The Mysterious Face in the Window: 1872

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Mrs Daffodil has invited that image-conscious person over at the Haunted Ohio blog to tell us of one of the many ghostly face-in-the-window stories in her files. There are numerous reports in the 1870s of mysterous faces appearing in window glass. These are described variously as “lightning daguerreotypes,” or “etched by lightning,” because they were believed to have been photographed on windows by lightning bolts. Sometimes they were seen to be inexplicably embedded in the glass. These faces had several characteristics: They appeared on window-panes; they could only be seen from the outside–the window glass from the inside appeared unmarked; and attempts to clean the images off the window only made them clearer. This account of a “window-pane ghost” of a dead “wanton woman” appears in The Face in the Window: Haunting Ohio Tales.

A WONDERFUL PHENOMENON

Our readers will remember the notice of the death of Mrs. Mollie Sullivan in our last issue [Mrs. Sullivan, 38, died Oct. 3, 1872 at her Fourth Street residence. To judge by comments in other articles, she had a reputation as a prostitute or kept woman.] On last Saturday, a lady living near the house lately occupied by the deceased woman, discovered the outlines of a human face in a window pane of an upper apartment where Mrs. Sullivan was wont to sit. The news rapidly spread, and so great was the crowd on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, that the owner of the house, Mr. Thomas, crushed the pane with a missile to keep the visitors away.

Before the destruction of the glass it was subjected to thorough and repeated scrubbings, and was perfectly transparent; no chemical coating could be discovered, which disproves the assertion that the woman had a negative taken on the pane and placed in the sash before her demise. It is without doubt one of the wonderful phenomena, either of light or electricity, imprinted on the window while the woman sat looking out. It is to be regretted that the glass was not preserved for examination, instead of being destroyed. Portsmouth [OH] Times 5 October 1872: p. 3

Soon, the papers added a sinister twist.

GHASTLY PHENOMENON

THE FACE OF A DEAD WOMAN COMES BACK TO HAUNT HER MURDERER

The Vanceburg Kentuckian prints the following story:

There formerly lived in [Portsmouth] a woman who kept a house of prostitution, and her name was Mollie Stuart. She, like other women of her stripe, had her “man,” and his name was Sullivan. Well, a week or two ago her man fell out with her and tapped her on the head, from the effects of which she died in about 4 days. And since that time the strangest part of the whole transaction has transpired, and that is that on the panes of one of the windows in the house which she formerly occupied is to be seen, at all times, an apparition, or something for which we know no better name, in the form of Mollie Stuart….Waterloo [IA] Courier 7 November 1872: p. 1

The reporter from the Cincinnati Enquirer went up a ladder to see the mysterious image for himself:

PANIC IN PORTSMOUTH, OHIO

HOW THE PROPHECY OF A LIVING CYPRIAN WAS FULFILLED AFTER HER DEATH

Portsmouth, Ohio, October 5, 1872.

“Have you seen the ghostess?” is the question you are asked at every corner and crossing in the city. Here a group of men sit on the stone steps of All Saints or are gathered together on the sidewalk, the topic of conversation, the ghost. Little children, hurrying to the Sabbath-school, their faces blanched with fear, their lessons unlearned, talking in undertones of the wonderful thing that they have all heard of, and all have seen. Old women hurry down the streets in the burning sun: mothers, with babes in their arms, the cripple on his crutches, the aristocrat in his carriage, the man of business with his quick pace, the doctor, the lawyer, men, women and children of the different nationalities, the professional sport, the women of the town, all hurrying to the spot where thousand-tongued rumor has located the picture of her who was taken from the house last Friday and consigned to the dust from which she was taken.

Mollie Sullivan, or as she was better known, Mollie Stuart, lived on North Fourth Street, four doors below Jefferson, in a two-story frame dwelling, keeping what the keno gentlemen denominate a “sporting house.” The house stands in a little yard about twenty feet front, the end fronting the street. A window in the second story in the side of the building looks out on Fourth Street. Here the woman would sit for hours at a time looking out… For the past three weeks she had felt that her end was approaching and during the early part of the week when a friend said, “Mollie, we will miss you when you are gone,” she replied that they should see her again. “I will come back and look out of the window again,” said she, “after I am dead.”

Yesterday, Saturday afternoon, a lady whose residence is near, rushed breathlessly into the house exclaiming, “Mollie is looking out of the window upstairs.” No credence was given the report, but as the news was communicated, many came to see the wonderful and unexplainable what-is-it? …Your correspondent, not to be outdone by others, was soon on the ground, and there on the middle pane of glass, of the lower row of panes in the bottom sash, was a distinct negative of the dead woman.

I am not one of those superstitious beings who rush into print with a long list of names to bear out the assertion that I have discovered something supernatural, and so I decided to convince myself that there was nothing deceptive in what I seemed to see. Mounting a ladder I reached the window. The room was vacated; no pictures adorned the walls to cast a reflection; no extraneous matter was on the surface of the glass. Thrusting my hand through a broken pane, I placed it over the negative: it still remained. Next, the glass was scrubbed on each side, the sash taken down, but the negative remained on the transparent pane. There was the rounded face, the full forehead, the short black hair, the modeled bust of the dead woman; and there it will remain until the glass is destroyed.

This Sunday forenoon I again visited the house. The window was undisturbed, but the image of the dead woman was still silently looking out into the dim invisibility of the Unknown, heedless of the hundreds that block the streets, sidewalks and neighboring yards. It requires no eagle eyes to see it there, just as she sat. Some crossed themselves as they approached the house. Some would come jesting, laughing at the idle rumor, stand gazing in awe at it a moment, and then retrace their steps, wondering why it was…

Persons visit the place prepared to discredit it anyhow, are the most puzzled of all. Various are the reasons given. Superstition leads all. The vast majority say that it is but the fulfillment of a dying woman’s prophecy. One says the evil spirit placed it there; the moralist claims that the Almighty put it where it is to warn others of her mode of life, and prepare them for a reformation. Another says that her picture was negative in the grease and dirt on the surface of the glass by atmospheric pressures; some say that one of the freaks of electricity caused it. In the absence of any well-known reason, I think some strong reaction going on in the rays of light made a negative of the woman at a single sitting, and the woman may have discovered it herself before she died. Scientific men would do well to secure this pane of glass.

INCOGNITO.

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 October 1872: p. 4

NOTE: A Cyprian was a fancy name for a wanton person or prostitute. The image is described as having short black hair. Women’s hair was usually worn long at this time. If Mrs Sullivan was ill or had in fact been hit by her pimp, her hair might have been cut.

The Mollie Sullivan case set an entire city abuzz. Here are a few more details:

A notorious courtesan, named Mollie Sullivan, who resided on Fourth Street, below Jefferson, died on Thursday last. It was rumored that she came to her death from the effects of a blow inflicted by one Tim. Sullivan; and Tim. was placed under arrest, and a post mortem examination was held over the deceased, which resulted in his acquittal…

The window is a 12 light, and the apparition is in the middle lower pane, the back pane of glass being out, the resemblance is that of a rather dim negative photograph….The imagination of different spectators, whoever, clothes the picture with different surroundings. Some see a man standing by her side, some a dog sitting in her lap. Some would swear to a recognition of the features of Mollie. Some see the surroundings changing from time to time. Others can only see the faint outline of a face, the hair, the eyebrows, some semblance of eyes and nose. This much of the central figure appears to be visible to all, and the posture and features always the same. A curtain or blind hung inside the window extinguishes the picture, nor can the picture be seen from the inside of the house. The glass has been removed and examined, and is said to be a smooth glass, with no unusual appearance when out of the window, but when replaced the appearance immediately recurs…To my vision there was only apparent the general outlines of a face, the flow of the hair, and the curve of the eyebrows being well defined. I could see this much from the street, at any point within fifty yards, when the window was fully visible. But the most distinct view was presented from the yard of the house next above, at a distance of about fifty feet. I there fancy I saw the color of the dress—dark ground work, with white spots—a bow or locket on the bosom; the posture, sitting with face nearly fronting the window; some person or thing standing behind and to the right of the picture—picture’s right. But this last description may be imaginary; but I tried in vain to force upon my imagination any such appearance in the other panes of glass. At a nearer view the picture becomes more confused; a magnifying glass does not make the outlines any more definite… The only natural solution coming within any known hypothesis, is that the accidental formation of the glass reflects an outline resembling the human face, and that imagination fills up the space, and this is perhaps the true solution, but it is curious enough to challenge investigation. S. Cincinnati [OH] Daily Gazette 9 October 1872: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: How these ghostly images were produced is a mystery, although some sceptics suggest that reused daguerreotype plates inserted into windows accounted for the phenomenon. Others offered a theory that dust on the surface of the window mimicked human features. Mrs Daffodil can assure her readers that such things would never happen at the Hall where the windows are spotless.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle.  Please visit the Haunted Ohio blog for fortean and historical tales from around the world and the Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard Face-book page for paranormal links from Ohio and beyond.

 

 

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