In the mid-1800s, the development of exciting new forms of communication, like photography and the telegraph, was considered miraculous. This technology also coincided with a new religious movement becoming popular in the US and Europe: spiritualism. Spiritualists believed that, through the use of a medium, contact with the dead was possible. During the bloody American Civil War (1861-1865), belief in spiritualism grew.
It was during this time that William Mumler, an amateur photographer in Boston, claimed he could photograph ghosts. He and his wife Hannah, herself a professional photographer and spiritualist medium, created a stir in Boston by selling these “spirit portraits,” and attracted the attention of skeptics and fellow spiritualists alike. Professional photographers in Boston investigated Mumler’s method again and again but couldn’t figure out how he did his trick.
After accusations of fraud piled up in Boston, the Mumlers relocated to New York City, then considered the photography capital of the US. Here, Mumler was quickly arrested on fraud charges, and his trial was sensationalized in New York newspapers. The prosecution even brought in circus showman P.T. Barnum to testify against Mumler. But, like the photographers in Boston, no one could unequivocally identify his method. Mumler was acquitted.
After the trial, the Mumlers’ spirit photography business boomed. They photographed prominent Americans, including Mary Todd Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison, and even took mail-in orders from people who couldn’t travel to their studio. We visited photographic process historian Mark Osterman to demonstrate how Mumler could have used two negatives, printed simultaneously with a bit of sleight of hand, to fool witnesses into believing his “ghosts” were the real thing.
Darkroom is a history and photography series that anchors each episode around a single image. Analyzing what the photo shows (or doesn’t show) provides context that helps unravel a wider story. Watch previous episodes here.
- The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, by Louis Kaplan
- The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, by Peter Manseau
- “Helen F. Stuart and Hannah Frances Green: The Original Spirit Photographer,” by Felicity T.C. Hamer
- The Getty Museum’s collection of Mumler’s spirit photographs
- Archive of Banner of Light and other spiritualist newspapers
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