The Edwardian Women Who Claimed to Travel Back in Time

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Marie Antoinette: Ian Dagnall and Petit Trianon: Heritage Image Partnership Lt, Alamy. Clouds: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Marie Antoinette: Ian Dagnall and Petit Trianon: Heritage Image Partnership Lt, Alamy. Clouds: iStock

On October 5, 1789, Marie Antoinette dressed in a casual, low-cut dress and a wide-brimmed hat and arranged a campstool on the grassy terrace of her chateau, the Petit Trianon, in Versailles. She was perched there sketching some nearby trees when her quiet repose was interrupted by a breathless page, bringing news that an angry mob was on their way from Paris.

These were the events of the French queen’s last day at her beloved Trianon, and the beginning of the end for the French monarchy. Or at least, these are the details alleged by Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain in their book The Adventure. The two women claimed that when they toured the royal palace in 1901, something extraordinary happened: They were transported back to the 18th century, where they glimpsed the queen on what may have been the last happy day of her life.

A portrait of Charlotte Anne Moberly
Charlotte Anne Moberly
The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

It was a story that Moberly and Jourdain would tell for the rest of their days. Moberly was the well-respected daughter of the Bishop of Salisbury, and the first principal of St. Hugh's College for women in Oxford; Jourdain was slated to be her vice-principal. To get better acquainted, Moberly took a trip to Paris to visit Jourdain, who had an apartment in the city. On August 10, 1901, the two women decided to take a side trip to tour the Palace of Versailles.

After the tour was over, the pair were sitting in the Hall of Mirrors with time to spare when Moberly suggested they see the Petit Trianon. On their way, however, they got lost, and began to feel that something was off. They stopped to ask directions from two men dressed in greenish jackets and tricorn hats, who they assumed to be gardeners because of a wheelbarrow and other tools nearby. Jourdain also saw, to her right, a cottage; in the doorway stood a woman passing a water jug to a young girl, both dressed in unusual clothes. The pair continued toward the Trianon on the men’s directions, but things soon took an eerie turn, as Jourdain later wrote in their book:

"I began to feel as if I were walking in my sleep; the heavy dreaminess was oppressive. At last we came upon a path crossing ours, and saw in front of us a building consisting of some columns roofed in, and set back in the trees. Seated on the steps was a man with a heavy black cloak round his shoulders, and wearing a slouch hat. At that moment the eerie feeling which had begun in the garden culminated in a definite impression of something uncanny and fear-inspiring. The man slowly turned his face, which was marked by smallpox: his complexion was very dark. The expression was very evil and yet unseeing ... I felt a repugnance to going past him."

Just then, another man—speaking in a strange accent—came running up behind them and hurriedly told them the path to take to the Trianon, which led away from the man they feared. After walking on a bit more, they found the chateau at last. On its northside terrace, Moberly observed a pretty woman with fluffy blond hair and a shady hat sketching. "I thought she was a tourist," Moberly later wrote, "but that her dress was old-fashioned and rather unusual ... I looked straight at her; but some indescribable feeling made me turn away annoyed at her being there." Moberly and Jourdain walked up to the terrace and were guided by a boy to the front drive. Then their foray into the past ended.

It would be a week before they spoke to each other of the unusual events of that day. At first, they agreed that the Petit Trianon must be haunted. But they eventually decided these weren't any ordinary apparitions.

Three months after their tour of Versailles, Jourdain was preparing a class lesson on the French Revolution when she learned that on August 10, 1792—109 years to the day before Moberly and Jourdain’s encounter at Petit Trianon—the Tuileries Palace had been besieged and burned by the Paris Commune. The royal family, including the queen, were forced into the Hall of Assembly, where they were taken prisoner three days later. The monarchy would be officially abolished the following month; Marie Antoinette was executed on October 16, 1793. Moberly and Jourdain concluded that what they had actually walked into was a vivid memory the queen had conjured during the burning of the Tuileries in 1792, picturing her last peaceful moments at Petite Trianon.

A photograph of Eleanor Jourdain
Eleanor Jourdain
ART Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

It would not be until 10 years later, in 1911, that Moberly and Jourdain published The Adventure, under the pseudonyms Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont, respectively. The teachers set out to bolster their supernatural claims in true academic fashion by combing through the French National Archives and extensively researching French history. They compared maps of the Versailles grounds from 1789 and 1901, analyzed the clothing, and made several return visits in an attempt to prove that the Versailles they experienced was that of the 18th century, rather than the 20th. They concluded that the two gardeners in green were members of the queen’s Swiss Guard, the scary man was Comte de Vaudreuil (who played a role in betraying the queen), the pretty woman in the shady hat was Marie Antoinette herself, and the running man was the page who informed her of the mob.

The book was widely popular, being reprinted multiple times in its first year, selling 11,000 copies by 1913, and going through five editions. But along with its popularity came much criticism. Some claimed that Moberly and Jourdain’s account was overly embellished and not the work of anything supernatural, pointing to inconsistencies between early accounts the pair had sent to the Society of Psychical Research and the book. Other criticisms of the book and the two women were, however, of a more personal nature. (Their identities as the authors was an open secret, since the women had shared their experiences with family, friends, and colleagues; the third edition also used their real names.) Being two unmarried, childless women past the usual age for matrimony—some sources say they also lived together—raised many eyebrows in the first part of the 20th century, and their lack of conformity to the era's expectation for women fed many alternative theories surrounding the encounter.

Lucille Iremonger, a student at St. Hugh's and a descendant of Comte de Vaudreuil, wrote a scathing and homophobic description of the incident in her 1957 book, The Ghosts of Versailles. She speculated that the two women were romantically involved, and suggested that their tale was in part the result of their "sexual deviancy."

Other writers argue that Moberly and Jourdain did witness something out of the ordinary, but it had nothing to do with ghosts or time slips. In Prince of Aesthetes: Count Robert de Montesquiou, 1855-1921, Philippe Jullian speculated that the women had stumbled onto a historical tableau vivant for a fancy dress party hosted by the dandy poet Robert de Montesquiou and his secretary and lover Gabriel Yturri. The guards were other party goers, the queen was either a woman of Montesquiou’s close circle or a man dressed in drag, and Comte de Vaudreuil could have been Montesquiou himself. The idea was that as two English “spinsters,” Moberly and Jourdain might have been so unfamiliar with such parties that they conjured hallucinations instead of understanding their surroundings.

In other words, Moberly and Jourdain were either so gay that they hallucinated the event or so prudishly straight that they hallucinated it.

Dame Joan Evans, a historian and former student at St. Hugh's, obtained the copyright to The Adventure as Jourdain's literary executor and accepted Jullian’s explanation of the events, suspending printing after the fifth edition in 1955. Moberly and Jourdain, however, never retracted their stories. In 1924, Jourdain became embroiled in a scandal at St. Hugh's after wrongfully firing a tutor; it was clear she would be asked to resign by the college council, but died of heart failure at the age of 61 before they could do so. Moberly died in 1937 at the age of 90, still telling the story of her adventure at Versailles to those who would listen.

A ‘Book Ripper’ in Herne Bay, England Is Ripping Book Pages, Then Putting Them Back on Shelves

demaerre/iStock via Getty Images
demaerre/iStock via Getty Images

Herne Bay, a town about 60 miles east of London, has fallen prey to a new kind of ripper. According to The Guardian, a criminal known as the “Book Ripper” has torn pages within about 100 books in a charity bookstore before placing them back on shelves.

“I’m trying not to be too Sherlock Holmes about it,” Ryan Campbell, chief executive of the charity Demelza, told The Guardian, “but if there’s such a thing as a quite distinctive rip, well, he or she rips the page in half horizontally and sometimes removes half the page.”

Though it’s not the most efficient way to ruin a reading experience, since the pages themselves are still legible as long as they’re left in the book, it’s still devastating to a shop that relies on the generosity of others to serve the underprivileged.

“Of course people donate these books towards the care of children with terminal illness so it’s almost like taking the collection box,” Campbell said.

Since the occasional torn page in a secondhand bookshop isn’t uncommon, booksellers didn’t immediately realize the scope of the issue, but they believe it's been happening for a few months. The Book Ripper targets bookshelves that can’t be seen from the register, and has a favorite genre to vandalize: true crime.

The local library has also reported the same pattern of damage in some of their volumes, and police are now monitoring the situation in both places.

Townspeople are monitoring the situation, too, patrolling bookstores and libraries hoping to apprehend the culprit.

“I’m a little worried about the person,” Campbell said. “It makes you think a little bit about who’s doing this and why they feel the need to do it and what’s going on in their lives.”

[h/t The Guardian]

6 Strange Maritime Mysteries

Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images
Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images

The oceans cover over 70 percent of our planet, so it's little wonder that their seemingly impenetrable depths have provided a series of fascinating mysteries, from missing ships to eerie monsters. Below are six mysteries of the deep—some of which scientists think they've at least partly explained, while others remain truly puzzling.

  1. The Mary Celeste

On December 5, 1872, the crew of the British ship the Dei Gratia spotted a vessel bobbing about 400 miles off the coast of the Azores. They approached the Mary Celeste to offer help, but after boarding the ship were shocked to find it completely unmanned. The crew had disappeared without a trace, their belongings still stowed in their quarters, six months' worth of food and drink untouched, and the valuable cargo of industrial alcohol still mostly in place. The only clues were three and a half feet of water in the hold, a missing lifeboat, and a dismantled pump. It was the beginning of an enduring mystery concerning what happened to the crew, and why they abandoned a seemingly sea-worthy vessel.

Numerous theories have been suggested, including by crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned a short story in 1884 suggesting the crew had fallen victim to an ex-slave intent on revenge. A more recent theory has pointed the finger at rough seas and the broken pump, arguing they forced the captain to issue an order to abandon ship. Since the missing crew have never been traced, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a satisfying answer to the enigma.

  1. The Yonaguni Monument

An underwater area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
An area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
Vincent Lou, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

In 1986, a diver looking for a good spot to watch hammerhead sharks off the coast of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan came across an extraordinary underwater landscape. The area reportedly looked like an ancient submerged village, with steps, holes, and triangles seemingly carved into the rocks. Ever since it was first discovered, controversy has surrounded the site that's become known as the Yonaguni Monument, with some researchers—such as marine geologist Masaaki Kimura—arguing it is a clearly manmade environment, perhaps a city thousands of years old and sunk in one of the earthquakes that plagues the region. Others believe it's a natural geological phenomenon reflecting the stratigraphy (layers) of sandstone in an area with tectonic activity. The area is open to scuba divers, so the really curious can strap on air tanks and decide for themselves.

  1. The Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle has probably spawned more wild theories, column inches, and online discussion than any other ocean mystery—more than 50 ships and 20 aircraft are said to have vanished there. Although the triangle has never officially been defined, by some accounts it covers at least 500,000 square miles and lies between Bermuda, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The mystery first caught the public imagination in December 1945 when Flight 19, consisting of five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers and their 14 crewmembers, were lost without a trace during a routine training operation in the area. Interest was further piqued when it was later reported that one of the search-and-rescue planes dispatched to find the missing team had also disappeared. Articles and books such as Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, first published in 1974 and having since sold over 20 million copies in 30 languages, have served to keep the mystery alive, providing potential theories both natural and supernatural. Scientists—and world-renowned insurers Lloyd’s of London—have attempted to debunk the myth of the Bermuda Triangle, offering evidence that the rate of disappearance in the vast and busy triangle is no higher than other comparable shipping lanes, but such is the power of a good story that this is one story that seems likely to continue to fascinate.

  1. The Kraken

A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, sailors told tales of an enormous sea creature with huge tentacles known as the Kraken. Stories around the mythical kraken first started appearing in Scandinavia in the 12th century, and in 1555 Swedish cartographer Olaus Magnus provided an account of a sea creature with “sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree root up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes.” The stories persisted, often mentioning a creature so large it resembled an island. In his 1755 book The Natural History of Norway, Danish historian Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan described the kraken as “incontestably the largest Sea monster in the world."

Scientists have proposed that these stories might derive from sightings of giant squid (Architeuthis dux), although evidence for an even larger, yet extremely elusive, colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) has also come to light. The colossal squid is found in the deepest part of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, and is thought to be up to 46 feet long and 1100 pounds. The problem is that the animal is so rare very few specimens have been found intact, and no live specimen has ever been observed, which means that estimating its exact size is difficult. Researchers have also noticed that sperm whales have been observed with large scars, and have suggested that these could be the result of violent encounters with the colossal squid, which is known to have sharp rotating hooks on the ends of their tentacles.

  1. The Treasure of the Merchant Royal

The remains of the Merchant Royal are known as one of the richest shipwrecks ever. The ship set sail from the New World in 1641 laden with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 Mexican silver bars, and thousands of precious gems—in total, a haul thought to be worth $1.3 billion today. The ship got caught in a storm and was thought to have gone down somewhere off the coast of Cornwall, England. The lost wreck became known as the “el Dorado of the seas” due to the enormous value of its cargo, and over the years numerous treasure hunters have searched fruitlessly for its final resting place, which remains undiscovered. In 2019 fishermen snagged what is thought to be the anchor from the Merchant Royal, but to date the dangerous conditions and extreme depths at which the wreck is thought to lie have meant it has remained unclaimed.

  1. Attack of the Sea Foam

In December 2011, residents of Cleveleys, England, awoke to what appeared to be a soft blanket of snow. But as locals ventured out into the streets it soon became clear that this was no snowstorm, but instead something far more puzzling. Trees, cars, roads, and houses were all wrapped in a thick, white layer of foam. The Environment Agency were quickly deployed to take samples of the sea foam, since residents were understandably concerned as to the origin of the strange, gloopy substance, fearing it might be caused by pollutants.

The dramatic images of the foam-soaked town soon had journalists flocking to the region to investigate the phenomena, but as quickly as it appeared the foam disappeared, leaving behind only a salty residue. Scientists analyzing the foam confirmed it was not caused by detergents, and instead suspected that it was caused by a rare combination of decomposing algae out at sea and strong winds, which whipped up the viscous foam and blew it into land. The phenomena has apparently occurred at other times before and since, and researchers are now working to try and understand the exceptional conditions that cause it to form so that residents can be warned when another thick blanket is set to descend.

Bonus: The Bloop—Mystery Solved

Over the years, the oceans have produced a number of eerie and often unexplained sounds. In 1997, researchers from NOAA listening for underwater volcanic activity using hydrophones (underwater microphones) noticed an extremely loud, powerful series of noises in the Pacific Ocean. The unusual din excited researchers, who soon named it “The Bloop” in reference to its unique sound.

Theories abounded as to the origin of the bloop—secret military facility, reverberations from a ship’s engine, or an enormous sea creature. The most fanciful suggestion stem from H. P. Lovecraft fans who noticed that the noise came from an area off South America where the sci-fi writer’s fictional sunken city of R’lyeh was supposed to be. They proposed that the bloop might have originated from Lovecraft’s “dead but dreaming” sea creature, Cthulhu. In 2005, however, scientists found that the mysterious sound was in fact the noise made by an icequake—or an iceberg shearing off from a glacier.

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