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1891, December 5: Lord Combermere Returns

Englishman Wellington Henry Stapleton-Cotton [1818-1891], the second Viscount Combermere and so known most often as simply 'Lord Combermere', was 73 years old and visiting London when he was run over by a horse drawn carriage, seriously injuring both of his legs. Nonetheless, he appeared to be recovering well six weeks later; he'd even started to walk about on his own again with the assistance of crutches... but on December 1, 1891, a blood-clot formed in his aged heart, and the sturdy old man passed away fairly suddenly.

        His funeral was held on Saturday, December 5, at St. Margaret's in the town of Wrenbury. His coffin arrived from London by an early train, and was received by his son Robert, who was now the next 'Lord Combermere' in the family. The late Lord Combermere was transported by hearse straight to the church, where a large crowd of sympathizers and friends had much earlier gathered out of respect for the dead man. The service was short, starting at late at two o'clock after waiting for some prominent mourners to arrive, after which Lord Combermere's mortal remains were deposited into the family vault located in the church.

         On the same day a woman named Sybell R. Corbet set up a long exposure camera to take a picture of the library of Combermere Abbey, located about two miles away from Wrenbury. The timing of the matter was practical; very few people were in the house, so the photo should not have been disturbed if left for a long exposure. Miss Corbet was staying in Combermere Abbey with her brother and sisters; her sister Constance, titled as "Lady Sutton," was renting the abbey at the time. It wasn't until August of the following year, eight months after Corbet's shot of the library had been taken, that she had a chance to develop the plate with the picture... and what it showed puzzled her.

Combermere Abbey library
Miss Corbet's picture (Fortean Picture Library - used with permission) [Larger version here]

Specifically, she was surprised to see a semi-transparent figure sitting in the chair to the left of the picture:

Closeup

Miss Corbet showed the image to her sister, Mrs. Alice Rowley, who was so convinced that it looked liked the deceased second Lord Combermere that Miss Corbet felt the needs to check her diary notes regarding the shot, which confirmed she had taken it on the same day as the funeral, December 5, 1891. With further inquiry, she soon discovered that the delayed funeral service had in fact been held at the exact same time her shot of the library was being exposed!

        Still, she was not convinced what she saw in the picture was indeed the ghost of the late Lord Combermere. This was because when the photo was shown to a number of people who knew the aged Lord well and, while some stated the image was obviously him, others felt there was no resemblance at all to the deceased man. Given the placement of the plant stand right where a face should be, and that what at first resembles an area for a eye or nose is actually just details of the woodwork on the chair, Miss Corbet held serious doubts that a positive identification could be made. At the same time, the clothing on the figure and suggestion of a bald head and light colored beard didn't match any of the males in the household at the time, being her youngest brother, the butler, and two footmen, all four being young and beardless. And yet, having a mysterious figure appear in a photo taken at exactly the same time as the funeral was a highly strange coincidence if the two were not related.

        It was a curious matter; but it was largely kept out of the public eye. Only family and some friends were shown the photo and told the story... until 1895, when both the photo and the account were published for a select few. A very select few.

Who Ya' Gonna Call?

        The 1895 publication was in the December volume of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, which was (and is) a unique society founded in England by the philosopher William James that was concerned with the scientific investigation of claims of the fantastic... claims such as photographing ghosts, for example. While this was apparently the first publication of the majority of the details regarding the matter, the Journal itself was only made available to actual members of the society; in addition, to protect the Combermere family, Combermere Abbey was referred to as "D. Hall" and Lord Combermere was given as "Lord D." instead.

        A friend of Miss Corbet had contacted the SPR regarding the unusual photo, and eventually put their investigator, a Professor Barrett, in contact with her. After getting the report above, Barrett asked Miss Corbet for a variety of details to clear up a few more possible points.

        The plate was one of a number of pre-packaged dry photographic plates, which Corbet was sure had not been exposed previous to her use of it. In addition, at the time she was only doing shots of landscapes and scenery, bereft of people... so she would not have accidentally photographed a person previous to using the plate herself. She was also quite sure she had not accidentally exposed the plate before it was in the proper place in the camera. While it was possible that a figure had been partially exposed on the plate previous to Corbet receiving it, the odds against such a figure lining up with a piece of funiture not yet photographed would be almost as astounding as photographing a ghost to begin with... so this was not considered a likely possible explanation.

        Miss Corbet and her sisters had set up the camera then all had gone out of the house, returning later to retrieve the shot. But, as noted, the figure didn't resemble her brother, who vowed he had not entered the library, nor the butler or footmen. Corbet could only guess that perhaps a stranger had visited the house and entered the room; though the butler said no one had, it had been eight months before she asked. Still... why would most of the figure be missing?

        Prof. Barrett had an idea about that last point, and arranged some experiments with a Mr. Gordon Salt. They took several photographs of a chair with a similar long exposure setup to what Miss Corbet used. During the exposure, one of the two men sat in the chair for a short time, but kept their legs moving. The resulting photograph was extremely revealing:

Prof. Barrett's Photo[Larger version here]

So a person entering the room and sitting in the chair could have produced the figure in the Combermere photo. Barrett theorized that some one of the men entered, sat, crossed their legs, noticed they were on camera, and vacated... but not before the light from the window had created an image of the man's upper body in the chair. Because the man was moving, his head would likely have been caught in a few differing positions -- including looking at the camera, which would create a light patch as one side of the face was lit by the window -- and that all of these face impressions would blend to create the apparently 'bald head and hint of a light beard'.

The Whimsies of Time

        It seems it wasn't long before the identity of the 'ghost' was exposed, despite Barrett's use of "Lord D." and "D. Hall" in an attempt to hide the original connection; perhaps some of the friends and family who already knew the story passed it on. In 1898, three years after the SPR article, this short article appeared in a wide variety of popular English magazines:

A stranger story still, and one that has not yet, I believe, appeared in print, is that where quite recently a lady took an amateur photograph of the drawing-room of a house once inhabited by the late Lord Combermere—at Brighton, I think it was. The lady in question saw, to her horror and astonishment, visible on the plate, the ghost of the old peer—a tall man with rather stout face and a moustache—reproduced sitting in one of the easy chairs of this drawing-room, though not apparent to the naked eye.

Not surprisingly, nothing stops a good story!

        Ever since that time, the major public version of the Combermere photo story has been essentially variations on this one paragraph. Ironically, Prof. Barrett's experiments have been repeated many times since to demonstrate again and again the picture's likely mundane origins, often by new researchers who had no idea that anyone before them had already shown how to imitate the photo [My favorite repeat of the experiment was filmed for Arthur. C. Clarke's Mysterious World in the mid 1980's!].

        Of course, just because a way was demonstrated that a figure could be introduced, that doesn't necessarily mean one was. One point has never been addressed, and likely never can be... Miss Sybell Corbet was intrigued that the clothing on the figure didn't appear to match the clothing worn by the four men in the house on the day the picture was taken; specifically, the white collar was not something the younger men would have worn, but that would have been common for an older man. So was the white collar produced by a moving figure, or was it a clothing item the figure wore?

        In any case, real ghost or accidental one, the sheer coincidence of the figure appearing in a photo taken during Lord Combermere's funeral has got to be one of the most extraordinary coincidences ever recorded!