Shrewsbury and Shropshire

A spoilsport analysis of the Wem "ghost"

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The Wem "ghost"

Original 26 July, 1996, updated 28 December, 1999

(I have commented further on this "ghost" in my blog, November 2007).

This is a sceptical analysis of the ghost that appeared at the fire in Wem, photographed by Tony O'Rahilly and currently displayed on this site: Bourbon Street Ghost Stories. (I originally studied these pictures on Trevor Miedwiecki's Compuserve home page, now closed.)

Historical background

Wem is a quiet market town in northern Shropshire. In 1995 the old Town Hall, which had been built in 1905, was gutted in a fire. Tony O'Rahilly, who lives locally, was on hand with his camera, and caught the figure of a young girl standing at the top of the fire escape. She did not appear on any other photographs. This picture has been reproduced many times since.

Some people connected this apparition with the great fire that destroyed the old timber houses of the town in 1677. This was, according to legend, caused by a young girl's carelessness with a candle. After the fire, the town was rebuilt in brick, but had lost much of its population and importance. There is information about Wem here.

The discussion

Before I start, let me give you some let-outs from my otherwise totally persuasive arguments:

  • I haven't seen the negative or a positive of the picture. However, the JPEG images were of good resolution.
  • I wasn't at the fire and I don't recall the fire escape at the Town Hall as it was before the fire.
  • You can always argue that ghosts have unique properties that invalidate all my arguments, in which case we have no basis for discussion.

Now, let me say that, as ghost pictures go, it's a pretty good one. The figure stands out readily, and you don't need much of a leap of the imagination to see it (unlike, for example, that picture of a ghost on a staircase, somewhere in Norfolk if I remember correctly). It's also not a clear fake, like the incompetent autopsy of the "Roswell alien" or the "fairy pictures" that deceived Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

So let me treat the figure as real, and see what we can deduce from close observation of the figure in the picture. It has been interpreted as a young girl with long dark hair, standing on the fire escape, dressed in what may be a loose white dress or nightdress and white cap. (I have a distinct picture in my mind of the type of clothing, but don't know what experts in 17th century dress would call the items.)

The first thing to look at is the body below the top of the railings. This is a greyish area in the photograph, becoming whiter near the bottom of the picture. There is no outline to the dress. What gives the impression of a body is the right end of the dark horizontal band approximately across the waistline. This looks like a belt or sash worn around the body, although I suspect that it would have been inappropriate on the implied type of dress. It does, however, serve visually to create the impression of a waist. Without it, the head would simply appear suspended above the railings.

Look at the figure's right side (the left as you view it). The dark area appears to be a partially open door, or, less likely, the thickness of a wall. Its right edge coincides with one of the vertical rails. There is no sign of the dress or of a right arm to the left of the rail, as you might expect from the width of the figure. The dark area cuts off the dress sharply; in other words, the figure is standing behind the door or wall, and is not on the fire escape itself.

Now look at the horizontal dark bar, the belt or sash already referred to. It continues quite clearly into the dark area of the door or wall. It is not part of the figure, if the figure is behind the doorway. Now, this is perfectly possible, but has significance in two ways: firstly, because the "sash" is the only thing in the picture creating the impression of a body, as already discussed; secondly, because it must be some falling or floating debris, and emphasises how such stuff flies about during a fire. More on this below.

The head is best viewed in the enlargement. The definition of the face is in the shadows on the features and in the hair. But some of this hair and shadow at the bottom of the face falls across the top of the railings and obscures it. The face, if it is real, is in front of the railings. This is not compatible with the position of the body. There is a dark line dropping from the face to below the top of the railings, which might be interpreted as an item of clothing, but from the Web copy of the picture I can't tell whether it is in front of or behind the railings.

From the information I can get out of the picture, therefore, I conclude either that the figure is not real, or that this ghost has an extraordinary shape for one purporting to be a young girl. If it's not real, then what is it?

In a big fire, there is a lot of stuff in the air: smoke billowing around, creating patterns of light and shade, debris falling from ceilings or blowing about in the hot draughts, sealed containers exploding and so on. My guess is that the photographer has been very lucky to catch some of these in an instantaneous configuration that the human eye and brain find very easy to interpret as a human figure.

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