22 February 2016

The Boggo Road Burials Mystery

In the excellent 1980 Robert Redford prison movie Brubaker, the chief warden discovers multiple unmarked graves in the prison grounds and his attempts to unravel the mystery lead to political scandal. In the mid-2000s big questions were being asked about the possibility of bodies having been secretly buried in the grounds of Boggo Road. Was there a Brubaker-style mystery to be unearthed there? All the rumours suggested that indeed there was.

The mystery took shape back in the 1970s, when excavation work for sewerage pipes was taking place in an exercise yard in the new No.1 Division and three officers noticed a line of circular patterns in the walls of the newly-dug trench. One of the officers recalled seeing twelve ‘dark patches’, all of them about 45cm below the surface, 30-40cm in diameter, and uniformly spaced about 60cm apart. Another recalled seeing only four patches, which were light grey in colour as opposed to the more naturally-coloured soil surrounding them. I have in my possession stat decs and hand-drawn maps from these men relating to this incident.

When they reported what they had seen, their bosses informed them that, ‘all bodies were reinterred to Dutton Park' (meaning South Brisbane Cemetery), indicating that on-site burials actually had taken place at some point. They were also ordered to keep quiet about the incident. One of the officers, however, took some samples from the patches, which he described as being ‘very gooey... like wet clay’. These samples were stored for thirty years before being handed over to the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society and then forensically tested at the University of Queensland in 2003. The tests discovered microscopic bone fragments of Caucasian origin, and degraded DNA sequences. The report concluded that the DNA was either from the remains of at least two individuals buried at the site, or from more recent contamination of the samples, or from a combination of these two sources. It called for further testing and an excavation of the site.

An archaeological survey of the No.1 Division in 2005 (at which I was present) failed to locate any graves, although it is very possible that the test trenches were dug in the wrong place. It has also been suggested that most of the soil in the area was removed during the 1990s demolition of the No.1 Division, which would have also removed any trace of the graves.

So were there bodies at Boggo Road? The 1970s trench was dug in an area that, according to prison lore, was once a burial ground. This was, in previous years, just outside the north-eastern wall of the original No.1 Division, built in 1883, not far from the original Superintendent’s House. Older officers recalled seeing white crosses painted on the outside of the prison wall there in the 1930s, and when one superintendent’s wife maintained a garden near there, the officers would joke with her about not gardening too close to the graves in case she dug up a skull. When the new No.1 Division was constructed this area was underneath an exercise yard.

Approximate location of the burial sites circa 1952.
(John Oxley Library [modified by author])

There is also hearsay evidence of graves at the front of the prison. A 19th-century photograph (below) shows some white fencing, similar to a grave border, under a tree to the front left of the driveway from Boggo Road. A retired officer who owned the image claimed to have seen several grave sites here in the 1930s, some being fenced and one bordered with stones. In the photograph, however, this area is partially obscured by trees, making it difficult to observe the alleged graves.

The front of the prison in the late 19th century. The alleged graves referred to
above were said to be to the left of the driveway under the trees (BRGHS).

So we know that early officers have a memory of a couple of burial sites, and that in the 1970s grave-like markings in the ground were seen during excavation work. It seems very likely that there were graves in the north-eastern area at some point, but these graves would have been destroyed in subsequent construction and demolition work.

Which leads to a bigger mystery...who were they?

The graves could not pre-date the prison, as they would have been exposed during the original construction works. It has been suggested they were the remains of executed prisoners, but Brisbane City Council records clearly indicate that all the prisoners hanged at Boggo Road were buried in lot 6B at South Brisbane Cemetery so I would think that explanation is unlikely. They could have been the graves were those of other prisoners who died at the gaol from causes such as suicide, disease or murder. I have heard it said that they could be bubonic plague victims, but plague victims were quarantined in a building at Colmslie and there is no way the authorities would have held such a person inside a tightly-packed prison. Over a hundred inmates died at the site in the 117 years that prisons operated there, some from highly infectious diseases, but the records regarding these burials are incomplete. As far as we know, records regarding deaths may also be incomplete.

The truth is that, if there were graves behind Boggo Road, nobody knows who the people were. Different people may have different theories, but no solid evidence has been provided to back them up. The bodies have long gone, but the mystery remains for now.

For more on this subject, see my article ‘The Dead Outside the Fence: Burying executed prisoners in Brisbane, 1830-1913’, in the Queensland History Journal vol. 20, no.8, November 2008 (Royal Historical Society of Queensland).

04 February 2016

Is Toowoomba the Most Haunted City in Australia?

A July 2015 headline on the Daily Mail website described Toowoomba as ‘Australia's most haunted town’.* Given that we have another source (falsely) proclaiming Brisbane to be the ‘second most haunted city in the world’, logic suggests that Toowoomba must be now be the most haunted city in the world!

Reading the related article, however, we soon realise that that logic has very little to do with any of this. What we find is a lazy media outlet using amateur ‘pop paranormalism’ as page-filling clickbait.
‘A growing number of residents in the regional Queensland town of Toowoomba are documenting a series of spine-tingling encounters with ghosts. The other-worldly activity is so frequent, a team of ghost hunters has set up shop in the not-so-sleepy town.’
So they say in the article. I’d guess that the allegedly ‘growing’ frequency of ‘other-wordly activity’ came after the ghost hunters set up shop. Members of the featured group - ‘Toowoomba Ghost Chasers’ - claim to have conducted hundreds of paranormal ‘investigations’ and found that the regional city (population 110,000) is ‘full of ghosts’.

Why would this be? As one member explained, Toowoomba's history ‘makes it a haven for spirits… It's one of the oldest towns in Queensland, and it has a violent past - it's like the wild west… Maybe there's a lingering presence from that bloody history.'

This statement doesn’t add up at all. Within Australia, Toowoomba would be a minor league player when it comes to violent history. And that’s in a country that - while having seen its share of spilt blood - has been relatively quiet in the global context.

Main street of Toowoomba, allegedly the 'most haunted city in Australia'.
Toowoomba. (Wikipedia)

The article has a number ‘spooky’ photos, which are bad even by the usual standards of grainy ‘what am I supposed to be looking at here?’ ghost photography. A bit of a shadow here, some unconvincing pareidolia (seeing patterns in random visual data) there… The story attracted nearly 200 comments and the vast majority of them were skeptical or outright mocking, especially of the poor quality of the images and the illogical interpretations of them. These included ‘Caroline’ from North Tamborine, Queensland, who wrote that ‘I absolutely believe in ghosts, but all of these photos are a stretch to say the least. The top photo is more than likely just pareidolia - seeing faces in things. There's a lot of shadows in all of the photos.’

‘One-Law-For-All’ from Manchester, UK, wrote, ‘None of the pictures are even slightly convincing...’, while ‘Diddlydee’ from Dunham-on-the-Hill, UK, added ‘These pics are even more awful than the usual ghost tripe you print. You could quite literally print any old picture, circle any vague shape or shadow and say it's a ghost.’

To be fair, I’d guess that most ‘paranormal investigators’ would also be unconvinced by these photos.

This photo from 2012 is claimed to be of a 'ghost hovering near a grave'. What it looks more like is shadows on a headstone creating a pareidolia effect.

The photo above - from 2012 - is  alleged to be of a 'ghost hovering near a grave'. What it looks more like is shadows on a headstone creating a pareidolia effect.

'Lady in Red' ghost photo from Toowoomba, Queensland.

The 'Lady in Red' photo above shows a red area that is is quite prominent considering how grainy this photo is, suggesting it would have been especially clear to the naked eye. Unfortunately, without a less blurry image allowing identification of surrounding background objects such as the dark area next to the reddish area this looks like another case of grainy pareidolia.

Alleged 'ghost photo' from a cave near Toowoomba, Queensland.

This particularly unconvincing photo was captioned with 'Ghost chasers believe the face of a supernatural spirit can be seen in this picture'.

Alleged 'ghost photo' from a cave near Toowoomba, Queensland.

This one was captioned 'Toowoomba Ghost Chasers believe this picture... captured some sort of paranormal activity in the night'. That's an interpretation somehow even vaguer than the photo itself.

Alleged 'ghost photo' in cemetery, Toowoomba, Queensland.

'A ghost sighting near a grave', according to the caption. Again, there is nothing unusual, although pareidolia might suggest the face of Kermit the Frog: 

Alleged 'ghost photo' in cemetery, Toowoomba, Queensland.

These people seem to use the word ‘believe’ a lot, when phrases like or 'might be' or 'looks a bit like' would be more appropriate. There are more, equally unconvincing ghost photos in the article, such as this one with the claim that 'Some experts believe a 'little girl in blue dress with her arm around a little boy in black pants and jacket' can be seen':

Alleged 'ghost photo' in cemetery, Toowoomba, Queensland.

Which ‘experts’, exactly?

There was also a video in the article that was claimed to show ‘the horrifying moment a spirit eerily floated across a backyard’, and a ‘shadowy shape emerges seemingly from nowhere and then move around before disappearing’. One of the 'ghost hunters' said that they had not ‘seen anything like it in a long time', and helpfully concluded that 'It has to be something. There is no other explanation that we can come up with.'

While it is quite an interesting video, the attitude of ‘there is no other explanation we can come up with' says a lot. Genuine scientific investigators of allegedly paranormal activity (for example, Richard Wiseman and Benjamin Radford) apply imagination and intelligence to come up with natural theories for recordings like this. Back in 2008 Radford examined a very similar video to the one in the Toowoomba article and found that the most logical explanation was that it was a small insect on or near the camera lens (see ‘The Kansas Gym Ghost’).

Coming up with that case on the Internet took me less than a minute. It provides a feasible explanation. It seems incongruous that people who have closely examined this video for weeks or months would not have considered this.

Another video of ghostly activity at Disneyland has similarly been explained quite rationally as an ‘artefact of old equipment’. ‘It’s a ghost’ should always, always, be the very last resort. Unfortunately, for too many people dabbling in the paranormal, it is usually the first resort. Then again, media outlets are not interested in ghost hunters who never find a ghost, are they?

The article then covers Toowoomba’s supposedly famed 'lady in the red dress'* ghost, which is claimed to be ‘the ghost of Elizabeth Perkins, a resident who died in 1944’ after being struck by a train. Someone has got their dates wrong here, because Mrs Perkins was killed in 1929.

One of the ghost hunters said that he investigated this by heading to the train station and calling out the names of people he believed had died nearby ‘and therefore could be haunting the area’. He recorded changes in 'electromagnetic energy' with an electromagnetic field (EMF) detector. When he read Perkins’ name out, the meter ‘lit up’ and so he asked if it was Elizabeth Perkins, and claimed that ‘there were footsteps and she definitely walked past’.

This is so full of irrational assumptions that it is worthless. Aside from the fact that it takes an initial leap of logic (and faith) to link unusual phenomena with the unproven existence of post-death consciousness, and then asserting that consciousness can be associated with specific named individuals, the science here is completely false. EMF detectors record electromagnetic fields. As Benjamin Radford has written:
‘Many ghost hunters consider themselves scientific if they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, EMF detectors, ion detectors, infrared cameras, sensitive microphones, and so on. Yet for any piece of equipment to be useful, it must have some proven connection to ghosts. For example, if ghosts were known to emit electromagnetic fields, then a device that measures such fields would be useful. If ghosts were known to cause temperature drops, then a sensitive thermometer would be useful. If ghosts were known to emit ions, then a device that measures such ions would be useful. 
The problem is that there is no body of research showing that anything these devices measure has anything to do with ghosts. Until someone can reliably demonstrate that ghosts have certain measurable characteristics, devices that measure those characteristics are irrelevant… EMF detectors, ion counters, and other gear have no use in ghost investigations.’ (Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 34.6, December 2010)
The evidence presented in the Daily Mail article makes a very weak case for the existence of ghosts, much less that Toowoomba is ‘Australia’s most haunted town’. For the sake of their own credibility, I'd suggest that groups such as Toowoomba Ghost Chasers be a lot more critical with the evidence they present. The reporter also failed to provide a counterview, and the result is the kind of B-grade newspaper filler that helps to sustain the ‘paranormal industry’ in its current misguided form.

I'd say that the people of Toowoomba should take these alleged ghost sightings with a very large grain of salt.

This is abridged from an article originally published in July 2015.