Saturday, April 12, 2014

Spooky Urban Legend about Disease "But Madam You Arrived Alone"

First of all, I'm not really in the mood to talk about disease (the word of the week) as my brother has been in the hospital for a week, extremely ill with a drug resistant bacteria. So the topic hits too close to home for me right now.

BUT, I'm a loyal  Word Whore and while researching something else, I remembered a spooky urban legend about disease. There are many variations of the tale and I urge you to go visit the Snopes website to read the full discussion. (It wasn't a Twilight Zone episode to my knowledge but it could sure have been...)

The way I remember hearing it, a young English woman is traveling abroad with her mother in 1889. They go to Paris for the Great Exposition (or they're in Paris accidentally at that time) so there aren't many hotel rooms available. The girl and her mother end up in separate rooms, and the mother's is really lovely, with special floral wall paper and a beautiful rug, etc. In other words, memorable. Later in the day, the mother is taken quite ill. The daughter summons the hotel manager and a local physician to her bedside. They confer and the doctor sends the girl across town to fetch a specific medicine from his private stock, at his home office.

The hotel provides a driver and a horse-drawn cab for her trip, but the driver seems to get lost and the drive takes hours. Then the doctor's wife tries to detain the girl further, offering her tea, etc. Getting back to the hotel takes more time. Our heroine rushes to her mother's room...only to find the room occupied by someone else. No trace of the mother or her luggage.

Naturally hysterical, the girl summons the hotel manager, who (depending on the version of the tale) either says she arrived alone or insists she herself was never a guest at the hotel. The hotel doctor likewise disclaims all knowledge of ever meeting her.

No one remembers the mother. The other guest swears the room in question has been his for several days. When they finally allow her into the room for a moment, the girl is horrified to see totally different wall paper, carpet and furnishings. She thinks she might smell fresh paint but they hustle her out. In some versions she goes to the British Embassy for help but what can they do when everyone denies ever seeing her mother?

The payoff seems to be that the mother had some exotic disease, maybe smallpox or the plague - some versions of the story say that the pair had been traveling extensively - and her death was hushed completely up to avoid ruining the Great Exposition.

In most versions of the story, the girl ends up in an insane asylum until she dies of old age.

OK, so I get it, urban legend. BUT, I do wonder what kernel of truth this story might be built around, don't you?  Cue the "Twilight Zone" theme song and my work is done here...

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