By Esther Inglis-Arkell
Does your town have a Woman in White? Of course it does. There is no town that doesn't have a woman in a white dress who wafts around drafty halls of the local manor, or paces the widow's walk of the local hotel. Find out about the woman in white legend, some local examples, and share your own stories of ghostly women in white. I know you have them. Everyone does.
The I remember living in was mostly open land until the 1960s. It was built up in the few decades between then and the time I arrived. The only old structure in the entire town was a large Catholic school, and so that is where the Woman in White used to hang out. Some say the school building used to be a convent and the woman was a nun in love with a priest, some say it used to be the house of a robber baron and the woman was his unfortunate wife, some say it was always a school and she was a lovelorn teacher. It doesn't really matter. Just as long as a ghostly woman gliding over the grounds, the reason could be supplied later.
White Women or White Ladies, are an international phenomenon. In Holland and Germany, centuries ago, they are said to be healers and gentle spirits. German legend has them appearing at noon, blindingly beautiful in the light. Dutch legend has them haunting graveyards during the night, the spirits of healers passed from the earth. They are not necessarily ghosts. Often they're treated more as elves or earth spirits, though they began as humans. Up in Ireland, and more northern countries, wailing women in white are said to foretell death. Down south, in Mexico, the La Llorona legend has it that these women in white drowned their children, and lurk by water to drown more. Yūrei, in Japan, are vengeful spirits attached to certain objects or places, and attack the people who come into contact with them. But these are all old legends.
In modern woman in white stories, there is always a tragic love story. The woman in white is rarely someone's sister, daughter, or mother. Oh, she maybe be any or all of those things (It's a pretty safe bet that she's someone's daughter.), but those aren't the things that her legend is dealing with. One of the next major towns I lived in was on the coast. A restaurant that overlooked the ocean was built on a beach famous for being the landing ground for bootleggers bringing alcohol close to San Francisco by boat, and loading it on to trucks to make the journey into the city. This much is true. The idea that a woman in white walks the edge of the cliff (or what the less romantic among us would call the parking lot) is not as well established, but the legend continues. Supposedly she was the bootlegger's girlfriend, while having a less wealthy lover on the side. The bootlegger killed her. It's not clear whether she was killed at that drop off point or whether her body just washed up there, but the important points; love, sex, betrayal, murder, are there in most Woman in White Legends. She's someone's unhappy wife, or illicit lover, or suicidal betrothed, or some other sad tale of romantic woe.
San Francisco itself has a rather unusual ghost -an urban woman in white who walks outside. Most cities have figures that appear in the windows of great old houses, or flit through the walls or along the roofs of old hotels, but we have one that walks up and down California Street, a high-traffic road that crosses the entire city. Our outdoor woman in white is said to be Flora Sommerton. She was eighteen in 1876, a celebrated beauty, an heiress, and the toast of society. Her parents decided to cement her status by forcing her to marry a wealthy older man. Flora's legend is as confused about the details as any other. According to one version she fled down California on the day of her wedding, in her wedding dress. Another has her running out on everyone on the evening of her betrothal in a white ballgown. What's atypical about Flora is she shows up again - just not alive. Fifty years later, in Butte, Montana, a woman's body in the same white dress was found in a hotel room. The room was supposedly covered in clippings about the disappearance of Flora, but the body was never positively identified.
What also stands out about Flora is her age. All women in white seem to be young and pretty, but Flora is just a few years out of the stage when we would call her that other ubiquitous phantom, the Girl in White. Any places that don't have a Woman in White will tend to have a little girl in a white dress floating around a house, staring at people. While Women in White are generally glimpsed from afar and go away soon, little girl ghosts have more of a personality. Sometimes they're solemn and sad, staring at people from windows and doorways. Sometimes they're mischievous, can be heard laughing or running around, and will hide things in the house. Sometimes, they're downright Japanese-horror-movie malevolent. (It's not a coincidence that Linda Blair spent most of The Exorcist in a white night dress.) But they're always around.
Perhaps there's a reason for that. Perhaps young girl ghosts grow up into Woman in White ghosts, and then when they can't squeeze into the dress anymore they head over to Butte, Montana. Whatever the protocol, it's clear that the Woman in White shows up anywhere and everywhere, including your town, right now - possibly reading this over your shoulder. Go ahead and look. I'll wait.