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13 of History's Most Famous Ghost Photos

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In our “pics or it didn’t happen” era, photographic evidence is often considered to be proof that an event actually took place. This is not necessarily the case, however, with paranormal photography. Almost since the time photography was invented, people have been using the medium in attempts to provide visual proof of existence beyond death. For many, the jury is still out. Here are some of the more famous examples of ghosts supposedly captured by cameras.

1. THE BROWN LADY OF RAYNHAM HALL

Wikimedia // Fair use

The mysterious and perfectly composed photograph of the “Brown Lady” of Raynham Hall is arguably the most famous and well-regarded ghost photo ever taken. The image was shot in September 1936 by photographers documenting 17th-century Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England, for Country Life magazine. One account states that photographer Captain Hubert Provand had his head buried in the focusing cloth (a feature common on cameras at the time) when his assistant Indre Shira glimpsed a veiled form gliding down the house’s grand oak staircase and excitedly demanded that he take a picture. By the time Provand raised his head, the figure had vanished, leading Provand to suggest that Shira had imagined the incident. The development process, however, revealed something unsettling.

The ghost, thought to be that of Lady Dorothy Townshend, has been glimpsed several times since the early 1800s. Although Lady Townshend officially died of smallpox in 1726, more lurid legends later sprung up, including that she was locked in her bedroom by her husband for committing adultery. Witnesses describe the phantom as having an air of madness or menace about it. The specter has reportedly been seen intermittently about the hall since the photo was taken.

2. TULIP STAIRCASE GHOST

Ghost on the tulip staircase, Greenwich

As with many ghost photographs, the famous Tulip Staircase Ghost photo was taken by someone who had no idea they had captured anything unusual until the image was developed. Rev. Ralph Hardy, a retired clergyman from British Columbia, was visiting the Queen’s House at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, in 1966 when he snapped a picture of an interesting spiral staircase, known as the Tulip Staircase. Hardy returned home, had his pictures developed, and was showing them off when a friend asked who was on the staircase. Surprised, Hardy said that he had no idea, and that there had been no one when he took the picture. The image has been examined by experts, including some from Kodak, who have confirmed that it has not been tampered with. The identity of the ghost, if that’s indeed what it is, remains unclear, though some have speculated that it's a maid who supposedly died on the stairs 300 years ago.

3. LORD COMBERMERE

This photo supposedly depicts the ghost of a man who was being interred several miles away at the time it was taken. Lord Combermere had been struck and killed by a carriage in London in 1891, shortly before amateur photographer Sybell Corbet took a picture in the library of Combermere Abbey, the lord’s home. It took about an hour for Corbet to expose the image, and when it appeared on the plate it revealed a man resembling Combermere sitting in his favorite chair. Interestingly, the figure’s legs are missing, which is made all the more spooky given that Combermere’s legs were badly damaged in the carriage accident.

4. FREDDY JACKSON

Freddy Jackson

Some people, whether alive or dead, hate to miss a photo op. Freddie Jackson, a mechanic in the Royal Air Force during World War I, was killed by an airplane propeller around 1919. On the day of Jackson’s funeral, a group photo was taken of his squadron, which had served aboard the HMS Daedalus. Jackson, so the story goes, did not want to be left out of the photo, even after death, and his face can be glimpsed behind the fourth airman from the left in the back row. The photo was not made public until 1975, when it was revealed by retired RAF officer Victor Goddard, who had been in Jackson’s squadron. Many of the details of this much-repeated story, however, have been called into question, along with the photo’s legitimacy.

5. MADONNA OF BACHELOR’S GROVE

This paranormal photograph was taken by the Ghost Research Society of America during a visit to Bachelor’s Grove cemetery in Illinois. The group was visiting the small, abandoned cemetery in a suburb near Chicago in 1991 when inexplicable readings were observed on their equipment. Although no visible ghostly phenomena were observed at the time, a photo taken in the area later revealed a woman in white clothing, described as being “out of date,” sitting on a tombstone. Bachelor’s Grove is reputed to be one of the world’s most haunted cemeteries.

6. CORROBOREE ROCK GHOST

The Corroboree Rock Ghost, also known as “The Watcher,” is said to have been captured on film by Reverend R.S. Blance during a 1959 visit to the Corroboree Rock formation in Australia. Blance claims he was alone at the time he took the photo and only saw the figure after developing the image later. Interestingly, the figure, which appears in a long gown, suggests different things to different people, who have variously described it as a woman in a nightgown, an Aboriginal woman in traditional dress, or a priest. (The rock formation itself holds spiritual significance for local Aboriginal people.)

7. THE GHOST OF BOOTHILL CEMETERY

Terry Ike Clanton, an actor and “cowboy poet” who runs the website TombstoneArizona.com, shot this photo of a friend dressed in 1880s cowboy attire in Arizona’s Boothill Graveyard. Clanton says the unexpected appearance of a strange visitor in the background forever changed his opinions about ghost photos. The figure appears to be a man in a black hat, rising out of the ground in an odd way that suggests that he is either legless or kneeling. Clanton, who specifies that the image was shot on film rather than digitally, says he attempted to recreate the photograph with a person in the background, but the task proved impossible.

8. AMITYVILLE GHOST

This creepy image was allegedly captured in the infamous Amityville house during a 1976 investigation led by paranormal experts Ed and Lorraine Warren. A camera was set up on the second floor landing to shoot black-and-white infrared film throughout the night. Every image was empty of unusual phenomena, save this one. George Lutz, the patriarch at the center of the Amityville Horror story, revealed the photo on The Merv Griffin Show in 1979 and suggested it may show the ghost of John deFeo, a young boy who was murdered in the house before the Lutz family moved in. The authenticity of the photo, along with the Amityville story, has been widely doubted, with some holding that the photo depicts Paul Bartz, who was part of the Warrens’ investigation team.

9. THE GIRL IN THE FIRE

ghostonfiregirl

A man named Tony O’Rahilly captured this image of a mysterious girl standing amid the flames as Wem Town Hall in Shropshire, England burned to the ground in 1995. The intense heat of the flames prompted some to argue that no living thing could stand so close and exhibit such composure, leading to the conclusion that the girl must be a supernatural entity. Some town residents assumed the ghost was that of Jane Churn (sometimes spelled Churm), a girl who in 1677 accidentally set fire to her home and much of the town and is believed to haunt the area. O’Rahilly submitted the photo to the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, who in turn consulted the former head of the Royal Photographic Society, both of whom said it hadn't been tampered with. Others, however, have since debunked the photo as a hoax.

10. THE BOY ON A FARM

In 2008, photographer Neil Sandbach was taking shots at a farm in Hertfordshire, England, for a couple who planned to hold their wedding there. Examining his digital shots later, Sandbach was surprised to see the glowing, ghostly figure of a boy peeking around the corner of a building. The wedding couple later asked staff members at the farm if they had ever seen anything spooky or unusual on the premises and were told that some had, in fact, witnessed the figure of a young boy dressed in white night clothes.

11. WAVERLY HILLS SANATORIUM GHOST

Waverly Hills Sanatorium, an abandoned tuberculosis hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, saw its fair share of sickness and death during its years of operation in the first half of the 20th century. It has since gained a reputation as one of America’s most haunted sites and a destination for ghost-hunters. This image was captured in the sanatorium’s crumbling halls in 2006. Some say the figure resembles Mary Lee, a nurse who hung herself in the hospital after being impregnated by a doctor who later wanted nothing to do with her.

12. QUEENSLAND CEMETERY GHOST BABY

In the mid-1940s, a woman named Mrs. Andrews entered a cemetery in Queensland, Australia to visit the grave of her daughter, who had died in 1945 at age 17. Noticing nothing unusual, she snapped a photo of the plot and was later shocked to see a ghostly female child staring back at her. Researchers have said that the image is likely not a double exposure, as no pictures of children appear elsewhere on the roll of film. The graves of two female children were later found close by and it has been suggested that the photo shows one of their spirits.

13. THE PHANTOM MONK OF NEWBY

Wikimedia // Fair use

 
This strange apparition appeared in a photo taken by Rev. Kenneth Lord in 1963 at Skelton-cum-Newby Church of Christ the Consoler. No previous evidence of paranormal activity had been reported at the church. Especially unsettling characteristics include the figure’s drooping face, which has been interpreted variously as a mask or deformity, and its significant height, thought to be about 9 feet in comparison to the surrounding furniture. Experts have said the photo is not the result of a double exposure, though its veracity is still subject to debate.

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Show and Tell
Photograph of Jefferson Davis in Women’s Clothing
International Center for Photography, Gift of Charles Schwartz, 2012

On May 10, 1865, Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, was captured by Union troops near Irwinville, Georgia. Davis’s capture, about a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, was the effective end of the Confederacy and the four-year war that had left hundred of thousands of Americans dead.

Davis, a true believer in the cause of the Confederacy, refused to accept Lee’s surrender, believing that the South could still wage a guerilla war against the Union (clearly, Lee disagreed). With that cause in mind, Davis and his family fled Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, hoping to make it to Texas, where he believed he could continue to fight. But the Davises would only make it as far as south Georgia before they were found by Union troops.

According to a handful of accounts from the period, Davis was captured while wearing women’s clothes. The story, as it’s generally told, depicts a man desperate to escape and so, with the encouragement of his wife, Varina, he donned her overcoat and shawl and slipped into the Georgia swamp with a female servant (other accounts say he grabbed his wife's coat and shawl accidentally). Union troops spotted the two “women” and, on closer look, realized that one was wearing spurred boots. Given away by his footwear, Davis surrendered to the Union troops.

The story of Davis in women’s clothing traveled quickly to the ears of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton recognized the story as an opportunity to discredit Davis, who still had numerous sympathizers throughout the country. Historians have noted that the North gendered its victory as masculine and heroic and, in contrast, portrayed the South as feminine and weak. Davis’s flight played into that narrative, portraying the Southern leader as a coward willing to emasculate himself in order to escape. In short, manly martyrs do not wear women’s clothes. (Never mind that numerous eyewitness accounts disputed the story, including two by members of the First Wisconsin Cavalry, one of the units that captured Davis and his party and another by Davis’s coachman.)

Nevertheless, Stanton planned to exploit the account to the Union’s full advantage. But there was a slight hitch in his plan—namely, the look and style of Varina Davis’s overcoat and shawl. Mrs. Davis’s overcoat was essentially unisex, and bore a striking resemblance to the raincoats of Union soldiers. Furthermore, the shawl was also worn by many men in the mid-19th century, including Abraham Lincoln. The original plan foiled, Stanton encouraged the rumor that Davis had been captured wearing women’s petticoats, earning Davis the derogatory nickname “President in Petticoats.”

The rumor proved incredibly popular. Historian Gaines Foster writes, “Northerners delighted in the accounts of how the Confederate chieftain had tried to escape in female disguise.” Indeed, even P.T. Barnum couldn’t resist the spectacle: The circus king exhibited what he claimed to be the very clothes Davis was wearing at the time of his capture.

Boston Public Library via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Numerous prints circulated of Davis in petticoats, and photography—a relatively new medium at the time—took up the theme as well. In this combination photograph (up top) produced by the Slee Brothers of Poughkeepsie, New York, and now owned by the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, Davis is depicted in the petticoats of a woman, his head, taken from a separate photographic portrait, having been imposed on another body. Here, Davis wears bonnet, shawl, and petticoats, a fanciful elaboration on the story of his capture, and the skirts are lifted to reveal his spurred boots. The Slee Brothers were one of many photography studios to use combination printing—the production of a single positive through multiple negatives—to play with the theme of Davis fleeing in women’s clothes.

Other photographs from the period depict Davis’s head superimposed on a body wearing full hoop skirts with large men’s boots also imposed over the body, as well as Davis (again in full women’s dress) sneaking through the Georgia swampland while holding a dagger. In almost all of these photographs, the boots are prominently displayed, noting Davis’s folly and a clear part of the narrative of the North’s victory.

Photography was undoubtedly a powerful tool to disseminate the story of Davis’s and the South’s defeat. Davis himself recognized the importance of the new medium: In 1869, he commissioned a photograph of himself wearing the actual clothes he had worn when captured. But the act was fruitless and, despite his insistence, the “President in Petticoats” is a story that stuck with Davis long after death.

Header image: International Center for Photography

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By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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History
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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