Photographing History: Investigating a Ghost at the White House

Photographing History: Investigating a Ghost at the White House

1950s image alleged to be a ghost

An interesting photograph circulating for a few years now on websites and blogs is purported to be a ghostly figure at the White House. Near the center of the photo you can quite clearly see what appears to be a man; the only problem is that you can see through him. According to sources, the photo was taken by a former National Park Service employee, White House photographer Abbie Rowe, during massive renovations on May 25, 1950. It first caught the eye of a man named Bob Martin while reading David McCullough’s book Truman. Since then, it has been spread around as a ghost photo.

At first glance, this seems like an intriguing image. I’m sure plenty of people see it and think it’s undeniably a ghost. That wasn’t my initial reaction, and knowing it was a government photograph only helped confirm in my mind that this is likely a very mundane image. Why is that? Well, let’s just say that I’ve seen something similar before and had it explained to me by an expert.

Years ago while researching local Ohio hauntings, I stumbled across a series of photographs of Jaite Paper Mill in Sagamore Hills Township, Ohio, just three miles away from the house where I grew up. In my background research, I found an archive from the Historic American Engineering Record – a federal program which has documented hundreds of old buildings and other manmade structures of historical and architectural significance across the country – showing drawings and photos of the building shortly after it closed. One photo in particular caught my eye, I was excited at the possibility of having found a ghost caught on film by a photographer hired by the government. The image, taken in 1984 by Jet Lowe, showed a transparent man in the old paper mill.

Lowe’s photo inside Jaite showing “ghost” at left

I wondered if Mr. Lowe knew what he had captured, so after extensive digging I found his email address and sent him a polite email with the image attached, asking about the “anomaly.” I was in luck; Mr. Lowe wrote back. “Good eye!” he said. It was a ghost, but not the supernatural type. This “ghost” is a photography accident. He explained that to take the images, he set up his camera with a long shutter time and walked around with a flash bulb, illuminating dark areas of the rooms. If a photographer takes just a little too long to move, his image is forever imprinted on the film. This figure wasn’t a dead factory worker. It was Jet Lowe himself!


Second Jaite photo with multiple “ghosts”

Although these images were taken over thirty years apart, photographic techniques used by professionals were very similar in both decades. And there’s another slight giveaway: the shadows on the ground. In the White House photo, the ground directly in front of the “ghost” is extremely bright, as if lit by a flash. In the Jaite photograph, it’s more difficult to see that distinction, but it’s a little clearer in a second photograph Mr. Lowe mentioned, taken the same day at Jaite. At the bottom right, you can see Jet Lowe once again, holding a large object (containing the flash) as he brightens up the far right side of the photo. He moved several times, so there are three separate “ghosts” close to each other.

Full 1950 Rowe photograph of renovation

Were it not for tracking down the original photographer, I could have spent the next decade believing this was proof that Jaite Paper Mill was a haunted place. And I learned valuable information about photography that day. But does that mean this is the explanation for the White House ghostly image? Perhaps. It could even be a worker who paused there to see what the photographer was doing (as the other observers to his left seem to be doing) before going back to work. Some people claim that it can’t be the result of a long exposure because the other figures are so clear. But when you look at the whole photograph, you can see at least three blurred workers just left of center in the image.

The only person who can give the full story is Abbie Rowe. Unfortunately, Mr. Rowe died on April 17, 1967. Without his commentary, this falls under the category of “unexplained,” but judging by the rest of the photograph, it’s nothing paranormal.


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