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.

When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

Gas Leak at University of Canberra Library in Australia Revealed to Be Durian Fruit

iStock.com/dblight
iStock.com/dblight

On Friday, May 10, firefighters in the Australian Capital Territory received a concerning call: There was a possible gas leak in the University of Canberra library. After evacuating the building and conducting a thorough search, the team found the source of the toxic smell was actually a harmless durian, a Southeast Asian fruit that's infamous for is pungent odor, The Guardian reports.

Writers have been attempting to capture the durian's stench on paper for centuries. Bangkok-based food writer Bob Halliday said Durian smells like "a bunch of dead cats," and 19th-century journalist Bayard Taylor wrote, "To eat it seems to be the sacrifice of self-respect." It may smell like something that died, but Durian's distinct odor actually comes from special genes that release sulfur at a supercharged rate.

The stench apparently is also reminiscent of deadly gas. Emergency services searched the University of Canberra library and conducted "atmospheric monitoring" before tracing the reported gas leak to some fruit. The durian had been placed near an air vent on the building's second floor by an unidentified culprit. It's since been removed in a sealed bag and the library has reopened.

This marks the second time in recent memory that a durian fruit has inspired panic at an Australian university. Just over a year ago, the library at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology was evacuated following reports of a gas leak that also turned out to be a forgotten durian.

[h/t The Guardian]

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