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Searching for Lady Jane

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Gorgeous Eyes

I'm starting this story with a warning—there isn't going to be a jump scare, a moment where I find myself face to face with a drooling monster munching on a disemboweled corpse. The only disemboweled corpse in it that I could have seen I didn't. At least—not in person.

How to start? Well, really there's only one place—C.M. Morley's Compendium of the Strange. This was a surprisingly thick paperback book my preadolescent nine-year old self had picked up at a rummage sale, for twenty-five cents. The cover—which has fallen off my copy now, as yes, I still own it—depicted a spectral lady, a floating eyeball, and a giant bat, and promised "hundreds of TRUE tales of the paranormal!" Which to a certain extent it delivered on—the book was over three hundred pages, and Morley generally spent a page a tale, occasionally venturing into two or even three when he was feeling particularly prolix.

The tales were a joyously BROAD bunch—Morley covered ghosts, flying saucers, psychic phenomena, and just plain odd things, all with the same cheery, slightly sinister, slightly goofy tone, which he achieved, I came to realize, by not taking any of it seriously. (His comment that a female ghost who had picked up an overabundance of Gothic touches when she materialized on a local rock could be given "a pillow to sit on" in addition to the candle and dagger dripping blood that some insisted she appeared with still gives me a chuckle.)

As I later learned, the Compendium was a portmanteau volume of C.M. Morley's (full name, Clive Mansfield, and yes, hence the C.M.) Strange Tales, More Strange Tales, and Still More Strange Tales, themselves a series of collections of a newspaper column—called, yes, "Strange Tales"—that Morley had written for years in the late thirties and early-to-mid forties, in addition to half-a-dozen other columns, on half-a-dozen other subjects, including his pride and joy, advice on playing auction bridge. Morley tended to bang his Strange Tales out in a hurry, doing very little in the way of research, and indeed, not infrequently just making shit up when a deadline was looming, and he couldn't find any odd occurrences in newspaper archives, or his vast collection of Theosophist literature. ("Clive just loved to read that stuff," his widow told me, years later. "Five pages and he'd toss the book down, laughing to himself.")

All of which a young boy who is certain that Bigfoot and the Saucer Men are really real, and possibly connected to each other, neither knows nor cares about. And so it was with astonishing delight that I read about a strange occurrence in my hometown, which I will reprint here in full, save for the name of my hometown—if this story takes off, I don't want people going there en masse, for... a wide variety of reasons—and the large drawing that helps fill out the page. (Yes, the book is illustrated, and pretty well, I have to say.)


In 1931, on a dreary November morn, inhabitants of W__ in upper N__ awoke to find the body of a young woman near the town's railroad tracks. The woman—an ethereally beautiful young blonde—was unknown to any of the residents, and indeed all efforts to identify her failed. Eventually, she was buried in the local potter's field under the name "Jane Doe", as the local investigation into her death petered out. And W___ residents shuddered to themselves—for this had all happened before!

It was twenty-three years earlier, in 1908, when on another dreary November morn, they had awoken to find the corpse of a similarly young beautiful blonde, in the very same spot! This mysterious woman lay in the same potter's field, and under the same pseudonym, as all attempts to identify her had likewise failed. How is it that the same terrifying event could occur in the same location over a distance of years?

Who can say?

Needless to say, this delighted young me, the discovery that my boring old hometown had had something THRILLING occur in it, something that had caught the interest of the great C. M. Morley! (The Compendium turned me into a great admirer of the man, something that age and growing cynicism, I will add, have not completely worn away.) The story became something of a fascination of mine, one I would break out at parties and family gatherings, causing my younger cousins to shriek in fear and just a bit of admiration.

Well, time and tears went by, and I collected dust, for there were many things I didn't know. As I burst, in degrees, upon what we like to call young manhood, I came to understand that much of what I'd believed as a child was... well, bullshit, and that the great Bigfoot-Saucer Man alliance was the creation of disturbed minds, people choosing to fool themselves, and sometimes, people actively choosing to fool others. Martin Gardner became one of my favorite authors, and I became fond of noting to people that while odd things did happen, most of them weren't as odd as all that.

But I still had a soft spot for my hometown's bit of weirdness, as reported by Morley, and so one day, I decided to research it. In many ways, I was fortunate—this was one of the RARE cases where Morley had given a date—two dates, actually—and a place, even if, true to form he'd neglected to give any idea what his sources might be. (In fact, I later learned he had ONE source, a blurb in the 1931 New York Times on the subject, which Morley, with his usual panache, had expanded gleefully on.) And I was a hometown boy, with ready access to our hometown paper, the W__ Herald, which boasted "Over a Hundred Years in Print!", and its archives in its office and in the town's massive pseudo-classical library.

I will not go into great detail on my searching the archives, a tale involving numerous incidents with that magical thing called "microfilm" which was once cutting edge technology—most of what happened being largely of interest only to myself. I will focus on what I found, which is, after all, the gist of the tale. To my relative surprise, it turned out that yes, Morley's tale had happened... more or less. The mysterious body had appeared on November 15th, 1931, by the railroad tracks—it was a blonde woman, rather young, though there was no mention of any ethereal beauty.

The articles were a great deal less breathless than Morley, and mentioned, rather coyly, something he'd left out—the body had suffered "horrible mutilations". What exactly was meant by this was kept carefully out of focus by the writers, who in their own matter-of-fact way, were milking this for all it was worth. A sketch of the young woman's face was included, in an effort to identify her—it likewise did not suggest any ethereal beauty. Efforts to identify the young woman failed—efforts to figure out if she had been murdered, mauled by animals—the town was a bit of a backwater, and these things happened—or simply suffered some sort of "misadventure" likewise failed, resulting in her burial—not under the name Jane Doe, I'll add. And during this all, I found, efforts to see if there was any connection to the "previous incidents" occurred.

Yes, incidents. What Morley and his NYT predecessor had missed is that this had apparently happened TWICE before, in 1908, and earlier in 1885.

The Herald mentioned this, and even had an interview with an old woman who lived near the tracks, and could remember the previous two times—though as she'd been twelve at that point, her memory of the first incident wasn't that good. Reading the articles, I wasn't filled with any sense of my ancestors shuddering at the eerie incident—more a sort of vague puzzlement that wondered if these three unpleasant occurrences were connected to one another. And so, I wound up checking further back. The 1908 articles weren't incredibly helpful, though it revealed that the body had turned up in September, not November, and included yet another sketch that suggested that Morley had had ethereal beauty on the brain when he wrote his blurb.

The 1885 articles would be... interesting. As I quickly learned, the W__ Herald had been the W__ Voice of Truth back then, and its publisher, editor and chief reporter had been one Theodore Cornelius van Haupt, a genuinely insane man who'd made a small fortune in the Civil War, and founded the Voice of Truth to shout out his various insane theories on the world, and local happenings in W__. Van Haupt's stories on the incident were bizarre rambling feasts of paranoia, where he shouted at the inefficiency of local authorities, claimed that the state was covering things up—and went on and on about a similar incident that had happened in 1862. Both incidents were, he insisted, the same, with a virtually identical corpse found in the same location, on what he swore was the same month—October.

Yes, van Haupt was quite put out about the whole incident and was certain that the Freemasons, or maybe the Catholics were behind it, being an equal opportunity 19th-century nutjob. He went on about it for months, and then lost interest and started ranting how the state governor was in bed with the "goldocrats" to destroy free silver, one of his other obsessions. Eight years later, van Haupt would lose his entire fortune during a stock market tumble, call his staff together one day afterwards, declare that "the Jews and the Papists have got me at last" and blow his own brains out in front of them, following which saner heads would buy the one profitable possession he had left, the Voice of Truth, and turn it into the less flamboyantly-named Herald.

I'd have liked to go further back, to study the 1862 incident that van Haupt talked about, but as he only started the paper in 1866, that was pretty much it for local coverage. I will add that though I've managed to find a few blurbs on it in regional papers, they are all so vague that I have no way of gauging the accuracy of what van Haupt reported—which is quite important, because the man was about as crazy as you can get before people decide that you need to take a nice relaxing trip to a place with restraints. Still—my research had been surprisingly satisfying. I'd found that not only was the mystery real, it was when you got down to it, a touch weirder than Morley had realized, a similar incident reoccurring three, and quite possibly four times over a semi-regular interval.

Yes, it had been quite interesting—and then I decided to play a hunch. I started checking the papers in 1954, starting in September.

They found the body towards the end of that very month this time. The articles were terse, and made no mention of the 1931 incident, much less the ones before that, though there was a sentence that could be interpreted as an oblique reference. This was the first time that the corpse was specifically mentioned as being found nude—prior to that, they'd referred around the fact—and this time, instead of a sketch, there was an actual photograph of the unfortunate woman, the first one to genuinely acquire the name "Jane Doe". (It wasn't a remarkable face, actually—a bit pretty, but not beautiful, or even striking. The sort of face that you forget after you see it.) But on the whole, the story just didn't get the interest the previous ones had—the town had grown and law enforcement was a lot more confident. The whole affair would be explained shortly, and the body identified, everyone seemed to stress—and when that didn't happen, well, everyone just shrugged and started worrying about other things. And that was that. Yet another nameless body buried by the county.

If you're guessing that I moved on to check 1977 after this, you're damn right.

I almost missed her this time, as the body turned up in December, the latest ever. But I pressed on, and there she was, complete with another photo. And there it was, something that, somehow, didn't surprise me at all—the same woman who they'd found twenty-three years earlier. And possibly forty-six years earlier, and sixty-nine years earlier, and ninety-one years earlier... The woman I was starting to call "Lady Jane", in all her dishwater blonde, vaguely pretty glory.

I was left wondering why no one had realized, indeed why no one had even BOTHERED to connect at least the '77 and '54 incidents this time, but I'm older now, and I think I know why. W__ had grown quite a bit, and had acquired a military base nearby which had made it grow even more, and added a delightful blend of racial and class tension to the area. Simply put, bodies popping up were still news, but they were no longer automatically BIG news, and a mysterious corpse that may or may not have been murdered, has no next-of-kin and refuses to be identified is more of a nuisance than a mystery for law enforcement. (Of course, there's another theory that occurs to me, but it is in the realm of van Haupt and thus I pay very little attention to it.)

At the risk of dating myself—as if mentioning microfilm didn't do that already—I'll state that most of my research happened in the late nineties. And so as I was left contemplating this... thoroughly bizarre occurrence, I realized that I was going to be on hand for what might be Lady Jane's next appearance. And as the year 2000 rolled around, I waited and waited, and early November, it happened again.

I won't bore you with the details of the case, which was, when you get down to it, the same case as all the previous occasions. The body was found. The woman was never identified. Nothing was ever found to explain... well, anything. I considered coming forward with my information, but ultimately decided against it—after all, knowing about the pattern hadn't helped folks back in 1931, so all I'd probably accomplish would be to get myself branded a crank. And so, Lady Jane made what seems to be her standard appearance, before getting buried once again.

I moved from the area a few years after that. I still have no explanation for what occurs in my hometown, at such a strange, regular interval. Occasionally, I attempt one—perhaps a family of killers with a very specific taste in their targets, I considered once—but in the end the absurdity of it always breaks it down. I don't know why, and I don't know how. I don't even know when it will end, no more than I really know when it started. All I know is that Lady Jane will appear, on schedule, that people will wonder for a while, and then they will get on with their lives.

And she will get on with what appears to be one horrifyingly protracted death.

Written by Rhialto
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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