It’s no secret that, for the past year or so, I have been working on a book on the subject of the Women in Black – the lesser-known companions of the Men in Black. But, make no mistake, encounters with the WIB absolutely proliferate. And, just like their male equivalents, the WIB are chilling and menacing – in both nature and appearance.
The 1980s saw a disturbing and creepy development in the saga of the Women in Black – and particularly so in the heart of the United Kingdom. In fact, it was just about the most disturbing and creepiest development of all. It revolved around the phenomenon of what became infamously known as “Phantom Social Workers” (PSW) or “Bogus Social Workers” (BSW).
On numerous occasions, terrified parents throughout the United Kingdom were plagued by visits to their homes from pale-skinned, black-garbed women – occasionally accompanied by men – who claimed they were there to investigate reports of abuse to babies and children. And, if necessary, to remove the children from the family home.
In many such cases, the utterly bogus social workers acted in deeply strange and unsettling fashions, and created atmospheres filled with dread and high-strangeness. Not only that, significant numbers of the reports eerily paralleled the saga of the so-called female “census takers” of the mid to late 1960s, who fascinated and unsettled the mind of John Keel, of The Mothman Prophecies fame.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate something that most people who have focused on the BSW/PSW/WIB issue have failed to note. Namely, that there is nothing new about this very disturbing issue. The media of both the UK and Canada was reporting on such sinister matters more than a century ago. It’s thanks to the research of friend and fellow Fortean, Neil Arnold, that I’m able to bring these cases to your attention.
A deeply macabre story, involving a Woman in Black and a newborn baby – both of who subsequently vanished – was published in the October 31, 1891 edition of the Hull, England Weekly Mail newspaper. That’s right: it appeared on Halloween, the most bone-chilling night of the year; the night on which it is said the veil between the land of the living and the domain of the dead is at its thinnest. The title of the article was concise and to the point: “The Lady In Black.”
It was the kind of affair that would have been ideal for Sherlock Holmes – the world’s most famous, fictional detective – to get his teeth into. The feature began as follows: “A strange case of supposed kidnapping is reported from Hull. It seems, as the story goes at present, that a woman named Proctor, wife of a laboring man, with a family of six children, on Wednesday night committed her infant, nine days old, to the care of a relative, Mrs. Dryer, to be baptized at St. Andrew’s Church.”
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The story continued: “Accompanying Mrs. Dryer was an elderly woman, who had been visiting Mrs. Proctor, and who had shown her sympathy in a practical form.”
And then things got a bit more mysterious: “Her name or whence she came was unknown to the household or in the neighborhood, except that she was spoken of as the ‘Lady in Black,’ and was supposed to be a district visitor.”
What began as a mysterious story quickly became one of sinister proportions: “They arrived at the church too late for the ceremony to take place. Mrs. Dryer, it is stated, gave the infant to her companion while she went outside for a moment. On her return the woman and child were gone.”
“Sinister” soon gave way to “terrifying,” as the local media noted: “Late the same evening the infant’s clothes were found in a street nearby with a note attached, stating, ‘Baby is all right. Baby and I have gone to Leeds.’ There was no signature to this strange communication. No trace has yet been found of either woman or child.”
Seven years later, there was yet another strange story involving a newborn baby and a Woman in Black. This time, however, the location was Toronto, Canada. The Daily Mail and Empire newspaper reported, on April 7, 1898, that an approximately six-day-old baby had been found abandoned on the doorstep of a Mr. Eli G. Roselin, a carpenter, of 65 Grant Street, Toronto. It was very fortunate for the baby that Roselin worked late that night. As he reached his home around 9:00 p.m., he saw a small bundle on the doorstep. It contained, to his astonishment and shock, a small baby, one who had been “dosed with drugs and whisky.” Police were quickly alerted and the baby was taken to the local “Infants Home.”
Newspaper staff noted that: “Investigation last night established the fact pretty conclusively that the child had been placed on the step not more than twenty minutes before it was found. The spot is a rather lonely one, opposite Kintyre Avenue, and there are half a dozen ways of approach and escape from the locality.”
And, then, there was this: “A woman of medium height, dressed in black and wearing a cape, was seen strolling along Kintyre Avenue from 8 to 8.30 o’clock, by some boys, by a lady living on Grant Street, and by Mr. Farmery, of 63 Grant Street. She had something concealed under her cape, and it is believed by the neighbors that she may have left the child on the step. Mr. Joselin’s bell was not rung when the infant was abandoned.”
Of course, the big question is: from whom did the WIB get the baby? Was it hers or was it kidnapped?
Moving on, it’s now time to turn our attentions to the Bromley, Kent, England, Evening Express newspaper. In its May 16, 1910 issue, there appeared an article titled “Mysterious Lady In Black.” The article began in appropriately uncanny and unsettling style: “Coming from apparently nowhere and vanishing mysteriously, an unknown woman attended at a birth in Stepney, and at the inquest, although the coroner tried to elucidate the mystery, he was unable to do so.”
The unnamed journalist who wrote the small article added that the baby in question was Elizabeth McDonald, who tragically died just five days after her birth. She was said to have been the daughter of “a seaman, of Eastward Street, Bromley.” The story continued that one of those present at the birth was a woman, a widow, named Elizabeth Dowsett. After poor, soon-to-be-doomed Elizabeth was born, Dowsett went to the second-floor room to see the newborn baby and was followed by a woman who “came into the room and did all that was necessary.”
In light of that, the coroner asked: “Do you mean that some stranger went up the stairs behind you, and did all this, and you don’t know who she was?”
Dowsett replied quickly and said something that, by now, will be chillingly familiar: “I had never seen her before. She was a thin, dark woman, dressed in black.”
The coroner continued: “You can tell us a lot more about this mysterious lady in black, if you like. What became of her afterwards?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Dowsett.
“What? Did she drop from the clouds and then vanish into thin air?” asked the coroner, amazed. Given that the WIB – just like the MIB – have an uncanny knack of vanishing in the blink of an eye, the coroner may have been closer to the truth than he could ever have possibly imagined.
Dowsett could only offer a speculative answer: “She went out the same way she came in, I expect.”
[clickToTweet tweet=”You know about MIBs but did you know there were Women In Black also?! Nick Redfern writes” quote=”You know about MIBs but did you know there were Women In Black also?! Nick Redfern writes”]These “I expect” words are important because they make it clear Dowsett had no real proof of what happened to the Woman in Black – at all. The death of little Elizabeth, said one Dr. Meadows, was due to “syncope,” an antiquated term for loss of consciousness, fainting, or “swooning.” It’s a condition that a person usually recovers from quickly. But not Elizabeth McDonald, unfortunately. She deteriorated quickly and did not recover.
Perhaps with some justification, the coroner said to Dowsett that she should keep her doors firmly locked at night, due to the apparent presence of “some rambling wolves about seeking whom they can devour.”
Wise words, indeed.
One of the most prolific Fortean writers on the planet, Nick Redfern is the author of many books, including Men in Black, Chupacabra Road Trip, and The Bigfoot Book. He can be contacted at his blog, “World of Whatever,” at nickredfernfortean.blogspot.com