In September 1936, a photographer and his assistant visited Raynham Hall of Norfolk, England, with plans to photograph the estate for Country Life magazine. The shoot was going smoothly; they had already snapped the first shot of Raynham’s grand staircase and were preparing for the second. It was then that the assistant noticed the misty figure descending the steps–the Brown Lady of Raynham hall.
The photographer quickly engaged the flash. The resulting photograph (above), which was published in Country Life and again in the January 4, 1937 issue of Life magazine, caused a sensation. Paranormal researcher Harry Price interviewed both the photographer and assistant, declaring that the negative was “entirely innocent of any faking.”
Visitors to Raynham Hall had long complained of paranormal activity—now they had proof.
For 400 years, Raynham Hall had been the seat of the Townshend family. In 1713, Charles Townshend, the second Viscount Townshend, married Dorothy Walpole, the sister of England’s first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.
The pairing was Townshend’s second marriage, and rumor had it that Dorothy had once been the mistress of Lord Wharton, a royal playboy. According to legend, when Charles discovered Dorothy’s secret love life in 1725, he locked her in Raynham Hall, telling everyone that she had died, and even holding a mock funeral. In reality, Dorothy roamed the halls of Raynham Hall as a solitary prisoner, suffering until her death from smallpox in 1726.
The first ghostly sighting occurred during a Christmas celebration at Raynham in 1835. A guest claimed to have seen a lady wandering the halls in a brown dress. Another corroborated the sighting, adding that when he had approached her in the hall, she turned to him with a glowing face … but where her eyes should have been, there were only empty sockets. Some members of the staff were so terrified of this Brown Lady they allegedly fled the house.
A year later, Captain Frederick Marrayat, a friend of Charles Dickens, asked to stay at Raynham Hall to disprove the rumors of its haunting. He later told his daughter Florence of his encounter with the Brown Lady, saying he had chased her down the hall, revolver in hand. Florence remembered her father’s experience in vivid detail:
“The figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which [my father] stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared, and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with ‘The Brown Lady of Raynham.’”
In 1926, Lady Townsend’s own son had a run-in with the Brown Lady, adding a chilling twist to the list of sightings. Soon after encountering the spirit, he grew doubly upset when he saw the portrait of Dorothy Walpole that hung in the house, and claimed it was the same woman he had seen in the hallway.
Skeptics say the infamous image of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall is a forgery. Experts theorize that the photograph is in fact a double exposure of the staircase fused with a snapshot of a Virgin Mary statue.
Raynham Hall remains in the hands of the Townshend family to this day. The current Marquess is married and has two children. One wonders if any modern-day members of the clan have had close encounters with the ghostly figure.
Whether the photograph is fake or not, there’s no denying the allure of its chilling ghost story. Would you spend the night in Raynham Hall, and risk coming face-to-face with the Brown Lady’s empty sockets?
All photos: Wikimedia Commons