19 September 2020

A Flood of Lies

A 'Ghost Tour' is not a 'History Tour'. No matter what the marketing spin and branding, they are not History. At least, the ones we have in Brisbane aren't.

I get that ghost tours have a historical 'feel' and can potentially be used to successfully convey an understanding of historical events to the customers, but what happens if the events described in the tour are embellished with fabricated details, or - even worse - they never happened at all? Then it's not History... it's fiction.

I will use one example of fake history to make my point. This is told on a ghost tour at the South Brisbane Cemetery. The rest of the tour is full of serious problems regarding accuracy (to put it politely), but this one is perhaps the most egregious and harmful. 

The tour story in question involves the Brisbane River floods of 1893. Paying customers are told that that those floods ripped through the cemetery and washed out graves, including coffins and bodies. Multiple body parts were later found scattered, but it was too hard to identify which grave (or body) each belonged to and so they were placed together in coffins and reburied.

Sketch of the flooding at South Brisbane Cemetery, 1893.

The real history is rather different. The primary records show that the steamer Midge passed the cemetery on 7 February 1893 and a passenger reported that ‘in the lower part of the South Brisbane cemetery many tombstones had fallen altogether or out of plumb.’ This was to be expected as debris in the swiftly-moving waters knocked into monuments. On another trip shortly afterwards it was claimed that, ‘On the South Brisbane side a landslip has occurred, and undoubtedly some graves have disappeared, and gravestones are strewn all about.’(1) The part about the graves 'disappearing' was just speculation, but it prompted cemetery trustee Joseph Baynes to visit the cemetery the very next day to assess the damage for himself. 

He noted that, ‘On examination I find that no graves have disappeared, but many headstones and other fixings are very much damaged, and persons interested would do well to look after them.’(2)

It is important to remember that the cemetery had only been open for 23 years at this time. It was still new and most of the relatives of those interred in there were still alive. Not only would they have noticed if something was askew (such as grandma not being in her grave any more), it would have been a big story in the newspapers of the day. Baynes would have been immediately found out if what he said was not true.

The floods story also has a typical ghost tours addition, this one involving the body of executed murderer Francis Horrocks, was buried in section 6B (used exclusively for such criminals) in 1892. According to the ghost-tour guide, his body was secretly moved by his (respectable) family to their grave plot in section 11B. There is absolutely no evidence that this move occurred, and the records show Francis' remains are still in 6B. What actually took place was that the prison authorities handed his body over to his parents after his hanging, so they could oversee the funeral themselves, but he was nevertheless still interred inside section 6B. The tour guide then claims that his body was washed out of the ground in the flood of 1893, with allusions of divine retribution (again, never happened). 

But there's more distasteful nonsense here. Customers are informed that the fishing is good in the river because substance from the human remains in the ground leaks into the river (somehow) and the fish feed on it. Again, there is no historical or scientific evidence to back this up.

So the tour story is, in the absence of actual evidence, basically fictional, like one of those (very loosely) 'based on a true story' movies. Yet it has real-world ramifications because unsuspecting people believe it. My colleague Tracey Olivieri has met people who have found their ancestor's graves near the river and, because it was unmarked, thought this might have happened to them. They were in tears over it. Until they were told the truth. We also see - far too many times - people writing online that 'graves were washed away in the flood'. 

As the current political climate shows, facts matter. We might disagree on interpretations of meaning in history, but it is important that we have a shared reality. The flood of 1893 did happen, but there is zero evidence to suggest that it washed bodies out of the South Brisbane Cemetery. And evidence is a cornerstone of the practice of history. As we skeptics say, 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'. As a professional historian, I could never make claims such as these without proof. 'Old timers say' just doesn't cut it.

This is not History, and if there is any place that should have its history treated with some respect, it is a cemetery. Its primary significance lies in its important spiritual and familial values, a keeping-place of love and memory. These stories make a mockery of that. 
Personally, I'd argue that the Brisbane City Council's 'duty of care' for a place that they still market as a place of interment should extend to ensuring that tour operators can't just make stuff up to sell as History there.

Of course, if the scriptwriter can provide any hard evidence to show I'm mistaken, I'd be happy to acknowledge that. And if the tour operator cannot do so, then in my opinion they should not be allowed anywhere near a cemetery.


(1) Brisbane Courier, 8 February 1893; Brisbane Courier, 23 February 1893.
(2) Brisbane Courier, 24 February 1893.

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