As Halloween approaches, it offers a chance to delve into the occult, phantasmagoric, otherworldly, and haunted aspects of our world. In a series of posts, we’re exploring art history that offers a portal to a darker side of culture.
In the 1860s, the veil between the living and the dead was thin. The bloody Civil War meant there were voids in almost every American community, and the rise of Spiritualism encouraged a closer religious connection between life and the afterlife. All of these factors contributed to the sudden success of William H. Mumler’s photography studio in Boston, where he claimed to capture the departed on film.
Mumler is the first known spirt photographer, but he inspired a slew of others whose popularity endured through World War I. As in the Civil War, the photographs were another indication of war’s incredible losses and meant people were in grief, and vulnerable, hoping for any connection to their lost loved one.
However, the way these photographs were made, usually with double exposures or composite images, was a known pre-digital photography trick, even before Mumler set up shop. You can find plenty of early “ghost” photographs where the novelty is evident; people draped in sheets emerge as transparencies to spook their posed friends.
Kristi Finefield at the Library of Congress notes that in 1856, Sir David Brewster was explaining the technique in his book on stereoscopic images:
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.
Nevertheless, the mournful need for these images was so strong, that people believed. Even when what appeared in their rather expensive portrait ($10 a sitting with Mumler, no small fee in 1860) was evidently a blurred anonymous visage, a cloud of light.
Alan Murdie, chairman of the London-based Ghost Club, stated that English priest and medium William Stainton Moses had examined “over 600 alleged spirit photographs” by 1875. Moses found that there were “no more than a dozen” that were even possibly supernatural. As he put it, there are people who “would recognize a sheet and a broom as their dear departed.”
The most famous spirit photograph is likely that of Mary Todd Lincoln with her husband, the assassinated president, taken by Mumler in 1871. When Mumler finally was taken to trial for fraud (some of his “phantoms” were recognized as living Bostonians), one of his greatest critics, and a man who testified against him, was the entertainer P. T. Barnum. Barnum used his own staged photograph with Lincoln’s “ghost” to prove Mumler was nothing but a crook. Although Mumler was acquitted, his career as a conjurer was ruined.
But that wasn’t the end of spirit photography. In the solemn wake of World War I emerged William Hope from Crewe, England. Along with his “Crewe Circle” of photographers, he pulled the same tricks as Mumler, preying on despair. And Hope had his own nemesis: Harry Houdini. A strident critic of spiritualist deception, the escape artist staged his own Lincoln “ghost” photograph. One of Hope’s fans was Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who even penned a book in Hope’s defense. The disagreement between Houdini and Doyle on the subject of spirit photography left their friendship in tatters.
These are just two of the major figures in a photography movement that had numerous practitioners. Medium and artist Georgiana Houghton was photographed with spirits; the Scottish brothers Craig and George Falconer included medium photography in their early 20th-century performances. The ghosts appear differently, as full faces, as veils, as strange clouds of “ectoplasm,” or trails of light. At the turn of the century, technology already created almost supernatural sights, such as the first X-rays captured in 1895. These photographs of the dead are both a record of longing for someone who will never return, and a belief in the power of photography.