"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Lady of the Haystack



One day in 1776, a lovely, refined-looking young woman wandered into the English village of Bourton. She appeared greatly distressed, even hysterical. At nightfall, she retreated to a haystack, where she insisted on remaining for several days. Townspeople finally managed to bring this unsettling visitor to a local mental institution, but the trustees decided she was "eccentric" more than actually insane, and sent her on her way.  She immediately returned to her refuge of hay. The woman continued to live there for the next four years, subsisting on milk and tea--she would accept nothing else--brought to her by charitable neighbors. She consistently refused to say who she was, or where she came from, intoning only, “Trouble and misery dwell in houses.”

True enough, but surely they’re readily found in haystacks, as well.

It was thought the stranger was German--she had a slight foreign accent, and when a man once spoke to her in that language, she was visibly affected--but that proved little help in establishing her identity. The local authorities, not knowing what else to do with her, placed her in a private madhouse. The writer and philanthropist Hannah More--described by a contemporary as someone who “unquestionably had some humanity, though she was rather too fond of its public exhibition”-- took up this strange, troubled woman’s cause. She raised money on her behalf, and made persistent efforts to solve the mystery of this “handsome, young, interesting” figure who was “enough Mistress of her reason carefully to shut up from our observation every avenue that might lead to her secret.”

All she learned of the Lady of the Haystack was “that her Father was a German, her Mother an Italian; that she has one brother and one Sister; that her father had a very fine garden full of olive and orange Trees.” More ensured that the woman was decently cared for, but the inmate’s condition, both mental and physical, sadly deteriorated. A visitor described her as “pale and wan, worne [sic] with sorrow, beaten with wind and rain…partly insane, partly silly and childish.” This tragic stray, who had been given the name, “Louisa,” died in 1801, still stubbornly clinging to “her secret.”

Believe it or not, it is at this point that her story truly gets weird. Nine years after her arrival in Bourton, an anonymous pamphlet circulated through Europe entitled “The Stranger—A True History.” According to this document, some years earlier the King of Spain received a letter purportedly from Emperor Joseph II of Austria, asking him to take in an illegitimate daughter of Joseph’s late father Francis I. When the Spanish King sent a reply asking for more details, an indignant Joseph retorted that he had sent no such letter. Authorship of this letter was eventually traced to a Mademoiselle La Frulen, a shadowy woman from Bordeaux. When this forger was arrested, she related some bombshell revelations. In short, she claimed that she grew up in a remote house in Bohemia. Her only companions were two older women and a priest, who deliberately kept her from learning to read or write. She was periodically visited by a stranger who was obviously of high status. He gave her portraits of himself and of two women, one of whom, he said, was her mother. As she neared adulthood, the priest told her this man (whom she later learned was actually her father,) was dead. She was sent to a convent in France, but managed to flee. After wandering around Europe for a while, she was rescued by the Austrian Ambassador to Sweden and sent to Bordeaux. There, she was visited by a strange man, who provided her with large amounts of money from a mysterious donor. Although she was supposed to get these payments regularly, her visitor disappeared, leaving her without funds. Of the three portraits given to her by her Bohemian visitor, she discovered that one was of Francis I and the second was of his Empress, Maria Theresa. The third, that of the woman she believed to be her mother, was partially veiled to obscure her appearance.

According to this pamphlet, after the Ambassador died, an officer brought her to a village in France. She was given a small amount of money and “abandoned to her destiny.” From there, the young woman, deeply disturbed by her strange experiences--and who could blame her?--eventually somehow wound up in that English haystack.

It is, of course, impossible to say how much--if any--of this superbly nutty story is true. However, no one has come up with any other clues to this woman's identity.

Shortly after the death of “Louisa,” an anonymous sympathizer contributed to the “Gentleman’s Magazine” the following epitaph:
In yonder dust, unmark’d for public fame,
Low rests the relicts of Louisa’s frame!
Poor hapless sufferer, of the maniac line!
Thy wrongs no more a tortur’d breast confine!
Enough for thee, that ling’ring Sorrow’s breath
Found final rescue in the boon of death!
Consol’d be they, who sought thy soul’s relief!
Tormented they, who overwhelm’d with grief!
Accurs’d the crime, that ‘reft thy reason’s ray!
Though thou be ransom’d for eternal day!
And where frail Innocence would Vice repel
May guardian angels thy sad story tell!

And there our little tale must end.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like this lady is another of the people, addled or deranged by circumstances, whom history drops into villages or city streets now and then. There is always speculation that they are illegitimate offspring of someone famous, wealthy or noble - I think Kaspar Hauser was alleged by some to have been of similar background - but those parts of their stories always seem very fanciful. People seem to need big, embroidered tales to solve mysteries (as in the conspiracy theories surrounding assassinations). The reality I suspect is more mundane and much sadder.

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