William Mumler The 19th Century Spirit Photographer Who Claimed To Capture Ghosts

William Mumler: The 19th-Century ‘Spirit Photographer’ Who Claimed To Capture Ghosts

It is never in doubt that losing a loved one comes with a lot grief. As such, many would give up the world, or go to the ends of the world just to be reunited with loved ones lost. When this is not the case, humans in grief, through whatever means they can, try to feel connected to their deceased, and find ways to remember them as they try to adjust to life without them present. This said, one way humans remember their lost ones is through what is today known as ‘Spirit Photography’.

In the post-Civil War era, when many Americans were reeling from loss, a photographer claiming to capture ghosts on film enjoyed swift business.

More than 150 years later, the eerie spirit photographs taken by Boston photographer William Mumler (1832-1884) pack an emotional punch: A mourning mother is visited by the angelic silhouette of her departed daughter, the young girl resting her tiny hand on her mother’s lap; a mutton-chopped widower, his head hung in grief, is comforted by the glowing soul of his loving wife, her hands draped across his heavy shoulders.

William Mumler The 19th Century Spirit Photographer Who Claimed To Capture Ghosts 2

When spirit photography (a type of photography whose main attempt is to capture images of ghosts, as well as other spiritual entities, especially in ghost hunting) appeared in the 1860s, the United States was reeling from the Civil War, which claimed an estimated, yet astonishing 620,000 lives. Caught deep in mourning, Americans were inclined to be drawn to anyone who offered even a fleeting connection to the souls of their dearly departed. Self-proclaimed mediums performed séances (an exercise in which the living could speak with the dead) and photographers like Mumler granted the wishes of the bereaved to see their lost ones one last time.

It is never hard then, to understand why 19thcentury Americans—caught with the growing Spiritualism movement—would have believed that these photographic apparitions were real, despite high-profile skeptics like circus master P.T. Barnum decrying spirit photography as a sham.

Peter Manseau, curator of American religious history at the National Museum of American History in Smithsonian Institution, says Mumler was surely a fraud, although he is yet to figure out exactly how the photographer managed his trick. He notes however, in his book, The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, that he doesn’t discount the healing function that Spiritualism served, saying thus:

It was a genuine religious movement that meant a lot to people a time when the nation was going through mourning and loss like it had never had before.

Describing Mumler, Manseau calls the man a “kitchen tinkerer”—an amateur chemist and incurable entrepreneur who once peddled his own homemade elixir for curing dyspepsia. Trained as a silver engraver, Mumler decided to try his hand at photography, this new and extraordinarily great piece of technology that produced portraits that people would pay a whole dollar to purchase.

As reported, one of Mumler’s prints came back with an unexplainable aberration, while taking self-portraits for practice. Although he was alone in the room when the shot was taken, there appeared to be a figure at his side (a girl who was “made of light). Mumler took this photo to a spiritualist friend who to his bewilderment, confirmed that the girl in the image was almost certainly a ghost.

As Manseau states, Mumler had a special way for self-promotion and his otherworldly photo was written up in popular spiritualist newspapers like the Banner of Light, as well as the mainstream press. It wasn’t long before the people of Boston began lining up at his portrait studio to pay as much as $10 for their likeness with a loved one lost. Mumler, “sold himself as someone who could not explain what was happening or why he was chosen to take these pictures,” says Manseau. “He was as astonished as everyone else that suddenly his camera could take pictures of ghosts.”

A visitor to Mumler’s studio would be told that there’s no guarantee that a departed soul would appear. Mumler didn’t “command the spirits,” says Manseau, they “came and went as they pleased.” Again, if a photograph didn’t come out as the customer expected— say the ghost of an old woman instead of lost brother, perhaps—Mumler as reported, would help his clients search their memory for other spirits who might be eager to commune with the living. Since photography was such a new invention at the time in the mid-19th century, few people had other photos to compare with the faint, blurry images of the ghosts.

Mumler Accused of Fraud

From the start, Mumler’s spirit photography attracted skeptics. As was evident, manipulating images was a known part of the photographic art-form and other photographers were noted to have been openly experimenting with double exposures, and superimposed negatives, all of which could create the effect of Mumler’s spirit photography.

One day, veteran photographer J.W. Black of Boston arrived at Mumler’s studio demanding a demonstration. Sitting for a portrait, he carefully watched every step of Mumler’s process, including the alchemy of the dark room.

Describing this in his book, Manseau states that “Black watched as his own dark outline appeared on the glass, its form not unlike the photograph he’d had taken of himself seated with his newspaper. But then another shape began to emerge. ‘My God!’ Black said. ‘Is it possible?’” This shape took the ghostly form of a man standing behind Black’s shoulder. Was it the great photographer’s father, who died when Black was 13? Black didn’t stick around to explain. Offering to pay for the print which Mumler politely refused, Black walked back to his studio, still clasping the photograph.

Over time however, the evidence against Mumler began to mount. In one case, for example, Mumler created a spirit photograph for a woman who had recently lost her brother in the Civil War. When this brother miraculously returned home alive, things got embarrassing. Despite this, the woman put the blame on an “evil spirit” trying to deceive her, instead of accusing Mumler of creating a fraudulent photo.

In time, another case harder to dodge came up. A man visiting Mumler’s studio recognized a female ghost as his wife. This woman as reports said, was not only alive but recently had her portrait taken by Mumler. With this it became presumably obvious that Mumler was reusing old negatives and playing them off as ghosts.

At the heat of things in Boston, Mumler tried relocating to New York in 1869, where he was quickly arrested and tried for fraud. The New York prosecutors called a parade of expert witnesses who offered at least nine ways that Mumler could have used photographic trickery to produce his ghostly images.

There in New York, P.T. Barnum (a circus sensation and certified expert on “suckers”), commissioned a fake photograph of himself with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln to present as damning evidence in the trial. However, the jury remained unconvinced. It was true that there were a million ways that Mumler could have faked the photos, but no one had caught him in the act or provided substantial evidence that he used any of those methods. Also, the defense cast doubt in the minds of the jury about the presumed limits of photographic technology.

As Manseau put it, “the defense argued that human ingenuity can do all these things that a generation ago would have seemed like sheer magic. How can we say that photography cannot do this, too?”

Mumler’s Next Invention: Newsprint Photography

Aquitted, Mumler returned to Boston, but shied away from spirit photography. refocusing his efforts on the chemistry of photo development and eventually invented a technique called the “Mumler process” which allowed the first photographs to be printed on newsprint, therefore transforming the practice of journalism. Acknowledging him, Manseau in his ‘Meet Mr. Mumler, the Man Who “Captured” Lincolns Ghost on Camera’ article, says that “Mumler would eventually usher in a new era in which newspapers entered the picture business. Not only did photographs become ubiquitous, they emerged standard of proof for whatever or not something had actually happened.” He adds that even those who hoped to prove Mumler a fraud “might have appreciated the irony; a likely falsifier of images played a pivotal role in the creation of the image obsessed culture that still defines the nation.”

Before Mumler hung up his hat for good as the world’s most famous spirit photographer, he welcomed none other than Mary Todd Lincoln (wife to Abraham Lincoln) into his Boston studio, five years after her husband’s assassination in 1865. Despite the accusations of fraud against Mumler and other spiritual mediums, Americans like this former First Lady, still deep in mourning, wanted to believe.

Mumler’s famous portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln shows the widow dressed all in black, her small hands clasped on her lap, while behind her stands the tall, slender, bearded apparition of her late husband. “It was the last photo taken of her in her life,” Manseau says. “No one could dissuade her that it did not mean that Abraham Lincoln was still by her side.”


Manseau, P. (2017, October 10). Meet Mr. Mumler, the Man Who “Captured” Lincolns Ghost on Camera. Retrieved January 15, 2020, from Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/meet-mr-mumler-the-man-who-captured-lincolns-ghost-on-camera-180965090/

Ogden, T. (1999). The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ghosts and Hauntings. Alpha Books.

Ross, D. (2019, October 17). Whena 19th-Century ‘Spirit Photographer’ Claimed to Capturen Ghosts Through His Lens. Retrieved January 15, 2020, from History: https://history.com/news/spirit-photography-civil-war-william-mumler





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