On an August summer day in 1901, two women by the names of Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain were walking in the gardens near to the Petit Trianon in the Palace of Versailles, France. It should have been a normal vacation for the two British academics, but what they reported was a most unusual experience.
It apparently began with an unnatural feeling of “oppression and dreariness,” then the two women allegedly saw a host of phantom-like figures, including Marie Antoinette. The Petit Trianon, which was gifted to her by Louis XVI in 1774, was a favorite retreat of the French queen.
The odd occurrence, which the women concluded was a time slip, led them to issue a book about it, in 1911.
Miss Moberly was 55-years-old at the time of the account, and Miss Jourdain was aged 38.
Born in Winchester, England, in 1846, Miss Moberly came from a respectable family — her father was the Bishop of Salisbury. She was the principal of Oxford’s St. Hugh’s College, founded in 1866 exclusively as a school for women.
Miss Moberly retained the position of principal until 1915, when the position was taken up by her close friend, Eleanor Jourdain.
But in the summer of 1901, when the two women traveled to France, they were only just getting to know each other. The trip was planned to enable them to spend time together and build their friendship.
It was a journey they certainly remembered until the end of their lives, and which perhaps defined their relationship.
The women were reportedly taking a stroll in the estate of Trianon, inside the Versailles complex.
The path that leads from the main palace, the Grand Trianon, to the Petit Trianon is surrounded by ornamental gardens, forests, as well as other impressive structures like the neoclassical rotunda that is the Temple de l’Amour, and the opulent-looking Belvedere Pavilion.
The Petit Trianon itself is a neoclassical gem. It’s a small château, completed in 1768 by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, the principal architect under King Louis XV of France. This is also the assumed place where Marie Antoinette was first informed of the imminent arrival of the French revolutionary mob.
The estate of Trianon may generally evoke a feeling of mystery, both for its appearance and associated history. Could it have been this feeling that so much overwhelmed Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain? Or was their memory playing tricks on them?
During the odd encounter, the two women later shared that they saw apparitions dressed in 18th-century costumes, as well as buildings and bridges that apparently just vanished.
According to the two women, some of the people also interacted with them. Little did they think how strange it all was in the instance it was happening.
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One encounter concerned a woman who was cleaning a building which later turned out doesn’t exist. Another, men in uniform who were not behaving themselves at their best. Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain later concluded these were members of the Swiss Guard.
More phantom-like figures? A handsome young man wearing a fancy hat appeared out of nowhere and supposedly told them to hurry towards the palace.
And perhaps the most striking moment is witnessing one woman who appeared to be sketching something. However, it was only Miss Moberly who remembered seeing her. Her assistant later claimed that she only sensed the presence of this woman… who according to their conclusion was none other than Marie Antoinette!
After this strange experience at Versailles, the two women took some time before they started dissecting the afternoon in detail. Both of them eventually concluded they must have experienced something paranormal — that they probably traveled in time.
They remembered different things. For instance, only Miss Jourdain could recall hearing music, or the sight of farmers working close to the small château.
One year later, the two academics wrote to the Society for Psychical Research and shared their adventure, but they were quickly dismissed. The women went on to investigate the case on their own.
Everything became more suspicious as Miss Jourdain went to visit Versailles once again. To her shock, the look of the entire place was much different than what she could recall from the first visit. Entire paths seemed to be missing. The distance between different spots around the gardens appeared different, too.
Determined to find out the real identity of the people who appeared on their Versailles walk together, and the vanished buildings they saw, Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain eventually offered their interpretations and explanations of things.
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According to The Telegraph, the two women believed they physically encountered memories of Marie Antoinette from her time in prison in Paris in 1792. The queen was remembering, or sort of daydreaming her last day at Trianon in 1789.
Some facts from history that meddle here? It was on August 10, 1792, when the Swiss Guards were slaughtered in Paris and time was running out from the monarchs, too.
Moberly and Jourdain published their story, albeit under pseudonyms, in a book titled An Adventure. What they had on the offer was indeed quite a compelling read. They had certainly invested some of their academic research skills in it. By 1913, the book reportedly sold 11,000 copies.
Using false names for the book was probably a wise decision, as by sharing such ghostly stories, Moberly and Jourdain were also putting their reputation as academics at the stake, as much as the reputation of their school.
We do not exclude the option what the women saw was a real ghostly situation, that they did experience the unbelievable. But it is more likely to assert that the alleged ghost sightings were of real people and the women just wrongfully interpreted the entire scene.
Perhaps the people they saw were real, dressed up in 18th century costumes. They could have been dressed like that for several reasons. Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain could have wandered into a film set or a historic reenactment (remember the kind guy who allegedly told the women to hurry to the palace?). Or, it could have also been a party, one thrown by Comte de Montesquieu.
A terrific figure that this Comte was, he is known to have hosted some extravagant parties in this very area back in those days. The strangely dressed people could have been his guests.
And if none of these scenarios rationalize the entire ghost story? It may have been that the two women were obsessed with the figure of Marie Antoinette, to the degree they let their imaginations wander a lot more than needed.
Spiritual medium Hélène Smith had once claimed she was Marie Antoinette in one of her previous incarnations (the same woman also claimed she could talk with Martians).
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Miss Jourdain died in 1924, and Miss Moberly in 1937; only after their deaths was their identity revealed as the real writers of the 1911 book. This stirred more interest on the entire case, but also more criticism. Most people denounced the ghost story and eventually, everything was forgotten a few years later.
Stefan A. is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Vintage News. He is a graduate in Literature. He also runs the blog This City Knows.