On the 10th August, 1901, two English women experienced what could only be described as a time slip, during a visit to the Palace of Versailles, Paris. The controversy over exactly what these women saw on that day would linger on for decades.
The two women were Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, both academics, principal and vice-principal respectively of St. Hugh's College, Oxford. They were on vacation in France and decided to spend a day at Versailles.
During the afternoon, after touring the palace, they set off for a walk around its spacious grounds. In particular, they wanted to visit another house on the property known as the Petit Trianon.
The Petit Trianon is almost a mile from the palace, and the two women were unfamiliar with its location. Although they used a map, they soon became lost. As they wandered, they passed a deserted farmhouse and noticed an old plough lying by the side of the road. Immediately, Miss Moberly began to feel strange, as if a dark depression was coming over her. There was no reason for her change in mood, as the walk was enjoyable enough, even if they had become lost.
Something wasn't right. What's more, her companion, Miss Jourdain, also sensed "a depression and a loneliness" about her surroundings. Further up the road, they came across two men dressed in long green coats with small three-cornered hats. They appeared to be gardeners, as one was holding a spade and a wheelbarrow was nearby. The women asked the men the way to the Petit Trianon and were directed down a path directly in front of them.
Shortly, after making another wrong turn, they came upon a gazebo-like structure. The dark mood hung even heavier over them here. Everything was very still. A man was standing by the gazebo. He had a dark complexion and his face appeared to be pitted, as if with small pox. However, this couldn't be right as it was 1901. Upon seeing him, Miss Jourdain's depression changed to fear. She was certain that the man was very evil, so they continued on their way quickly.
Just then someone came rushing up behind them and warned them that they were going the wrong way. He spoke quickly in French and gestured to the women, but they had trouble understanding him. He seemed to indicate that they should head right and cross a bridge. Later, though, Miss Moberly recalled that he had said something about looking for the house. They crossed the bridge and arrived at what they assumed to be the Petit Trianon.
They arrived at the rear of the building, where Miss Moberly saw a woman seated on a chair beneath the balustrade of the rear terrace. She wore a light summer dress, and a shady white hat, perched on a good deal of fair hair that fluffed around her forehead. She thought she was a tourist, but that her dress was old-fashioned and rather unusual. Again, they experienced a sensation of intense gloom.
Suddenly a footman came rushing out of the nearby building, slamming the door behind himself. The footman told them that the entrance to the Petit Trianon was on the other side of the building, and so they walked around the house. They toured the house and afterward had tea at a local hotel before returning to Paris.
Three months later, back in England, Miss Moberly happened to mention the sketching woman to Miss Jourdain. Miss Jourdain declared that she had not seen such a woman. They were intrigued by this element of mystery. How could one of them have seen a figure and not the other? When they further compared recollections they both remembered feeling that something strange had occurred in the garden, so they decided to each write down a separate account of what they had seen and compare notes.
It turned out that there were a number of figures whom Moberly had seen, and Jourdain had not, but on other details they agreed. Investigating further, Jourdain discovered that the day on which they had visited the palace was the anniversary of the sacking of Versailles in 1792 during the French Revolution.
Versailles was once the residence of French kings, and one of them, Louis XVI, had given the Petit Trianon to his wife, Marie Antoinette, as her own private getaway at Versailles. But Marie was known for her extravagant taste and arrogance during a time when France suffered from an economic crisis. A poor harvest in 1788, along with a government heavily in debt to foreign nations, resulted in a large increase in the price of bread. That angered the ordinary citizens of France, who demanded a change in the French government, beginning the French Revolution.
They learned that at the height of the French Revolution, on October 5, 1789 Marie Antoinette had been sitting at the Petit Trianon when she first learned that a mob from Paris was marching towards the palace gates. Both she and Louis XVI were captured at Versailles by a mob of angry citizens. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had witnessed the massacre of their Swiss Guards and had been imprisoned in the Hall of the Assembly. Finally, they were beheaded in January 1793.
The two began to wonder if they had somehow seen the ghost of Marie Antoinette, or rather, if they had somehow slipped back in time. As if to confirm their suspicion, Moberly came across a picture of Marie Antoinette drawn by the artist Wertmuller. To her astonishment it depicted the same sketching woman she had seen near the Petit Trianon. Even the clothes were the same.
What struck the women about their research was one date: August 10. Not only was this the date in 1792 that Marie and Louis XVI had been imprisoned, but it was also the day--109 years later--that Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain had visited Versailles. Was this merely a coincidence, or did it suggest that their experience was real? This helped convince the women that they had travelled back in time. Secondly, Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain concluded that they had seen not the present Petit Trianon, but the Trianon as it appeared over a hundred years earlier.
Intrigued by the growing mystery, Jourdain returned to Versailles in January 1902 and discovered that she was unable to retrace their earlier steps. The grounds seemed mysteriously altered.
Jourdain and Moberly decided that Marie Antoinette's memory of this terrifying moment must have somehow lingered and persisted through the years, and it was into this memory that they had inadvertently stumbled. This explained the sensation of dark depression they had felt at the time.
When Miss Jourdain asked acquaintances if they had heard any stories about ghosts at the Petit Trianon, a French friend told her that on a certain day in August Marie Antoinette could be seen sitting outside the Petit Trianon, wearing a light hat and a pink dress. Her friend continued to say that the entire place is haunted with the people who used to be there with her.
Between 1902 and 1904, Miss Jourdain made frequent trips to Versailles, with her students. Each time she visited Versailles, looking for clues to the haunting, she was unable to find the gazebo and the bridge they had seen on their walk. She could not understand why they should be missing. She suspected they had travelled back to an earlier time when the gazebo and bridge were present.
Later, in July 1904, both Miss Jourdain and Miss Moberly were able to visit Versailles together. Not only could they not find the gazebo or the bridge, but they also noticed that the grounds were crowded with people, walking or sitting in the shade. This was quite different from their 1901 visit, when they saw only five people. Where had all the tourists been?
The two women sent a letter to the Society for Psychical Research declaring their discovery that the Trianon was haunted. But the Society deemed their claims unworthy of investigation. Thereupon the two women decided to conduct a full-scale investigation of their own to prove that they had seen the ghost of Marie Antoinette.
The accounts of Versailles they wrote in 1901 were the corner-stone of this investigation. They sought to prove that in these accounts they had accurately described what Versailles looked like in 1789. Their argument was that because they did not possess any knowledge of eighteenth-century Versailles when they wrote these accounts, it would have been impossible for them to produce such detailed descriptions unless the scene they had witnessed really was Marie Antoinette's memory of 1789 Versailles that they had somehow stumbled into.
The result of their investigation was the publication in 1911 of a book titled An Adventure. They published it under the pseudonyms of Miss Morison and Miss Lamont. This is some of the evidence they unearthed:
- They had seen a plough, but on later trips they learned that no ploughs had been kept in the gardens of Versailles in 1901. However, an old plough had been displayed on the grounds in 1789.
- They had crossed a small bridge, but on later trips they could not locate this same bridge. However, they discovered that a bridge had existed there in 1789. There was no gazebo on the grounds of the Petit Trianon. However, the women discovered an old map that showed a gazebo-like building where they had seen one. It had been torn down long before 1901.
- They had seen two men in green coats. Neither the gardeners nor any other employees at Versailles wore green coats and tri-cornered hats in 1901. These men, they later learned, were wearing the uniform of Marie Antoinette's Swiss Guard.
- They had seen a sinister man, apparently suffering from small pox. This man exactly resembled Comte de Vaudreuil, an enemy of Marie Antoinette.
- The running man was a messenger sent to the Petit Trianon to warn Marie Antoinette that a mob of French citizens was headed to Versailles.
- They saw a footman rush out of a building and slam a door shut behind himself. However, this door was actually barred and bolted shut when they visited, and had been kept so for many years.
- Finally, the sketching lady herself could have been no one else but Marie Antoinette.
An Adventure provoked an outpouring of public interest, selling 11,000 copies by 1913. But it also attracted a great deal of criticism. Critics argued that the two women either simply got lost, or their memories of what they had seen were mistaken.
The two women defended themselves, and published the accounts of their experience that they had each written in November 1901 as proof that they had seen things which they later discovered corresponded exactly to what the grounds of Versailles looked like in 1789. They argued that there was no way they could have known about such details.
After the women died (Jourdain in 1924, Moberly in 1937) their identities were revealed. The revelation that they were respected academics created further interest in the case, and a series of studies of the case followed.