This photograph often turns up in books and websites about ghosts; it shows a vague, transparent figure sitting in a chair. It was taken in 1891 by one Sybel (or Sybell) Corbet, who said there was nobody else in the room when the photograph was taken. The ghost (if it is a ghost) is normally said to be that of Viscount Combermere, whose funeral was being held at the time.
So far, so paranormal. But now I diverge from the usual cutting and pasting that passes for research these days to ask: which Viscount Combermere? Stapleton Cotton, the war hero of the early nineteenth century? it would be tempting to think so; Halloween fright site, Ghost Hunters of Asheville, ghost-story.co.uk and the endless reposters of this list of unbelievable ghosts (some of which also deserve a closer look) all say this. Perhaps old soldiers really do fade away after all. This man certainly seems to have been long-lived; the peninsular campaign ended in 1814, but perhaps a youthful Combermere was there and lived another 77 years. Or perhaps, as even a quick glance at Wikipedia would reveal, this isn’t the Field Marshal of the peninsular war and governor of Barbados – he died in 1865. So whose funeral was it? The second Viscount, Wellington Stapleton-Cotton, once Conservative MP for Carrickfergus, who died in December 1891? It would make sense. I wonder if, at some point in the telling and re-telling of this ghost story, the two viscounts melded into one enormously long-lived aristocrat.
The photograph itself is not immune to criticism. Miss Corbet did not stay in the room (the library of Combermere Abbey) for the whole hour needed to expose the photograph. It is entirely possible that somebody came in and sat in the chair (the Butler, in the house at the time, said that all the staff normally wore livery (and the very presence of the butler gives the lie to the common claim that all the servants were at the funeral!); indeed, such a conclusion was reached by the investigators Gordon Salt and Professor William Barrett, who concluded after creating an almost identical photograph:
“I believe that one of the servants came into the room, sat down in the chair, crossed his legs and then uncrossed them, looked down for a moment and then at the camera, saw that he was being taken, so got up and went away, having been in the chair about 20 to 30 seconds. This will give the ghost of an apparently older man from a young man, with no legs, and a semi-transparent face, &c.”
(quoted in John Fairley and Simon Welfare. Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers, BCA 1985, p.153)
This conclusion was accepted at the time, despite the resemblance between the late viscount and the figure in the photograph. One wonders why this part of the story does not seem to have made the cut in the internet age, when, we are told, all knowledge is readily accessible.