Have you ever been to the Palace of Versaille? I haven’t — not yet. (Ironically enough, despite being the only member of my family to have studied French, I am also the only one never to have been to France. One day, fingers crossed…) But then again, even if you have seen Versaille live and in person, odds are you had a very different experience than two visitors from England claim to have had in 1901. Called the Moberly-Jourdain incident — so named because those two visitors were Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain — this particular trip to Versaille involved ghosts. Or time travel. Or both.
Or maybe neither.
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Here’s what allegedly happened:
In August of 1901, Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain were 54 and 37, respectively. Both were highly educated, well-respected academics; Moberly had been appointed principal of St. Hugh’s Hall — later St. Hugh’s College of Oxford University — in 1886, while Jourdain, who had studied at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall, was the co-founder and headmistress of a boarding and day school for girls called Corran Collegiate School. Jourdain would later earn a doctorate from the University of Paris and become the vice principal of St. Hugh’s with Moberly at the helm.
That was how they came together, you see; although they had been acquaintances while Jourdain was studying at Oxford, it was during a visit to Jourdain’s flat in Paris that Moberly suggested Jourdain return to Oxford for the position at St. Hugh’s. They decided to travel together first, in order to get to know one another a bit better — and so it was that they found themselves at the Palace of Versaille on Aug. 10, 1901, soon to have an experience, they claimed, that was quite literally out of this world.
Versaille, of course, was the royal residence for France’s monarchs from 1682 until 1789 (hi there, French Revolution). Originally a hunting lodge, it saw a number of expansions over the years until it finally became large enough to operate as the seat of the French court. There is, as a result, more there than just the main chateau; besides the gardens and the park, there’s also the estate of Trianon, which is home to several “more intimate spaces” meant to give the monarchs a break from the demands of courtly behavior, as the palace’s website puts it. These spaces include, namely, the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, and the Queen’s Hamlet. (Marie Antoinette liked to hang out there.)
Moberly and Jourdain were on their way to the Petit Trianon when they started to… question what they were seeing. They saw a woman shaking a cloth or sheet out of a window. They saw an old farmhouse. They saw men in coats and tricornered hats. They saw a woman offer a jug to a child.
“Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant,” Moberly later wrote of what they saw and felt. “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.”
They pressed on, despite feeling a sense of foreboding or oppression. They saw more men — intimidating men who made them feel uneasy. And, finally, they saw a woman in a summer dress and white hat, settled on the grass with a sketch book, hard at work.
Eventually, Moberly and Jourdain returned to the main palace, which they toured before having tea.
Neither spoke of what they had or had not experienced to each other for at least a week afterwards.
Soon, though, they began to compare notes. It started when Moberly, while writing a letter to her sister, asked Jourdain if she thought the Petit Trianon might possibly be haunted. Jourdain replied in the affirmative — and they were off. They began to suspect that they had seen the Comte de Vaudreuil, who had been dead since 1817, and perhaps even Marie Antoinette herself, famously dead since 1793. They thought perhaps they has experienced Versaille not on Aug. 10, 1901, but on Aug. 10, 1792 — the day of the insurrection that led to the abolition of the French monarchy just weeks later. What’s more, on subsequent trips to the estate of Trianon, they were unable to locate several landmarks they swore they had seen during their fateful trip in 1901.
Eventually, they wrote a book about their alleged experience, although they initially published it under a pair of pseudonyms. The story it told — which they framed as 100 percent true — became known as the Ghosts of Versaille, and under this name, it remains one of the most infamous “true” ghost stories of all time.
These days, however, there’s some debate about whether the Moberly-Jourdain incident is really best described as a haunting, or whether it’s closer to an instance of time travel — or, perhaps, whether it’s simultaneously both. Moberly and Jourdain themselves made sense of it as a haunting, although it’s not entirely clear what kind of haunting it may have been. Due to the fact that they interacted with at least a few of the spectres they saw during their walk through the gardens — namely, they recalled the men in the tricornered hats telling them to continue straight on — it can’t quite be classified as a residual haunting or an example of the stone tape theory in action; however, given that they still mostly functioned as observers — and that most of the scenes they witnessed seemed to be tableau vivant, more than anything else — it’s not quite accurate to describe it as an intelligent haunting, either.
This is why some gravitate towards the idea of the incident being not a haunting, but time travel — specifically, a time slip. Did Moberly and Jourdain somehow slip momentarily through time to witness a day at Versaille long since passed? Their story, after all, is not dissimilar from the alleged time slip experienced by RAF pilot Victor Goddard several decades after; in 1935, Goddard claimed to have seen the Drem airfield, then long abandoned, functioning as if it were bright, shiny, and new as he flew over it during a routine trip from Andover, England to Edinburgh, Scotland. Maybe Moberly and Jourdain experienced not ghosts, but a different time entirely.
Still others, however, posit there wasn’t anything supernatural going on at all. Skeptics have torn the story apart time and time again, with the most commonly-repeated explanations being that Moberly and Jourdain experienced some sort of shared delusion or folie à deux, or that the whole thing was just a hoax in the first place.
Myself? I don’t really know what to think. I lean skeptical as a general rule, so I’m inclined to think that the duo simply misinterpreted what they saw — but that’s just me. No matter what “actually” happened, it’s clear that Moberly and Jourdain themselves fully believed they’d experienced something supernatural — and what is reality but perception itself?
Supernatural Podcast: “HAUNTED: The Moberly-Jourdain Incident.” Hosted by Ashley Flowers, the Parcast podcast Supernatural divvies up its stories under a couple of different subheadings — things like “MYSTICAL” and “ALIEN” and “DISAPPEARED.” The episode on the Moberly-Jourdain incident, which originally dropped in September of 2020, is filed under “HAUNTED,” although I would argue that it could just as easily go under “THE UNKNOWN” (mostly because it’s not clear whether it is actually a story of a haunting). In any event, the episode is well-researched and engagingly delivered, so if you’re looking for a good overview of story, this one is a good place to start. It’s about 35 minutes long, for the curious.
“The Edwardian Women Who Claimed To Travel Back In Time” at Mental Floss. If you prefer to read your overviews instead of listening to them, this Mental Floss piece will get the job done.
“The Ghosts of Versaille” at the Museum of Hoaxes. For a solid summary of Moberly and Jourdain’s actions during the aftermath of the incident, go here. It’s true that the angle of this piece is skeptical — it is hosted at the Museum of Hoaxes’ website, after all — but its facts are clear, and the actual debunking is limited to just one paragraph. (The info in that paragraph is important, but still.)
The Palace of Versaille website. Just, y’know, in case you want to (virtually) explore the spot where the incident allegedly took place. The landing page about the Estate Trianon can be found here; the page about the Petit Trianon specifically can be found here; and an interactive map of the entirety of Versaille can be found here. The website is available in both French and English — you can toggle between the two using a drop-down menu in the upper right-hand corner of the menu bar.
The Ghosts Of Versaille by Lucille Iremonger. Originally published in 1957, Iremonger’s book is one of the most frequently-cited sources on this subject I found in my own research. (The Wikipedia page on the incident relies heavily on it.) It’s a little difficult to find these days — I actually haven’t been able to get a hold of a copy myself — but if you can get your paws on it, it’s well worth a read, from what I can tell.
An Adventure by “Elizabeth Morison” (Charlotte Anne Moberly) and “Frances Lamont” (Eleanor Jourdain). Moberly and Jourdain published a book describing their alleged experience in 1911 under the pseudonyms Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont. The book received… let’s call it mixed reactions upon its release; it was sensational, sure, but it was also widely criticized for its inconsistencies — not to mention its implausibility. It’s still a fun read, though; the 1913 edition can be accessed for free via the Internet Archive. Find it here.
Miss Morison’s Ghosts (1981), dir. John Bruce. An adaptation of An Adventure, the television movie Miss Morison’s Ghosts, starring Wendy Hiller as Morison/Moberly and Hannah Gordon as Lamont/Jourdain from a script by Ian Curteis, was made for ITV and broadcast in the UK in 1981. A subsequent U.S. airing came courtesy of the PBS television program Mystery! in 1983. Although it has the same sort of quality that British television programs of the era are generally known for, it’s effective all the same; as a review in the New York Times published in relation to the 1983 airing put it, “It is a slight story and, in the end, even a prevaricating story. But Ian Curteis … has put together a script that operates skillfully on several levels.” The review also praised the program’s “collection of marvelous performances.” It’s available to watch on YouTube, happily.
The BBC commissioned Curteis to adapt his original TV script into a radio play several decades later; starring Patricia Hodge and Juliet Stevenson, this radio play version of Miss Morison’s Ghosts broadcast on Dec. 11, 2004. Alas, it’s not currently available to listen to, but if we’re lucky, the BBC might make it available via their online player sometime in the future.
(Also, in the event that you’re unfamiliar with Mystery!, its Edward Gorey-inspired title sequence is A-plus. Just… so delightful. Watch it here.)
“Time Slips: Urban Legend, Ghost Story, or Utter Nonsense?” by Icy Sedgwick. For an overview specifically of the debate surrounding the Moberly-Jourdain incident’s veracity, folklorist Icy Sedgwick’s piece at her website is a good place to start. You can also listen to the piece as an episode of her podcast, Fabulous Folklore, embedded within the piece.
Worth noting, though, is that the piece is about not just the Moberly-Jourdain incident in particular, but about time slip stories more generally — that is, it uses the specific incident as its way into the larger subject. (As Sedgwick puts it at the beginning of the piece, “Now, when you say ‘time slips,’ most people think of the Versailles Time Slip, aka the Moberly-Jourdain Incident. So we’ll start there.”) She also takes a brief look at some other notable time slips beyond the Versaille story, and helpfully situates the ideas, concepts, and tropes at play with such stories within the context of folklore, urban legends, and ghost stories more broadly.
Skeptoid Podcast: “The Versaille Time Slip.” Unsurprisingly, skeptic Brian Dunning devoted an episode of his podcast Skeptoid to the Moberly-Jourdain incident some time ago (it’s dated Feb. 7, 2012, for the curious). After recounting the story itself, Dunning dives into how the perception a witness affects how credible we find them, as well as the oddities not just of the incident itself, but of the two most commonly-cited “reasonable” (read: non-paranormal) explanations for them (that they’d either wandered into a historical reenactment or had a shared delusion. No matter what actually did happen, though, it’s clear, as Dunning underlines, that Moberly and Jourdain believed something had happened — that they had “a firm belief in the reality of their perception and a desire to present their story in as convincing a way as possible.” (There’s a transcript of the episode, too, if you’d prefer to read it, rather than listen to it.)
“Contagious Folly: An Adventure And Its Skeptics” by Terry Castle for Critical Inquiry. Castle’s piece, originally published in 1991 in the journal Critical Inquiry, is widely cited in discussion of the Moberly-Jourdain incident, so it’s what I’d consider a must-read if you’re interested in looking into the story further. It uses the “collective hallucination” theory as a lens to look at some of the bigger problems inherent in trying to debunk — or, really, just wrap your brain around — stories like this one. (E.g. a lack of evidence on both sides makes it astonishingly tricky.) There’s a lot of nuance here, and it’s a particularly fascinating read.
The Time Travel Claims And Urban Legends page on Wikipedia. I tend to view the Moberly-Jourdain incident as closer to a time travel story than a ghost story, so with that in mind, I think it’s worth checking out Wikipedia’s page on Time Travel Claims And Urban Legends (which, as it happens, lists the Moberly-Jourdain incident as its very first entry). Other stories, alleged incidents, and bizarre events featured on the page include the whole “Chaplin’s time traveler” thing, the “Present-day hipster at 1941 bridge opening” photograph, and the Philadelphia Experiment and Montauk Project (both of which I covered very early in my career at an outlet that no longer exists, but can still be viewed via the Wayback Machine).
“Is It Possible For A Human Being To Travel Through Time?” at Scientific American. To be fair, this piece is quite old (it’s from 1999), but it’s still a good read if you’re interested in the mechanics of time travel and whether or not it’s actually possible, given what we know about our universe. The commentary is from Gary T. Horowitz, a professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
TL;DR: Time travel is “not obviously ruled out by our current laws of nature,” apparently! However, Horowitz does note that “time travel into the past” — that is, the variety of time travel Moberly and Jourdain allegedly experienced — is “a much more uncertain proposition, largely due to how Einstein’s equations of General Relativity work. More here.
TV Trope’s massive list of time travel tropes. Although Moberly and Jourdain swore up, down, left, and right that they experienced something real, there’s a lot about the story as they present it that reads as just that: A story. As such, it can be a really fascinating exercise to try to track the storytelling tropes present in the tale — and if you’re looking for a list of said tropes, well, that’s what TV Tropes is for. The Accidental Time Travel trope is probably the closest to what’s going on here, but there’s plenty to dig through.
“Unresolved: John Titor, Time Traveler From The Future” at The Ghost In My Machine. Sorry. Shameless plug. While we’re on the subject of time travel, here’s a look at another infamous alleged time traveling incident I originally published here at TGIMM back in 2017. It’s a very different kind of story from the Moberly-Jourdain incident — it took place entirely online and, I’m fairly certain, absolutely a hoax — but still. (Tangentially related: If you’re interested in the John Titor story, check out STEINS;Gate — either the video game/visual novel or the anime adaptation. It’s an interesting spin on the whole thing.)