1903: The Hand on the Bureau

The Strand Magazine was the premier magazine of the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th Century; this was helped in part, no doubt, by it carrying the first publication of most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's popular tales of the detective Sherlock Holmes.

        The magazine had been founded by a gentleman named George Newnes, and it carried a mix of short stories and topics of interest each month. In 1903, one of the general interest sections was simply titled "Curiosities," and Newnes encouraged readers to send in unusual stories and pictures; the contributors of the items he then published received payment as a further encouragement. The April 1903 edition of the magazine received something very curious, indeed.

The Hand on the Bureau
A strange photograph. [Larger version here]

The entry for this unusual image runs thus:


“'I send you a photograph of a 'mysterious hand.' The bureau depicted was sent to my studios to be photographed for a trade furniture dealer, when two negatives were taken—one with the bureau closed (in this no hand showed), and then the one here reproduced. Being late in the day, the plate had thirteen minutes’ exposure, and I can vouch that no one went near the bureau during this period, nor was there a mirror or any reflector in the studio. The bureau itself was not highly polished, and though I looked through the camera afterwards I am unable in any way to account for the presence of the armless hand. It is no “trick’ photograph, but to myself, who have exposed and developed thousands of plates, an unsolved mystery. The negative, I may add, is open to anyone's inspection.'— Mr. Montague Cooper, photographer, Taunton."

The credits for the picture, run just under it in the magazine, read "Copyright, 1903, by George Newnes, Limited." so presumably Newnes didn't just pay for the right to publish the shot, he flat out bought it. Past this single publication, however, the image doesn't seem to appear in any further magazines or books that I can find... until quite recently that is.

The Internet Never Forgets

        From what I can gather, the image and a very trimmed down version of the account started to circulate on the internet in webpages devoted to 'ghost photos' starting sometime around 2008; at least, that's the earliest I can find it referenced. The image may have been re-discovered by people browsing old issues of The Strand Magazine online, as these have passed into the public domain and the interest in the magazine's short stories is just as keen today as it ever was. The new shares and memes of the photo, however, never seem to have stated where the story had been found initially, a minor detail soon lost in multiple re-tellings. Here's a common example I found on Pinterest:

The Furniture Ghost
A modern version of the story. [Larger version here]

Let's ask again... Was It A Ghost?

       It's important to note three possible points of suspicion that could bring into question the claim of this being a paranormal occurrence... it certainly makes me worry, at least. First, a closeup:


        Though grainy, this shows something that you don't generally want to see in a ghost photo: evidence of a possible double exposure. In a double exposure two images are combined, and what appears in the final image are the lighter parts of both of the two exposures. If the hand was solid and on the desk the whole time the picture was shot, then lighter parts of the desk would be blocked by darker parts of the hand... but we can see through the darker parts of the hand.

        There are only three ways that the hand could appear as it does. First, it was transparent... which would work well for a ghost. Second, the picture is a double exposure of someone's hand and the bureau, each shot at different times. Third, due to the length of the exposure -- thirteen minutes -- someone wearing dark clothes could have put their hand in the shot for just a few moments... which would only record the lightest parts of the hand, then add the bureau's details after the fact. Note that two out of three of these ways are photographic trickery.

        Which brings me to the next thing that worries me: the person who submitted the picture, Montague Cooper, was a photographer... and very likely knew how to produce both a double exposure and a long exposure fake.

        Which brings me to the last thing that worries me: Cooper knew he would be paid if Newnes liked the picture, which could be motivation to commit trickery.

        Of course, what makes me worry doesn't necessarily have to bother you!

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