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.