Saturday, 31 December 2016

'They Don't Know What Death Is': Ghost Hunting at a Suicide Scene

WARNING: The following article contains details relating to the death of an Aboriginal man in custody at Boggo Road prison in the 1980s.

Brisbane's Boggo Road Gaol has been home to a number of cheap and tawdry events in recent times, including ghost hunts, ghost tours and even parties with a 'haunted house'.* I've explained the incredibly disrespectful aspect of these 'hunts' before. In short, people have died in terrible circumstances in the Boggo Road cellblocks, and well within living memory. Those people have living relatives and friends whose dearest wish is for the dead to be left alone to rest in peace.
Unfortunately, there are some in the paranormal industry who refuse to let a bit of common decency stand between themselves and a dollar, and so they dismiss the concerns of the deceased person's loved ones. This is the case at Boggo Road Gaol, and this is why the Queensland Government had to step in and ban 'ghost hunts' there.

One of the most powerful statements against the immaturity of the paranormal industry came from an ex-officer, long since retired, who carries with him the vivid memories of being a 'first responder' to suicide and murder scenes inside the old prison. He, and several other officers, have described to me in detail the experience of coming across a dead body inside a cell, the sight and smell of it, and how it stays with you.

'They don't know what death is', he told me when he heard about 'ghost hunts', 'And now they're making a fucking mockery of it'.

I don't personally class any one type of death in custody as being worse than another, but the insensitivity of commercial ghost hunts at Boggo is particularly highlighted by Indigenous deaths there, which have been the subject of major reports in the past.

One of these was the 'Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody', which took place during 1987-91 and investigated the deaths of 99 Aboriginal prisoners around Australia during previous years. These included cases at Boggo Road. The report went into great depth on the background stories of the individuals concerned, looking at the life circumstances that led to their eventual incarceration and death. Most of the material is now available online at this website. In some cases the names of some deceased persons are not included, in accordance with Indigenous customs.

The following text is an extract from the report on an unnamed man who died inside the F Wing of Boggo Road in December 1980. It is taken from the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody website and describes his final night and the circumstances in which he was found the next day. As I warned before, it does contain some explicit details.
None of the ----- who run this shit ever stepped foot in the place, they don’t know what it was like. They don’t know what death is. And now they’re making a fucking mockery of it.’  - See more at: http://boggoroad.blogspot.com.au/2015/07/why-ghost-hunting-should-be-banned-part_3.html#sthash.oqgNbcuo.dpuf
‘None of the ----- who run this shit ever stepped foot in the place, they don’t know what it was like. They don’t know what death is. And now they’re making a fucking mockery of it.’  - See more at: http://boggoroad.blogspot.com.au/2015/07/why-ghost-hunting-should-be-banned-part_3.html#sthash.oqgNbcuo.dpuf

The Man Who Died in Brisbane Prison on 4 December 1980: Events That Occurred in Custody

...While he was on remand the deceased received visits from three of his sisters and a brother and mail from his mother. During the visits by family members the deceased did not discuss the charges against him or at any stage profess his innocence. He did not complain of any harassment or ill-treatment from police, prison officers or other prisoners, or request any medication or assistance. Similarly, at no stage did he give any indication that he might attempt to kill himself.

At 4.30 pm on 4 December 1980, Prison Officer Jack Krikorian escorted the deceased and five other prisoners from 7 Yard to F Wing. He then placed the six prisoners in their respective cells and locked them up. When he locked the deceased in cell 4 Krikorian noticed nothing unusual about his manner. According to Krikorian the deceased did not appear to be depressed. He was then left alone in his cell.

At about 10.00 pm that evening, a prisoner, Christopher William Hudson, who was in cell 2, which adjoined that of the deceased, heard gurgling sounds coming from the deceased's cell. There is no evidence that Hudson attempted to draw anyone's attention to what he heard.

At 6.05 am on 5 December 1980, Prison Officer John Robert Adam, who was performing duty in F Wing, began to release the prisoners from their cells and noticed that the deceased did not come out of his cell.

Adam went to the cell and found that the bed had been pushed against the door. When he gained entry he saw the body of the deceased hanging from the bars of the cell window by a rope made from strips of sheet material twisted together. It was in a noose around his neck and tied to the last two bars of the cell window. Adam tried to find a pulse but without success. The position of the deceased's body was consistent with his having jumped from the bed with the noose tied firmly.

At about 6.07 am Chief Prison Officer Frederick Henry Colebourne was advised by 1/C Prison Officer Phillip Anthony Latimer that a body had been found hanging in F Wing. He directed Latimer to assist in lowering the body and he contacted Prison Officer William Ronald Martin, a medical orderly at the prison hospital. He asked Martin to attend at F Wing.

On his arrival at Cell 4 Colebourne observed:

'Senior Prison Officer Collins and I/C Prison Officer Latimer in the process of lowering the body of a person from a position at the rear of the cell, onto a bed; the body appeared to be stiff and my observations at this time would lead me to believe that the death had occurred some considerable time before the body was discovered. The body of the person, now known to me as [deceased 's name] was examined by Prison Officer Medical Orderly, Mr R. Martin.' 
Martin went to F Wing and entered cell 4 where he saw the body of the deceased on the bed with the rope of sheeting tightly knotted around the neck. Martin felt for signs of life but the body was cold and stiff. He notified the hospital to inform the Government Medical Officer, Dr Kenneth John Morrison, and then instructed the Senior Prison Officer Neville Raymond Collins to lock the cell door until the doctor arrived.

At 7.20 am Dr Morrison arrived and examined the body. He noted in the deceased's prison medical record: '... Deep ligature mark. Knot on right side. No petechiae noted. Face swollen. Cold. Life extinct ... '. Dr Morrison told investigating police officer, Constable Jeffrey Gordon Thorpe, that in his opinion death had occurred at about 10.30 pm on 4 December 1980.
One important point I have made in the past is that people like this died while in the custody of the Queensland Government, and inside a government facility. That is why I felt it particularly inappropriate that the Queensland Government gave the go-ahead for commercial 'ghost hunts' to take place there in 2014 and, by means of rents charged, draw indirect income from them. Fortunately a change of government led to a change of heart and the ghost hunts have since been stopped.

I have published the report extract above because F Wing has been used for commercial ghost hunts in which people pay to use bogus equipment to 'hunt ghosts'. It shows that beyond the corny schlock-horror approach to ghost tours in places like this, these incidents involved real people.

I have already requested that a refurbished Boggo Road historical site feature some culturally-appropriate marker of respect and remembrance for all those who died and suffered within the walls of the old prison. They should be allowed to rest in peace.

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in July 2015.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

The Exorcism of Ernest Austin's Phony Phantom

Ernest Austin was sentenced to death in 1913 for the vicious murder and sexual assault of an eleven-year-old girl, Ivy Mitchell of Samford, and he was executed at Boggo Road. The crime was particularly atrocious as he had raped the girl and then cut her throat. The people of Samford never did forgive Austin, and his crime haunted Ivy’s family for the rest of their lives.

Ernest Austin, 1913. ('The Truth')

Austin found a kind of infamy as the last prisoner to be hanged in Queensland. He has also found a place among the pantheon of alleged Boggo Road ghosts, and there are rather fantastical versions of his death and afterlife currently being circulated on a number of paranormal-themed websites. There are some serious issues with these stories.*

'But there's a conspiracy theory to hide the truth!'

The story - from a 'ghost tour' company - goes that as he stood upon the scaffold awaiting death, Austin shouted out that he was proud of his crime and that his victim ‘loved it’, and then he laughed heinously, mocked the assembled witnesses, and told them he would return from the grave and cause even more suffering:
"As the executioner released the trapdoors beneath his feet, the murderer began to laugh, all the way to the very end of the 13-foot rope. Even then he tried to force out one last little chuckle from between his lips. It was said that the laughter was often heard in the early mornings in the cellblocks."
The historical record actually tells a very different version of events. Austin’s execution was witnessed by several reporters and officials, and although there were some minor discrepancies in their reports on the event, they all told a very different story to the later version. His last words, probably spoken under the influence of morphine, were reported in one newspaper as:
"I ask you all to forgive me. I ask the people of Samford to forgive me. I ask my mother to forgive me. May you all live long and die happy. God save the King! God save the King! God be with you all! Send a wire to my mother and tell her I died happy, won’t you. Yes tell her I died happy with no fear. Goodbye all! Goodbye all!" (Brisbane Courier, 23 September 1913)
A very similar account appeared in the Truth newspaper, this one reporting that ‘God save the King’ were his actual last words. Did the reporters lie? One person defending the ‘evil laughing’ story to me claimed that the reporters were part of an official cover-up of the disturbing events on the gallows, as the authorities were trying to maintain public support for hanging and did not want the awful truth of what Austin had really said getting out.

However, the Courier and the Truth took opposing editorial stands on capital punishment, so why write the same story? Surely it would have suited the anti-hanging writers at the Truth to print a story with Austin laughing at his executioners, showing the failure of the death sentence to impress any sense of repentance upon him. The angle they instead took was to portray Austin as a ‘feeble-minded degenerate’, someone with a ‘mental deficiency’ who was raised in a home for neglected children and lived an institutionalised life that had made a monster of him. Their headline proclaimed ‘THE STATE SLAYS ITS OWN CREATION’. Blame for the crime was apparently to be shared with government authorities, his Frankensteinian creators.

The illogical conspiracy theory (with zero evidence) used to defend this ghost story can be safely ignored.

'But old timers say it's true!'

In later years, Austin was re-created as a supernatural demon. It has been claimed - again, from 'ghost tour' people - that prisoners would see a face appear outside their cell door, and when they looked into his eyes they somehow knew it was Austin and that he had made a deal with Satan to deliver their souls in exchange for his own. Having locked eyes with the prisoner, the ghost of Ernest Austin would then come through the door and try to strangle them, driving some to madness… or so the story goes.

I have spoken with many former prisoners and officers, and while some of them have a weird story or two about 'ghostly' happenings, none of them knew anything of this 'soul-stealing Austin' story. This includes people who, during the 1960s, were confined in the dormitory area of 1 Division that in earlier years had been the gallows area itself. Not only did people not see or hear anything spooky there at all, the prisoners weren't even aware that the place was supposed to be haunted. Quite simply, the story did not exist, much less the ghost.

He haunts the wrong part of Boggo Road!

One of the mysteries of this story is that Austin is said to haunt No.2 Division - a place he never set foot in. In 1913, No.2 Division was actually a prison for women. Austin was confined and executed in a cellblock in a completely different part of the prison reserve, one that was demolished back in the 1970s, but his spirit somehow moved to another building to conveniently haunt part of a ghost tour route.

Be gone, demon!

So how did this Austin story come to be? How did it gain currency after the closure of Boggo Road despite strong contradictory evidence? One plausible explanation is that the story was well suited to the theatrical tenor of a commercial tour. It just takes one person to refer to someone else repeating it, and the ‘evil Austin’ ghost story spreads on the Internet, as the desire to tell a sensational story overrode a proper reading of the historical record.

The transformation of Austin from a vicious but all-too-human murderer into a (literally) satanic monster is an injustice to historical enquiry and an insult to intelligence. The existence and propagation of this story also demeans the memory of Ivy Mitchell. Not to mention overshadowing the historical importance of the abolition of execution in Queensland (the first part of the British Empire to do so). We can only hope that the debunking of the phoney phantom of Ernest Austin will help this ridiculous aspect of the story fade into history.

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in September 2013.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Is Toowoomba the Most Haunted City in Australia?

A July 2015 headline on the Daily Mail website described Toowoomba as ‘Australia's most haunted town’.* Given that we have another source (falsely) proclaiming Brisbane to be the ‘second most haunted city in the world’, logic suggests that Toowoomba must be now be the most haunted city in the world!

Reading the related article, however, we soon realise that that logic has very little to do with any of this. What we find is a lazy media outlet using amateur ‘pop paranormalism’ as page-filling clickbait.
‘A growing number of residents in the regional Queensland town of Toowoomba are documenting a series of spine-tingling encounters with ghosts. The other-worldly activity is so frequent, a team of ghost hunters has set up shop in the not-so-sleepy town.’
So they say in the article. I’d guess that the allegedly ‘growing’ frequency of ‘other-wordly activity’ came after the ghost hunters set up shop. Members of the featured group - ‘Toowoomba Ghost Chasers’ - claim to have conducted hundreds of paranormal ‘investigations’ and found that the regional city (population 110,000) is ‘full of ghosts’.

Why would this be? As one member explained, Toowoomba's history ‘makes it a haven for spirits… It's one of the oldest towns in Queensland, and it has a violent past - it's like the wild west… Maybe there's a lingering presence from that bloody history.'

This statement doesn’t add up at all. Within Australia, Toowoomba would be a minor league player when it comes to violent history. And that’s in a country that - while having seen its share of spilt blood - has been relatively quiet in the global context.

Main street of Toowoomba, allegedly the 'most haunted city in Australia'.
Toowoomba (Wikipedia)

The article has a number ‘spooky’ photos, which are bad even by the usual standards of grainy ‘what am I supposed to be looking at here?’ ghost photography. A bit of a shadow here, some unconvincing pareidolia (seeing patterns in random visual data) there… The story attracted nearly 200 comments and the vast majority of them were skeptical or outright mocking, especially of the poor quality of the images and the illogical interpretations of them. These included ‘Caroline’ from North Tamborine, Queensland, who wrote that ‘I absolutely believe in ghosts, but all of these photos are a stretch to say the least. The top photo is more than likely just pareidolia - seeing faces in things. There's a lot of shadows in all of the photos.’

‘One-Law-For-All’ from Manchester, UK, wrote, ‘None of the pictures are even slightly convincing...’, while ‘Diddlydee’ from Dunham-on-the-Hill, UK, added ‘These pics are even more awful than the usual ghost tripe you print. You could quite literally print any old picture, circle any vague shape or shadow and say it's a ghost.’

To be fair, I’d guess that most ‘paranormal investigators’ would also be unconvinced by these photos.

This photo from 2012 is claimed to be of a 'ghost hovering near a grave'. What it looks more like is shadows on a headstone creating a pareidolia effect.

The photo above - from 2012 - is  alleged to be of a 'ghost hovering near a grave'. What it looks more like is shadows on a headstone creating a pareidolia effect.

'Lady in Red' ghost photo from Toowoomba, Queensland.

The 'Lady in Red' photo above shows a red area that is is quite prominent considering how grainy this photo is, suggesting it would have been especially clear to the naked eye. Unfortunately, without a less blurry image allowing identification of surrounding background objects such as the dark area next to the reddish area this looks like another case of grainy pareidolia.

Alleged 'ghost photo' from a cave near Toowoomba, Queensland.

This particularly unconvincing photo was captioned with 'Ghost chasers believe the face of a supernatural spirit can be seen in this picture'.

Alleged 'ghost photo' from a cave near Toowoomba, Queensland.

This one was captioned 'Toowoomba Ghost Chasers believe this picture... captured some sort of paranormal activity in the night'. That's an interpretation somehow even vaguer than the photo itself.

Alleged 'ghost photo' in cemetery, Toowoomba, Queensland.

'A ghost sighting near a grave', according to the caption. Again, there is nothing unusual, although pareidolia might suggest the face of Kermit the Frog: 

Alleged 'ghost photo' in cemetery, Toowoomba, Queensland.

These people seem to use the word ‘believe’ a lot, when phrases like or 'might be' or 'looks a bit like' would be more appropriate. There are more, equally unconvincing ghost photos in the article, such as this one with the claim that 'Some experts believe a 'little girl in blue dress with her arm around a little boy in black pants and jacket' can be seen':

Alleged 'ghost photo' in cemetery, Toowoomba, Queensland.

Which ‘experts’, exactly?

There was also a video in the article that was claimed to show ‘the horrifying moment a spirit eerily floated across a backyard’, and a ‘shadowy shape emerges seemingly from nowhere and then move around before disappearing’. One of the 'ghost hunters' said that they had not ‘seen anything like it in a long time', and helpfully concluded that 'It has to be something. There is no other explanation that we can come up with.'

While it is quite an interesting video, the attitude of ‘there is no other explanation we can come up with' says a lot. Genuine scientific investigators of allegedly paranormal activity (for example, Richard Wiseman and Benjamin Radford) apply imagination and intelligence to come up with natural theories for recordings like this. Back in 2008 Radford examined a very similar video to the one in the Toowoomba article and found that the most logical explanation was that it was a small insect on or near the camera lens (see ‘The Kansas Gym Ghost’).

Coming up with that case on the Internet took me less than a minute. It provides a feasible explanation. It seems incongruous that people who have closely examined this video for weeks or months would not have considered this.

Another video of ghostly activity at Disneyland has similarly been explained quite rationally as an ‘artefact of old equipment’. ‘It’s a ghost’ should always, always, be the very last resort. Unfortunately, for too many people dabbling in the paranormal, it is usually the first resort. Then again, media outlets are not interested in ghost hunters who never find a ghost, are they?

The article then covers Toowoomba’s supposedly famed 'lady in the red dress'* ghost, which is claimed to be ‘the ghost of Elizabeth Perkins, a resident who died in 1944’ after being struck by a train. Someone has got their dates wrong here, because Mrs Perkins was killed in 1929.

One of the ghost hunters said that he investigated this by heading to the train station and calling out the names of people he believed had died nearby ‘and therefore could be haunting the area’. He recorded changes in 'electromagnetic energy' with an electromagnetic field (EMF) detector. When he read Perkins’ name out, the meter ‘lit up’ and so he asked if it was Elizabeth Perkins, and claimed that ‘there were footsteps and she definitely walked past’.

This is so full of irrational assumptions that it is worthless. Aside from the fact that it takes an initial leap of logic (and faith) to link unusual phenomena with the unproven existence of post-death consciousness, and then asserting that consciousness can be associated with specific named individuals, the science here is completely false. EMF detectors record electromagnetic fields. As Benjamin Radford has written:
‘Many ghost hunters consider themselves scientific if they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, EMF detectors, ion detectors, infrared cameras, sensitive microphones, and so on. Yet for any piece of equipment to be useful, it must have some proven connection to ghosts. For example, if ghosts were known to emit electromagnetic fields, then a device that measures such fields would be useful. If ghosts were known to cause temperature drops, then a sensitive thermometer would be useful. If ghosts were known to emit ions, then a device that measures such ions would be useful. 
The problem is that there is no body of research showing that anything these devices measure has anything to do with ghosts. Until someone can reliably demonstrate that ghosts have certain measurable characteristics, devices that measure those characteristics are irrelevant… EMF detectors, ion counters, and other gear have no use in ghost investigations.’ (Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 34.6, December 2010)
The evidence presented in the Daily Mail article makes a very weak case for the existence of ghosts, much less that Toowoomba is ‘Australia’s most haunted town’. For the sake of their own credibility, I'd suggest that groups such as Toowoomba Ghost Chasers be a lot more critical with the evidence they present. The reporter also failed to provide a counterview, and the result is the kind of B-grade newspaper filler that helps to sustain the ‘paranormal industry’ in its current misguided form.

I'd say that the people of Toowoomba should take these alleged ghost sightings with a very large grain of salt.

* This is abridged from an article originally published in July 2015.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Ghost Hunts, Charlatans, & ‘Psychopathic Liars’

Snake oil linament.
There are some very good people 'working' in the paranormal field, but unfortunately there are some real pieces of work too. One group some friends and I had particular problems with a few years back was 'Queensland Paranormal Investigators', who ran Ghost Hunts. These ghost hunts were held in places like South Brisbane Cemetery and were also planned for Boggo Road. QPI and their colleagues tried to scare off 'competition', and around 2010, when we were planning our South Brisbane Cemetery 'Moonlight Tours', they were rather antagonistic.

I try to moderate my own language in these pages, but others have been harsher. Stephen Downes, a contributor to Channels 9’s A Current Affair, pulled out of show after ACA aired an uncritical segment on the ghost hunts offered by QPI/Ghost Tours in early 2010. He did not hold back in this article 'Who ya gonna call? Ghost boasters apparently':
'All right, so QPI will be dismissed by most people as an hilarious loser... But how can ACA risk its credibility as a “scam-busting” program by presenting complete and utter bullsh-t such as this? As someone who has appeared on ACA from time to time to comment on marketing issues - drawing on published studies in consumer behaviour and peer-reviewed academic literature on marketing and brand management - I actually feel embarrassed to have been seen in the same company as these charlatans.'
Harsh words, but nowhere near as harsh as those used by the folks who run the website exposing ‘Australia and New Zealand Military Imposters’ (ANZMI). These are very passionate people who do not mince words, and in a recent exposé about a military imposter they opened up with this:
'A psychopathic liar has no conscience, no feelings of guilt or remorse, and he cares not a fig for the well being of friends or family members he betrays. He does not struggle with shame no matter what kind of harmful or immoral lies he tells.'
I'd suggest they have confused the terms 'psychopath' and 'sociopath' here - which can be dismissed as amateur analysis anyway - but the rest of the article goes downhill from there. They are talking about Shane Townsend, a founder of Queensland Paranormal Investigators who is seen in this photo with his 'Ghost Hunts' partner ‘Jack’ Sim.

Ghost hunter in fake identity controversy, Ipswich, Queensland, 2010.
Queensland Times, 19 January 2010

It’s a long article that you really have to see to believe. They write:
'As a further insight into the personality of Townsend, he claims in media reports and on web sites to be a Psychic Medium and claims to have been tested at the University of Canberra and the ABC Testing unit for gifted children. His claims of being a gifted Psychic are for those gullible people silly enough to believe him, we do however know that he is a gifted liar. Townsend has: 
Lied about having served with SASR
Lied about serving in Cambodia, Iraq and Afghanistan
Lied about being a decorated soldier
Lied about his academic qualifications
Lied about serving with USA Navy SEALs
Lied about serving in the RAN
Falsely worn a DCM
Falsely worn 3RAR Parachute wings
Falsely worn and Infantry Combat Badge
Falsely worn other medals that have not been awarded to him
Produced numerous false military documents'
Those who were offended by Shane and the Ghost Tours/QPI people 'ghost hunting' around war graves in the South Brisbane Cemetery on a cheesy TV show a few years back will sense some karma in all this.

Like I said before, I know good people who dabble in the paranormal, but shonky characters are attracted to the paranormal industry like moths to a flame. It is not a science, it is not regulated, there is no definable right or wrong way of doing it, it lends a thin veneer of mystery to otherwise suburban personalities, and you get to deal with some very impressionable people and maybe even get to take their money. When these types try and make it hard for us to carry out our not-for-profit History activities it gets frustrating, but people like Liam Baker over at the 'Haunts of Brisbane' website do a good job of trying to lift standards in the field of paranormal research.

'Hilarious losers', 'complete and utter bullshit', 'charlatans', 'psychopathic liar'. Harsh words, but not mine. The ANZMI website puts it well:
'If you tell the truth it becomes part of your past.
If you tell a lie it becomes part of your future.' 
* This article was originally published in 2011. 'Queensland Paranormal Investigators' appear to have not been active since that year. 

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Should Ghost-Hunting Be Banned?

Straight from the top, I will say my answer to that question is 'yes'.

Not all ghost hunting, but specifically commercial ghost-hunting. The kind where customers are charged a lot of money by a self-proclaimed 'paranormal investigator' to take them around an allegedly 'haunted' place with electronic gadgets that are claimed to help them detect ghosts.

If you are part of a group that enjoys paranormal investigations out of personal interest and don't charge people to join you, that's a different thing. If you are using electronic equipment, I would dispute the science behind your methods, but it's your time and your money. Also, if your investigations focus more on the 'psychic' approach instead of using gadgets, that's something else again. The mediumship field is clearly open to all manner of fakes and charlatans, but my concern here is with selling the use of gadgets.

Here are the two basic reasons I would like to see commercial ghost-hunting banned.

1. Ghost-detecting gadgets are fake and you should never pay to use them

People are being charged a lot of money to use electronic devices that don't do what they are advertised to do.

Thanks to the advent of ghost-chasing 'Reality' TV shows, the electromagnetic field (EMF) detector has become the gadget of choice for many new ghost-hunting enthusiasts. EMF detectors actually do have a place in scientific examinations of the natural background environment of a place where paranormal-style activity has been alleged to occur. As academic researchers Tony Lawrence and Vic Tandy explained in this excellent paper:
'The ways in which normal earthly events might conspire to convey an impression that a house is haunted... are numerous. Thus, all of the following may well be the more mundane cause of an ostensible haunt; water hammer in pipes and radiators (noises), electrical faults (fires, phone calls, video problems), structural faults (draughts, cold spots, damp spots, noises), seismic activity (object movement/destruction, noises), electromagnetic anomalies (hallucinations), and exotic organic phenomena (rats scratching, beetles ticking). The exclusion of these counter-explanations, when potentially relevant, must be the first priority of the spontaneous cases investigator.' ('The Ghost in the Machine', Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol.62, No. 851, April 1998)
Unfortunately, instead of taking an academic or scientific approach, it now seems to be common practice for ghost hunters to attribute unusual spikes in EMF readings to a supernatural presence. Commercial ghost hunts - which sell a 2-4 hour thrill-seeking experience as opposed to serious investigations - often use EMF detectors as ghostometers. One Brisbane business advertised their guides as using 'scientific paranormal investigative techniques to detect activity'. A guide on this hunt was filmed in a marketing video passing an EMF detector over a cemetery headstone and announcing he had probably just detected a ghost.

Electromagnetic field detectors are being passed off as ghost hunting devices.
The K-II Meter. Pretty lights = dead people.

A variation on the EMF detector is the 'K-II Meter', the uselessness of which was amply demonstrated in experiments conducted by the Randi Educational Foundation.

These gadgets are real enough, but the use of them is completely misplaced and based on an unproven assumption that ghosts emit an 'energy' that can be detected and measured (to be fair, not all ghost hunters believe this). This implies a scientific understanding of what a 'ghost' is comprised of. Of course the mere existence of ghosts has not been proven in any way, so it follows that any theory as to what they are 'made of' is scientifically baseless. I recently wrote about the 'Haunting Australia' TV show, in which one ghost hunter claimed that ghosts 'have an amount of mass' that might be detected if they walked through his contraption, which looked something like a disco-light ball with a smoke machine. As you might expect, nothing was detected.

Other common gadgets include audio recorders for capturing 'electronic voice phenomena' (EVP). Ghost hunters have played these recordings for me in person (and there are plenty of examples on YouTube and TV), but in almost every case it is either explained to me first what the indistinct noise is about to say, or there are subtitles on related videos. The 'seed' of suggestion is planted in your mind, distorting the listening experience. In reality they are usually undecipherable noise - just try listening to one without someone else telling you what it says first.

The article 'Electronic Voice Phenomena: Voices of the Dead?' goes into better detail. EVP are also very easy to fake, and there seems to be industrial amounts of fraud going on judging by what is available online.

The big question is, it is ethical to to advertise these useless gadgets as being capable of 'detecting ghosts' and then charging customers money (sometimes well over $100 per head) to use them? Especially without a disclaimer explaining that these things don't actually work for the advertised purpose? In my opinion, it is hugely unethical.

The issue becomes more serious if the commercial ghost-hunt operator knows the gadgets do not do what they are advertised to. In that case, it looks like outright fraud. Of course, it is difficult for an outsider to know what the operators might really think about their products.

So, on the basis of selling the use of fake products alone, I think ghost hunting should be banned. There is, however, another valid reason to restrict them, one that applies equally to non-commercial investigations - respecting the dead and their surviving loved ones.

2. R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

When it comes to the issue of respect, the line between appropriate and inappropriate venues for ghost hunts can be a fine one. Would you, for example, approve a ghost hunt at a place where someone you knew closely committed suicide? How about a house where a local family was recently killed in a fire? Or the murder site of Daniel Morcombe or any other child? What about Gallipoli? The Lady Cilento Children's Hospital?

If you have any sense of decency, the answers should be 'no'. Sometimes, however, it is not that clear cut. As ghost hunts tend to link alleged paranormal activity with the 'ghosts' (however defined) of specific people, the basic rule of thumb should be to ask yourself if the place has a special meaning to the loved ones of the deceased, and is it possible that your activities will upset them?

To begin with, I have an issue with 'identifying' ghosts. The process involves a sequence of related assumptions, each one requiring an irrational leap of logic in itself, and so the result gets increasingly unreliable with each step.
  1. Difficult-to-explain localised phenomena can be attributed to something called 'ghosts'.
  2. Ghosts represent a post-death human consciousness.
  3. That post-death human consciousness can be associated with specific dead people.
  4. Person x died in this location, therefore I can identify this ghost as being person x.
So the process of identifying a ghost as a specific person is in itself immensely illogical. But leaving that issue aside, is it even ethical to do so? If the alleged ghost is of a person who died a long time ago (say, over 100 years), it is not so much of an issue. But what if it was more recent, and relatives and friends of the dead would prefer to believe that their loved ones are resting in peace, and not some tortured soul forever wandering an old prison or cemetery? What if they don't want thrill-seekers wandering around 'hunting' the spirits of their loved ones?

The recent example of ghost hunts at Boggo Road has provided us with a good case study. The surviving heritage-listed prison buildings opened in 1903 and closed in 1989. A number of deaths happened in there during that time, due to natural causes, suicides, and - just off to one side of the eastern wall - a murder. Some deaths occurred as recently as the 1980s. These included Aboriginal men killing themselves in their cells. Some of these cases were examined as part of the 1987 'Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody'. The Commission decided that the material it had gathered should be made 'as publicly accessible as possible', but:
'...was aware that most of the material was less than 30 years old. It acknowledged that privacy and Aboriginal cultural sensitivities would need to be considered (eg it decided that the details of individual cases should not be released on the ground that they were too distressing to the deceased's family and friends).' [my emphasis]
The prison became a historical site in the mid-1990s, and when part of Boggo reopened on a short-term basis in 2012, the state government prohibited ghost hunts on the grounds that they were disrespectful and not relevant to historical interpretation. Unfortunately, the ghost hunt ban was overturned in 2014 by the Newman government. There was a public backlash and a petition (see the Courier-Mail's 'Stop this sick Boggo Road sideshow and leave those who died in that prison in peace') but the politician's decision stood. The hunts were only banned again after another change of government in early 2015.

I have written before about these Boggo ghost hunts, and I quoted a number of people who had contacted me. This statement came from a family member of someone who was murdered at the prison in the 1960s:
‘For years my family have been tormented with nonsense in the media and on the internet about my grandfather’s death. This was a traumatic event that affects all of us to this day. My own father wasn’t much more than a boy when Bernard was killed, and the sadness and struggle the family endured shaped the adults they became, and the children that they went on to have. The loss has been compounded in the years since by an awful man perpetuating stupid stories and rubbish about Bernard. He conducts tours and interviews focusing on my grandfather's supposed ghost... This man has even contacted me, as have a few ‘internet crazies’. It has all been very upsetting... They are also hurtful and distressing. And it makes me so angry that people are trying to make money by exploiting my family history. This man, Bernard Ralph, is still a very large part of some people’s lives.’
I also heard from relatives of deceased prisoners, as well as former officers and inmates themselves. People who lived with the reality of what death in the prison meant. The unanimous feeling was that the ghost hunts had to stop.

I'd argue that ghost hunting should not occur when it is likely to offend the loved ones of the deceased. This applies especially to commercial ghost hunts, where the intent is merely to make money. It applies even more especially in cases where those loved ones have asked you not to do it.

So in summary, I'd argue that commercial ghost hunts are an unethical rip-off because of the ridiculous equipment used, and all ghost hunts should be prohibited in places where they would be likely to upset the loved ones of the deceased.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Mysterious Case of the 'Ghost of Gallipoli'

In 2014 an article by Fairfax National Affairs editor Tony Wright titled 'Gallipoli 'ghost' captured at soldiers' cemetery' suggested that one of Tony's colleagues had photographed a ghost. As happens a lot, paranormalists got rather overexcited.

Wright was in Gallipoli with two other men, including photographer Joe Armao, who was taking shots in the fading light of evening at Beach Cemetery, Hell Spit. He took a few photos with the third man (Celal) standing away from them, a solitary silhouette against the background. The first image looked like this:

A textbook example of how paranormal believers jump to conclusions and spread false 'evidence' for ghosts, only this time it came from a political journalist.
(Joe Armao)

Then, checking the frames a few seconds later, Armao noticed an 'unexplained apparition' standing next to Celal:

Case of false ghost photo from Gallipoli.
(Joe Armao)

See it? Wright then wrote of Armao's reaction:
'He could offer no explanation, but he said the hair stood up on the back of his neck. When he showed Celal and me, we packed up and left the empty cemetery... Hours of close and sceptical inspection of the frame, including extreme digital enlargement, comparison with other frames and lively discussion of a number of theories about shadows from the flower, tricks of the light and movement of the camera during the 2.5-second exposure offered no conclusive explanation.'
Wright offered the image to his readers 'for judgment'. The comments section lit up, with the vast majority of people pointing out that the 'ghost' was clearly no more than some kind of 'shadowing' on a flower in the foreground. Issues of 'respect for the dead' were raised, and many pointed out that they had not subscribed to Fairfax to read this sort of stuff. Save it for the readers of Take Five.

Of course the paranormalists jumped on it and splashed it far and wide on the Web. A ghost! Others pontificated on how nice it was that the benevolent spirits of the dead were watching over their mates. This is typical paranormalist 'character attribute invention'. The ghost was an Aussie and a top bloke. No doubt if this had been the site of a murderer's hanging, the imaginary spirit would have had evil intent.

The next day Wright offered a mea culpa, with not so much of the mea. He went over the whole event again but neglected to once mention the previous day's article or provide a link to it. There was also no mention of the previous judgement of his readers. This time the photographer had reexamined the image and solved the mystery:
'A minute study of the pixels finally revealed the mystery. Because the little flower in the extreme foreground was so close to the lens, the tiniest movement had created a large space of nothingness - the largest on the frame - which had imprinted itself on the image as "something" - in this case, a shape resembling a soldier rising from amid the graves.'
So, a victory for rationality then. Too late to stop the image circulating online for years to come as a 'ghost photo', but a welcome lesson for those paranormalists who forgot to look for normal explanations first.

There was no comments section for this second article, sparing Wright some inevitable and embarrassing flak-copping. He is a reasonable national affairs writer and Armao is an award-winning photographer, but this was a very public misstep. It does show, however, the psychological effect of nocturnal visits to allegedly 'spooky' places such as cemeteries and historic battlefields (in this case, the two rolled into one). Rational judgement can be impaired as the mind is culturally conditioned to attribute paranormal explanations for otherwise explainable phenomena.

Despite all that, it was reassuring to see so much skeptic reasoning in the comments section of the original article, which says good things about the Fairfax demographic. Maybe if the story had appeared in Take Five the response would have been quite different, a new ghost story would have taken hold, and the author would not have been compelled to 'update' his work. Hopefully the whole 'Ghost of Gallipoli' incident will serve as one of those reminders not to jump to outlandish conclusions.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Dumbing Down 'Death Penalty History'

The 100th anniversary of the last hanging to take place in Queensland fell on 22 September 2013.* In the scheme of things that might not be a big deal to the 21st-century populace of the Sunshine State, because capital punishment has slipped into the 'dark ages' of our memory, a time beyond living history. It barely even made the news when capital punishment was abolished here in 1922, so why should people care now? Truth is, the subject of hanging has become little more than a macabre historical curio in Queensland.

Even so, it is still something of a milestone, so what did we get in the news about the hanging of Ernest Austin, the last person to die on Queensland gallows? Was it placed in the historical context of declining support for capital punishment in the 1910s? Was there considered input from criminologists, legal experts, or experienced crime-and-punishment historians? Did we learn anything at all about the actual execution itself?

How a ghost tour business dumbed down the cenetenary of the abolition of capital punishment in Queensland with made-up ghost stories.

Unfortunately, the answer to all those questions is 'no'. What we got instead was a newspaper article with a 'ghost tours' owner talking as though Austin was a monster from 'Scooby Doo'. The first 60% of an article in Quest newspapers ran like this:
"Stories have been told over the past century of a ghost who would laugh maniacally, shriek like a banshee and look down upon prisoners from the upper floors of the Boggo Road Gaol. The ghost is said to be the spirit of convicted child murderer Ernest Austin, who has been "haunting" the jail since he was put to death in 1913 - the last man in Queensland to be hanged. 
Gaol manager Jack Sim said the story of his execution and the ghoulish stories told about the infamous prisoner after his death were now the country's oldest continuously told prison ghost story. Both prisoners and wardens would retell the story to their peers, with the first known mention back in the 1930s. 
"People have continued to talk about this ghost and its presence in the jail from not long after the execution of Ernest Austin" he said. 
"It was said that late at night you could see him standing up on one of the upper floors of the jail looking down at you. In the 1940s, it was also being said that Austin's last words included laughter, and that the ghost would have this maniacal laugh just like him."
The remaining part of the article is just a sales pitch for the tours. The Brisbane Times website, which is usually a bit more credible, had a short audio clip along the same lines, again totally devoid of any historical analysis (and barely even a mention) of the actual execution itself. A short Channel 7 news item was little better.

For now, let's ignore the fact that the Austin ghost story is nonsense (as shown here) and that the execution took place in a whole other long-demolished prison building (an inconvenient truth for the tours). Why was the significance of, or the reasoning behind, the abolition of hanging ignored? Queensland was, after all, the first part of British Empire to do away with capital punishment. Why weren't any real historians consulted for these pieces?

Fortunately, some people took the subject seriously, including the Supreme Court of Queensland museum team. Their 'Path to Abolition: A History of Execution in Queensland' exhibition presented a mature and professional look at the whole subject, devoid of cheap stunts but brimming with considered research and a strong grasp of the educational needs of visitors. Needless to say, the Brisbane media were largely uninterested.

Maybe the whole sorry episode with the dumbed-down 100th anniversary news is reflective of a broader societal disinterest in the subject of capital punishment. Maybe some junior reporters and interns facing a deadline are happy just to accept self-promotional sensationalist media releases at face value. Maybe these reporters don't want to do the harder legwork of presenting real history. Because, no matter what some people might try and tell you, ghosts are not history.

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in September 2013.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Tasmanian Paranormalists Harass a Pensioner

Sometimes paranormalists do bad History, sometimes they do bad Science, and sometimes they engage in malicious behaviour. This article is about the latter.

There are good people involved in the paranormal industry, but a lack of regulations and oversight means that anybody can set up shop, including people who have not yet developed a basic sense of empathy and maturity. I recently learned of some pretty poor conduct by a ghost tour operator down in Tasmania.* The story here involves a pensioner who lived in an old heritage-listed cottage in Launceston for at least 40 years, and possibly more. She raised her family there and it's the kind of home a person becomes emotionally attached to.

Problems started a few years back when a local ghost tour operator began making tour stops outside her home and telling the customers that it was haunted. It is the kind of building that could easily be passed off as being haunted simply because it is so old and has 'the look'. But the homeowner did not want these people congregating outside her cottage, especially as she had lived there for decades without having a single 'spooky' experience. Her home was clearly not 'haunted'.

She politely asked the ghost tour people to stop coming to her home. Unbelievably, they ignored the wishes of an old lady who just wanted to be left alone, and they kept coming back. Her rather hilarious response was to place a large illuminated smiley face outside the cottage for tour nights, a tacky decoration that was described to me as being the 'kind of thing you might see in a Chinese restaurant'.

Apparently the ghost tour people did not like this disruption to the 'atmosphere' of their tour and so they wrote to the Tasmanian heritage department, claiming that the smiley face was against heritage guidelines, or something. Of course this complaint was knocked back.

I am left wondering just what is wrong with these people. I have seen this same grubby attitude displayed before, with a ghost tour operator ignoring the heartfelt pleas of people to stop telling ridiculous ghost stories about a murdered family member. It is bad enough that the stories they tell aren't even true, but to actively dismiss at the feelings of people who just want to be left alone in their home, or who want to feel that a loved one is resting in peace, is beyond the pale.

I don't know exactly who these Tasmanian ghost tour clowns are, but they have displayed a real lack of ethics in this case. I would welcome any feedback on who these people are and further details on their operations.

Update: Unfortunately the homeowner mentioned in this article has since passed away. She showed patience and humour in the face of harassment, and I hope she rests in peace.

* An earlier version of this story mistakenly placed this incident in Hobart instead of Launceston.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Historical Suffering of the Mentally-Ill is Not a Freakshow

The other day I noticed a free local newspaper from the footpath with the headline ‘Haunted House Security Risk’.* The article was about the heritage-listed Wolston Park Hospital Complex buildings at Wacol, southern Brisbane. This place first opened as a mental health facility in the 1860s and has been known by other names, including Woogaroo. Part of the complex is now home to The Park - Centre for Mental Health which currently accommodates up to 148 patients. 

The story was that police are concerned with the high level of ‘illegal and dangerous’ trespassing there. More than 20 people were charged after being caught attempting to enter the place during the past month, despite it being clearly marked as out of bounds and ringed with barbed wire. Sergeant Paul Hauff said that trespassing was a long-running issue at the site, especially as the older parts are in a state of disrepair and people sneaking around at night could get injured. He laid the blame with social media labeling the place as a ‘haunted house’, so we can infer that ghost hunters are the problem here.

I believe that the ghost industry promoting places such as municipal cemeteries as 'paranormal hotspots' indirectly encourages trespassing from people interested in that stuff, and this seems to be another case. The simple maths is that increased numbers of trespassers in heritage sites equals a higher possibility of damage, intentional or not.

Wolston Park Hospital. (Wikimedia Commons)

Police and security patrols have been increased at Wolston Park as a result of these intrusions, and this is paid for via government coffers. The current situation is that paranormalist-inspired trespassing is increasing the workload for police and the bill for taxpayers. So it is quite unbelievable that Quest newspapers ran another article directly alongside the trespassing one which could only serve to actively encourage the very actions that the police were warning against. In this other article - which used a photo of concerned policemen completely out of context - Cameron ‘Jack’ Sim of Brisbane 'Ghost Tours' was demanding that 68 Wolston Park be opened for his own tours… because he claims it is haunted. I’m sure the guys at Mount Ommaney police station who hoped that the article would deter ghost hunters from 'illegal and dangerous' trespassing really appreciated that one.

I can think of four basic issues with the government caving in to these demands:

1. Who pays for this?
Sim is proposing that the state government spend hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of taxpayer dollars for the benefit of his own small business. There may be legitimate concerns about protecting heritage here, but there are other community-based ways of fighting for that instead of demanding he be given (no doubt commercially exclusive) access to the place.

2. Disrespect Guaranteed
'Ghost Tours' have a demonstrated problem treating these places with respect. Their track record includes conducting mock occult rituals in Brisbane cemeteries and running farcical ‘ghost hunts’ in a prison where people with mental health issues killed themselves. Sim has even ignored the heartfelt pleas of distraught people to stop telling gruesome ghost stories about their loved ones. With this background, it is difficult to see how he would treat the sensitive issue of mental health with any respect. And it would only be a matter of time before the ghost-o-meters are pulled out.

3. Anti-History
This brand of alleged history can be summed up as what Sim himself admits is a ‘mix of urban legends and ghost stories’. These require no proof to back them up and are relayed without contextual analysis. In other words, not history. It has been shown that Ghost Tours are prone to using made-up stories and unverified tales, and this extract from the newspaper article shows that Wolston Park would probably get the same treatment:
“It was said the people of Goodna could hear the screams of women being unloaded into cages as they were brought by boat to the asylum. Wardsmen swore ghosts of patients paced the corridors in their gowns then disappeared into thin air”.
This shows why the history of Wolston Park is best left to real historians who can analyse the real issues and not reduce real people to ghost characters. Historical significance is a crucial component in the heritage values of old places. Each heritage place has a given set of values in the public mind. This cemetery shows how we respected our dead. This prison shows how we treated our lawbreakers. This hospital shows how we treated the mentally-ill. Together they help tell the story of who we are as a society. Deliberate attempts to distort that significance for commercial benefit by falsely promoting these sites as ‘haunted houses’ undermines the true significance of these places and is emerging as real threat to the heritage sector in Queensland.

4. The Patients Have Enough Problems Already
We really don't need to be making people with mental health issues think that they are staying in or near a haunted house.

So...

There is a place for ghost tours, but not where they undermine a more important view of history or callously upset relatives of the dead. The solution to the trespassing problem at Wolston Park is not to provide ‘legitimate access’ for ghost hunters. It requires that we stop pandering to ghost hunters and allowing them to turn these places into 'Kentucky Fried Haunted Houses'. Wolston Park does not ‘need’ ghost tours to tell history when a museum of mental health would do the job much better. If Wolston House was to be restored, how about creating a legitimate history and education centre there with decent tours that showed a bit of respect and didn’t commodify the suffering of those who died there in a Sideshow Alley freakshow?

I’d also suggest that the state government would be better off redirecting funding back into mental health care programmes instead of pandering to the ridiculous demands of ‘ghost hunters’.

* This article was originally published in November 2014.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

What's in a Business Name? Not a Lot, Apparently

Read about more idiocy and nastiness from people in the Australian paranormal industry.
Back in 2012 I was emailed by a person I had never heard of before who runs 'Moonlight Haunted Tours' down in Adelaide. At the time I helped to run the 'Moonlight Tours' of South Brisbane Cemetery, and this person (without introducing themselves) demanded to know if our 'Moonlight Tours' was a registered business name. Past experience with 'paranormal industry' types set the alarm bells ringing and I knew straight away where this was all heading. I played dumb and asked why he wanted to know, and sure enough it was suggested to me that our tour name was a "breach of registration of business law". He asserted that our name was "too close" to his registered business name and "may cause some confusion for clients".

I was somewhat surprised to hear that anybody could possibly confuse tours in Adelaide and Brisbane, which are over 1,600 km and four states apart. I let that go, and did about 30 seconds of research on the federal government website and found out that:
"Registering a business name does not in itself give you any exclusive rights over the use of that name - only a trade mark can give you that kind of protection."
As I suspected this person was up to no good, I continued to give non-answers to his questions. Obviously frustrated, he then claimed to have spoken to an officer at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), who allegedly told him that our tour name was illegal as it was too close to his business name. This strange claim directly contradicted the information available on the ASIC website. The alleged advice seemed even stranger considering that ASIC also listed 'Moonlight Tours' as an openly available business name.

With the situation getting increasingly ridiculous, I told him we would be happy to take the required action if he could get ASIC to forward me the information, or perhaps he could point out the relevant section in the legislation himself. After all, if you want to accuse someone of breaking the law, start by pointing out exactly which law it is they have broken. It turned out to be a 'put up or shut up' that resulted in a shut up.

While I had the technical points covered almost from the start and found it more amusing than stressful, but what I couldn't understand was the WHY of it all. What motivates someone to try and make life difficult for a group of volunteers - total strangers - running occasional not-for-profit tours on the other side of the country? Especially when his desired outcome would bring no obvious benefit to his own business anyway.

This was in fact the third time that I had been subject to such behaviour, and each time it was by a different 'paranormal group'. I know some very good people who identify as 'paranormal researchers', but this kind of behaviour by others reflects very poorly on their 'industry'. The harassment may be water off a duck's back to us, but it's not appreciated.

The above is abridged from an article originally published in August 2012.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Ghost That Haunted South Brisbane Cemetery... From 1,000 Miles Away

There was a bit of online trouble in 2011* when this photo, apparently of an ‘eerie face in the mist’, turned up on the Brisbane 'Ghosts Tours' Facebook page:

Photo of alleged ghost at 'South Brisbane Cemetery'. In truth it was taken in Tasmania.

It was accompanied with the unequivocal claim that it was taken during a South Brisbane Cemetery 'Ghost Tour' on the previous Saturday night, although it did not look like any part of that cemetery. What's more, the photo was taken during daylight.

Then, quite luckily, the same photo also turned up on the ‘Haunted Australia’ Facebook page, with one crucial difference - this time it was full and uncropped. On that page it was correctly identified as being of the Hobart Penitentiary and Chapel, under a glorious blue sky:

Photo of alleged ghost at 'South Brisbane Cemetery'.

No informed person could look at that and think it was a night tour at South Brisbane Cemetery, but that is exactly what Ghost Tours claimed it was. A little bit of Facebook fisticuffs broke out when commenters pointed out it was not the cemetery, but Ghost Tours admin insisted that it was, a stance they only dropped when the photographer himself intervened to point out that it was a photo from the Hobart Penitentiary, Tasmania, taken back in 2006. He went on to say this had been made clear in a part of an email he sent to Ghost Tours, an email they had reproduced online but with the relevant paragraph pinpointing the location edited out.

Ghost Tours admin then claimed to have 'misread' the email, despite their own selective editing of both the photo and the explanatory paragraph in the email to remove any indication of the location. Why had it been edited that way? The most straightforward conclusion would be that this was not mere incompetence, it was a deliberate act intended to deceive.

After I exposed this story online, I received an email containing legal threats from Ghost Tours owner Cameron 'Jack' Sim (via his staff member):
'There have been 3 incidents of people commenting on our Facebook page just to attack our business. We know these people are connected to you and The Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery. We even suspect that some of them may have been invented by you for this sole purpose. We are asking you now to cease and desist or we will have to take action against you. Their comments are defamatory and rude. Our regular customers who follow our Facebook page have written in, upset about what has been happening. This cannot go on.'
The false assumption that the Facebook critics were actually me, or ‘connected’ to me, is a rather paranoid premise on which to base a legal threat. Can I be sued for the comments of other people on Facebook?
'I am also aware of what you have recently posted on 'The Boggo Blog'. Firstly, I am the host on the South Brisbane Cemetery tour. I received the photo and I posted it on Facebook. I mislabelled the photo, I am aware of that and it was a simple mistake. It was very good of our customer to send us these photos and we are very happy they did so. I have apologised profusely for mislabelling it. However, Chris, it was a simple mistake. You have then taken my personal error and broadcasted it, turning it into this ridiculous claim that we have been stealing photos. I am very happy to take responsibility of what happened but not to take responsibility for your outrageous claims.'
This claim of innocent ‘mislabelling’ is contradicted by the selective editing of the text that explained this was not a picture of the cemetery. In fact, even after the discrepancy was pointed out, Ghost Tours still insisted that it was from a night tour at the cemetery. Also, nowhere did I claim that anybody was ‘stealing photos’.
'These ongoing attacks affect, not only Jack, but they affect our staff and customers. They affect me personally and our poor customer that graciously gave us these unexplainable photos.'
In reality, the alleged ‘poor customer’ actually thanked the person from Haunted Australia (who called the Ghost Tour owner an 'immature child' with 'the worst reputation I have ever heard of') for his comments on the Ghost Tour page. The photographer was probably more concerned than anyone about the misuse of his photo.

And so it went on, with claims that I was controlling a 'parade of stooges' who were 'upsetting our ever faithful customers'. It is of course rather unhealthy to assume that random people who criticise you on social media are working together in some kind of conspiracy.

Brisbane Ghost Tours seem to believe that people don't have a right to correct their misinformation. If this had been a simple mistake, it would not have shown up on my radar. We all make mistakes. But this was something quite different. This 'ghost' might not haunt the South Brisbane Cemetery, but the photo should haunt Ghost Tours.

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in September 2011.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Kentucky Fried Ghost-Hunts at Boggo Road

The end product / of Guddia law is a viaduct / for fang and claw,
and a place to dwell / like Roebourne's hell
of a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.

He's there - where?
there in their minds now / deep within,
there to prance / a sidelong glance / a silly grin
to remind them all / of a Guddia wall
a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.
(from 'John Pat', by Jack Davis)
Deaths in Custody memorial, Fremantle Prison. It was erected after the death of prisoner John Pat.
This memorial in front of the prison walls of the historic Fremantle Prison was was
erected in 1994 after the death of prisoner John Pat, and was placed 'in memory of all
Aboriginal people who have died in custody in Australia'. It was erected after
the death in custody of prisoner John Pat. (Creative Spirits)

In April 2015 the Queensland Government announced a decision to prohibit further 'Ghost Hunts' at Boggo Road.* This came after the previous government had overturned an earlier ban on these activities, a ban that was in place due to the disrespectful and non-historical nature of 'ghost hunts'. This u-turn was sadly typical of the disastrous Campbell Newman approach to Boggo. An approach that will thankfully be dumped once Boggo reopens properly.

These 'ghost hunts' are - in my opinion - offensive to both science and spirituality, and hopefully we'll never see them inside Boggo ever again. The whole incident, however, has been very instructive in showing that 'paranormal industry' businesses can not be trusted to run places like Boggo...

In late 2012 I was sat in Brisbane with three senior Public Works officials discussing the controversial short-term reopening of part of a Boggo Road cellblock. They assured me that future site interpretation at the old prison would be both historical and respectful. They said that activities such as ‘ghost hunts’ were neither of these and would continue to be banned.

Indigenous Deaths in Custody 1989 to 1996 report.
I also raised issues of certain protocol regarding Indigenous cultures, as Public Works was allowing ghost tours (telling dubious stories as opposed to 'hunting' with dubious gadgets) inside a place where there have been deaths in custody. I was told (sincerely, I believe) these things would be taken care of.

A few months later I made an enquiry to Public Works after seeing online chatter about new ghost hunts at Boggo Road, and was told that they were still banned. All good.

12 months later there was a sudden backflip. Ghost hunts could now be held at Boggo Road, Public Works said, because they had received ‘assurances’ from Ghost Tours Pty Ltd that they would be 'respectful' and 'historical'.

The primary problem with these hunts in a place such as Boggo Road is that they are inherently disrespectful - and here's why:

Boggo Road was the scene of a number of deaths in custody, many within living memory and involving both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Some of these people were named in the 1991 report of the ‘Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’.

These people died while in the custody of the Queensland Government. Is it therefore appropriate or respectful for the Queensland Government to sanction - and possibly even draw indirect revenue from - ‘ghost hunts’ at the scenes of these deaths in custody?

The opinions of people who matter...

What do people personally affected by all this think about it? A relative of one of the deceased prisoners contacted me and had this to say:
‘Family members have varying views on the afterlife but the one thing they all agree on is that if seeking an audience and commercial gain is the ultimate goal, this type of sensationalist ‘ghost hunt’, especially when the poor miserable man's children still live, seems completely insensitive and unethical.’
I was also contacted by a man who was a prisoner there during the 1960s:
‘It is sad that people do not realise how offensive it is to trivialise the deaths of people in Custody. You may recall that I remembered a person who died in F wing while I was at No.2 (Suicide) I also was in the cell that Jimmy B------- died in (Pneumonia). Both men were Aboriginal. Mervyn T------- (Suicide) was Caucasian. He was quite seriously mentally compromised. Yet he was in mainstream Gaol. Have the people who are running round at night in the Gaol no sense of decency or sensitivity. That place drove people insane. It will bring them no joy to do this. Despite the crimes that Jimmy and T------ committed they were my friends and I feel a sense of outrage over what is taking place.’
Former officers who were first responders in these incidents and continue to be affected by those experiences are also unhappy. As one said to me:
‘None of the c---s who run this shit ever stepped foot in the place, they don’t know what it was like. They don’t know what death is. And now they’re making a fucking mockery of it.’
An officer, Bernie Ralph, was bashed to death in Boggo Road in 1966. At a recent officer reunion there was emotional discussion about the alleged sullying of his character during tours at the prison. I do know that he is named in ghost tours. Here’s what a member of his family had to say about it:
‘For years my family have been tormented with nonsense in the media and on the internet about my grandfather’s death. This was a traumatic event that affects all of us to this day. My own father wasn’t much more than a boy when Bernard was killed, and the sadness and struggle the family endured shaped the adults they became, and the children that they went on to have. The loss has been compounded in the years since by an awful man perpetuating stupid stories and rubbish about Bernard. He conducts tours and interviews focusing on my grandfather's supposed ghost... This man has even contacted me, as have a few ‘internet crazies’. It has all been very upsetting... They are also hurtful and distressing. And it makes me so angry that people are trying to make money by exploiting my family history. This man, Bernard Ralph, is still a very large part of some people’s lives.’
Professional historians have also voiced their opposition to these hunts. As a historian myself, I have previously made my own views known in the book The Haunting Question. This short extract refers to the fundamental issue of significance in cultural heritage:
‘The pursuit of a quick dollar can damage the long-term cultural heritage values of places that have more important stories to tell. In the case of Boggo Road, there are also essential lessons to be learned, lessons that cannot be learned if children are too afraid to go inside it, or are distracted by schlocky ghost stories.’
Is Boggo Road a historic prison with an important social history, or a novelty haunted house?

The sadness of 'pop paranormalism'

You have to look at who is running these things. What is their track record, ‘respect’-wise? Ghost hunts run by Brisbane 'Ghost Tours’ and ‘Queensland Paranormal Investigations’ were banned from Brisbane municipal cemeteries in 2009. A promotional video for the hunts prior to that ban featured smoke machines, ‘Ghostbusters’ music, and ‘investigators’ passing 'ghost-detecting equipment' over war graves in the South Brisbane Cemetery. To make things worse, one of the lead investigators in that segment was exposed on the ‘Australia and New Zealand Military Imposters’ website as a military imposter.

Ghost Tours also tried to run - without permission - 'hen's parties' in Brisbane cemeteries. Brisbane City Council also had to intervene to stop pseudo-occult rituals being performed during tours in Toowong Cemetery, and to prevent people wearing horror-themed fancy dress during those tours. I understand that ghost tours and hunts were also not allowed in Ipswich cemeteries.

All of this indicates to me that when it comes to choosing between 'respect' and a dollar, Ghost Tours have a proven record of commercially exploiting sensitive historical places until they are pulled into line over issues of disrespect. So clearly there are issues with respect here.

If there was such a thing as the continued existence of human consciousness beyond bodily death, the subject should be a thing of awe and wonder. Understanding it would be an epochal triumph of science. Anybody truly serious about the paranormal would be doing the hard yards, studying areas such as the link between the supernatural and psychology. The work of Professor Richard Wiseman in this field is notable. Unfortunately, what we get with ghost hunts is Kentucky Fried Ghosts. People abusing the memory of someone else's loved one. Important heritage sites being reduced to the status of fairground haunted houses.
I believe that there are two basic questions that anybody who supports ghost hunts should ask themselves. Firstly:
‘Would I allow commercial ghost hunts in the place where my own loved ones have passed away, with customers being told that the spirits of my loved ones haunt that place?’
And secondly:
‘Where do we draw the line? If ghost hunts are allowed in places where people died in horrible circumstances in living memory of their loved ones, should the government approve commercial ghost hunts at the scenes of recent murders and suicides?'
So my basic arguments as to why the Queensland Government needed to immediately reverse this decision and guarantee that such activities would not be allowed at Boggo Road in future were:
  • ‘Ghost Hunts’ upset living relatives of the deceased. 
  • Governments should never sanction 'ghost hunts' in ‘deaths in custody’ locations (or any other place, for that matter). 
  • Where does the government draw a line between where ghost hunts are and are not allowed? Over-focussing on the paranormal demeans the real history of a place. 
  • Can the business involved here be trusted to conduct themselves in a respectful manner? 
  • Charging people to use electronic gizmos can cannot 'detect ghosts' could amount to fraud.

Statement against ghost hunting at Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane.These were some of the arguments I put to Public Works minister Tim Mander in 2014. Unfortunately he took the position that the Ghost Hunts could somehow be ‘respectful’. In light of the previous interference at Boggo by premier Campbell Newman, it was clear our concerns would be dismissed, despite a petition on the matter getting reasonable support.

A new low point was reached when the TV show 'Haunting: Australia' charged customers over $100 per head to use fraudulent equipment to play-act ghost hunting inside Boggo Road.

When Newman’s government was surprisingly thrown out in the 2015 election (in part for ‘not listening’ to Queenslanders) we wrote to the new Public Works minister Leanne Enoch, making much the same arguments about ghost hunts as before. This time we received a positive response and were informed that the Ghost Hunts at Boggo were stopping. Hopefully never to be seen again.

When people talk about ‘A Better Future for Boggo Road’, it is not just an empty slogan. This is precisely the kind of inappropriate greed-driven activity that happens under the wrong management, and that is why better management is needed to make sure that all interpretation and use of this important historic site is respectful and appropriate.

The Boggo Road story should be told in many ways and by many voices. ‘Ghost hunting’ is not one of them.

Postscript

The following quotes are taken from some of the early signatories on the 'Queensland Government: Please stop allowing commercial ‘ghost hunts’ in places where deaths in custody took place' petition.

Kingsley Pocock
I think this is a gross invasion by a money hungry so called entrepeneaur who is desecrating this place. I served at the road for 4 years and never, never saw or heard a ghost'

Brian Black
As a former First Class Prison Officer at HM Prison Brisbane I am concerned about how the history of an important part of Queensland is being handeled. This may be lost if not processed correctly. First there are no ghosts, anywhere. Although there may have been some vile mean evil people serving time in Number Two Devision they were humans and when one of them died by whatever means it did effect all in there both inmates and staff. We former officers are getting older and our experiences and memories may be just going to dissapear. These so called 'Ghost Tours' are nothing but mockery of people who were once living and they are being treated with disrspect. This is purely in the cause of profit. To have people look for something on false emotional terms because someone has died or taken their own life is a discrase. Get the facts and revive the truth and the history of Number Two Division.

Anne Warner
Deaths in custody ought not be remembered as some kind of fun game. Before we get accused of being "killjoys" just consider the fact that deaths in custody still happen and they are no joke. People are placed in intolerable circumstances and are found dead for one reason or another. If the Government continues it's inhumane strategy of mandating solitary confinement for certain prisoners then watch the death in custody figures increase. Again this is no joke no occasion for ghoulish behaviour.

Ronald Bulmer
Respect should be shown to the dead

Sonya Pearce
This is disrespectful pure and simple.

Neville Buch
Respectful history is important for the mental health in the society. Credible historians with training in the discipline don't turn persons from the past into ghosts.

Kerry Guinea
I worked for Corrections for over 39 years, 10 of which was at Boggo Road. Making fun (and money) out of the misfortunes of those who had their lives ruined in there is not on as far as I am concerned!

Leeann Crawford
Let the dead RIP have some compassion for relatives and friends.

Robert Johnstone
As a former inmate and having been in the Gaol from 1965 until 1967 during which time suicided in F wing and one Prison Officer was murdered (Mr Bernard Ralph ) Also two other prisoners I knew died while in Boggo Road one suicided and the other from Pnuemonia. I feel a sense of outrage that people who have no idea what it was like to be in Goal are allowed to roam through the prison without any consideration for the people who died there.

James Atherton
Our work there was serious, and should not be cheapened and made a mockery of.

Gabrielle Ricketts
Ghost hunts being held in an area where Indigenous deaths in custody have taken place is disrespectful. And on the whole in very bad taste!

Margaret Dakin
I want Boggo Road to be preserved as an historical site, not as a commercial venture for thrill seekers

Rob Pensalfini
While 'ghost-hunts' may seem like an innocent frivolous bit of fun, to hold them in a place that has been marred by deaths, some under questionable circumstances, including aboriginal deaths in custody, murders by guards and prisoners, and suicides is disrespectful in the extreme to the memories and families of those who died under these conditions.

Maureen Young
Deaths in custody are a significant part of Queensland's dark history. They should not be made light of and commercialised because it is disrespectful to those that died and those that remember them.

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in February 2014.