One of the strangest, and undeniably hair-raising, aspects of the Women in Black phenomenon is their often-reported propensity to hiss at people in menacing, and almost animal-like, fashion. Reports of these hissing WIB date back to at least the 19th century and extend to very recent years. The Sunday Herald newspaper of January 13, 1893 told a disturbing tale of an encounter with just such a WIB at Rhinebeck, New York. The title of the article was “A Woman in Black.” As for the sub-title, it got straight to the paranormal point: “Like Other Ghosts She is Only Seen at Night – Neither is She Dumb, but Emits a Hissing Sound Which Startles the Ear and Congeals the Blood.”
According to the story, “a mysterious woman in black” was provoking “much fear” in and around Rhinebeck. It’s hardly surprising when one takes note of what the Sunday Herald had to say next: “It is the story of a strange creature who glides noiselessly along the country roads at dead of night. She has never been known to address anybody, although she has met many. Her language is the language of signs. She invariably halts long enough to stretch out her long arm from beneath a black veil and at the same time make a hissing noise.”
Adding to the state of terror in which the unfortunate witnesses found themselves plunged, the WIB was described as being “thin, at least six feet four inches tall, with a slight stoop and a long stride.” Not the sort of woman to cross paths with on a dark night in 19th century Rhinebeck. According to what newspaper staff learned of the hissing Woman in Black, she had first been seen around town roughly six weeks earlier – having previously haunted “the villages just north of Poughkeepsie.” The first person in Rhinebeck who had the dubious honor of meeting the woman was John Judson, of Chestnut Street. His encounter was mercifully brief and involved the sighting of “a tall black object standing perfectly still.” Terrified, Judson raced for home, arriving in a “cold sweat.”
By the following day, said the Herald, the story was “all over Rhinebeck.” Some laughed and others shivered, reported the newspaper. But, by the day after that, no-one was laughing; no-one at all. The reason being that one of the most respected figures in town, David Ackert, a prosperous businessman, also encountered the chilling Woman in Black. He noted to newspaper staff that he was six-feet-tall and that, even so, he “had to look up at the woman.” It was added that: “She shrank from him with a hissing sound.” Ackert added, increasing the anxiety around town: “I felt a shivering sensation, for she was so tall and slim and piratical looking.”
As fear-levels rose quickly, the local police were determined to put an end to the mystery. The village’s four constables – Murray Dederick, Bill Sleight, George Wheeler, and John Heb – vowed to “capture the creature that very night.” Unfortunately for everyone, she skilfully avoided the clutches of the police on that night – and also on every subsequent night. Next to see the Woman in Black was Thomas Sinclare who, worried readers of the Herald were informed: “…was pacing in the middle of the road with her head bent low and her long arms clasped behind her. Sinclare merely took one look.” No doubt! Then, one night after that, James Traster, a tinsmith, encountered the village’s “mysterious creature” in a side-street, around 10:00 p.m. He didn’t hang around, either.
It was soon the turn of Florence Welch – “the pretty young teacher at Miller’s school” – to see what most were earnestly hoping they would never see. Welch told the newspaper that at around 5:00 p.m., and after leaving a friend’s house – that of Mrs. Herman Asher – she happened to walk past the school and saw through a window the WIB sitting on one the student’s benches! Probably wisely, and as dusk began to turn to darkness, Florence “ran for her life.”
Further reports continued to surface over the next few days, the most notable one being that of Robert Shriver, the village blacksmith. When he saw the WIB he didn’t wait for her to hiss malevolently in his direction. What he did was to whip out his pistol and pump three bullets into her. It was all to no avail: the Woman in Black was impervious to the bullets. She raced across nearby, darkened meadows and was lost to the all-enveloping night.
It was to no-one’s satisfaction or comfort that the entire matter remained a disturbing conundrum, as the Herald was forced to admit: “Every resident of Rhinebeck is perfectly satisfied that the woman in black is a reality, but not one of them can think of who she can be. There is nobody near here who answers the description of the mysterious creature and there is no family that harbors a crazy person. The nearest asylum is at Poughkeepsie, 16 miles away, and no lunatic has escaped from that institution. To add to the mystery the strange creature is never seen abroad in the daylight and no one has stumbled upon her in any hiding place.”
The mystery remained exactly that.