|"Illustrated London News," April 23, 1949|
Tales of haunted houses are, of course, a dime a dozen. Haunted dolls are--if you go by the sale listings on eBay--drearily commonplace. Allegations of haunted items of clothing, on the other hand, are comparatively rare, which is why I was pleased to come across The Case of the Jinxed Jacket. In his 1968 book "Exploring the Psychic World," paranormal researcher Fred Archer discussed how in 1949, the cast of "The Queen Came By," a play set in the Victorian era, unexpectedly wound up playing starring roles in a production of The Weird.
While preparing a "period" wardrobe for the play, a woman's jacket from the 1870s was found in a second-hand clothing shop. It was decided this would be an ideal costume for the star, Thora Hird. It was a bolero-style garment made of black velvet--what was known in Victorian times as a "monkey-jacket." It was in remarkably good condition for its age, suggesting that few people had ever worn it.
Subsequent events would suggest that its lack of use was not really all that surprising.
When Hird first put on the jacket, it fit her very comfortably. However, after a short time the garment began to feel increasingly tight around her arms and chest. She felt a "queer choking feeling." She said nothing about this to anyone, and tried dismissing the unpleasant sensation as a figment of her imagination, but the feeling persisted. It was almost as if the jacket was slowly strangling her.
One night, Hird was unable to appear in the performance, so her understudy, Erica Foyle, took over her role. When Foyle donned the jacket, she immediately felt the same increasing sense of tightness that--unbeknownst to her--Hird had also suffered. That same night, Foyle had an odd vision: for an instant, she saw the figure of a young woman, wearing the same jacket.
When Foyle told the rest of the company about her eerie experiences, Hird finally shared how that jacket had affected her in the same way. As an experiment, the stage manager, Marjorie Page, donned the jacket. She soon felt the same creepy sense of constriction.
Next to try the coat was the director's wife, Mary Piffard. Unlike the other women, she felt nothing uncomfortable about it. However, when she took it off, the others were startled to see gruesome-looking red marks on her throat. It looked as if someone had been strangling her. "The jacket," Mrs. Piffard declared, "has a hoodoo on it."
The director, Frederick Piffard, happened to be a friend of Archer's. Piffard asked the "ghost-hunter" to make an investigation of these peculiar happenings. Archer arranged to have three mediums hold a seance at the theater. This proved to be a far more interesting production than "The Queen Came By."
The mediums were given the jacket, and asked for any impressions they might obtain from it. (Naturally, they had not been told anything about its history.) The first medium sensed nothing unusual about it. The second could only say that it had belonged to a young woman.
With Ray Morgan, the third medium, they hit the psychic jackpot. After holding the jacket for a few moments, Morgan began to see a chilling vision. He said the jacket had been worn by a young woman of about eighteen or twenty. He thought her name was something like "Edith Merryweather." She was feeling intense guilt over something she had done. She had also inspired a violent rage in her lover, a man named "Derek"--rage that she felt she somehow deserved. The medium "saw" this man attack the girl. They struggled for a moment, his hands on her throat, until he managed to force her into a butt of water, where she drowned. The murderer then pulled the body out and carried it up a flight of stairs to a bleak, sparsely-furnished room. He wrapped the corpse in a blanket and carried it back downstairs. The psychic vision ended there.
When the medium told his story, Marjorie Page broke in excitedly. She blurted that she had seen this exact same vision of murder when she wore the jacket. It had seemed so outlandish, she couldn't bring herself to mention it to anyone.
After the seance had broken up, Archer and a few members of the theatrical company remained in the theater, trying to digest what had just happened. Mrs. Piffard again tried on the jacket. This time, no marks appeared around her throat, but the coat quickly became agonizingly tight. A friend of Hird's then donned the coat. He immediately fainted. Another actor, Ivan Staff, put on the jacket, but felt nothing.
Logically enough, Archer feared that the power of suggestion could now be affecting everyone. They needed to involve outsiders, who knew nothing about the jacket and its alleged history. Although it was now past midnight, Archer and another reporter decided to head out and invite the first people they happened to meet to join their little experiment.
In Trafalgar Square, they encountered a young couple, a man and woman in their twenties, heading home after a night on the town. Archer and his friend explained to the pair that they were reporters working on a story, for which was needed help from members of the public. Would they be willing to join them at the Duke of York's Theatre?
In those more innocent days, the couple saw nothing wrong with the mysterious request. They certainly were willing!
When the couple arrived at the theater, all they were told was that the group was conducting an experiment. They asked the girl to put on the jacket. To the thinly-veiled disappointment of her audience, she felt nothing unusual. Her boyfriend touched the jacket's sleeve with his right hand, and an alarmed expression crossed his face. He said he felt a strange urge to grab the arm. He put his left hand on the other sleeve. His hands began moving higher on the jacket, until he suddenly yanked himself away. He stammered that touching the jacket gave him an increasing impulse to put his hands around the girl's throat.
He was asked to try on the jacket. Reluctantly, he agreed. He immediately seemed to have trouble breathing, as though the garment was choking him. He gasped, "There is something sinister--like death. It feels as if someone were trying to kill me. But in a just way." When asked what he meant by those last words, he admitted that he had no idea.
Unfortunately, our little tale ends there. There was no way of tracing the jacket's history, leaving it impossible to know if these visions of a guilt-ridden young woman and her brutal murderer were based on some now long-forgotten real-life tragedy. The last report I've been able to find about the "hoodoo" garment--by then known as "The Strangling Jacket of Drury Lane"--stated that it was sent, appropriately enough, to Hollywood. Gerrett J. Lloyd, a former assistant to film director D.W. Griffith, wished to do his own experiments with the jacket. Newspapers reported that he intended to "take the garment to Death Valley to see if the spirit still lingers at a below sea level altitude." For all I know, the jacket is still in existence somewhere.
So if you're ever browsing through a vintage clothing shop, and you stumble across a Victorian-era velvet jacket, I wouldn't advise putting it on...