**This story is based on a real-life mystery which you can read about here.
The night Rebecca Browning died was the best night of her life. At least that was the impression she left with all who witnessed her dancing away her final hours at the Harrodsburg Springs Hotel in the summer of 1882. Those present that night had no way of knowing that the lovely young woman they all admired wasn’t quite what she seemed to be or that her name was not even Rebecca Browning. It would be many years before her true identity was revealed and one piece of the puzzle, at least, would fall into place.
On that summer evening the woman who called herself Rebecca Browning did not seem to have a care in the world as she twirled from one partner to another with a radiant smile on her face. Every man fell in love with her, and every woman was captivated by her sheer life force and joy. None of them could have guessed that before the evening was over the beautiful woman would lie cold and still beneath a funeral shroud, the bloom in her cheek forever faded.
She had arrived at the hotel just as dusk was falling that day. The desk clerk had thought it strange that he had not heard a coach outside and that she carried no travelling cases with her. The woman paid her bill in full and went quietly to her room. She emerged later when the band started playing, and every eye turned in her direction as she came down the stairs.
She was dressed very simply in a white dress. Her fair hair was loose about her shoulders with a red rose woven through it. Her dance card was filled in just minutes, and for the rest of the evening she did not take a rest even once.
It was during the final waltz of the evening that her face grew very pale and she closed her eyes never to open them again. The men who had danced with her later recalled how little she had revealed about herself in response to their questions. She had simply replied that she was passing through on her way to somewhere beautiful, and that was all they needed to know. Any further queries were met with a smile and a gentle shake of the head.
She had no identifying papers on her when she died, and the name she had given came to nothing. No young woman matching her description was reported missing, and the only possible clue was a strange sighting not far from the hotel just before dusk on that fateful day. A girl called Ella-Maree had been playing with her dog in the woods when she claimed a ghostly figure in a long white dress passed her by. She called out to the woman but she just continued walking as if in a trance, and when she came to a puddle of water she did not stop but glided right through it. Ella-Maree ran home in a state of terror, convinced she had just seen a ghost. When she told her parents they scolded her for lying, and her story was dismissed by all as the fantasy of a child.
When no one had come forward to claim the woman’s body after seven days she was buried in the grounds of the hotel where she had spent her last hours. It seemed fitting that all of those who had been present during her last moments were also present at her funeral. They mourned the loss of someone so vibrant and young, and gave thanks for the joy she brought in the few brief hours they had known her. Everyone claimed to have been profoundly affected by her life and death.
These sentiments were not in any way unusual in response to such a mysterious and tragic event. However, what made these speeches so different to the usual platitudes expressed at funerals was the extent to which they turned out to be true. When they looked back in years to come, those who attended the funeral service would recognize that the young woman’s passing marked a pivotal moment in their own histories. The following day Raymond Fisher finally worked up the courage to ask Mary Stowe, his secret love, to marry him, and to his amazement she said yes. Dan Travers saw that alcohol had been poisoning his life for years and he never touched another drop. Lizzie Martin, a kitchen maid at the hotel, walked out on her abusive husband and never looked back. Many others also reported that they had made important, life-changing decisions around that time. It was as if the mysterious woman had taught them something important about life and instilled them with the courage to change.
In the years that followed her death the woman’s legend grew, and many people claimed to have seen her ghost in the park where the hotel once stood. She was said she to be wearing the same white dress with a red rose in her hair, and she was always smiling and carefree. It was only on happy occasions that she seemed to appear, and to see her was considered a harbinger of good fortune.
While the unknown woman’s body rested in the ground at the Harrodsburg Springs Hotel for well over a century, just twenty miles east another grave lay empty for the same length of time. The headstone said Christine Mary Thomas, beloved daughter of Harold and Catherine and sister to Matthew, Sarah and Josephine. She had been just twenty-one years old when she died in the summer of 1882.
In different circumstances the empty coffin may have held onto its secret forever, but in 2012 the graveyard was excavated to make way for a car park. As the workers were levering the coffin out of the ground in the rain it slipped and fell, and its lid came open. Inside were not shrivelled clothes and skeletal remains of a long-dead girl but rather a gaping emptiness. The coffin was completely unoccupied apart from a yellowed piece of paper which fluttered to the ground. One of the men bent to pick it up and he read it aloud to the others. It was a quote from Socrates: “Look death in the face with joyful hope, and consider this a lasting truth: the righteous man has nothing to fear, neither in life, nor in death, and the gods will not forsake him.”
The strange episode would probably have been forgotten if an historian called Michael Ryan had not been at the graveyard that day to supervise the excavation. He became intrigued by the mystery of the empty coffin, and he decided to do some investigating. Despite his efforts in researching Christine Harris and her family he could find no reason why the young woman’s remains were not where they were supposed to be. She had led a tragic but uneventful life, and there was nothing to suggest her death had been in any way unusual.
It was through sheer luck that he came across a sketch of the mysterious woman from the Harrodsburg Springs Hotel in his research. He was instantly struck by the strong resemblance with a portrait he had seen of Christine Harris. It took much hard work and arguing before he finally convinced the government to exhume the body of the woman who had called herself Rebecca Browning. Her DNA was sent away for testing and matched against samples from Christine Harris’ living descendants. When the results came back everyone was stunned, except the man who had set the whole thing in motion.
Christine Harris had died at home in August of 1882 after a long and debilitating illness. She had once been a very happy girl who loved to dance and sing, but when she became sick at the tender age of sixteen she was confined to her bed for the rest of her life. She missed out on all the wonderful things about growing up that she had dreamed of for so long, but she did not become bitter as she watched the world move on without her. Neither was she afraid to die. Her one last wish was to dance again, just one more time, before she passed away. Sadly it was not meant to be and Rebecca slipped away in her sleep without ever knowing the joy of dancing again.
She was buried two days after her death in her favourite white dress, with a single rose woven into her hair. The only vague hint the historian could ever find that all might not have been as it seemed at her funeral was a comment by one of her uncle’s in a letter to a friend in which he stated that “the coffin was light as feather, because our poor little Rebecca had wasted away to less than nothing.” The comment could be dismissed as just a coincidence, but what couldn’t be dismissed so easily was the fact that on the same day Christine Harris was buried an identical woman had turned up at the Harrodsburg Springs hotel twenty miles away. Now they had incontrovertible proof that the two women were in fact one and the same person.
News of the mystery spread far and wide, and many were drawn into it. Possible solutions were debated endlessly. Had the young woman only appeared to be dead when she was placed in her coffin? When she awoke in the night did she steal away to fulfil her final wish? Or had she been raised from the grave by a higher force so she could dance again? All their speculation only raised more questions, and most people eventually came to accept that it was a mystery that would never be solved. They drew comfort and strength from the story of the woman who had defied death to dance one last time, and they joked that she had probably waltzed right past the pearly gates and into the arms of heaven.
If you liked this story you might also like my novella Colton Manor which is available for 0.99 on Amazon.