Rosina’s bedroom, usually at a time when she would hear the sound of someone pushing against her bedroom door. Upon opening it, she would see the ghostly widow walking down the hallway landing towards the stairs. The figure would then descend all the way down to the ground floor and enter the front drawing room, where it would sit or stand for a brief period of time at a bow-shaped window located on the far side of the room. Then it would exit the room and head for a narrow passage leading out to the garden, where it would regularly vanish.” In 1983 parapsychologist William Roll noted that apparitions experienced in haunted locations tended to display a repetitive pattern within the location: “Apparitional experiences, especially of the repetitive haunting type, tend to be associated with a special area.” (Roll, and Cameron 1983 pp 74-80) In both the case Roll had investigated of a haunted radio station and in the Morton case, the apparition followed a specific pattern in the hallway (special area) of each respective building. Hallways and staircases often feature in haunted houses as the location of apparitions and I will be expanding more on this shortly. Rosina had seen the apparition about six times between 1882 and 1884. She told no one in her family about her experiences, and during the same time frame at least three other people in the house saw the apparition. At times the ghost looked so solid to the other people seeing her that she was often mistaken for a real person, as this account illustrates: In the summer of 1882 [the widow appeared] to my sister, Mrs. K., when the figure was thought to be a Sister of Mercy who had called at the house, and no further curiosity was aroused. She was coming down the stairs rather late for dinner at 6:30, it being then quite light, when she saw the figure cross the hall in front of her, and pass into the drawing-room. She then asked the rest of us, already seated at dinner, “Who was that Sister of Mercy whom I have just seen going into the drawing-room?” She was told there was no such person, and a servant was sent to look; but the drawing-room was empty, and she was sure no one had come in. Mrs. K. persisted that she had seen a tall figure in black, with some white about it; but nothing further was thought of the matter (Morton, 1892).

Rosina’s younger brother and another little boy also saw the apparition while they were playing outside on the terrace one afternoon in December of 1883. They both looked into the bow window of the drawing room at the same time and saw the apparition standing there and appearing to cry. Both ran inside to see who the lady was who was crying in the window, they found no one there. The maid told them that no one had come into the house.

The following encounter is of interest as it illustrates a common element in other hauntings.

“I went into the drawing-room, where my father and sisters were sitting, about 9 in the evening, and sat down on a couch close to the bow window. A few minutes after, as I sat reading, I saw the figure come in at the open door, cross the room and take up a position close behind the couch where I was. I was astonished that no one else in the room saw her, as she was so very distinct to me. My youngest brother, who had before seen her, was not in the room. She stood behind the couch for about half an hour, and then as usual walked to the door.” Rosina was apparently the only one, out of several people in the room, to see the apparition. This could be suggestive of an ESP component to the haunting. And it should be noted that not all the people living in the house at the time saw the apparition or experienced any other haunting phenomena. Rosina’s father and step mother did not experience the apparition at all during this period. All sorts of attempts were made by Rosina to test the physicality and capture evidence of the apparition. Rosina tied strings across the path the apparition would take, and would at least in one instance attempt to tackle the ghost in order to touch it. These along with an attempt to photograph the apparition yielded little results. Rosina also tried to talk to the apparition and communicate with it using various symbols.

“I opened the drawing-room door softly and went in, standing just by it. She [the ghost] came in past me and walked to the sofa and stood still there, so I went up to her and asked her if I could help her. She moved, and I thought she was going to speak, but she only gave a slight gasp and moved towards the door. Just by the door I spoke to her again, but she seemed as if she were quite unable to speak.”

This seemed to indicate some awareness on the part of the apparition.

Other haunting phenomena experienced in the house included the sounds of footsteps, temperature fluctuations i.e. cold spots and icy breezes felt by the witnesses in the presence of the apparition, although Rosina noted that the candles never blew out.

The apparition appeared solid and very life-like in the beginning, but it seemed to gradually fade over time, and by 1889 it had vanished completely. Inquiries made by the Despard family revealed that the apparition resembled an Imogen Swinhoe the second wife of a previous occupant of the house.

It should be noted that the woman most strongly suspected to be the cause of the apparition did not die in the house. The family eventually moved out of the house and Rosina went on to become a physician of forensic medicine.

Very few cases of a haunted location have been so well documented and debated as the Morton case. The early haunting experience demonstrates instances of collective apparitional experience, a possible example of a retained “place memory” in the form of a recurring apparition, which may have shown a minor degree of awareness and an ESP component to the ghost’s appearance, and suggestions of immateriality in the apparition’s figure despite its solid-looking form.

Later hauntings

Throughout later decades the house changed hands a number of times, and is currently in use. It has most recently been divided into flats. And while the phenomenon seemed to have gradually stopped for the Despard family, it continued on with newer generations of witnesses of varying backgrounds right up until the 1990s. Later witnesses described the apparition as occasionally being outside of the house and surprisingly the apparition has also been reported to have appeared in other buildings in Cheltenham that would have been around in the time period of the first hauntings. “The figure of a woman resembling the ghost of St Anne’s was seen in 1958 and 1961 in Cotswold Lodge, a building now demolished, which stood on the opposite side of the road from St Anne’s and within sight of it.”

The following is an example of a haunting in the old Despard family home, which was then known as St Anne’s, nearly eight decades later.

“In the autumn of 1969 I stayed at St Anne’s with a number of clergy for a residential weekend. It is important to state I had not heard of St Anne’s reputation and therefore had no expectations. Having said evensong the clergy decided to visit a local hotel for a drink. Feeling the onset of a heavy cold, I decided to stay in and have an early night, helping myself to tea downstairs and taking two aspirin tablets. It was our custom to make our own beds to help the staff of St Anne’s, so I made my bed very carefully. It was not very warm in the bedroom and retired. I fell asleep quickly.

I woke to the strange sound and sensation of fingers scratching the eiderdown across the back of my neck and thought it must be a silly practical joke by some other man who had come into the bedroom, leaving the others outside. So I sat up suddenly to catch the man in the act, as it were, only to find no-one by the bed. The room felt bitterly cold when, to my amazement, the bed covers, which I had carefully tucked in myself, seemed to be pulled slowly from me onto the floor at the foot of the bed.

I had said the office of evensong in the chapel and my prayer book was still open at the page by my bedside. The room was quite light without the bedside lamp. Quickly I repeated: Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord, And by Thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of the night, etc . . .

As I said the words, a grey shape took form by the door and came at me slowly, passing over my head and through the wall on my left shoulder. I put on the light and searched the landing, staircase and house. I was alone. No-one had returned from the hotel and it was still only about 10.45. I remade the bed and returned to sleep, thinking my cold was worse, and that I had experienced a bad dream and caused my own bedding to slip by my own movements. Perhaps the grey figure was a trick of moonlight and my cold feelings, my slight temperature and even fear. I decided to say nothing. In 1970 when I was at Wells Theological College a discussion one evening turned to a great surprise when someone, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, began to describe experiences at St Anne’s House, Cheltenham. It seems that I was not alone! So I described the above incident. I learned that another clergyman (who has since died) had had an almost identical experience to mine and that I had slept in the principal bedroom, and the wall through which the grey shape had passed led to what had been a dressing room of the original house. Changes in the structure had been made when it became a retreat house and a doorway from one room to the other was blocked by a partition wall. This account by the clergyman, whose name I am withholding, is of great interest.“ ( Andrew Mackenzie 1986)

It is notable that this later experience included poltergeist-type phenomenon i.e., the removal of the bedclothes, which was missing from the list of happenings in the house during the occupancy of the Despard family in the 1880s.

St Anne’s was closed as a Diocesan house on December 31st 1970 and in 1973 was bought by a housing association for conversion into flats. The first tenants, a taxi driver and his wife, took the second floor flat that contained Rosina’s old bedroom and from where she (Rosina) first saw the apparition of the woman in black. The couple soon began to experience haunting phenomenon. These later events were also very well documented.

Apparitions, Liminality and Symbolism

So what really happened? Who or what is the “woman-in-black?” I believe we should focus our attention on the very first witness. It is the experients in any paranormal event that can be considered the one truly tangible component of any given case. Whatever is occurring we can all agree it is a human (living) experience.

In this case witness zero is the young medical student Rosina Despard. Who was she? What was going on in her life, and in a greater general context of the world in which she lived in? Apparitions and other haunting phenomenon by their nature and popular definition can be defined as liminal.

“The term liminality has its origins in Anthropology, referring to the borders of and spaces between categories. Limen in Latin means threshold, and anthropologists have become interested in a certain state experienced by persons as they pass over the threshold from one stage of life to another. For instance, the rite of passage at puberty has three phases: separation from ones status as a child, then a liminal stage, and finally reintegration into society as a full and independent member with rights and responsibilities that the initiate did not have before. During the liminal stage, the between stage, ones status becomes ambiguous, one is neither here nor there one is betwixt and between all fixed points of classification.”

George Hansen in his book The Paranormal and the Trickster noted the liminal nature of PSI events; ghosts, UFOs and other paranormal occurrences.

Ghosts are us and they are not us, they are not really alive nor are they really dead. When examining trends within haunting reports it can be noted that they are often representative of places that could be considered liminal too. This includes specific locations within the haunted buildings such as windows, doorways, staircases, and hallways where apparitions are more often reported. Time periods can also be considered in liminal states, and it would be of interest to see if this corresponds in a general time frame of lengthy hauntings like the Morton case that can be a century or more in duration with groups of reported haunting experiences separated by decades or an entire generation. Did each outbreak of haunting occur during a liminal time period? This line of inquiry could be expanded within investigations of hauntings to include the experient. Are they in a liminal state as defined by their culture? An example of a liminal state in modern Western culture is divorce and, even more so, marital separation, and another example may be graduate school, an often protracted liminal state, as graduate students are not yet professionals nor are they students, yet they are both.

So who or what was the “Woman In Black” Really?

Let us now consider the Morton case where the very first experient, a 19 year old Rosina Clara Despard in Victorian England (a period of well defined gender roles) is studying to become a forensic doctor at the time of the apparition’s first appearance.

Witness zero begins experiencing an apparition of a “woman-in black” in the house she shares with her parents and younger siblings. It is of interest here to note that in Jungian analysis the home or house is symbolic of the self or psyche. Residences feature predominately in cases of hauntings and people in general when thinking of ghosts may picture in their minds the classic image of a “haunted house.”

Rosina not only could be seen as personally living in a liminal state at the time of her experience, and during a liminal time period in general for women; the first women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom was becoming a national movement around the time frame of the hauntings. This is an excerpt from a paper examining the lives of women in the U.K from 1905-1914 similar to that of our witness.

“Ambitious middle-class women faced enormous challenges and the goals of entering suitable careers, such as nursing, teaching, law and medicine. The loftier their ambition, the greater the challenge. Physicians kept tightly shut the door to medicine; there were a few places for women as lawyers, but none as clerics.” Halévy, History of the English People: The Rule of Democracy (1905-1914) (1932) pp 500-6 Life as a young woman living in a large middle-class family and training for a career in science during Victorian times could not have been easy on Rosina by any stretch of the imagination and it is a shame we have no personal accounts of her thoughts, feelings and life in general beyond her ghostly experiences. If we examine the life of witness zero in this case, and in general the location and time frame that Rosina lived in, we can then begin to speculate a little more on symbolism of the experience as a possible expression of Rosina herself.

The apparition viewed as a woman–in-black so popularly thought to be the representation of a dead widow can in my opinion be interpreted as symbolic of the social constraints on women of that era. The apparition then becomes a mirror of the first witness’ life, and the general circumstance of the location and era in which she lived. The apparition could in fact be an outward subconscious projection of Rosina’s own inner realm and psyche, and that of a greater collective unconscious.

It is further interesting to note that after the Despard family moved the haunting activity then becomes dormant until the late 1960s, and reignites during another pivotal time in the woman’s rights movement when the house was occupied by males and served as a Diocesan house. PSI as far as we understand it knows no constraints of space or time and perhaps Rosina’s haunting became reactivated during this highly charged time for women and the so called sexual revolution?

These ideas can be further explored within this case and the later hauntings, and I will write more in-depth about that at another time. The purpose of this blog entry is to merely give the reader a taste at the potential insights that can emerge if we free ourselves from the constraint of the dead person hypothesis. Focusing on the witness and using some of these ideas and tools to reexamine older cases with well established time lines and documentation and newer ones going forward, could provide a much better framework in my opinion, for attempting to understand the true nature of these experiences.

References, credits, and further reading suggestions:

Cameron T and Roll W. An Investigation of Apparitional Experiences, THETA Volume 11, Number 4, Winter 1983 (pp 74-80)
Copelman Dina, London’s Women Teachers: Gender, Class and Feminism 1870-1930 (1996)
Evans Hilary, Visions Apparitions, and Alien Visitors: A Comparative Study of the Entity Enigma, Great Britain: Aquarian Press, 1984
Evans, H. The Ghost Experience in a Wider Context. In Houran, J., & Lange, R. (Eds.), Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001
Gurney E, Myers F. W. H, and Podmore F, Phantasms of the Living. Trubner and Co., London, 1886.
Hansen George P, The Trickster and the Paranormal, New York: Xlibris, 2001
Jaffe Aniela, Apparitions: An Archetypal Approach to Death, Dreams and Ghosts (c) 1983
Mackenzie Andrew, Hauntings and apparitions. London; Paladin 1986
Molto Kimberly, True Tales of the Paranormal, Toronto: Hounslow , 2002
Morton, R. C. Record of a haunted house. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 8, 1892 pp 311 – 332.
Tyrrell G.N.M, Apparitions, Great Britain: Collier Books, 1963 [First published 1943]

House photo from Ghosts of Britain.com
Women-In-Black apparitions uncredited on Pinterest
Audio version of this essay on Youtube

Sunday, May 19, 2024