The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall Wanted to Be in Pictures

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The picture of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall is one of the best-known and most controversial ghost pictures.

Dorothy Walpole was not lucky in love. She was the daughter of Robert Walpole, who served as a member of Parliament for Houghton in Norfolk, and the sister of Robert Walpole, England's first prime minister. Her family was wealthy and powerful in the late seventeenth century. But all her advantages couldn't buy her happiness.

Dorothy's troubles started when she fell in love with Charles Townshend, and Charles fell in love with her. Dorothy's father refused to let these childhood sweethearts marry, because he was Townshend's guardian and Townshend was due to inherit a great deal of money. Old Mr. Walpole thought it would look as if he was trying to keep all the money in the family, which was considered bad form in those days. So instead, Charles married the daughter of Baron Pelham.

Dorothy appears to have lost it at this point, and became the mistress of Lord Wharton, which was scandalous behavior for a wealthy seventeenth-century lady. Lord Wharton was known as a rake and a gambler, and eventually had to leave England because of his mounting debts.

By this time the Baron's daughter had died, and so Dorothy and Charles married in 1713, when Dorothy was twenty-six. They made their home at Raynham Hall. You would think they would finally find happiness, but no. When Charles found out about Lord Wharton, he flew into a rage and locked Dorothy in her room, keeping her confined there until her death in 1726 at the age of forty. Then it was given out that she died of smallpox, but there were dark rumors that she died from a broken neck--a victim of murder.

There are holes in various elements of this story, such as why wouldn't Charles have heard about Lord Wharton before he married Dorothy? And then there's the fact that Dorothy and Charles had seven children. How mad could he have been? Then, too, it would be hard to catch smallpox if you were locked in a room for years. You'd think Charles could come up with a better story than that. So, many details of Dorothy's life have yet to be pinned down.

But anyway, the whole thing gave rise to a tale of haunting by the unhappy Dorothy. Shortly after her death, the servants began to see her in the house, and of course recognized her.

In the early nineteenth century, King George IV was a guest at Raynham Hall. He awoke in the middle of the night to find a lady dressed in brown, with "disheveled hair" and a face of "ashy paleness" standing in his room. The king was not amused. As writer Frank Usher describes it, ""I will not pass another hour in this accursed house.' he declared to the accompaniment of many vigorous Regency oaths. 'For tonight I have seen that which I hope to God I may never see again.'"

In 1849 two guests at Raynham Hall, Colonel Loftus and Mr. Hawkins, stayed up late playing chess. They went upstairs to bed and saw Dorothy standing in the corridor. Their host Lord Charles Townshend, the descendent of Dorothy's husband, admitted that he had seen her, too. "She ushered me to my room last night," he said.

Late in the nineteenth century, Captain Frederick Marryat, a sailor and an author who wrote novels about the sea, also saw the ghost, and actually took a shot at it. Two young friends of his who were also visiting Raynham Hall asked him to go to their room and look at a gun they had just bought. Marryat (somewhat inexplicably) brought a loaded pistol with him. In the corridor they all saw the ghost, and she gave Marryat such an evil look that he panicked and fired the pistol at her. She disappeared, probably miffed at this ungallant behavior.

In all these sighting the ghost was recognized as Dorothy Townshend by a portrait of her that hung at Raynham Hall. In the portrait she's wearing a brown dress with yellow trim and a ruff at the neck; her ghost was almost always seen in the same dress, earning her the name the Brown Lady.

But these sighting were nothing compared to the time she showed up to be photographed.

In 1936 professional photographer Indre Shira and his assistant Mr. Provand were taking pictures of Raynham Hall for Country Life magazine. They were standing by the grand staircase, and Provand was behind the camera when Shira saw a ghostly woman float down the stairs. He told Provand, who did not see the ghost, to get a shot of the staircase quickly. When the film was developed, the figure of Dorothy showed up on it.

The editors of Country Life, who knew which side their bread was buttered on, published the startling picture, and it's been a source of controversy ever since.

One theory is that the picture is a deliberate fraud created by double exposure. Joe Nickell, a writer for Skeptical Inquirer, author of two dozen books, and paranormal investigator with a Ph.D., believes that it is. On the other hand, why would Shira and Provand, who were experienced and respected professionals, create a fake ghost photograph? But ghost photographs in general have a credibility problem, because early photographers soon learned how to make double exposures and often used them to cheat people.

Another possibility is camera error. Ben Radford, writing in Skeptical Inquirer in 2006, said that, aside from hoaxes created by double exposure, ghost photos fall into two categories, indistinct shapes and orbs, and both can be created by camera error. One possibility is that the camera moved while Provand was taking the shot of the stairs. But then, why did Shira direct his attention to the stairs in the first place?

Is it even possible to tell if a photograph is a fake, an error, or a genuine ghost picture? "I don't believe that anyone is truly an expert in deciphering the difference between ghost and non-ghost photographs," Dale Kaczmarek, president of Ghost Trackers, says on www.ghostresearch,org.

In any case, Dorothy's life was surrounded by controversy that continues long after her death. It's hoped that she would find peace. But she appeared as late as the 1960's, when the late Marchioness of Townshend told author Dennis Bardens that she had seen the ghost several times.

So Dorothy may be around a while longer, and may even have her picture taken again.

Picture from


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