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  • Victorian Urban Legend: Lady Vanishes December 9, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Lady vanishes

    This is a well known urban legend, but what is of great interest here is the documented splash it made in the UK and particularly at English dinner parties. We are in 1913 so not really Victorian England, but surely the content justifies its inclusion in the series? The tale, at least this variant of the tale, was first published in ‘A Literary Letter’ in The Sphere (5 Apr 1913), 26 by Clement K. Shorter (obit 1925), one of those tiresome literary commentators that the UK pumps out. The full version is included here as an appendix below for those who want the total immersion experience. Here, instead, is a summary as it was picked up elsewhere in the press.

    Englishwoman and her daughter, at the conclusion of a tour in the Near East, arrived at a Paris hotel at the time of the Exhibition. They were given separate rooms, one above the other. After resting for a few hours the daughter went to see her mother. Her room was empty and entirely altered. In great agitation she called the maid and then the manager. ‘You are under a delusion’, he told her,  ‘when you arrived at this hotel you were quite alone.’ ‘But,’ said the bewildered girl, ‘we signed our names in the visitors’ book, mother and I.’ The visitors’ book was brought. Above the daughter name, where the mother had signed, was the signature of an entire stranger. Not till a year after did the daughter learn that her mother had died suddenly of plague, and that in order to save Paris from unutterable panic and the Exhibition from absolute ruin it was hurriedly agreed by the authorities that the death should be completely hushed up, and that the daughter should be made to believe, by the repeated denials of hotel servants, hotel manager, and cabman, and by the proofs of the changed room and the altered visitors’ book, that her unfortunate mother never reached the hotel.

    The girl allegedly found out the truth in a letter from the Chambermaid! (Bit weak, but we’ll let that go). When the story was originally told at a dinner at the house of Arthur Benson (obit 1925), Arthur Balfour (some time British  Prime Minister, obit 1930) was at the table. Balfour – we are told – guessed the ending, that in itself makes a nice addition to the tale.

    A journalist for the Pall Mall Gazette (8 April 1913, 3) talked to Shorter, noting ‘By this time, of course, everyone knows the story’.

     ‘I honestly believe it happened,’ Mr. Clement K. Shorter said, interviewed this morning on the subject of that thrilling and mysterious story that tells in ‘the Sphere’ of the disappearance of an Englishwoman in a Paris hotel.’ ‘You really believe?’ I asked. ‘Why?’ ‘Because it is very much easier to believe that it happened than to suppose that it was invented. And, given an illness under precisely the same circumstances, the French police authorities are, I think, the only police authorities the world who are equal to coping with it so brilliantly.’ The story is remarkably strange. Over the dinner-table last night and at luncheon again to-day all London has been discussing it. ‘Can it be true?’ ‘Did Balfour really guess the solution?’ And if it is true, was the action of the French authorities justified?’ are some of the questions that people are asking.

    Shorter had claimed, note, in his original article that: ‘two separate authors of repute who had heard the story have simultaneously used it in fiction one in a short story in an American magazine, another in a long novel.’ Beach is reminded of Hitchcock’s greatest film The Lady Vanishes (1938), where a young woman, on a train, loses an elderly lady she is with. All try and convince her that the woman never existed and that the imagined elder woman was the result of a concussion the girl had received before getting on the train. The film works, in part, because of the amazing chemistry between Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave.

    As the Pall Mall journalist was leaving:

    ‘[Shorter] took up a letter that he had just received from a correspondent who had heard the same story in Paris. ‘What I heard in Paris from a Frenchman’, this correspondent – a young novelist – wrote, ‘is essentially the same, save that the sudden illness from which the Englishwoman died was not bubonic plague, as you say, but black cholera.’

    Can anyone predate the tale to the 19C: drbeachcombing AT gmail DOT com. The tale had quite an impact at the time. The 1913 outbreak would make an excellent case study: someone else should write an article about it always being Paris.

    Sorry, got to go, duty calls and several Peppa Pigs must be printed out.

    Appendix: Two women mother and daughter who spent a a great deal of their lives in travelling, had been for some time in the Near East. While at Constantinople they read in a newspaper that the Paris Exhibition – the last –  was about to open, and as they had decided to go back to England soon they quickly determined that they would go by Paris in order to see the exhibition at an early stage, and so they went by express across Europe, reaching Paris at nine o’clock one evening. At the Gare de Lyon their luggage was put upon the outside of the closed carriage in which they went to their hotel. Their luggage consisted of two boxes and a large carpet bag which the elder woman had been in the habit of carrying for many years. This last the porter placed between the two boxes. The driver, however, for greater security, took it down and placed it under his feet. When these ladies arrived at the hotel they duly signed their names in the book and asked for two separate rooms adjoining. The manager profusely apologised for the fact that this was quite impossible. He gave the elder lady a room on the third floor and her daughter a room on the fourth floor immediately above it, this being the best he could do. Both agreed that as they had dined in the train they would go and lie down, and the daughter promised her mother that she would return in two or three hours to see that she was comfortable. The younger woman then went to her room, and being very tired fell asleep without removing her clothes. Some three hours afterwards at midnight she went to say good night to her mother. She entered, as she believed, her mother’s room on the third floor room No. 49 and found not only that it was empty but that it was quite a different room from the one in which she had left her three hours before. She thought she must have made a mistake and called the chambermaid. The chambermaid professed profound surprise. She remembered mademoiselle, but she had come to the hotel alone. She knew nothing of the elder companion of whom mademoiselle spoke. The young lady, greatly agitated, asked to see the manager, who appeared and told her very emphatically that she was under a delusion, that she had really arrived at the hotel quite alone companionless. ‘But,’ said the bewildered girl, ‘we signed our names in the visitors’ book.’ ‘The porter also will remember us.’ The visitors’ book was brought, in which she found her own name and above it that of an entire stranger. The porter came, and he also assured her that she had come to the hotel at nine o’clock that evening with one trunk. ‘But,’ she said, can the cab-man be found He will remember.’ After some delay the cabman was found near the hotel. She asked him to recall that she had had two H trunks and a carpet bag, that he had deliberately taken the carpet bag from the top of the carriage and placed it under his feet. No the cabman asseverated that he had driven her from the Gare de Lyon to the hotel alone and that she had only one trunk with her. At this stage the girl fainted. The next day the hotel officials saw, with the assistance of a nurse from one of the hospitals, that she was taken to England and to her friends. It was not till a year or two afterwards that she heard what had become of her mother. Now here is a mystery which I wonder if any of my readers have solved. The story was told to me as it was told at some breakfast or luncheon at Cambridge by Mr. Arthur Benson at which I understand Mr. A. J. Balfour was present, and Mr. Balfour guessed the solution at once. That solution is amazing but credible. Within five minutes of the younger of the two visitors to this hotel parting from her mother and going to her room the elderly lady was suddenly taken ill. She had just strength to reach the bell and to ring for assistance. The chambermaid entered the room and found her lying on the floor. She telephoned down to the manager, who came promptly. The manager saw at once that the woman was dead. He sent for a doctor, who was at the moment in the hotel. The doctor came and said, ‘This is a matter for the authorities,’ and telephoned to a department of state. Two officials came down and another doctor, and both doctors certified that the woman had died of bubonic plague, caught no doubt in Constantinople or somewhere in the East. It was agreed that it was impossible that this case should be permitted to receive publicity just at the moment when the Paris Exhibition had opened. It might cause unutterable panic in Paris and ruin the exhibition. With the connivance therefore of the police authorities of Paris and of Government officials it was promptly and immediately arranged that this unfortunate Englishwoman should never have had any existence. The body was removed in a wardrobe from the room and secretly buried or cremated. The furniture in the room was rearranged and, indeed, a paper-hanger was commissioned to alter the colour of the room all this within an hour or so. The chambermaid, the hall porter, and the cab man were bribed or terrorised into silence, and the hotel visitors’ book was tampered with. Not until a year or more afterwards did the chamber maid write to the unhappy girl as to the real fate of her mother. Incredible, you will say, is this story, and yet I fully believe that it actually happened, although I think it could only happen in a city so thoroughly organised as Paris [!!!!]. If it be true, as I am informed, that Mr. Balfour guessed the solution, I can only surmise that in the back of his mind he had heard something about it during the period that he was in office, for it is quite reasonable to suppose that the British Government was informed of what had happened. But what has this to do with a Literary Letter you will ask. Only this, that two separate authors of repute who had heard the story have simultaneously used it in fiction one in a short story in an American magazine, another in a long novel.

    Lady Vanishes.

    Chris from Haunted Ohio Books, 30 Dec 2017:

    Ah, one of my favorite urban legends! I never heard the bit about Mr Balfour, though.  Here is a slightly earlier variant, from The Des Moines [Iowa] Register 10 November 1912, p. 16. The one you have is dated 8 April, which may have been a significant time to reprint the thing. I remember reading a version of this where the door to the room was papered over to look like the rest of the hall. There were, in fact, panics about plague before and during the Paris Exposition (as well as the earlier Great Exposition at the Crystal Palace); that may be where this story arose.