Posted by: helenabeliveau | November 18, 2018

William Mumler and the Spirit Photography Phenomenon

In aligning with last week’s discussion on Julia Margaret Cameron’s aestheticization of portrait photography, which marked a major departure from many portrait photographer ’s initial intents to solely capture the ‘real’, I decided to look at another form of photographic manipulation.  However this manipulation, in contrast to Cameron’s explicit manipulation, was prominently marketed to clients as capturing the ‘real.’ The advent of spirit photography allowed families to have a tangible representation of a deceased loved one who may have passed away before they had a chance to sit a portrait.  Spirit photography, in turn, played on many Victorian peoples strong spiritual beliefs and saturated a society where many people had lost loved ones unexpectedly.

Because the camera was a relatively new and explosive invention, its particularities were shrouded in mystery, and the fact that one object could capture a specific ‘real’ moment in time was so technologically unfathomable to ordinary people that it could be considered a work of magic.  The ‘ghost photograph’, however, was fairly simple to create, and was initially created by accident. These photographs were, “a result of the long exposures required by the earliest photographic processes. If the subject moved during the exposure, they appeared in the finished photograph as a blurred, transparent, ghost-like figure” (Harding). Through this discovery, many enterprising photographers began to advertise the production of portraits, that would, as advertised, have a deceased loved one in the frame alongside the living sitter.  The rise of spirit photography arrived during a particularly crowded photography studio market and allowed photographers to prey on even more consumers.  More specifically, in vulnerable family members who were still in mourning.

In addition, spirit photography arose during a particular moment in American society, in the decades shortly following the Civil War.  Within the ‘spirit photography’ market in the United States, the most notorious is William Mumler. Mumler is perhaps most known for producing one of the most popular spirit photographs; a portrait of Mary Todd Lincon.  Transposed over Mary Todd Lincoln, who is clothed in a mourning veil, is the ghostly image of her late husband, Abraham Lincoln.

Mumler’s career as a spirit photographer began accidentally, as he noticed a spectral figure in one of his traditional portraits, most likely caused by a double exposure.  Nevertheless, this carte de visite became extremely popular, and he soon began charging exorbitant fees for ‘spirit photographs’, albeit under certain conditions. In attempting to convey a sense of how ‘finicky’ these spirits were, “Mumler charged $10 for a dozen photographs, or five times the going rate, with no guarantee that any spirit “extras” would appear. Often they did not, and clients had to make repeated trips to Mumler’s studio before they were blessed with a ‘presence’.”   His enterprise even expanded to a mail order service, in which clients could mail in a description of a loved one they wanted to see in a photograph, plus seven dollars and fifty cents.

Several photographers soon became extremely sceptical of Mumler’s photographs, and launched a citywide sting operation in an effort to stop Mumler’s fraudulent business practices.  Upon taking a portrait for an undercover police officer, and failing to produce the promised spirit in the photograph, he was taken into custody.  His subsequent criminal trial produced several impassioned ommissions of innocence by several clients, and he was soon set free, as the judge was unable to find any conclusive evidence that Mumler was ‘duping’ his clients.  He soon relaunched his business in Boston and found himself photographing one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s final portraits.

In looking at this image alongside our previous discussions about the amount of power held by a photographer, I am struck by how such an unethical practice appeared during such a vulnerable time in American history.  Not only did these photographers have the power to portray their clients in a certain light, but they also had the power to enforce and manipulate the beliefs of clients whose lives were impacted by intense pain and sorrow.

 mary todd lincoln

Image 1: Mary Todd Lincoln with Abraham Lincoln. Photographed by William Mumler in 1872

Works Cited:

Image 1:

Harding, Colin. “G Is for… Ghosts: The Birth and Rise of Spirit Photography.” National Science and Media Museum Blog, 17 Aug. 2018,

Piepenbring, Dan. “The Photographer Who Claimed to Capture Abraham Lincoln’s Ghost.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 27 Oct. 2017,

“The Ghost and Mr. Mumler.” HistoryNet, 24 Jan. 2018,

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