Versailles Ghosts : One of the most famous Ghost cases of the 20th century, involving Apparitions of people and buildings in the Petit Trianon at Versailles dating to the 1770s prior to the French Revolution. Reports of apparitions in the Petit Trianon were recorded as early as 1870, but Versailles became an important and controversial case for psychical researchers beginning in the summer of 1901.
Some background history of the Petit Trianon is helpful in order to understand the hauntings. The Petit Trianon was commissioned by Louis XV for his mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour. The house was designed by Gabriel, the royal architect, and work on it began in 1762. In 1764, the Marquise died, and she was succeeded as royal mistress by Madame Dubarry. The house was finished in 1770, and Madame Dubarry lived in it occasionally. A carriageway led to the Allée de la Ménagerie, the king’s small farm on the grounds. Almost immediately upon completion, changes and additions were made. A chapel was added to the house by 1773, and room for it was made from part of the kitchen and service premises. Steps leading to the kitchen door were replaced with new steps that served both the chapel and service doors. Construction of the chapel necessitated the closing of the carriageway, the southern end of which was obliterated by 1771. Louis XV died in 1774, and his grandson, King Louis XVI, gave the Petit Trianon to Queen Marie Antoinette, who quickly made plans for changes in the garden.
On August 10, 1901, two English academics, Eleanor Jourdain, the daughter of a Derbyshire vicar, and Annie Moberly, the daughter of a bishop of Salisbury, visited Versailles. Neither was familiar with the layout of the area. They left the Grand Trianon and walked a long route toward the Petit Trianon, and seemed to lose their way for a while. Upon finding the garden and entering it, Moberly suddenly felt what she later described as “an extraordinary depression.” Both felt as though they were walking in a Dream. The atmosphere was very still, eerie and oppressed. The surroundings looked unpleasant, unnatural and flat, almost two-dimensional. They saw two men whom they took for gardeners, dressed in period costumes of gray-green coats and small, tricornered hats. They asked the men for directions, and were told to continue straight ahead. They saw a bridge and a kiosk. Near the kiosk sat a man in a slouched hat and cloak; for some reason, they disliked his appearance. A man with a “curious smile” and odd accent ran up behind them and gave them further directions to the house; they thought he was one of the gardeners they had encountered at the entrance. He disappeared abruptly. Near the house, in the English garden in front of the Petit Trianon, Moberly saw a woman, wearing a pale green fichu, sitting on a seat in the grass. Jourdain did not notice her. The attention of both women was drawn by a young man who came out a door of the house, banging it behind him. He looked amused, like the running man. They saw the carriageway to the house.
Later, in discussing their experiences on that day, Moberly and Jourdain concluded the Petit Trianon was haunted. They recalled that though a breeze had been blowing as they had departed the grounds of the Grand Trianon, the air had been “intensely still” upon their arrival at the Petit Trianon, and there had been no effects of light or shade. After encountering the two men in green, Moberly said, “I began to feel as if I were walking in my sleep; the heavy dreaminess was oppressive.” The strange experience lasted about half an hour.
During the next 10 years, Moberly and Jourdain revisited the Petit Trianon in an attempt to unravel the mystery. On her second visit, on January 2, 1902, Jourdain once again encountered the heavy, eerie feeling, this time after crossing a bridge to the Hameau, Marie-Antoinette’s hamlet. She saw two labourers, dressed in tunics and capes with pointed hoods, loading sticks in a cart. She turned aside for a moment, and when she looked back, she saw that the men and cart were a great distance away. She also heard faint band music playing.
Moberly did not return a second time until July 4, 1904, accompanied by Jourdain and a Frenchwoman. They could not find the paths they had taken on their roundabout route in 1901, nor did they see the kiosk or bridge. Where they had seen the lady on the grass, they found instead an enormous rhododendron bush many years old. People were everywhere, whereas in 1901, the grounds had seemed strangely empty, save for the few persons they had seen.
After conducting historical research, Moberly and Jourdain believed they had seen visions of the Petit Trianon during the days of Marie Antoinette in 1789, and that the lady on the grass was the queen herself, who reputedly liked to sit at that spot. Moberly theorized they had somehow entered into the queen’s memory when she had been alive. The clothing they had seen was not worn by any of the grounds staff in 1901; the door of the house, which the young man had banged, was in fact in a ruined and disused part of the chapel. The kiosk and bridge they had seen no longer existed. They identified the two gardeners as the Bersey brothers, who were attendants to Marie Antoinette.
Moberly and Jourdain wrote their experiences in a book, An Adventure, published in 1911. They were derided by skeptics in the psychical research community, who criticized their research as unreliable and amateurish. They had not written down any recollections until November 1901, far too long a passage of time for memory to be certain, critics argued. The music heard in 1902 could have been one of the many military units which practiced maneuvers in the nearby area. The banging door could have been a sound nearby which they mistook for a banging door. In reviewing the book, Eleanor Sidgwick, secretary of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), stated that there did not seem to be sufficient grounds to prove a paranormal experience. Sidgwick proposed that Moberly and Jourdain had seen real persons and real things, the details of which became altered by tricks of memory after they decided they had seen ghosts.
Despite such criticism, An Adventure received wide publicity. Others began reporting similar experiences in the Trianons to the SPR. John Crooke, his wife and son, of England, reported that in July 1908 they had visited the Grand Trianon and had twice seen “the sketching lady.” The fair-haired woman was dressed in clothing of another century, a cream-colored skirt, white fichu, and white, untrimmed, flapping hat. She sat on a low stool on the grass and appeared to be sketching on a piece of paper. She paid no attention to them until Crooke, who was an artist, tried to see what she was drawing, and then she turned her paper away with a quick flick of her wrist. She seemed to be annoyed. The Crookes believed at the time that she was a ghost, they said later, because the lady seemed to grow out of, and vanish into, the scenery “with a slight quiver of adjustment.” The Crookes also reported seeing a man and another woman in old-fashioned dress, and hearing faint band music. The visions seemed to be accompanied by a vibration in the air.
Although the Crookes’ experiences took place three years before An Adventure was published, critics were quick to point out that the family had said nothing until reading the book, and that therefore, their accounts were likely to have been influenced by what they had read.
Still other ghostly reports surfaced. In October 1928 two Englishwomen, Clare M. Burrow and Ann Lambert (later Lady Hay), visited Versailles. Neither had read An Adventure. They left the Grand Trianon and walked toward the Petit Trianon. Burrow felt a strange depression. They saw an old man dressed in a green and silver uniform, and asked him for directions. He shouted at them in hurried, hoarse and unintelligible French. He suddenly seemed sinister, and the women hurried on. Looking back, they were astonished to see that he had vanished. They also saw other persons, men and women, dressed in period clothing. When they spied the Petit Trianon through the trees, they were relieved. Later, Burrow read An Adventure and felt she had also experienced a haunting.
In September 1938, Elizabeth Hatton walked alone through the grounds of the Petit Trianon, heading toward Marie Antoinette’s village. Suddenly, a man and a woman in period peasant dress appeared about six feet in front of her, drawing a wooden trundle cart bearing logs. They passed by silently. Hatton turned to watch them, and they gradually vanished. Hatton had not read An Adventure before her visit.
On October 10, 1949, Jack and Clara Wilkinson took their four-year-old son to Versailles. All three saw a woman in period dress, with a parasol, standing on the steps of the Grand Trianon. She did not seem ghostly, but when they looked away and then looked back moments later, she had vanished.
On May 21, 1955, a London solicitor and his wife walked through the grounds. As they left the Grand Trianon and headed toward the Petit Trianon, the grounds seemed strangely deserted. There had been a thunderstorm, and the air was heavy and oppressive. The wife felt depressed. Then the sun came out, and the couple saw coming toward them two men and a woman, who were about 100 yards off. They were dressed in period costumes. The woman wore a long, full dress of brilliant yellow, while the men wore black breeches, black shoes with silver buckles, black hats and knee-length, open coats. The husband and wife conversed as they walked. Suddenly, they noticed the three persons had vanished—and there was nowhere for them to go that was out of sight.
These and other reports were investigated by members of the SPR. Opinions as to the validity of the Versailles ghosts remained divided. Among the skeptics was W.H. Salter, who wrote in 1950 that faults of memory could not be excluded from the accounts. Salter observed that a public park is “about the worst setting for a ghost-story” from the standpoint of evidence, for it is impossible to ascertain later exactly who was in a park, and where, at a given moment. He suggested that the period costumes seen were the dress of living persons, for Versailles attracted a colorful range of persons from various occupations and countries.
G.W. Lambert was more inclined to believe that paranormal events had taken place. He discovered that in 1775 the royal gardeners, Claude Richard, 65, and his son Antoine, 35, wore green livery. Lambert proposed that the two men in gray-green seen by Moberly and Jourdain were apparitions of the Richards. Burrow, who had also seen a man in green, told Lambert that she estimated the man’s age was around 60. Lambert found eight significant consistencies with what Moberly and Jourdain had seen. However, the conditions they described had existed at Versailles in the summer of 1770 during the reign of Louis XV—not during the days of Marie Antoinette, as the women had believed. Lambert’s findings were published in a series of articles between 1953 and 1962.
In 1965, the Versailles “Adventure,” as it was called in the media, was given a natural explanation by Philippe Jullian in his book Un Prince 1900—Robert de Montesquiou. Jullian said that Montesquiou, a poet, and his admirers were in the habit of spending days in the Trianon park at the turn of the century. Some apparently came in period costume, judging from existing photographs. Therefore, Moberly and Jourdain simply had witnessed Montesquiou and his friends rehearsing a tableau-vivant for an outdoor party.
Jullian’s book had a great impact upon Dr. Joan Evans, who had inherited the copyright to An Adventure, which was in its fifth printing by 1955. Evans decided to put the matter to rest by prohibiting more English editions of the book.
The matter, however, did not end. In subsequent years, more hauntings have been reported and examined by both English and French investigators. In 1982, Andrew MacKenzie, a member of the SPR, theorized that all the experiences fit a pattern of an “aimless haunting,” which does not seem to be linked to traumatic or violent events. Life at Versailles was fairly tranquil during 1770–71. MacKenzie suggested that the area acquired emotional power because its inhabitants of the time somehow sensed that their era was nearing an end.
The controversy over the validity of the Versailles hauntings remains unresolved. See Retrocognition.
- Coleman, Michael, ed. The Ghosts of the Trianon: The Complete Adventure by C. A. E. Moberly and E. F. Jourdain. Wellingborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1988.
- Lambert, G. W. “Antoine Richard’s Garden: A Postscript to An Adventure.” Parts 1 and 2, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)37 (1953): 117–54. Part 3, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)37 (1954): 266–79.
- ———. “Antoine Richard’s Garden Revisited” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)41 (1962): 279–92.
- MacKenzie, Andrew. Apparitions and Ghosts. New York: Popular Library, 1971.