Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Woman in Black: Solving the Mystery of a Vanishing Ghost

Every town has a 'white lady' ghost story. I know my old hometown of Heywood, Lancashire, does, and they're pretty much par for the course as generic ghostlore goes. ‘White Lady’ stories have been around for centuries in Britain, and are generally associated with some romantic tragedy or other, usually involving women who have lost a husband or lover. A slight variation on this theme are 'Lady in Black' stories, and the South Brisbane Cemetery has one of its very own. In recent years, however, this particular Lady in Black has been suffering something of an identity crisis, but I think I can now resolve some of those issues for her.*

Tracey Olivieri, cemetery historian and author of 'The Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery', grew up in the local area during the 1970s and recalls children back then trying to scare each with ‘lady in black’ tales, telling each other of a dark figure moving through the cemetery. The most common theory was that it was the ghost of a heartbroken young 19th-century widow who used to visit the grave of her dead husband every day. She died unexpectedly, but had not realised this and still tended the grave, wearing her mourning clothes. According to Tracey, "If anyone approaches her she just lowers her head and simply disappears amongst the graves. She is not menacing and is not a ghost to be scared of." She was only ever seen within 'the Teardrop’ section of cemetery, on the hill near the main entrance (so named because the cemetery roadway circles around it to form the shape of a teardrop).

19th-century mourning clothes19th-century mourning clothes

By the late 1990s, however, ghost tours had started in the cemetery and the backstory changed dramatically. This online version dates from 2001:
"A woman in a black Victorian dress often walks down the road through the cemetery towards the prison... Many old-timers claim she's the tormented spirit of the only woman who was ever executed in Queensland!"
The woman that the 'old-timers' refer to here is Ellen Thomson, who was executed at Boggo Road in 1887 and is a rather stereotypical candidate for a ghost story. She was the only woman hanged, a mother of six, a convicted murderer, and an Irish Catholic who died clutching a crucifix and proclaiming her innocence. The original tour story, as it was relayed to me, went something like this: Because she was a woman, she was given special dispensation to be buried outside section 6B (where executed prisoners were normally buried), and now her ghost could be seen wandering near section 10C, wearing the black dress she was buried in and clutching a string of rosary beads to her chest...

Ellen Thomson, hanged at Boggo Road Gaol, 1887. (Qld State Archives)
Ellen Thomson (Qld State Archives)

What I find most interesting about this tale is the fact that it was the headline story for the cemetery ghost tour for a few years before it completely vanished without trace from the itinerary. A new story with an all-new 'lady in black' suddenly appeared, this one absurdly featuring a nun with a ‘skull’ face. So what happened to Ellen? Why was her story dropped so abruptly, never to be spoken of again?

After recently speaking to people who went on those early tours, I think the mystery of the vanishing ghost has been solved. It turns out the ghost tour had been taking people to the wrong grave! The hanged Ellen Thomson actually had been buried in section 6B after all, back in 1887. The ghost tour had been stopping at the grave of a different Ellen Thompson, who died in 1903 and was buried in section 10C.

This was a glaring mistake that couldn't go undetected for long, and sure enough the truth was realised at some point prior to 2004. Unfortunately, this left the ghost of the executed Ellen Thomson haunting the wrong part of the cemetery, so it seems the story was quietly disappeared while a new one appeared in its place. The Catholic element was retained, but the action moved to the Teardrop, a different part of the cemetery.

The crucial question in this whole episode is what happened to the older ghost? Even if it had been misidentified as the wrong person, surely the same ghost would still be around there anyway? It would be no less incredible, even if it was somebody else. Apparently not. When the mistake was realised, the tour spot vanished and so did the alleged ghost.

The only logical conclusion to be drawn from this sudden disappearance is that the ghost was never there in the first place, and that the misidentified grave site (and accompanying backstory of murder and execution) was a convenient spot for a stop on the tour. It is also notable that it was conveniently replaced with a previously-unmentioned  'Lady in Black', the skull-faced nun.

Sometimes, we can learn more not from what is left in, but what was left out.

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in December 2011.

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