In April 1870 the Wexford Independent, Wexford, Ireland ran the following which was quickly repeated in the Carlow Post.
Women in Black is a name given to a largely US phenomenon from the 1860s through to World War I.
"The Victorian widow, swathed in her 'habiliments of woe,' was a familiar figure on the streets of the nineteenth century. The dull fabrics, the crape, the veil: all marked the wearer as one touched by Death and entitled to special consideration. Mourning garb both protected the wearer from the public gaze and elevated societal expectations for the widow. This made it all the more shocking when mourning dress was used as a criminal disguise.
Let us look at the rogues’ gallery of crimes committed in the United States from about 1860 to 1929 under the cover of crape. The list is a long and distressing one: Assault, inducing panic, menacing threats, armed robbery and pickpocketing, burglary, kidnapping, arson, murder, and most heinous of all to a 19 century audience: transvestism."
The different appearances were, of course, different. The "woman in black" could be or could be taken as:
a) a genuine widow
b) a woman using the guise to commit a crime
c) a transvestite
d) a supernatural apparition
Woodyard points out:
"A widow’s garb was the perfect cover for a transvestite, who, given the usual domestic organization of a 19-century working-class household, had little privacy or time for cross-dressing. It allowed him to walk abroad publically, dressed as a woman; hiding in plain sight. The act of wearing widow’s weeds was, for transvestites, both a criminal act and the concealment of that criminal act.
In 1848 Columbus, Ohio became one of the first US cities to pass a law against transvesting. 40 other cities soon did the same. So some degree of subterfuge became required.
The Women in Black disappeared during the Great War. Authorities introduced a ban on deep mourning for considerations of morale, and anyway hemlines began to rise. Soon the Women in Black were forgotten.
- Chris Woodyard. "The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise". Haunted Ohio, March 25, 2017. Online.
- Beach Combing. "British and Irish Women in Black Spirits ". Strange History, October 31, 2021. Online.