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Spirit Photography

an old photo of a person

On Spirit Photography

by Charles Spratley

The history of Spirit Photography is almost as old as photography itself. It will be William Mumler who will change the way the world felt about the paranormal. He will do what mediums of his day couldn’t do, he provided physical proof of an afterlife through the use of a relatively new invention, the camera. The true birth of photography is 1839 with the invention of the metal-based daguerreotype process developed by William Henry Fox Talbot. The process is slow, requiring minutes, but produced a sharp image. And with this new technology came the demand for portraiture. No longer were hours required for a painting that may have cost a small fortune, when a photograph could be taken in minutes requiring a fraction of the cost.

The birth of Spiritualism in the 1840s and then the emotional trauma from the Civil War changed the face of photography forever. Photography, was a wealthy person’s hobby. You couldn’t just buy a camera, they were so rare they were usually ordered. During the time of the war, cameras brought the ugliness of war to the masses with war correspondents bringing along photographers to capture the carnage of the battlefield. Mumler, a jeweler by trade, took full advantage of the situation by using his new toy. Mumler claimed that he was taking a self portrait and when it was developed, he saw a ghostly image of a relative who has passed several years before. And he could do this with other people as well. Customers came from all over the region to get their photo take in hopes of seeing a specter sitting or standing beside them. Mumler was charging up to ten dollars for these portraits, which doesn’t sound like much but that’s almost three hundred dollars by today’s standards. He didn’t even guarantee a spirit in every photograph, but he claimed he was a gifted medium and the camera itself was a tool of the Great Beyond.  Soon, other photographers got onboard this paranormal gravy train. Wives asked for their deceased husbands and vice versa. Mothers asked for deceased children. The 19th Century was a time of industrial change and innovation, but it was also a time of disease, war and accidents that came from the Industrial Revolution. There wasn’t ever a shortage of clientele. But probably the most famous of these spectral portraits is that of Mary Todd Lincoln, a devout Spiritualist. It will be the last portrait ever taken of her, and the pained, weary face of this First Lady is secondary to the image of a ghostly Lincoln standing behind her, with his hands resting on her shoulders. This will be Mumler’s masterpiece. It will also be his undoing.

His arch nemesis will be none other than PT Barnum. Barnum, the crowned king of Humbug was at first fascinated with the idea of these photographs and wished to have some on display. Barnum, was not a member of the Spiritualist community but that didn’t prevent him from hiring the famous Fox sisters to do sittings for his guests. But Barnum was also a skeptic. He knew a fake when he spotted it. The master of cons and he smelled a con from the moment he laid eyes on these famous photos. Barnum may have been a huckster, but he had a heart, and he saw Mumler as a user of people’s grief for monetary gain. And he went so far as to take Mumler to court in April 1869. It was proven that Mumler used a technique known as double exposure to create these false ghosts onto the photos by using two plates inserted into the camera instead of one, with one image of “the ghost” already on it and the second one unexposed for the client. The finished result would be the ghostly image which would appear on top of the finished photograph. Barnum proved it by having his own spirit photograph done with Lincoln. Mumler was done. Even though he was acquitted of the crime of fraud, he spent far too much money in his defense and the evidence against him was damning.

Now this didn’t finish spirit photography at all. News traveled slow and people had their own opinions on the matter, regardless of the evidence. Many defended Mumler and his ilk by labeling their spirit photos as therapeutic and allowed the people to grieve in their own way and so chose to believe. But it did require these “photographic mediums” to come up with new techniques and as the technology of photography progressed, their art progressed as well. By the time of the turn of the century, the photos were very clever. Probably the best example of this is the famous picture taken at Combermere Abbey in Cheshire, England. This is an alleged photo of Lord Combermere who recently passed of a riding accident. Photo experts believe that someone sat in the chair during the exposure and then left, leaving the ghostly image. The result is a very creepy and convincing photo that is breathtaking from a paranormal point of view and I can only imagine what a Victorian would have thought when they first saw it.

Another famous spirit photographer was William Hope who became famous after World War One. He was exposed (pun intended) by probably one of my favorite historical paranormal investigators Harry Price in 1922. Price realized that Hope was doing a double exposure technique similar to Mumler. Price will later go on to investigate my favorite spirit photo of all time, The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. This is a fantastic photograph that I have loved ever since I was a child and to me, what a “spirit photograph” should look like. The Society for Psychical Research in 1937 determined though that the image was produced by shaking the camera during its six second exposure. Even Price wanted to believe it was real but was forced to face the truth of the matter.

I am always in search of the truth, no matter what it says or where it leads. I myself have seen photos that I cannot explain, even at sites that we go to often and even have on our tour. The frauds I mentioned above are merely examples of people taking advantage of others using the technology that they had at hand, and that still goes on today. But it doesn’t mean we should ever stop looking, examining, exploring. Keep investigating, my friends.