Is This Famous Ghost Photograph a Hoax or the Real Thing?

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And now on to today’s mysterious post:

On December 1, 1891, tragedy struck when Wellington Henry Stapleton-Cotton, the second Viscount Combermere, perished at the age of 73. Six weeks earlier, while attempting to hail a cab in a busy London street, Lord Combermere, as he was known, had been forced to leap out of the path of a horse-drawn carriage to avoid being struck. It seemed lucky escape at first but, according to the Pall Mall Gazette, the muscles in Lord Combermere’s knee ruptured. He appeared to be on the road to the recovery and was learning to walk with crutches, so family members were taken completely by surprise by his sudden death. Unbeknownst to them, a blood clot formed following his accident.

London, 1890s (courtesy


During his convalescence, Lord Combermere had been staying with his daughter, Lady Alexandra Paget, in the village of Tarporley, in Cheshire. However, he was a man of great wealth and had a home in the city as well as a country seat. Combermere Abbey was a historic home in the village of Wrenbury, near Shropshire. The abbey had been in Lord Combermere’s family since 1539, but it was originally part of a monastery that was established in 1130. Over time, most of the monastery buildings were demolished but the abbey itself was converted into a country house. The family significant remodeled the place in 1563 and 1795.  Lord Combermere’s father, the first Viscount Combermere, “Gothisized” the place in the 1810s and 1820s.

Combermere Abbey. Photo credit: Espresso Addict at English Wikipedia

Combermere Abbey. Photo credit: Espresso Addict at English Wikipedia


There’s no doubt about it, Combermere Abbey was an impressive place; the Empress of Austria always insisted upon staying there whenever she visited England. At the time of Combermere’s death, his home was not empty. Lady Constance Sutton was renting the abbey.  Several brothers and sisters were staying with her at the ancient home, including her younger sister Miss Sybell Corbet.

Lord Combermere’s funeral was held at 2 p.m. on December 5, 1891 in St. Margaret’s Church in the tiny village of Wrenbury. His body was laid to rest in the family vault.

Notice of Lord Combermere’s death in Pall Mall Gazette


While the funeral was taking place four miles away, Miss Corbet wanted to take a photograph of the library in the rich home where she had been living. This was not an easy thing to do. Photography is an expensive, time-consuming process. People had to sit perfectly still for long periods as the exposure developed. If they moved even a little bit, the picture would be blurry. Fortunately, Miss Corbet was an avid photographer of rooms, gardens, and landscapes. She only wanted a photo of the library. She set the camera and left with her sisters.

Miss Corbet’s photograph of the library at Combermere Abbey


Miss Corbet didn’t have the plate developed until August 1892. At first glance, everything looks normal. But what must she have thought when she noticed a semi-transparent Lord Combermere reclining in a favorite chair in his library?

It could not have been Lord Combermere, she reasoned. Nor could it have been a photograph of him from an earlier time, as he had not been to the house while Miss Corbet was there.

She thought of her camera. The plate was one of a number of pre-packaged dry photographic plates. Miss Corbet was sure that she had not exposed the plate before but, even if she had, it would be very strange for the exposure to reveal the image of a person, since Miss Corbet only photographed inanimate objects. The young woman remembered taking the photograph of the library on the day of the funeral, which her family verified.

Next, she went through all of the men in the home when the photograph was taken: her brother, the butler, and the footmen did not match the man’s appearance. The servants were questioned. They remembered the day of the funeral well–and denied any visitors had come to the house that day.

When the photo was shown to some who had known the recently deceased viscount, they recognized the man in the photo as Lord Combermere and none other.

Lord Combermere was. not expected, to say the least.


The December 1895 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research first published this strange story. The Society was determined to find any non-supernatural cause for the photograph, and they sent a representative to interview Miss Corbet. After talking with her, Professor Barrett had no doubt of Miss Corbet’s sincerity, he did worry that the photograph could have been accidental.

He experimented with photographing using a long exposure. He brought a man in to sit in the chair briefly, keeping his legs moving the whole time, and then getting up after a short time. Barrett felt that this photograph held the key to unravelling the mystery:

Barrett’s photograph


Barrett thought sunlight from the window created the exposure of the man’s upper body and could have caused him to look bald.

Miss Corbet had been reluctant to believe she had photographed the ghost of Lord Combermere, but this explanation didn’t satisfy her because of the clothing the man wore. The collar was fashionable for older men, she pointed out. It didn’t match anything her brother or the servants owned.

I’m curious to hear what you think, Old Spirituals readers! Did the spirit of Lord Combermere decide to skip the funeral and internment and return to his beloved home? Or was this an unintentional historical hoax of impressive quality?


  • Pall Mall Gazette, Dec 1891
  • The Derby Mercury, Dec 1891
  • The Weekly Standard & Express, Dec 1891