1959, March 22: Mabel Chinnery’s Strange Photograph

On March 22, 1959, in the town of Ipswitch [in Suffolk, England], Mrs. Mabel Chinnery and her husband drove to the graveyard in which her mother had been buried -- Mrs. Ellen Hammell, who had died a week previously -- to take pictures of Mrs. Hammell's grave. As Mrs. Chinnery returned to the car, she decided to use her last remaining shot to take a candid picture of her husband, waiting in the vehicle. When the pictures were developed, one of Mrs. Chinnery's friends pointed out that Mrs. Hammell appeared to be in the back seat of the car, behind Mrs. Chinnery's husband!

Mrs. Chinnery's photograph
Mrs. Chinnery's photograph. [Larger version here]

        The strange event and picture were first published in the English newspaper Sunday Pictorial of April 19, 1959, and the story hit American newspapers by April 20... but the photograph itself wasn't seen in the United States until the story got a whole page in the Sunday newspaper supplement Parade for June 28, 1959 [from which the image above has been retrieved].

        According to the Parade article, which gives all the details above, Mrs. Chinnery also stated that the spot the unexpected figure appeared in the back of the car is where her mother always sat when they went for drives. An unnamed photo expert is quoted as saying "The lady in back can't be the result of a double exposure. If it were, the door's upright wouldn't block off part of her face. And she can't be a reflection in the window, either." The article included a picture of Hammell with the car, before she died, for comparison's sake. Note that she's holding glasses that the figure above appears to be wearing.

Mrs. Ellen HammellFrom the Parade article. [Larger version here]

        And that's all the original printing of the story tells us, really.

Of Interviews and Experts

        In 1985, the British television program Arthur C Clarke's World of Strange Powers aired an episode entirely about paranormal photographs, and one of the photos they chose to examine was Mabel Chinnery's. The program featured an interview with Mabel and her husband Jim -- whose name had never been specified in the newspapers -- as well as having two experts examine the strange photograph to see what they thought of it.

        Mabel and Jim largely confirmed the story as presented in the newspapers previously; that they had gone to the graveyard to take pictures of Mrs. Hammell's grave, and that the picture was the last shot in the roll of film which was used to take a candid shot of Jim in the car. Jim then added two details that hadn't been mentioned before. First, Jim said that his mother in law specifically liked to sit in that back seat position in the car when she was out driving with him so that she could see and talk to him while he was driving. Jim then also offered up that her last words to him upon dying were "you'll never come to any harm 'cause I'll still be with you." Mabel added that when taking the picture, she only saw Jim and the car through her viewfinder... the strange figure only appeared in the photo itself.

        The two photographic experts, Tim Newton and Dr. Steve Gull, examined four unusual pictures, including Chinnery's; and it's very clear that the two were not told anything about the pictures other than they were claimed to show ghosts. The two men -- and their computers -- were apparently often utilized by the police to enhance details in pictures to help solve criminal cases; this is why the TV show chose them to examine the images. Chinnery's image, like the others, was scanned into the computer system, then examined close up; here's a detail shot of the picture that shows where the two men focused their attention.

The ghostly details. [Larger version here]

        Specifically, they saw two things that bothered them. First, the white collar of the figure which is presumably in the car appears to be overlapping the door-frame that should be between the figure and the photographer. Second, they pointed out an odd bump to the left of the barrier between the windows that seems as if it could be a shoulder... but if so, that would make the figure very wide. From these two details, one of the men, Gull, suggested that "some mistake has happened here, that some very short exposure some time before has been superimposed upon the picture of the car."

        And then nothing else is said about the picture in the remaining portion of the TV show.

        In the years since, many critics of the picture have also suggested the idea of an "accidental double-exposure," with some people suggesting the odd 'shoulder' might actually be part of an armchair the figure was sitting in, and that perhaps there was a picture of Hammell taken while still alive on the roll that somehow copied part of itself to the picture of the car. Based on these theories, most skeptics consider the image to be either proven false or rendered questionable enough to not bother taking seriously.

        But there are several problems with the double-exposure theory... and it's important to remember that Newton and Gull, the two photographic experts, were asked for explanations, not answers. This is an important distinction: to look for explanations is ask someone to try to disprove the ghost claim, not to examine it.

Exposing the "Double-Exposure"

        Suggesting that an image on a roll of film could copy itself to another frame is interesting, but a non-starter where Chinnery's photo is involved. This is because this idea generally ignores what the Chinnerys themselves asserted more than once: that they had taken pictures at the graveyard before taking the final picture of Jim in the car. So, even if it was possible that a picture of Mrs. Hammell was on a different photo of the film roll, this photo would necessarily be separated by at least one photo taken at the graveyard from the picture of Jim in the car... so you would likely see more than one occurrence of the image copy in other photos as well, if something like this could happen. Mabel Chinnery had no issue showing the photos from the roll to friends, and only one photo seemed odd to them.

         In addition, a double-exposure doesn't accidentally occur on just part of a picture. A double (or multiple) exposure is when a single photographic image is exposed to light two or more times, each time capturing the whole image it is exposed to. In a true double-exposure, the lighter elements of each complete picture overwrites the darker elements of all exposures. The fact that the strange figure appears to only be located in the two windows, with no other evidence of a second background, or the rest of the body, being visible in front of the dark side of the car is basically impossible for an accidental double-exposure to create. So while a double-exposure of a single part of the image could possibly explain the extra figure in the car, it would also imply a purposeful fraud on the part of the Chinnerys... because the only way to produce a targeted double-exposure is on purpose.

        All of this, of course, is just an extension from trying to explain two strange anomalies in the photo -- the scarf overlapping the door, and the apparent 'shoulder' that must be in the wrong place -- which have no obvious explanation. But what if there is no explanation?

        After all, if the spirit of a dead person decided to impress its own image onto a frame of film, what would that look like? And would it be fair to expect such an attempt to look perfect on the one and only time that spirit tried it?

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