A “Commandery” Ghost Story

June 19, 2015


I get many requests to look into supposed ghost photos; sometimes the photo subject’s true identity is easy to spot, other times it may take days or weeks to really establish what’s likely in the photo. In many cases it’s not possible to establish with 100% certainty exactly what the explanation for an apparently strange image is; this can happen for many reasons including a lack of information, too much time having elapsed since the photo was taken to establish its circumstances, and so on.

In those cases a skeptical investigator will invoke the scientific and philosophical principle of Occam’s Razor: that, all else being equal, the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions should be favored. It’s not an ironclad guarantee of Truth, of course-science does not operate on absolute certainties-but it’s a generally valid and useful rule of thumb.

Here’s one mystery photo I got in 2009, with the following background:

In June 2001, I visited the Commandery in Worcester, England. Worcester saw the last battle of the English Civil War. Here, King Charles II set up his headquarters. Lord Cromwell, commander of the Parliamentary army, had a huge numerical advantage. With his “New Model Army” (a direct forerunner of the modern British Army), he had a first-rate fighting force. Cromwell defeated King Charles, who fled into exile abroad. So ended his brief rule.

The Commandery came under attack. Parliamentary troops struck the building with cannon and musket fire, killing many defenders. Today, it’s a museum; the main gallery has a period artillery piece and the museum contains a number of re-created historical scenes, such as a judge rendering a verdict. The plaques that accompanied them told their stories. Climbing up the stairs, I noticed what seemed to be an odd mannequin standing by a window. There was no historical plaque or marker to explain who this was (see the attached photo). I shot the photo and went upstairs. A few minutes later, I returned and found it gone. It had seemed strangely out of place, but now I became confused. What happened to it?

I asked the curator, and she said they had never had a mannequin or exhibit up by the stairs. She added that some people had seen strange things up there. When the slides returned from the lab (it’s professional-quality Kodachrome 64 ASA film), there it was. I did not use a flash, since the window afforded enough light. I scanned this slide on an Epson V500 scanner, using the special slide attachment, at 800 dpi. It was necessary to resize all photos so that they could be attached to this email. Aside from that, I did not modify the photos. What you see is what I saw that day.

It appears that this young soldier is looking out the window; he sees the Parliamentarians approaching, and reaches for his sword. It’s not a costumed tour guide or re-enactor–it was perfectly still and silent for several minutes. It’s obviously not a blob, an orb, a loose camera strap, or reflection on some glass. Can you tell me what it is? Any help you give would be much appreciated.”

I examined the photograph, gave it some consideration, and replied:

“I looked at your photos, and I have to admit I’m a bit confused. I looked at the photo pretty closely and it looks exactly like a re-enactment mannequin, down to the unnatural position of the hips and body, the “hands,” the face carefully covered by a wig and helmet, etc. It’s pretty clear to me that you photographed one of many mannequins on display there.

As for why you didn’t see it when you returned, I have no idea. Perhaps it was moved while you were gone by workers who had placed it there temporarily from another place. Perhaps it was done as a prank. If the layout of the place is symmetrical, as I have occasionally seen, and the place had several rooms and/or staircases that were near each other, or similar in design, perhaps you mis-remembered exactly which room you had seen it and looked in the wrong room (if you have a second photo of the same room without the mannequin, I’d be very interested in seeing it!). Maybe the curator was simply mistaken or misinformed about what was going on upstairs. Or perhaps she misunderstood which set of stairs you meant. Not having been there myself at the time, it’s very difficult to say.

Again, the most likely explanation is that the photo depicts exactly what it looks like: a mannequin. There’s at least one way to test that theory: send the photo to the Commandery and ask if they have (or had) a mannequin that looked like that on display somewhere on the premises. Of course, the delay of 8 years won’t help matters, but that’s where I would start an investigation. If they say yes, then the mystery is solved (excepting exactly who put it there and when). Ideally you’d contact whoever was in charge of making / dressing the dummies, of course, not just some random employee.”

He replied acknowledging that it might indeed be a mannequin, and that he’d e-mailed the Commandery with further inquiries but gotten no response.

I don’t claim to have definitively solved this (apparent) mystery, but I did offer what seems to me to be an eminently logical, sensible, and likely explanation. In any event (invoking Occam’s Razor), it’s certainly far more likely to be a mannequin than a ghostly apparition that just happens to look exactly like a mannequin in a museum featuring “a number of re-created historical scenes.” If anyone has additional information about costumed mannequins at the Commandery around 2001, please let me know!