Posted by: Lara | December 9, 2012

Spiritualism and Ghost Photography

The “afterlife” is.. well, a rather controversial topic. Death is part of the human condition, it is a universal experience we cannot escape (so cheery, I know), and of course, we have absolutely no idea what happens after we die. Answers to the “what happens” question can be found virtually anywhere but the reality remains that we have no concrete facts/evidence and (likely?) never will. The nineteenth century brought all kinds of new technologies and theories. One such belief that arose was Spiritualism.

Spiritualism is defined by the OED as:

The belief that the spirits of the dead can hold communication with the living, or make their presence known to them in some way, esp. through a ‘medium’; the system of doctrines or practices founded on this belief.  [first cited in 1853]

The Spiritualist movement gained considerable popularity in the 1850. The movement attracted many believers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as a slew of skeptics, such as Harry Houdini. (Doyle and Houdini disagreed so vehemently on the subject that it cost their friendship).

Out of this movement came Ghost or Spirit photography. At the forefront was an American photography, William H. Mumler. Experimenting with the still rather new form of photography, in 1862 while taking a picture of a colleague  Mumler found that a double exposure could produce a “ghostly” image. Mumler’s “discovery” drew numerous people to his Boston studio who wished to be photographed ‘with deceased’ loved ones. (Mary Todd Lincoln was one of his famous sitters). Capitalizing on the opportunity, Mumler charged an exorbitant fee of 10 dollars a picture. People believed the photographs to be proof that spirits existed, however in 1869 Mumler was brought to court on the charge of fraud: he claimed the photographs captured the image of spirits, but was really using other live sitters or photographs. The case was eventually dropped, but Mumler’s reputation and business declined significantly.

But Mumler was not alone. Across the pond in England, Frederick Hudson and William Hope worked in the late nineteenth century into the twentieth. In France, Edouard Isidore Buguet (E.Buget) tied the ideas of channeling by photographing mediums while they were in trances.

While many images are obviously fakes, there are numerous reports that some images may actually have some grain of authenticity. Much to my surprise, Alfred Russell Wallace even speculated that some photographs could contain truths – From Spirit Photography: It’s Strange and Controversial History:

In 1891, the practice of spirit photography gained more credibility when Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-developer of the theory of evolution, spoke out with the belief that spirit photography should be studied scientifically. He later wrote about his own investigations into it and included a statement that he believed the possibility of it was real. He did not feel that just because some of the photos that had been documented were obviously fraudulent, that all of them could be dismissed as hoaxes.

Spiritualism remained popular throughout the early 20th century and still attracts people today.

Further reading and sources:
Do you Believe? ; The Mumler Mystery
Beyond the Grave: a Brief History of Spirit Photography
Met Museum: The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult
Spirit Photography: It’s Strange and Controversial History

I said I would share my ghost stories, but I figured I’d leave it up to you if you’d like to read them, it is relate as I believe – to some extent – in Spiritualism. So here you go:
Ghost Stories, Part 1: The Incidents
Ghost Stories, Part 2: Some Thoughts

Edit (12/11/12):

I also wanted to add that one of the things I find interesting/intriguing/strange about spirit photography and its reception is how the technique eventually became used heavily in film.
Superimposition (the laying over of images) and the dissolve (when one image fades into another image) are especially integrated into early film. I had my final screening for my History of Wold Cinema class on Monday. We watched the film Sunrise (1927), directed by F.W. Murnau. Basically a married farmer/country man falls for a city woman who is on vacation, the city woman tries to convince the man to not only leave his wife but to do so by drowning her. Yeah… it is a strange movie. Anyway, about 40 minutes into the movie, when the man is contemplating the murder of his wife, he thinks of the city girl, resulting in this scene:

First, the woman appears to the man’s left (our right), she drifts in the space and holds him, leaning in for a kiss. The man is imagining this, but he jerks his head his left and the vision vanishes. As he looks forward again, not one, not two, but three apparitions appear; two kissing him (though someone in my class commented that it looks like she’s eating his hair), the third is just her face, staring out (which reminded me of the billboard from The Great Gatsby). He puts his hands (in fists) on his head and she completely disappears as the scene cuts to the man’s wife.

I was so stunned by the scene, having just posted about spirit photography the night before and here, before my eyes, film was producing the same thing! I’m certain that even in 1927 folks would find the scene ghostly/eerie, Spiritualism was still popular at the time as well. I just had to share.

You can watch the whole film on youtube, but this particular scene occurs at about 30 seconds into part 3:


  1. Thank you for sharing your stories with us.

  2. I found your post and your Ghost Stories fascinating. Having lived in what was called a haunted house by previous tenants (whom my partner and I dismissed as flaky), I can say that strange phenomena can and do happen. In our case, we rented an older house in Westwood, CA. The house was built in the 1920’s and had large, open rooms that would suddenly become cold, even though nobody touched the Thermostat. We would feel chilly breezes when no windows were open. Possibly the scariest incident for me, however, was one day when I was alone. My partner had gone to his usual YMCA early-morning workout, leaving me asleep. I was awakened by the sudden opening and slamming of the kitchen door and the beeping alarm. Thinking Clay had come home early, I got up and went to greet him. He was not there. The door leading to the garage was ajar, but his car was not there. I shut off the alarm and sat huddled in the living room awaiting his return. He was skeptical of my fears and said that it had to have been merely a sudden gust of wind that blew the door open, but the garage door was down. There would have been no way for that to be the case. Several weird things happened in that house; our TV would suddenly start changing channels, then just turn off. Clay said it was a weird frequency interference from our neighbor’s house. I saw a shadow move in the hallway one night (again, I was alone; Clay was on a ski trip). My younger daughter heard a voice one night when everyone else was sound asleep. I feel crazy even writing about these incidents because very few people believe me. What we found out from a reclusive neighbor, a man who rarely talked to anybody, was that the original owners of the house had been murdered in the kitchen. Charming. Many people who lived there would tell him about weird goings-on, a lot of them centered in the kitchen. We didn’t tell him about our “hauntings.” He just offered up this tidbit as we were cutting flowers from our garden. I didn’t share our experiences with him because he was a very strange man and I didn’t want to encourage further interaction.

    I am still puzzled by what happened in that house. I want to resist believing that there was some paranormal activity going on. But I know what I experienced living there for nearly three years, and it still gives me chills.

  3. While I was looking for another image I rediscovered the work of William Hope for myself. I’d forgotten it. According to this page he didn’t begin spirit photography until 1905, but as you mention him above, I thought I’d link to these…
    I feel like his works capture spirits with particular gusto.

    And, of course, because that’s the way the internet works…
    here’s an internet-group-curated collection of spirit photography. These ones likely come from more dubious sources, but they’re fun if you’re feeling spooky.

  4. This is a very interesting topic that I would’ve loved to go over it in class as well! Although I suppose everyone had to make a living, I’m shocked that Humler would make a living capitalizing quite expensively as mentioned, on other people’s curiosity of the afterlife. This double exposure producing a “ghostly” image is an experimentation quality that is even more eerie to me than the postmortem photographs. Unlike the scenes of “sleeping” children, the “spirits” are hypervisible in these photographs. The manipulation of the people in the photograph feigning horror make me wonder if they truly believed spirits were among them, or Humler asked them to make that pose. It is also interesting that these photographs weren’t simply taken in the studio, some of them were taken outside, standing about. What really struck me what that Mary Todd Lincoln was willing to continually be a part of this experimentation, unknowingly being taken advantage of. Did she truly believe her husband’s spirit was with her? How did she react once he was exposed as a fraud? Who were these spirits supposed to be in relation to the figures. In the Mary Todd Lincoln photograph, it is obvious that we recognize the “Abraham Lincoln” spirit as he is an iconic American figure but I wonder if there was any relation to the other figures and the spirits in their photographs. Did the other figures in the photographs recognize, or believe they recognized the spirits in the other photographs as people they knew? So many questions!

    • Somewhere on one of those sites there were reports of people who sat for these photographs that the “spirits” did resemble their loved ones. I believe somewhere also mentioned that Mumler was accused (but it was not proven) of breaking into his sitter’s homes and stealing photographs of the deceased so he could manipulate the exposure.

      Mary Todd Lincoln was a believer in Spiritualism and it is possible that Abraham, to some extent, was as well. This page: , while long, has some of the history of the Lincoln’s connection with the Spiritualist movement. I think that Mary Todd believed that it was her husband, and probably did even after Mumler was “exposed.” Mumler was never actually convicted of fraud and there were other photographers that challenged his photographs and even develop Mumler’s negatives themselves to see if they really contained spirits. Supposedly some really did. (

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