The social media saga of the ‘Woman in Black’

For two months, she was the dark, mysterious figure wandering along highways in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.

"I saw the woman in black" near in Winchester, VA near the union bank. (Photo by elizabeth_anne_01)
“I saw the woman in black,” said a woman on Instagram after spotting the her near the union bank in Winchester, Va. (Photo by elizabeth_anne_01)

Whenever she turned up, locals tried to snap photos of the one they dubbed the “Woman in Black,” a woman cloaked in black willowy robes, dragging a small black bag, maybe clutching a long, black umbrella if the weather required it. Some tried to talk to her. Others offered food, water and cash. She always turned them down.

Then this week, the woman, identified as 54-year-old Elizabeth Poles, wandered into a curious crowd in Winchester, Va. — a place she calls home and apparently intends to stay. Police intervened and took her to an undisclosed location for her safety, NBC Washington reported. They fed her and helped her find shelter. Now, they’re asking people to leave her alone.

“She just said: ‘I wish people would mind their own business,’” Winchester Police Capt. Doug Wilson told ABC News. He said her journey was related to faith and religion.

The hype surrounding the shrouded woman was ignited by social media users, news crews and other busybodies who became interested in her travels.

A Facebook page called “Where is the Mysterious Woman in Black?” has some 60,000 fans. A Twitter hashtag #WomanInBlack pulls up pictures and posts of possible sightings.

Since the Facebook group was created July 18, it has traced her trek from Tennessee to West Virginia. People on the site have posted photos and videos of their sightings — like any social media page — but have also talked about how this woman’s journey has inspired them to get through their own troubles.

 

The idea was not to stalk her, according to the group, but to encourage people to “offer her a drink, a meal, whatever it may be you feel she needs.” Though, she didn’t seem to want anything — except solitude.

“She said, ‘No, please get back. This is none of your business,’” said Jimmy McClellan, a West Virginia resident who had offered her bottled water last Tuesday. “My friend went out there and did the same thing. She refused it and started cursing at her. From what I’ve learned, she can be really nice or really rude. I don’t blame her rudeness. She wants to be left alone.”

Her brother, identified as Raymond Poles of Smiths Station, Ala., told Reuters that she’s a U.S. Army veteran, a mother of two and, since 2008, a widow. Her father died the following year. To cope, he said, she had been in treatment at Veterans Affairs hospitals, including one in North Carolina before she moved to Alabama about four years ago to be near family. She found another VA hospital there. She has not offered comment.

The saga started in Alabama one Sunday, he told ABC News, when he and his wife went to pick her up for church. He said that “when my wife and I picked her up, she shaved her head. She was asking me, ‘Where can I buy those long black robes?’” That’s when she started traveling — back to Virginia where her father raised her, he told the station.

WCYB-TV first identified her while she was trudging through Tennessee in early June. Since then, people have spotted her walking all over the Southeast and Midwest, though, Raymond Poles told ABC News that he assumed she used buses to help her along the way.

She reportedly told police who questioned her that she is from an Islamic nation and worked at the Pentagon. Police have since determined that neither claim is true, according to news reports.

The woman has stopped roaming for now and plans to become part of the Winchester community, police said. She wants to be treated as such.

“The Winchester Police Department wants local residents to know that she will be part of the community and to respect her privacy if you see her in the area,” the police department said in a news release Wednesday. “She has expressed to officers that she wants to be left alone and is asking that the public respect her wishes.”

Nick Kirkpatrick and Kiratiana Freelon contributed to this report.

Lindsey Bever is a national news reporter for The Washington Post. She writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet her: @lindseybever
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