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CREEPY CORNER: The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall -- Hoax, Haunting, or a Little Bit of Both?

File this under "Ghosts You Should Know," Creepy Corneristas.
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Publish date:
September 17, 2015
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ghosts, creepy corner, history, photography, britain, hoaxes

You know that scene in Ghostbusters II where Ray stares too long at the Vigo the Carpathian painting and gets momentarily hypnotized? And then how he gets possessed by Vigo later on and has to get hosed down in positively charged "mood slime"?

I sometimes wonder if my childhood self narrowly dodged the mood slime. ("Duuude, I totally dodged the mood slime...")

No, I didn't spend my formative years staring intently at Vigo. But I did spend an unnatural amount of time staring at, and obsessing over the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.

Alright Creepy Corneristas, this is a Creepy Corner 101 pop quiz. Raise your hand if you know who the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall is?

I see most of you raised your hands. But not all of you. That's OK. In fact, I'm kind of envious. Learning about the Brown Lady was one of the most deliciously chilling times in my childhood.

I'll never forget the first time I saw the Brown Lady's photo. I was almost 11 years-old and newly enamored with real ghost stories. Having checked out a stack of books from the library with titles like, "GHOSTS!" or "HAUNTED," I had settled in for an evening that would probably render me sleepless. Glorious.

As I flipped through one of the big, hardcover books, I came across a chapter on the Brown Lady. I'd read about her before, how her image had been captured in a photograph. The idea of a ghost on film thrilled me. (Remember, this was before Ghost Bros and the Internet made everything "paranormal.")

I eagerly flipped through the chapter, hoping that they had printed her photo. When lo and behold I came across this:

I couldn't take my eyes off of it. My 10 year-old brain screamed, "IT'S A REAL GHOST! YOU'RE SEEING A REAL GHOST! THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE!"

I pored over every inch of the photo — trying to distinguish her face, looking for the details of her dress, attempting to absorb all the "otherworldiness" of the Lady.

To be honest I couldn't discern much. Even then, the fledgling skeptic in me timidly asked, "Uh...maybe...it's not...you know...uh, real? Maybe?"

All the accounts I'd read about the Brown Lady had talked about how clearly you could see her face, her limbs, the folds of her dress. How it was most certainly the image of a woman walking down the stairs. And I wanted to see all that SO BAD.

And even though, for years to come, I swore up and down that I could make out all the details of the Brown Lady picture, I couldn't really. I still can't.

If I really want it, I can make out the vague outline of a face and the shape of a what could be a dress, but I'm not sure if I'm just seeing what I want to see. Honestly, I kind of see Our Lady of Guadalupe.

And now you do too, right?

But what's the big deal about the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall? There are so many ghost photos floating around out there, why is this one special? Especially considering that this photo is now widely believed to be a hoax.

For me it's the tantalizing mixture of hoax and haunting that make this a great ghost story.

Before the Brown Lady's photo was supposedly taken in 1936, her ghost reportedly haunted the halls of Raynham Hall, the seat of the Marquesses of Townshend, for over 200 years.

The Brown Lady is believed to be Dorothy Walpole, sister to Sir Robert Walpole. In the early 1700s Dorothy Walpole married Charles Townshend and became the Lady Townshend.

Though Lady Townshend's life appeared to be that of wealth, privilege, and comfort, her life took a rather tragic turn at the hands of her husband. Known for his violent temper and intense focus on his work as a statesman, Charles Townshend was far from an ideal husband. So Lady Townshend became the mistress to, the scandalous in his own right, Lord Philip Wharton (founder of the original Hellfire Club...it's a small creepy world y'all).

However things didn't work out so well for Lady Townshend. When Lord Wharton fled the country to escape his significant debt, Charles Townshend found out about Dorothy's infidelity and in a fit of rage imprisoned her in her Raynham Hall apartments for the rest of her life.

She was never allowed to leave the house again (even to see her five children) and she passed away at the age of 40 in 1726.

The cause of death was reported to be smallpox, but some say she died of a broken neck when pushed down the Raynham Hall grand staircase.

But Lady Dorothy Townshend's story was far from over.

Reports of a spectral lady dressed in brown began to plague the inhabitants and visitors of Raynham Hall for the next two centuries and beyond. Those who saw the Brown Lady claimed that she was undeniably Lady Dorothy Townshend. Often witnesses would point to the portrait of Lady Townshend (seen above in this post) as being the specter they saw.

The Brown Lady was generally described as having pale skin, unkempt hair, a heavy brown dress, and most notably dark, empty eye sockets. The ghost was often noted to peer straight into the face of witnesses, smiling at them in a "diabolic" way.

The Brown Lady herself, outside of supposedly being Lady Dorothy Townshend, gained so much attention that a separate portrait of the Brown Lady was painted. In it she is depicted as rather sinister — by candlelight the Lady's face was said to resemble a skull. You can see how the "hype" over the Brown Lady ghost might be building the foundation for tall tales and hoaxes.

Yet the stories kept coming. Frankly, true or not, some of them are delightfully creepy. One story such story involved a Captain Frederick Marryat, a visitor to Raynham Hall in the early 1800s.

After retiring to his bedroom for the night, the bedroom with the Brown Lady portrait, the current Lord Townshend's nephews knocked on his door asking him to look at their new gun. Like you do.

After inspecting the gun in their room, the two Townshends and Marryat walked the long dark hallway back to the Captain's room. Partway down the hall, they saw a woman headed toward them carrying a lamp. As they were in the "men's" section of the house, they thought she must be lost in the enormous house, and stepped into a doorway to let her pass undisturbed.

However, the lady did not pass.

She paused in the doorway where the men stood, held up the lamp to her face, and smiled menacingly at them. Captain Marryat later said that as soon as he saw her — the dark black eyes — he recognized her as the Brown Lady from the painting in his bedroom.

In a moment of terror, Marryat fired his pistol at the Lady. The bullet lodged in the wall behind her and she continued to smile at the Captain and until she completely disappeared.

Though this was one of the more dramatic stories about the Brown Lady, many more tales about encountering her wicked smile and dark eye-holes at the foot of beds, in the halls, and on the staircase twittered around Raynham Hall.

With so many ghost stories surrounding the house, the photo of the Brown Lady is something of a logical pinnacle to her infamy.

In 1936 photographers Indre Shira and Captain Hubert Provand were commissioned by the Lady Townshend to photograph Raynham Hall. The photographers had taken a picture of the grand staircase, and were resetting when Shira claimed that:

All at once I detected an ethereal veiled form coming slowly down the stairs. Rather excitedly, I called out sharply: 'Quick, quick, there's something.' I pressed the trigger of the flashlight pistol. After the flash and on closing the shutter, Captain Provand removed the focusing cloth from his head and turning to me said: 'What's all the excitement about?

Apparently Provand never even saw what he photographed. When the photo was developed, just as Shira said, a spectral image could plainly be seen on the stairs.

The image was eventually featured in Country Life Magazine, and arguably the world's most famous ghost photograph was born. But not everyone was so captivated.

C.V.C. Herbert of the Society for Physical Research investigated the photo in 1937. After interviewing Shira and Provand, and examining the photo with experts, Herbert stated that the Brown Lady photo was most likely the result of double exposure and "equipment failure."

Though he found Shira and Provand to be "honest," his mention that Shira was rather superstitious and when asked to confirm exactly where he saw the Lady on the staircase, Shira seemed "uncertain."

And though the developer claimed that the image was indeed originally on the negative, there seemed to be evidence of a double exposure. Herbert notes that the banisters do not connect in a straight line through the photograph.

Of course, Britain's most notorious ghost bro, Harry Price, proclaimed the Brown Lady photograph to be, "Like, totally the real deal." (Not an exact quote.)

I have to admit, I don't believe in the Brown Lady photograph anymore. I'm not even really sure if I believe most of Brown Lady ghost stories anymore. But that doesn't mean I don't find the story of Lady Dorothy Townshend sad and fascinating. Honestly, without the Brown Lady, Lady Dorothy's story may never have been told.

It takes just enough truth and a whole lot of imagination to tell a good ghost story. Do you think the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall is more truth or fiction? And are you staring at that photo now? What do you see?