Northern Irish news website Belfast Live published a series of photographs in 2016, reflecting on the lives of workers from yesteryear. These images presented a variety of employees tending to their duties long ago. It was a charmingly insightful feature; yet one specific photo has since become famous for a chilling reason.
The photograph was shot back in 1900 and shows a group of ten young women at a linen mill, all of whom are dressed for work. At a glance, the photo represents a snapshot of what life was once like for these girls. But more rigorous investigation reveals something altogether more disturbing.
Staff at Belfast Live admitted that they had been oblivious to the photo’s creepy nature when they were putting the collection together. In fact, this was only realized after a relative of one of the photo’s subjects got in touch with the site. This was a woman named Lynda, the granddaughter of one of the girls pictured.
Lynda had written to Belfast Live to express elation that her grandmother – called Ellen Donnelly – featured in the picture. The original photograph, Lynda claimed, was still in her father’s possession; and it was something which she referred to as “a family ghost picture.”
In her letter to Belfast Live, Lynda pointed out where in the “ghost picture” specifically to look; and with that, the eerie nature of the photograph was revealed. So, the publication ran a new story pointing out to readers the terrifying presence that Lynda had highlighted, and soon the picture began spreading around the web.
The original story which included the creepy photograph was written by Mark McCreary and published on the Belfast Live website in April 2016. The feature opened with a point about how modern technology has changed the retail industry, and he used the rise of online shopping to illustrate that.
Elsewhere, McCreary highlighted how self-scan machines had taken away the human interaction of being served by a shopkeeper at the cash till. So, with that in mind, the author said that the publication “decided to take a dander back in time to when services came with a personal touch.”
Focused on the Northern Irish city of Belfast, the pictures present a way of life which is almost unrecognizable by today’s standards. McCreary continued, “Our gallery includes great old images of delivery men using a horse and cart – and their own broad shoulders – to bring milk, [potatoes] and coal to houses across Belfast.”
The photographs were taken across several decades, starting from the beginning of the 20th century right up to the 1950s. During the earlier part of this period, Belfast was known for producing ships. The most famous of these was the RMS Titanic, which tragically sank in 1912 with the deaths of over 1,500 passengers.
In addition to the significant shipbuilding sector in Belfast, the city was also home to numerous linen mills. According the National Archives of Ireland, in fact, Belfast once produced more linen than anywhere else on Earth. These served as the workplaces of a large number of women, and Ellen Donnelly was one of them.
But as well as the linen and ship-building sectors, other sorts of business grew throughout Belfast at the time as well. There were factories producing cars, tobacco and ginger ale, along with engineering works. And elsewhere, a variety of smaller firms and stores could be found throughout the city.
Examples of smaller businesses located throughout the city of Belfast included bakeries, grocery stores and launderettes. But as well as these, even more specialized enterprises were open for business around this period. For instance, one particular company was called Gribbon Bros. and it was involved in the making of handkerchiefs.
But all of this isn’t to suggest that the nature of enterprise in Belfast wasn’t without its darker side. In reality, children often took employment at points in their lives when they should’ve been committed to school. There were apparently some 2,000 kids employed in linen mills at the beginning of the 1900s, with others acting as deliverers and salespeople.
As we can see, the images published on Belfast Live in 2016 give a fascinating insight into the realities of that period time. In one photograph, for instance, young boys are being handed copies of a newspaper. Naturally, one might safely speculate that it’ll be down to these kids to deliver them around the city.
Another photo dating back to July 1932 shows female employees at work. They’re working at the Gallaher Factory, where they can be seen preparing boxes of cigarettes. And the sheer number of women packed onto this factory floor perhaps gives a sense of the operation’s scale.
Elsewhere in the collection, a shot from around 1915 shows a number of men digging up a road. Seen from the perspective of the present day, we might imagine how difficult the work must have been without the help of modern machinery.
In another picture, men can be seen rolling large barrels along the ground, preparing them for transport. This shot was taken at Dunville’s Distillery, which specialized in the production of whiskey. Yet again, the photo shows us how much more physically demanding work must have been without the help of modern technology.
All of the photographs in the gallery shed some light on the way things used to be for Belfast’s workers. But there was one shot in particular which would eventually go on to capture the imaginations of many people today. This, of course, is the image of Ellen Donnelly and her colleagues.
While the photograph functions as a window into the past, it became famous for another reason entirely. While at a glance, things in the picture seem to be normal, there’s actually something lurking behind Ellen Donnelly. That’s to say, there appears to be an additional, terrifying presence in the shot.
The notion of spirits or ghosts has been an enduring source of fascination across the ages. And even though there’s no scientific basis for their existence, many people in contemporary times still believe in them. In fact, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center study, 18 percent of people in the United States claimed they had encountered one.
Since the advent of photography, a number of images have emerged claiming to depict ghosts. One well-known example is a 1936 photo purported to have been taken by photographers from the publication Country Life magazine. It shows a supposed ghost standing on a staircase in Norfolk, England: the so-called Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.
The Brown Lady is thought to be the spirit of a woman named Lady Dorothy Walpole, whose brother was U.K. Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Born in 1686, she went on to marry a man called Charles Townshend, who was known for his brutal outbursts. Apparently, after discovering that his wife had cheated on him, Townshend locked her away in Raynham Hall, where she later died in 1726.
Over a century later, Lady Walpole’s spirit supposedly appeared to people during a Christmas gathering at Raynham Hall. According to one Lucia C. Stone, a pair of guests at the property claimed to have witnessed the figure dressed in brown en route to their bedrooms. The next day, the specter was apparently seen in more detail, with its hollow eyes being specifically noted.
In 1836 another claim of the ghost materializing was made. This time, the supposed witness was a man named Captain Frederick Marryat, whose daughter Florence later detailed her dad’s alleged encounter. She penned in 1891, “I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer… [He] recognized the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of ‘The Brown Lady.’”
Captain Marryat’s daughter Florence continued the description of her father’s experience with the ghost. She wrote, “He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him.”
Of course, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall is just one of countless ghosts claimed to have been captured on film. Many more photos have been widely circulated over the years, capturing quite a few people’s imaginations. And in 2016 Belfast Live unwittingly published yet another image which has added to the lore.
At a glance, there’s seemingly nothing particularly notable about the photograph of the female staff. Just like the other pictures in Belfast Live’s collection, it offers an insight into the life of 20th century workers in the city. As we mentioned, in this particular case the image focuses on women from a linen factory.
The photo was published along with 15 others as part of the Belfast Live feature, and as we explored earlier, no one at the website initially noticed anything odd. But when one of the site’s users wrote in to comment on the image, it would never again be seen in the same way.
A woman named Lynda contacted the site to explain that she was the granddaughter of someone in the photo. She wrote, “Great to see an old photo of my Granny… when she worked at the mill. She was Ellen Donnelly – née McKillop – and she is fourth on the right in the second row down.”
Lynda continued, “I don’t really believe in ghosts – but there have been a few odd going-ons around this photo, so I hope this doesn’t cause any more!” She added, “Did anyone spot the mysterious hand on the girl on the right’s shoulder?”
If one looks carefully, a mysterious hand seems to be draped over one of the women’s shoulders; but it doesn’t appear to be attached to anyone. In fact, everyone around the hand has their arms folded together, meaning it couldn’t belong to any of them. So, what’s really going on?
Predictably, internet users have been having their say on the ghoulish-looking hand in the photo. And while there were those that labelled the pic as “creepy,” others were more measured in their responses. Writing in the comments section of the Mirror website, for instance, one reader elaborated on their own theory.
“Photo manipulation existed before Photoshop,” the person wrote. “One of the most common types was composite photos – basically what would now be described as ‘Photoshopping someone in.’ There were various techniques for this, including double exposure, or making a pasted mock-up print to photograph and manipulate when printing that photo in the darkroom.”
This same internet commenter also pointed out that there was a problem with some shadows in the image. They wrote, “If you look at the image of the girl with the hand on her shoulder, the shadows on her in the image do not fall at exactly the same angle as those on the faces of the other people in the image.” This, the person implied, suggests that the image had been manipulated.
Elsewhere, another theory about the ghostly hand was put forth in the comments section of the Belfast Live article. These thoughts were somewhat similar to the ones about the photo having been altered. However, this other commenter suggested that the photo might not have resulted from a purposeful editing job.
This user wrote, “As late as the early 20th century, exposure times for portraits were often at least several seconds long. So, the subjects had to stand very still or a double exposure or blurring would result. One explanation might be that the woman [on the] top right had her hand on the other woman’s shoulder at the beginning of the exposure, and then she quickly moved to a folded-arms position when she realized the exposure had started, creating a double exposure.”
In addition to this, another person shared their thoughts on the Belfast Live website. Yet these particular musings differed from the others in that they had nothing to do with the integrity of the photograph itself. Instead, this person argued that the ghostly hand was little more than the result of the way some fabric was positioned.
As the skeptical commenter put it, “It’s just the dress on her shoulder. If you look at the ‘fingers,’ they are actually the dress material. It’s just the way it fell. If the lady behind her had moved her arm, it would be clearer. Sorry to burst your bubble. It has a natural explanation and not a supernatural one.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that photos allegedly depicting ghosts have been explained by other means. In fact, there have been many people over the years that’ve been outed as frauds for producing fake ghost pictures. Yet still, such photos still retain an appeal for many people.
As for the specific photo of the Belfast linen workers and the ghostly hand, one must reach their own conclusions. All in all, few would argue that the pic isn’t at the very least to be considered creepy. But is it really the result of the supernatural – or something much more mundane?