“One of the most dangerous classes in the world. . .is the drifting and friendless woman. She is the most harmless and often the most useful of mortals, but. . .she is helpless. She is migratory. She has sufficient means to take her from country, to country, and from hotel to hotel. . .She is a stray chicken in a world of foxes. . .” Sherlock Holmes, “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”
So Holmes characterized one sort of Victorian “spinster”, but he never met Isabella Bird.
Isabella was a prim and proper woman in most respects, but she had an adventurous spirit. She traveled the world on her own, and it happened, in October of 1873, that she turned up in what would eventually become the Rocky Mountains National Park, determined to climb a mountain known as Longs Peak. For that, she needed a guide, and she hired one called Jim Nugent, who was also guiding two men up the mountain. When the men complained that a woman would slow them up, Nugent proclaimed he would get Miss Bird to the top or he would not guide them up at all.
And so began a platonically passionate romance that ended with the appearance of an apparition in an unlikely place.
Isabella Bird wrote, in a letter about her adventure in the Rockies, that Jim Nugent was “a man any woman would love, but no sane woman would marry.” He was an educated ruffian, tall, wide-shouldered, well-spoken, and would have been devastatingly handsome had he not lost an eye in an encounter with a grizzly bear. He also drank, and when he drank, he was violent.
The little party camped for two nights in a meadow that would be know later as Jim’s Grove. On the third day, they climbed Longs Peak—at least, Jim Nugent and the two men did. Nugent, for all practical purposes, carried Isabella Bird to the summit, a humiliating but exhilarating experience. It was possibly after this that Isabella began having surprisingly erotic dreams about him.
Still, their love might have remained a silent one had they not been caught in near-whiteout conditions during a snowstorm on November 18th, 1873. Struggling on horseback through drifts and high wind, Jim Nugent—possibly taking his nerve in his hands—confessed to Isabella that he loved her, and that his love was killing him. Cold, scared, and startled, Isabella burst into tears. When they reached safety, she wrote him a letter in which she primly rejected his advance, telling him “[our] acquaintance shall at once terminate.”
What followed, for both, was two weeks of torment while they traveled to the nearest town, where Isabella would catch a stagecoach and leave him forever. Jim Nugent handed her onto the coach with one final passionate declaration: “I swear I will see you again.”
Isabella returned to England, and thence went to the Continent. Jim Nugent returned to his cabin near the little mountain town of Estes Park (itself famous as the town nearest the notoriously haunted Stanley Hotel). On June 19th, 1874, Nugent was shot in the head by a neighborhood drunk named Griff Evans. Carried to a hospital in Fort Collins, Nugent lingered for three months.
In September of that year, Isabella Bird was staying in a hotel in Switzerland. One morning she woke from a sound sleep to find Jim Nugent, looking exactly as he had the last time she had seen him, months before, standing beside her bed. He was staring at her with sorrow in his eyes. Before she could get her wits about her, he said, “I have come, as I promised.” And then he was gone.
Isabella recorded this encounter as having occurred at six AM; Nugent, she learned later, had died of fever some sixteen hours, allowing for the time difference, after he appeared at her bedside.
Some would dismiss this sighting as female vapors; others would call it a “fetch” or a “crisis apparition”, the appearance of a distant loved one before or after their actual death. Sometimes they seem so real that the observer doesn’t realize they’ve seen a fetch until, as Nugent did, they vanish into thin air.
No matter what you call it, it seems that Jim Nugent kept that last vow: “I swear that I will see you again.”
Andrea Lankford tells the story of Miss Bird and the mountain man in her book HAUNTED HIKES (2006).