Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The ghosts of the Petit Trianon

I sometimes get grief from readers because of my tendency to reject claims of the paranormal out of hand.

In my own defense, I am convincible.  It just takes more than personal anecdote and eyewitness accounts to do it.  Our memories and sensory-perceptive apparatus are simply not accurate enough recording devices to be relied on for anything requiring scientific rigor.  I find myself agreeing with the hard-nosed skeptic MacPhee in C. S. Lewis's novel That Hideous Strength

"My uncle, Dr. Duncanson," said MacPhee, "whose name may be familiar to you — he was Moderator of the General Assembly over the water, in Scotland — used to say, 'Show it to me in the word of God.'  And then he’d slap the big Bible on the table.  It was a way he had of shutting up people that came to him blathering about religious experiences.  And granting his premises, he was quite right.  I don’t hold his views, Mrs. Studdock, you understand, but I work on the same principles.  If anything wants Andrew MacPhee to believe in its existence, I’ll be obliged if it will present itself in full daylight, with a sufficient number of witnesses present, and not get shy if you hold up a camera or a thermometer."

And the difficulty is that so often, when you take a close look at the eyewitness testimony itself, even it doesn't hold water.  The minimum standard for scientific acceptance is one in which the paranormal explanation accounts for the claim better than any of various competing natural explanations, and I've yet to see a single example where that applies.

As an example of this, let's take a look at one of the most famous claims of witnesses to a haunting -- the Moberly-Jourdain Incident.

The event in question took place in August of 1901.  Two friends (some have claimed, with some justification, that they were lovers), Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, were on holiday from their teaching jobs at St. Hugh's College, Oxford University.  They traveled together in France, and on the day in question were touring Paris.  They'd visited Versailles, and after seeing the palace decided to walk from there to the Petit Trianon, a château built on the palace grounds during the reign of Louis XV.

They were using a Baedeker guidebook to find their way, but missed the path they were looking for and became lost.  This is when, according to their account, things started seeming odd.  A feeling of dread and weariness came over them; the whole scene started looking like a tableau rather than reality, as if somehow they were inside an animated work of art.  "Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant," Moberly later wrote.  "Even the trees seemed to become flat and lifeless, like wood worked in tapestry.  There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees."

The people they saw -- a woman shaking a piece of cloth out of a window, what seemed to be palace gardeners, and some men who looked like "very dignified officials, dressed in long greyish-green coats with small three-cornered hats" -- had a vaguely unreal appearance.  Weirdest of all was the man they came across seated by a garden kiosk.  According to Moberly, his appearance was "most repulsive ... [his] expression odious.  His complexion was dark and rough...  The man slowly turned his face, which was marked by smallpox; his complexion was very dark.  The expression was evil and yet unseeing, and though I did not feel that he was looking particularly at us, I felt a repugnance to going past him."

Another person they saw was a fair-haired lady in an old-fashioned white dress, sitting on the grass working on a sketch.  She, too, paid Moberly and Jourdain no attention, and seemed to look right through them.

At this point, they saw the building of the Petit Trianon in the distance, and walked toward it.  Upon reaching the front entrance, they were met by another group of tourists and a guide, joined them for a tour, and nothing else odd happened.

Neither woman mentioned their peculiar experiences to the other for almost three months.

Aerial view of the Petit Trianon [Image licensed under the Creative Commons ToucanWings, Vue aérienne du domaine de Versailles par ToucanWings - Creative Commons By Sa 3.0 - 052, CC BY-SA 3.0]

It was Moberly who triggered a reconsideration of what they'd seen by asking, out of the blue, if Jourdain thought the Petit Trianon was haunted.  Jourdain said she thought it was.  After briefly describing what they remembered, they decided each to write down their memories of that day, then compare notes.  There were some differences (Jourdain, for example, didn't recall seeing the lady in the white dress), but there was decent agreement between their accounts.  After some discussion, they concluded they'd seen ghosts -- that they'd witnessed a re-enactment of events from August 1792, immediately before the beginning of the French Revolution.  The evil-looking man, they said, was Joseph Hyacinthe François de Paule de Rigaud, Comte de Vaudreuil (who was smart enough to flee France before things became too dangerous), and the woman in white was none other than Queen Marie Antoinette (who would lose her head on the guillotine only a year later).

So, what really happened here?

Ten years afterward, Moberly and Jourdain published a book about the incident, called An Adventure.  It was an overnight sensation.  However, objections began to mount just as quickly.  Among them:

  • Both Moberly and Jourdain were known for oddball claims besides their most famous one.  For example, Moberly once said she'd seen the ghost of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the Louvre in 1914.  (What he was doing in the Louvre is anyone's guess; maybe ghostly Roman emperors take vacations just like the rest of us.)  Jourdain had a definite paranoid streak -- during World War I she became convinced that a German spy was hiding in St. Hugh's (of which at that point she was principal), and at the time of her death in 1924 she had become so notorious for erratic and autocratic behavior that she had provoked mass resignations amongst the staff.  So it's not like the two women are what I'd call reliable witnesses.
  • An analysis of the original manuscript of An Adventure (dating from 1903), the first published edition (in 1911), and subsequent editions shows increasing embellishment, and the addition of new details each time the story was republished.  This is certainly a bit suspicious.
  • Both women told their stories separately on numerous occasions, and as time passed, their versions converged -- suggestive that as they compared their memories, each of their own recollections became tainted with the other's.
  • At the time of their visit, the French writer Robert de Montesquiou lived near Versailles, and was known to host themed parties on the palace grounds in which he and his friends wore period dress and staged tableaux vivants.  French artist and historian Philippe Jullian has suggested that Moberly and Jourdain stumbled upon one of these parties, and were understandably freaked out by what they saw -- and, furthermore, that the evil-visaged, pockmarked man was de Montesquiou himself, whose appearance by all accounts was creepy enough to explain their revulsion.

The upshot of all this is that despite this story showing up in countless books with titles like Twenty True Tales of the Supernatural, and being cited as one of the best-documented accounts of a haunting, it doesn't meet that minimum standard -- that the paranormal explanation accounts for the claim better than the purely natural ones.

So, in conclusion: I'm not saying ghosts and an afterlife aren't possible.  I'm not, honestly, a disbeliever.  I simply don't have enough convincing evidence to come down one way or the other, and at least regarding an afterlife, I figure I'll find out sooner or later anyhow.  Until then, I'm with MacPhee.  I need more than just "you saw it."

Although I can't go with MacPhee's suggestion of a camera providing good evidence.  Those were the Good Old Days, when making a faked photograph took at least some skill.  These days, Photoshop probably has a one-click "Add Ghost" feature.


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