In an era when everyone is armed with a digital camera, and every blemish on every photo is "proof" of paranormal activity, it's nice to return to a simpler time of spectral photography. You know, when people took pictures of ghosts without meaning to do so. That's why I'm so fond of the most famous ghost photography case of all.
If you do even a simple Google search for famous ghost photos, I guarantee you'll find the photo I'm talking about. It's probably rated somewhere in the top ten depending which website you look at. I am of course referring to the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.
The photo was reportedly the result of chance – produced in 1936 by professional photographers Captain Provand and Indre Shira. These two were sent to Raynham Hall as part of an assignment to chronicle great British houses for Country Life magazine. According to their story, they were setting up their camera equipment when Provand noticed a gossamer figure floating down the main staircase and slowly assuming the shape of a woman. He immediately yelled for Shira to snap the photo, which Shira did without knowing the reason for the urgency. Shira later contended he never saw the apparition with his own eyes which leaves Provand as the only witness to the event. When the image was developed – lo and behold! – a humanlike figure appears center frame about halfway down the stairs. Although details of the ghostly image are left partially to the mind's eye, the figure does seem to resemble a woman in a long dress wearing a cowl or some other kind of head covering.
The photo would seem to support a haunting legend which at that time was at least one hundred years old. A specter, believed to be of Lady Dorothy Walpole, the sister of Great Britain's first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, was said to roam the house at night. The tragic circumstances of Lady Dorothy's life are documented and good fodder for a haunting. She had married Charles Townsend, the aristocratic owner of Raynham Hall and a man well-known for his violent temper. One can deduce that domestic violence was a regular occurrence in their home, although this was long before it was either a social issue or a crime. When Townsend discovered Lady Dorothy was cheating on him, he reportedly imprisoned her inside Raynham Hall for the duration of her life. She died in 1726, having never stepped outside of the estate's walls again – imprisoned without a trial and with no hope of clemency. How she died is another mystery. She was only 40 when she snuffed it, apparently the victim of either smallpox or being pushed down the stairs.
Possibly the same stairs where Provand and Shira photographed the ghost? Who knows.
Curiously, the documented sightings of the Brown Lady (so named because of the old-fashioned dress she wears), do not begin until over a century after Lady Dorothy's death. We can assume their were others but they were undocumented. The first we know of occurred during Christmas 1895 when the ghost appeared twice during a single week to a man referred to only as "Colonel Loftus." The following year was a more credible witness in the form of popular novelist, Frederick Marryat.
Marryat was a popular novelist who wrote mostly novels dealing with the romance and danger of the High Seas. He was a friend of Charles Dickens, and like Dickens was interested in the paranormal. One of his novels, The Phantom Ship, deals with a Flying Dutchman-type vessel and contains a spectral wolf. This is certainly significant because one could argue, despite his good personal reputation, Marryat might've been unusually open to seeing the Brown Lady. Indeed, he openly confessed he went to Raynham Hall for exactly that purpose. On his third night he encountered her wandering down the darkened corridor carrying a lantern. According to his daughter's account of the experience, Marryat rushed out of the shadows and fired a pistol point blank into the apparition's face. Naturally, this had no effect and the ghost immediately vanished into thin air. Additional sightings were recorded over the decades and almost all of them described the female specter as wearing the same brown dress and carrying a lantern. Interestingly, the Country Lifephoto does not show the apparition with the lantern.
The Brown Lady photo has been meticulously scrutinized since 1936, so I will not bother to summarize all the analysis. Suffice to say that different investigators have come to different conclusions. But even the prestigious Society for Psychical Research noted there was no evidence of a hoax – but found the equipment used by Provand and Shira to be faulty. The Society decided not to publish the photo or the report in its journals, despite the sensation over it in the popular press. Whatever your take on the photo, it's a compelling image and certainly one that lingers on the mind long after you've viewed it. I don't exactly remember the first time I saw the photo, but it must've been when I was a teenager.