Friday, 20 April 2018

Another 'Daily Mail' Fail and the Royal Mail Hotel

The Daily Mail website continued its tradition of bringing you pseudo-news clickbait last week with a 'ghost story' constructed around nothing more than an unconvincing photograph. We've seen this before with their ridiculous 'Is Toowoomba the Most Haunted City in Australia?' story in 2015. This time the action moves to the historic Royal Mail Hotel in Ipswich, Queensland.

A photograph was taken inside that pub in March this year. It looked like this:

Daily Mail, 18 April 2018.

Basically, there appears to be some kind of a smudge or smoke in the upper right part of the photo. This kind of thing is often presented by paranormalists as evidence of ghosts (for example, this photo I had a fight over a few years back). Seeing ghosts in such photos is usually the result of pareidolia (the brain perceiving patterns in otherwise random imagery), but it seems that some people have a greater capacity for pareidolia than others, which I think might be proportionate to their desire to see something.

This photo is a great example of this phenomenon. I've shown it to several people (believers and skeptics) and none of them could perceive anything resembling a human form in the 'smudge'. I really tried to make something out of it myself - and I usually can if I try - but couldn't see anything vaguely recognisable there. And judging by the comments under the article, I was not alone in this.

And yet, the article presents the photo as containing 'an apparition of a figure wearing a hat'. The reporter contacted Kellie Wright (who runs weekly psychic nights at the pub), who said 'In the photo, you can actually see an apparition of a woman', and that 'the figure in the picture... was more likely that of a woman who was the hotel's licensee during the early 20th century, called Mary O'Reilly'.

Disclosure - I know Kellie, I like her, and she might unfriend me on social media for this (please don't Kel!), but I really have to disagree with this assessment. The general consensus seems to be that the smudge in the photo is not identifiable as a human form, and certainly not to the extent that it can be assigned a gender. I accept that photos can sometimes contain 'ghostly' imagery that can interpreted as having some kind of human features, but not this one.

I'm also skeptical about attempts to try and attach a historical identity to alleged ghosts. Even if we were to accept that anomalous phenomena can be attributed to the spirits of deceased people, is it possible to then identify exactly who the deceased person is? Without any evidence, I'd say not. In fact, this only distracts from the actual science of trying to explain any anomalies. Yet it is very common for these cases to feature 'guessing games' of who the ghost might be, with lists of people who died in the vicinity being presented as possible suspects. This happened with this story as well:
'The death toll includes heroin overdoses in an upstairs room during the 1980s and an employee who died in a fight outside the front of the pub in 1986, after hitting his head on a kerb. An 11-year-old boy was also shot on a horse during the 19th century.'
Identifying the alleged ghost as being Mary O'Reilly seems rather unnecessary, especially with such weak evidence. In these cases I think it's more productive to focus on investigating what is happening rather than engaging in baseless speculation over names.

The article does mention other incidents said to have occurred inside the pub, including the old 'feeling like I'm not alone' (easy enough if you've convinced yourself the place is haunted), as well as creaking floorboards (not unusual in a 150+-years-old timber building), and posters falling off walls (gravity/draughts?) None of this seems to be particularly strong evidence in its own right, but snippets in a news article like this don't really provide detailed information to work with.

What I did find interesting was the contrasting attitudes of the two people running the pub, a father and daughter named Andrew and Addie Cafe. She seems to be more affected by the atmosphere, finding the 11 pm closing time 'particularly creepy' and claiming that 'At night time it seems to change. You do get their weird vibe.' On the other hand, Andrew - who has run the pub for 32 years - was more skeptical and said that he 'might have felt a presence years ago, I don't feel that anymore. I'm not in fear of anything.'

Based on those statements, I'd suggest that this case probably provides genuine researchers a good opportunity to look into the psychology of hauntings more than anything else. It would certainly be time better spent than trying to visualise a face in a photograph.

Royal Mail Hotel, Goodna, 1940s. (Queensland Times)

Friday, 5 January 2018

Horrible History and the Plough Inn Ghost Mystery

Paranormal investigators tend to cross over into the field of 'historical enquiry' when they require a ‘backstory’ to flesh out alleged supernatural events. This is especially true when the people involved are trying to sell tours or books. Imagine a tour guide walking a group somewhere only to announce 'a woman once felt a hand on her shoulder here' before moving the tour on somewhere else. More material is needed, and unfortunately the need for a story often overrides scrupulous historical enquiry. 

Useful examples of this process in action are the stories being circulated about a girl who was strangled at the Plough Inn, South Brisbane, during the 1920s:
'The Plough Inn near Southbank at East Brisbane may seem like a very innocent pub, although it has its fair share of ghostly stories too... The owners of the Inn believe the ghost to be that of a girl who was strangled in the building in the 1920’s when the area was still fairly rough. Nobody has actually seen her, although many have heard her voice around the building. Her favorite part of the Inn is around guest room 7, although she has been heard in other parts of the Inn.'[i]
This story is basically copied from an earlier website about the ‘Ghosts of Queensland’. The similarities are obvious:
'Legend has it that it is the ghost of a young girl strangled in the hotel in the 1920s when South Brisbane was still the haunt of sailors, prostitutes and spivs. No one has seen the ghost but many claim to have heard her. She lives, staff have been quoted as saying, where Guest Room 7 used to be before the renovations, where the atmosphere is always cold and oppressive.'[ii]
And so it appears on website after website. People cut-and-paste, change a few words around, reproduce it on their own sites, and so it spreads. The backstory has also been further developed, as seen in these somewhat corny lines:
'In the 1920’s a publican, whose name has yet to be located, murdered his wife on the very same balcony where many have stood before. She too has been seen wondering [sic] the hallways, herself looking for answers.'[iii]
Here the ghost is further identified as a publican’s wife, it has actually been seen, and she is given a motive for her presence (how this is known is not elaborated on). She is apparently ‘looking for answers’, and well she might... because this murder never happened. Nobody was ever murdered at the Plough Inn. The story is a complete furphy.

Plough Inn, South Brisbane, circa 1939. (John Oxley Library)

To be fair, there is a back-up story about the hotel, this one involving the tragic drowning of a young girl:
'In the great floods of 1893 a young girl was trapped in the cellar during the watery up rise. The cellar is still used to this day, and there are staff members who claim they’ve seen a young girl in the cellar dressed in late 19th Century period clothing.'[iv]
At least the story is half-right this time, but once again proper historical research is lacking. The girl was Selina Brown, who actually drowned during a flood in 1890 (not 1893) while swimming in the back yard (not a cellar). Furthermore, she was aged sixteen (not eight, as claimed elsewhere). That these basic facts of the story - the ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘who’ - were all wrong demonstrates the dangers of putting too much stock in folklore and suburban ghost stories and not carrying out some basic research. It was actually a more responsible researcher who debunked this story in 2009 on behalf of the Plough Inn owners, who were somewhat tired of hearing it at the time.[v]

This case displays all the characteristics of the average ghost story, including;
  • The all-too-quick attribution of supernatural causes for hard-to-explain events. Have logical questions been asked? Who heard the noise and what state of mind where they in? Can the noise be naturally attributed to the hotel environment? Instead, a leap of logic is taken and an unprovable, fantastical conclusion has been reached - the sounds are the voice of a dead person; 
  • An historically inaccurate back story has been developed in the absence of valid historical research; 
  • The resulting story has spread unchecked and has been further elaborated and distorted in the process. 
Ghost stories are a fluid phenomenon. Even more so when people telling them (or making them up) are desperate for a backstory and neglect to check the historical facts.

[i] ‘Ghosts of Brisbane’, www.freewebs.com/liannamaye/ghostsaroundbrisbane. htm (accessed May 2010).
[ii] ‘The Ghosts of Queensland’, www.queenslandhistory.com/ghosts1.htm (accessed January 2005).
[iii] ‘Our Brisbane’, www.ourbrisbane.com/food-and-drink/the-plough-inn (accessed April 2010).
[iv] ‘Our Brisbane’, www.ourbrisbane.com/food-and-drink/the-plough-inn
[v] T. Olivieri, personal comm., November 2009.