Many places throughout the world have stories of mysterious ladies in black, but the one told in the small town of Clifton Forge, VA is based in fact. Her name was Annie Fisher, and she was a young woman when the world was being ripped apart by the Great War. Annie was in love with a boy who enlisted in the military and in 1914, he departed from the Clifton Forge train station with the promise that he would be back when the war was over and they’d get married. For four years Annie waited patiently, secure in the belief that her young man would return to her; however, when World War I ended in 1918, she began to get anxious when she hadn’t received word of her love’s return. She began going to the station to meet each train as it arrived (and at that time Clifton Forge was a booming railroad town, so there were up to 16 passenger trains a day). She would carefully scrutinize each man’s face as he disembarked, hoping futilely to see the one she longed for.
Weeks, then months, and finally years passed, and still Annie would faithfully make her way from her family home, down Brussels Street, into the downtown area, to the station where she would meet every arriving passenger train. Her soldier never came. Eventually, although she never gave up hope, Annie took to wearing widow’s clothing, complete with a long black dress and a black hat with a black veil. Local children playing at the train station in the 1920s remembered her as the creepy lady with a pale face who was always there standing in the shadows.
The Great Depression and the switch from steam to diesel engines hit the economy of Clifton Forge hard. Jobs became more scarce, and the number of passenger trains slowed to a trickle compared to the heyday of the 1890s to 1920s. But still, each day Annie made her slow journey down the hill from her home to the rail yard so she could make sure she was there for every arrival, just in case the love of her life came back for her at last.
Over the next decades, Annie became a familiar, forlorn figure, drifting through town in her old-fashioned black dress and veil. In the 1960s, she paid neighborhood children to do her shopping, and they found it amusing that she carefully washed her money, bills and coins alike, and stored it in jars of baking soda to keep it fresh. She presented a somewhat terrifying visage, as she heavily powdered her face with flour until it was a stark white mask, but the townspeople knew she was just eccentric and there was no harm in her.
Annie Fisher never married. She stayed true to her beloved soldier until the day she died. He never did come back to keep his promise, and whether that’s because he changed his mind, fell in love with someone else, or died in battle, no one knows. The truth, like the soldier’s identity, has been lost in time. But for almost 50 years, from 1918 until her death in the 1960s, Annie kept the faith and never missed a train.
After Annie died, people started to report seeing an indistinct black figure slowly drifting along the streets of Clifton Forge, especially on nights when the fog would creep down from the mountains to envelop the town in its muffled embrace. A high school student told me last October that he’d seen her one night under a streetlight, a darker mist floating against the fog and then slowly dissipating. Others have seen her as a transparent dark shape wafting in the general direction of downtown where the train station used to be. More frighteningly, a few have witnessed what appeared to be a real person dressed in head to toe black, with a dead white face and hollow black eyes, again lingering in the downtown area.
My mother knew nothing of the Lady in Black when she moved to Clifton Forge in 2015; however, a year later, as she was walking in the downtown area at twilight and rounded the corner of the hardware store, she saw a person in a black, hooded cloak leaning against the brick wall looking down. As she passed, the figure (she thought it was a girl, but wasn’t sure) raised its head and looked directly at her with smudged, haunted black eyes in a white face. That unblinking stare gave my mom such a jolt that she instinctively crossed the street and almost ran away from that corner. At the time it didn’t occur to her that she might have encountered a ghost, but when I started researching town legends and came across that of the Lady, she started to wonder if perhaps that was who she’d seen. Unfortunately (for me, although I’m sure my mom would disagree), she’s never seen the cloaked figure again, so its identity remains a mystery.
Should you happen to visit Clifton Forge, VA, especially on a foggy night, and see a dark mist or otherworldly black-clad figure around the downtown area, count yourself lucky to have perhaps caught a glimpse of our sad, lonely, loyal Lady in Black and wish her well. Maybe someday she’ll find her soldier’s spirit and finally be at peace.