When Cameras Took Pictures of Ghosts

When photography was new, people used it to suggest the endurance of the departed. 

Elderly couple with a young female spirit, c. 1920 (William Hope/National Media Museum Collection)

William Mumler's downfall came about, in part, because of P.T. Barnum. The world's first known "spirit photographer" had captured an image of Barnum posed next to a ghost of an exceptionally notable variety: that of the recently assassinated Abraham Lincoln. During Mumler's 1869 hearing for fraud, Barnum—the trickster, indignant about trickery—was called to the witness stand to testify against Mumler. Barnum would serve as an expert, the Oxford University Press notes, on "humbuggery."

Barnum and Lincoln, united by Mumler (Wikimedia Commons)

Mumler was not alone in his attempts to manipulate photography for purposes of prank and profit. Photo manipulation is nearly as old as photography itself, and what Mumler lacked in Photoshop, he made up for in ingenuity. During his hearing, fellow photographers identified nine different methods that could aid in the photographic imitation of "spirits"—including techniques like multiple exposure and combination printing. As David Brewster, in his 1856 book on the stereoscope, explained:

For the purpose of amusement, the photographer might carry us even into the regions of the supernatural. His art, as I have elsewhere shewn, enables him to give a spiritual appearance to one or more of his figures, and to exhibit them as ‘thin air’ amid the solid realities of the stereoscopic picture.

Mary Todd Lincoln with the "ghost" of Abraham Lincoln, William Mumler, c. 1869 (Wikimedia Commons)

For Mumler—the first of many advantage-taking "spirit photographers"—photo manipulation was also good business. While he was ultimately selling nostalgia and comfort, what was he technically selling were portraits of clients posed alongside the "spirits" of their deceased loved ones. He sold those for between $5 and $10 apiece—which was, the OUP's Kate Scott puts it, "a huge fee at the time." Soon, as one history sums it up, "He grew wealthy producing spirit photos for grief-stricken clients who had lost relatives in the Civil War."

So how did he do that work? Sometimes, he'd have images to use for his "ghosts." During the Civil War, as families endured separations both lengthy and permanent, keepsake photographs became popular, with thousands of portraits produced. One of the most popular forms for these were cartes-de-visite, photographs mounted onto small, thick pieces of paper—trading cards, essentially. Mumler used the photos on those cards, along with similar photographs, to create his "ghosts." He used the visages of famous figures, as in the case of Barnum's Lincoln portrait, to create the illusion of communion with the notable. And he used images of the non-famous to create the illusion of disembodied intimacy.

A Mumlerian spirit photograph (William Mumler/Creative Commons)
"Man with the spirit of his helper," c. 1920 (William Hope, National Media Museum Collection)
The face of a young woman appears over the woman on the right of the photograph, c. 1920. The reverse of the photograph reads: "Why is the child always pushing to the front?" and "Do we get messages from the higher spirits?" (William Hope, National Media Museum Collection)
Man surrounded by signs of spirit presence," c. 1920 (William Hope, National Media Museum Collection)
The Haunted Lane, Melander & Bro., 1889 (Library of Congress)

Which was ingenious and cruel at the same time. Visual memories, even those of loved ones, fade. Images blur. Lines soften. Mumler took advantage of this. As Scott puts it: "If a customer shared enough information with the photographer, and if the selected face was faint and blurry enough, the resulting 'spirit' could convince a person who wanted to be convinced." 

Mumler's fraud was not simply a matter of his photos, however. He was arrested, instead, because of the claims he made about those images. (And also because of allegations that he had broken into people's homes to steal photos of their deceased relatives.) Mumler's ability to create his ghostly prints, he told his clients, was based in turn on his powers as a medium. Mumler and his fellow spirit-photographers preyed on clients' hope that their loved ones were still present. He told them that, while the human eye couldn't see their spirits, the camera could. They believed him. 

A woman mourns for her husband in a Chapel of Rest, standing by his body, c. 1920. (William Hope, National Media Museum Collection)

But: Why? It's one thing to miss a loved one, to want him or her to be with you, infinitely if invisibly. It's another thing to trust that the photographer's lens could capture what the eye could not. Mumler's time, however, was also a time that would find people tentatively reshaping their relationship with information—and with, Scott points out, their own bodies. The mid-19th century in the U.S. coincided with the rise of Spiritualism, the religious movement that posited, among other things, the possibility that a soul could exist without a body to contain it. As the media historian Jeffrey Sconce argues, technologies like the telegraph—and like the camera, as well—gave cultural aid to the Spiritualist movement by effectively separating messages from the bodies of their senders. Images were disentangled from their subjects; information was disentangled from its sources. Ghosts were, in their way, everywhere. 

Two of William Hope's friends lean on their motor car while a "spirit"—the couple's deceased son—is revealed at the wheel. (William Hope, c. 1920, National Media Museum Collection)
The man in this portrait apparently identified its "spirit," though indistinct, as an ex-work colleague who had died 32 years earlier. (William Hope/National Media Museum Collection)

Spirit photography would live on well into the 20th century, fueled in part by the Civil War and, later on, by World War I. In the U.K., in the aftermath of the first Great War, the spirit photographer William Hope would develop a following for his work that included Arthur Conan Doyle. (Sherlock Holmes's creator, supporting Hope against claims of Mumlerian fraud, would write a book called The Case for Spirit Photography in 1922. He would also end his friendship with Harry Houdini when the magician claimed, publicly, that spirit photography was "farcical.")

Mumler, for his part, saw his career decline after repeated claims of fraud. Yet he was never convicted of that crime. His case, in the end, was dismissed. Though the judge noted that the photographer likely had, indeed, practiced "trick and deception," that allegation couldn't be proven. There wasn't enough evidence.

A "spirit" photograph, supposedly taken during a seance by S. W. Fallis in 1901. It's actually a double exposure or composite of superimposed cut-outs. (Library of Congress)