William Mumler's Spirit Photograph

William H. Mumler (1832–1884) was a Boston jeweler’s engraver and amateur photographer of no particular skill, until one fateful day when a strange photograph changed his life and made him famous. Toiling away alone in a studio on October 5, 1861, the 29-year-old Mumler had no idea of the fantastic image that was about to develop on his plate. He had just finished taking portraits of himself. The process was long and difficult. First he had to prepare his plates by coating them with collodion (a chemical solution), then bathing them in silver nitrate, and then taking the photographs while the plates were still wet. He had to sit very still during the actual photographing. When he examined his results, Mumler was shocked to see that in one photograph, a pale image of a young woman appeared next to him on his right. At first he thought he had used a previously exposed plate that had not been cleaned properly.

Mumler showed the photograph around. It caused a sensation. Spiritualism, which focused on communication with the spirit world and proving that there is an afterlife, was at a peak of popularity. A photograph of the dead surely was ironclad proof that spirits survived after death. For many Spiritualists, Mumler became an instant celebrity.

The case of William Mumler and the spirit photograph is intimately tied up with the popular press, tabloid journalism, and photographic trade journals at every stage along the way. For the tabloids of nineteenth-century Boston and New York, spirit photography as mediated via the ghostly developments of William Mumler became something like an “urban legend” that people wanted to read and speculate about. Mumler’s ghost developments were a contentious and contested story that skeptics and believers disagreed passionately about, for it was felt that the larger implications of this sensational and strange case had put “Spiritualism in court” and on trial.

On February 26, 1869, the New York Sun published a “remarkable story” about Mumler’s spirit photography, titled “A Wonderful Mystery: Ghosts Sitting for Their Portraits.” Reporting on this new urban sensation, the Sun did not condemn Mumler as a fraud but rather took up a more neutral position, giving equal time to both skeptics and believers who stressed the wondrous and marvelous nature of these recent events. On the one hand, the reporter Hitchcock wrote, “skeptics will insist that there is some trick, and that the ghost pictures are obtained by using lay figures or old photograph negatives, or by some other expedient of that kind.” On the other hand, “Mr. Mumler says that he really believes the pictures are produced by departed spirits who are attached to the sitters by affection or relationship or affinity.” The article concluded, “What our reporter thinks about it he declines to say. If there is any trick used, he does not know what it is. He gives us the facts, and we give them to our readers to think about as they please. The whole thing is a marvel any way, and deserves to be investigated by scientific men.”

Mumler was besieged by people who wanted their photographs taken in the hopes that their dearly departed would show up, too. Overnight he went from an unknown amateur photographer to a celebrity earning top dollar. Not everyone jumped on the bandwagon, however. Some suspected trickery.

One skeptic was William Black, an esteemed Boston photographer. He sat for a photograph with Mumler and kept a careful eye on the procedure. He wanted to make sure that Mumler didn’t switch plates. To Black’s astonishment his photograph showed an “extra”—a ghostly young man leaning over his shoulder. The skeptic was converted. Mumler, Black proclaimed, had a gift for making spirits appear on film.

Giddy with his instant fame, Mumler moved to New York City, advertised himself as a medium, and began charging the outrageous sum of $10 per sitting, with no guarantees. He had no shortage of customers. Even his wife, Hannah Mumler, got into the act. Suddenly, she, too, was a medium who could see the spirits before they were photographed. She described her visions to customers in advance of their sittings.

William Mumler’s photograph of the spirit of Abraham Lincoln 
with his hands on his wife’s shoulders

One of Mumler’s most famous clients was Mary Todd Lincoln, the grief-stricken widow of President Abraham Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln visited Mumler under the assumed name of Mrs. Lindall in hopes that her assassinated husband would show up in a photograph. She was not disappointed. In the photo Mumler took of Mrs. Lincoln, the dead president appeared standing behind her, his ghostly hands resting upon her shoulders as she gazed solemnly into the camera. Paranormal researcher Melvyn Willin, in his book Ghosts Caught on Film, claims that the photo was taken around 1869, and that Mumler did not know that his sitter was Lincoln, instead believing her to be a 'Mrs Tundall'. Willin goes on to say that Mumler did not discover who she was until after the photo was developed. The College of Psychic Studies, referencing notes belonging to William Stainton Moses (who has appeared in photographs by other spirit photographers), claim that the photo was taken in the early 1870s, Lincoln had assumed the name of 'Mrs. Lindall' and that Lincoln had to be encouraged by Mumler's wife (a medium) to identify her husband on the photo. Though the image has been dismissed as being accidental double exposure, it has been widely circulated.

In spite of his fans Mumler continued to be hounded by skeptics who believed he was committing a clever fraud. He became so controversial that he was finally arrested and charged with fraud in 1869. At a preliminary trial his case was dismissed. Did he ever resort to tricks? No one knows. But as often happens with instant fame, the fall is just as swift as the rocket ride up. Mumler’s personal life fell apart. He and Hannah divorced, and he ended his days in poverty and obscurity, dying in 1884.

Mumler’s ability to produce results set in motion an entire industry of spirit photography. Other photographers, eager to make fast money, promised spirit photographs to a believing public. Some were indeed outright frauds, doctoring plates with phony images of famous dead people and supposed Native American spirit guides wearing enormous feather headdresses. Ghostly faces were shown floating in neat semicircles over the heads of living subjects. Paleforms trailed filmy white garments.

The craze traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and took hold in Great Britain and Europe as well. Spirit photography was all the rage for decades. Some mediums said they could cause spirit images to be impressed on unexposed plates. These images were called “scotographs” and sometimes contained messages allegedly written by the hands of the spirits themselves.

Mysteries, Legends, and Unexplained Phenomena: “Ghosts and Haunted Places” by Rosemary Ellen Guiley;
The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer by Louis Kaplan

Pic Source:
Mysteries. Legends, and Unexplained Phenomena: “Ghosts and Haunted Places” by Rosemary Ellen Guiley page 87

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