29 August 2014

Busting Brisbane's Biggest Ghost Lie

‘Brisbane has been voted the 2nd most haunted city in the world by National Geographic magazine.’
This 'Second most haunted' claim for Brisbane, Queensland, was found to be false.

Or so the marketing for a Brisbane ‘ghost tour’ claims. It is, on the face of it, a surprising assertion. Brisbane is a largely modern city that has been home to European arrivals for less than 200 years. Its history has been generally quiet compared to thousands of other cities and towns around the world. Hypothetically assuming that ghosts even exist, why would Brisbane be more haunted than London, Paris, Berlin or Rome, with their millennia of bloody history? What about places that witnessed scenes of incredible wartime carnage, such as Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Volgograd, Warsaw, Manila, Gettysburg, Gallipoli, the Somme, Baghdad, Nanking, and others too numerous to list here?

And if anybody wanted to promote Brisbane as such a hotbed of paranormal activity… where was the proof?

This question began to be asked of small business owner Cameron ‘Jack’ Sim after he put the claim on his 'Ghost Tours' website several years ago (and is still there today, complete with an unauthorised National Geographic logo). Unfortunately it is a question that Ghost Tours were unable to answer.

Timeline of the claim

Sim started making unproven assertions about how 'haunted' Brisbane was back when he started his ghost business back in 1999, saying that the city was the 'most haunted in Australia'. The statistics would of course be impossible to verify. Then in 2000 an unreliable publication called The International Directory of Haunted Places (from an author who had previously written on sea monsters and UFOs) listed 14 'potentially' haunted places in the city... from a list provided by Sim himself.

Shortly afterwards it was reported in the local Sunday Mail that 'Brisbane had been voted the most haunted place in the southern hemisphere by international ghost hunters'. Once again the source for this information was Sim.

Already a clear pattern was emerging as he upscaled his claims without providing any supporting evidence: The claim is made - Somebody unquestioningly repeats it - That repetition is presented as confirmation of the original claim.

Around this time a backyard operation calling themselves ‘Ghost Research Foundation International’ started producing online 'most haunted' lists. In 2002 they wrote that York, England, was the ‘most haunted city in the world’ with Brisbane in third place behind Los Angeles. The numbers jumped around randomly in similar reports over the next few years, and in early 2009 the Courier-Mail recycled this dubious information in reporting that Brisbane was considered ‘one of the most haunted cities in the world’... by the International Directory of Haunted Places.

It was later that year that the story took the next step when it was claimed on the 'Ghost Tours' website that National Geographic had 'voted' Brisbane as the 'second most haunted city in the world'.

The story unravels...

And that's when the questions started. When the ‘most-haunted’ claim was repeated on a TV show back in 2010, the producers of the show were unable to find any evidence to back the claim up, and jokingly wrote that ‘In the meantime we'll take his word for it, like we took that Charlie Chaplin time traveller video dude’s’. In other words, they weren’t taking it seriously.

Where was this National Geographic poll? It couldn't be found anywhere, and even National Geographic themselves denied that any such poll existed, simply because they did not do such polls.

In 2011, curious commenters on the ‘Ghost Tours’ Facebook page started asking to see a copy of the increasingly mysterious poll. Things started to quickly unravel as Sim backpedalled away from his original claim. Important details of the story suddenly changed, so instead of National Geographic voting Brisbane to be the second most haunted city in the world, Sim now claimed that magazine writers had merely been told it was so... by an unnamed ‘paranormal society’.

It was now embarrassingly clear that there was no poll.

A few months later it emerged that the previously-unnamed ‘paranormal society’ in question was none other than 'Ghost Tours', who now confessed that they had ‘happily supplied information to NG’. Once again we see the same pattern: The claim is made - Somebody unquestioningly repeats it - That repetition is presented as confirmation of the original claim. Only this time the process was twisted to appear as though a ‘vote’ had taken place.

Despite repeated promises on social media to supply a scanned copy of the article, none was produced. Ghost Tours couldn’t even provide the name of the magazine in which it appeared. It was left to the National Geographic themselves to officially inform Liam Baker of Haunts of Brisbane - who did a lot of the legwork on this investigation - that they have never rated haunted cities, although the October 2008 issue of a magazine called Traveler (part of the National Geographic stable) did feature an article about the paranormal industry in York, England. At the end of that article the writer briefly listed some other supposedly haunted places, including New Orleans, Prague and St Petersburg. The last sentence reads:
‘Then there is Brisbane, Australia, ranked after York by the Ghost Research Foundation International, with more than 240 sightings...’
That is the only mention that any National Geographic publication has ever made of ghosts and Brisbane. The writer had merely referred to the dubious 'second most haunted' claim made years earlier by 'Ghost Research Foundation International', which in itself had been based on information provided by 'Ghost Tours'.

This was the point where the simple manipulation of baseless statistics turned into outright fabrication. A lazy reference by some freelance writer in a spin-off magazine suddenly became ‘As voted by National Geographic’.

‘Lie’ is a strong word to use, but there is no other explanation for what happened. National Geographic did NOT vote Brisbane ‘the second most haunted city in the world'. Yet it must have been a very deliberate act to concoct that sentence, turn it into an image and place it on a website.

Why was it done?

This is plainly a marketing ploy. A place needs to be perceived as being ‘haunted’ before anybody in the paranormal industry can try and profit from it (an imperative that has resulted in low standards of ‘proof’ for stories). Brisbane is a young city and would need a bit of ‘fluffing up’, ghost-wise.

The big question here is why would someone persist with the 'most haunted' claim long after it had been exposed as false? Why not simply pass it off as a mistake and change the wording to ‘described by National Geographic as…’? Labelling Brisbane as a particularly haunted place would still be bogus, but at least the most blatant aspect of the lie would be removed from public view.

Once again, there is a pattern.

Other websites such as ‘Hellhound’s Howl’ and ‘The Haunts of Brisbane’, and the Skeptical Enquirer magazine, have raised many questions about the claims and stories put forward by Brisbane 'Ghost Tours'. I have looked at a few cases myself, such as the evolution of the ‘Lady in Black’ tour story at South Brisbane Cemetery, and the story of an accident at a major printing press. To put it diplomatically, some of the content of these tours is ‘open to question’.

And yet the use of the 'most haunted' marketing slogan continues. Unfortunately, there is a measure of arrogance at play here, a sense of ‘I don’t care if you think I’m lying, because some people still believe me and so I’ll continue to do it’. Or, as George W. Bush once joked, ‘You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on’.

There has been much written about various assertions made by ghost tours over the years, but the persistent peddling of the 'most haunted' claim is perhaps the most damaging. It is an arrogant own goal that does not reflect well on the integrity of those responsible.

(For a more forensic examination of the 'most haunted' story, see these 'Haunts of Brisbane' articles.)

13 June 2014

The Mysterious Case of the 'Ghost of Gallipoli'

In 2014 an article by Fairfax National Affairs editor Tony Wright titled 'Gallipoli 'ghost' captured at soldiers' cemetery' suggested that one of Tony's colleagues had photographed a ghost. As happens a lot, paranormalists got rather overexcited.

Wright was in Gallipoli with two other men, including photographer Joe Armao, who was taking shots in the fading light of evening at Beach Cemetery, Hell Spit. He took a few photos with the third man (Celal) standing away from them, a solitary silhouette against the background. The first image looked like this:

A textbook example of how paranormal believers jump to conclusions and spread false 'evidence' for ghosts, only this time it came from a political journalist.
(Joe Armao)

Then, checking the frames a few seconds later, Armao noticed an 'unexplained apparition' standing next to Celal:

Case of false ghost photo from Gallipoli.
(Joe Armao)

See it? Wright then wrote of Armao's reaction:
'He could offer no explanation, but he said the hair stood up on the back of his neck. When he showed Celal and me, we packed up and left the empty cemetery... Hours of close and sceptical inspection of the frame, including extreme digital enlargement, comparison with other frames and lively discussion of a number of theories about shadows from the flower, tricks of the light and movement of the camera during the 2.5-second exposure offered no conclusive explanation.'
Wright offered the image to his readers 'for judgment'. The comments section lit up, with the vast majority of people pointing out that the 'ghost' was clearly no more than some kind of 'shadowing' on a flower in the foreground. Issues of 'respect for the dead' were raised, and many pointed out that they had not subscribed to Fairfax to read this sort of stuff. Save it for the readers of Take Five.

Of course the paranormalists jumped on it and splashed it far and wide on the Web. A ghost! Others pontificated on how nice it was that the benevolent spirits of the dead were watching over their mates. This is typical paranormalist 'character attribute invention'. The ghost was an Aussie and a top bloke. No doubt if this had been the site of a murderer's hanging, the imaginary spirit would have had evil intent.

The next day Wright offered a mea culpa, with not so much of the mea. He went over the whole event again but neglected to once mention the previous day's article or provide a link to it. There was also no mention of the previous judgement of his readers. This time the photographer had reexamined the image and solved the mystery:
'A minute study of the pixels finally revealed the mystery. Because the little flower in the extreme foreground was so close to the lens, the tiniest movement had created a large space of nothingness - the largest on the frame - which had imprinted itself on the image as "something" - in this case, a shape resembling a soldier rising from amid the graves.'
So, a victory for rationality then. Too late to stop the image circulating online for years to come as a 'ghost photo', but a welcome lesson for those paranormalists who forgot to look for normal explanations first.

There was no comments section for this second article, sparing Wright some inevitable and embarrassing flak-copping. He is a reasonable national affairs writer and Armao is an award-winning photographer, but this was a very public misstep. It does show, however, the psychological effect of nocturnal visits to allegedly 'spooky' places such as cemeteries and historic battlefields (in this case, the two rolled into one). Rational judgement can be impaired as the mind is culturally conditioned to attribute paranormal explanations for otherwise explainable phenomena.

Despite all that, it was reassuring to see so much skeptic reasoning in the comments section of the original article, which says good things about the Fairfax demographic. Maybe if the story had appeared in Take Five the response would have been quite different, a new ghost story would have taken hold, and the author would not have been compelled to 'update' his work. Hopefully the whole 'Ghost of Gallipoli' incident will serve as one of those reminders not to jump to outlandish conclusions.

28 February 2014

The 'Lingering Doubts' of Brisbane's 1947 'Arcade Murder'

The murder of Bronia Armstrong in Brisbane in 1947 turned into a double tragedy when Reginald Brown hanged himself in Boggo Road’s F Wing just a few days after being found guilty of the crime. The authors of the new book Lingering Doubts (Deb Drummond and Janice Teunis) took another look at the case and discovered serious discrepancies that suggest there are - as the title suggests - lingering doubts about the verdict.

I recently interviewed Deb Drummond about the new book:

Congratulations on Lingering Doubts. What prompted you and Janice to research and write this book?

Janice Teunis, co-author of 'Lingering Doubts'.
Deb Drummond, co-author of 'Lingering Doubts'.
Deb Drummond

It began so simply - curiosity. Although, if I had any inkling about the enormity of what I was setting in motion, I may have walked away from the State Library and had a coffee instead of leaving with a bundle of newsprint.

My scrap book grew until Bob Bottom, respected investigative journalist, read the material. Bob went so far as to suggest a title for the story, which he said should be told, not only for the sake of our family but also in the public interest.

My cousin, Janice, was equally disturbed by glaring anomalies and, at her prompting, our partnership was formed. We began the long and arduous research that produced this book. In fact each injustice uncovered, made not writing Lingering Doubts, no longer an option.

The short answer: we wanted to give our grandfather the voice he was denied from the moment Brisbane detectives targeted him.

Could you outline the types of injustices and anomalies you came across?

Where do we start?

From the outset, without legal representation, our grandfather was interrogated by Det. ‘Stewie’ Kerr (later Comptroller General of Prisons) and Det. Sub-Inspector Frank Bischof (later Police Commissioner). Verbal accounts from various police officers were inconsistent and conflicting.

Boggo Road Gaol authorities confiscated the notes Reg Brown attempted to hand his solicitor. A known criminal was ‘discovered’ by police as a witness. A physical health problem our grandfather suffered from was concealed. And so it goes on...

In the book, you have acknowledged varying forms of assistance from dozens of people over the last seven years. The story has obviously been extensively researched - do you feel that the research is now complete? 

We are surprised at the interest Reg Brown’s story has generated and grateful for the support we have received and continue to receive (yourself included). Over the years the Queensland Police Service has readily allowed us access to files and material, without which, the task of advocating for our grandfather would have been impossible. We’d like to think we’ve exhausted all avenues but hope our book might prove to be a springboard, so to speak, and more information may surface. To help with this endeavour, one of our supporters and family friend, Emma Starr, has designed our website. Our dream is that one day a, perhaps retired, legal professional will read Lingering Doubts and feel inclined to continue where we left off. 

How much has this research changed your own perception of your grandfather? What effect has it had for your wider family?

Reginald Brown
Reginald Brown

When we started this journey, we (and our sisters and cousins) had no perception of our grandfather at all as he was missing from our childhood and our parents did not speak of him until we were adults – and then only to reluctantly disclose scant details about his arrest and imprisonment. My Dad, and Janice’s Mum, are well into their eighties now and retain wonderful memories of their father, Reg Brown. It’s taken enormous courage on their part to come forward and offer their contributions to Lingering Doubts. Although release from their crippling secret is liberating to a degree, they have had to relive the horror that shattered their family. The good thing is they now know much more than they ever knew.

Positive perceptions of our grandfather have consolidated as we began to meet him vicariously through archived material and personal memories of those who really knew him. We regret this loving family man was not in our lives.

This whole story is obviously within living memory for some of your family. How does the wider family feel about that story being used commercially in an unsympathetic manner?

Two of Reginald Brown’s children, teenagers at the time of the murder, are now in their 80s and have borne the stigma of their father’s ‘crime’ all their lives. By very careful analysis of all relevant details available to us via archived police files, trial transcripts and our interviews with people who were involved at the time, we believe we have made a credible argument for our grandfather’s innocence, and displayed the deviousness of police and the Crown prosecutor.

Our book needs to be read in comparison with other available works on this crime. The family thinks anyone peddling this very sad story needs to understand there is compelling evidence to suggest the tale being promulgated is a fabrication of cobbled half-truths.

A new book sheds new light on a 1940s Brisbane murder and questions the outcome that led to the suicide of a man in the cells of Boggo Road prison

Where can people get the book from?

Books are available at our talks, details of which are on our website. They can also be purchased on and at Copyright Publishing, and at The Book Bank (Top Floor, Toowong Village, Toowong).

February 2014