Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography

Stories of ghosts and strange encounters with otherworldly beings have always held a place within history. With the invention of the camera, our dearly departed found themselves entwined with the history of photography too. The first examples of spirit photography can be traced back to the mid-19th century when photographers first began to experiment with new techniques such as stereoscopic images and double exposure. One such early pioneer was William H. Mumler, who is widely credited as taking the first spirit photographs. An enterprising amateur photographer, he set up shop in Boston in the early 1860’s and began the lucrative business of capturing the dead on film.

It wasn’t long before Mumler was joined by other “gifted” photographers who for a pricey fee (approximately $150 – $200) would capitalize on people’s hope that their loved ones were still present.  Of Mumler’s many customers, the most famous was Mary Tod Lincoln, the grieving widow of President Abraham Lincoln who had been assassinated five years previously. The resulting portrait would soon become one of the most famous and well-known examples of spirit photography.

Related: Speaking with Spirits: The Fox Sisters and the Birth of Spiritualism

It’s said Mary Todd Lincoln wept upon receiving the portrait, and for the growing numbers of ardent believers, this was proof of the existence of the afterlife. Mumler for his part, simply claimed that while the human eye couldn’t see spirits, the camera could. And Mumler’s fans believed him, but all was not as it appeared to be.

Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
One of the earliest pioneers of spirit photography, William H. Mumler most famous image purportedly showing Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband, Abraham Lincoln, c. 1872
To capture a spirit

As William Mumler’s client list grew, so did his critics. The general consensus seemed to be that Mumler had inserted previously prepared glass plates featuring images of the deceased, which he then used to photograph his clients. Some critics even claimed that Mumler had gone so far as to break into homes of his customers to steal photos of their deceased relatives. While others said the spirits contained in his photos were, in fact, people who were very much alive.

Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
Bronson Murray in a Trance with the Spirit of Ella Bonner, taken by William Mumler c. 1872. Image credit – The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
Mr Tinkham (in photograph on table) with spirit wife and baby, taken by William Mumler c. 1875. Image credit – The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

After gaining considerable fame and fortune, Mumler’s downfall came when he was put on trial for fraud. Despite damning evidence and expert testimonies that his photographs were nothing more than clever acts of trickery, he was acquitted of all charges. However, Mumler’s credibility and career as a spirit photographer was over. But the story of spirit photography was not.

The judge at Mumler’s  trial told the courtroom of his skepticism of spirit photography, however, he also admitted that no one had actually proven how Mumler produced his “spirits”. The mystery of Mumler’s methods remained and the growing popularity for spiritualism proved to be fertile ground for others to build upon Mumler’s legacy.

Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
Elderly couple with a young female spirit, taken by William Hope, c. 1920
The art of William Hope

After the American Civil War and by the end of World War One interest in spirit photography had reached an all-time high. With millions grieving over those lost in both wars, the hunger to be reunited with loved ones was in demand. And into the spiritual spotlight stepped Englishman William Hope. Already established in spirit photography, Hope formed the Crewe Circle, a group of six “gifted” spirit photographers. Together, the Crewe Circle created photograph after photograph and circulated them to the masses.

Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
A clergyman and two spirits, taken by William Hope c. 1920
Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
Couple with a female spirit, taken by William Hope c. 1920
Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
Man surrounded by signs of spirit presence, taken by William Hope c. 1920

Much like his predecessor, Hope and his associates were continuously plagued by claims of fraud. A leading voice from Hope’s most damning critics was that of paranormal investigator Harry Price, a key member of the Society for Psychical Research. In 1922 Price began investigating and soon concluded that Hope’s spirit photos were nothing but fakes. Price was convinced that the Crew Circle had used double exposed glass plates, the same method of trickery William Mumler had used. On publishing his damning findings Price exposed Hope as a fraud, however, it was not enough to end Hope’s career.

Related: 10 Most Famous Ghost Pictures Ever Taken

The Crew Circle meanwhile had gained a significant number of supporters, which included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the author of the Sherlock Holmes series. Doyle refused to believe the spirit photos were fake, and he was not alone. Despite Price’s report, Hope continued to ply his trade of spirit photography and mediumship until he died in 1933.

Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
A séance shows a ghostly arm levitating the table, taken by William Hope c. 1920
Communicating with spirits

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as spirit photography blossomed in popularity so had the belief in Spiritualism. In drawing rooms and parlors across America and Europe people held séances in the hopes of communicating with the other side. Usually, a medium would act as a conduit delivering messages from spirits and the dearly departed. Mediums would also demonstrate the physical presence of spirits in the room by ringing bells, levitating objects and perhaps most visually shocking, the emission of a supernatural phenomenon called ectoplasm.

Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
A photograph of Mrs Bentley, once the President of the British Spiritualists Lyceum Union, taken by Wylie, c. 1920
Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
Canadian medium Mary Ann Marshall and her fake ectoplasm made from cloth, tissue, and magazine cut outs.
Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
A medium producing ectoplasm manifestation, taken by Albert Freiherr von Schrenck-Notzing a German physician, psychiatrist and notable psychical researcher.

Albert von Schrenck-Notzing a German psychiatrist and physician became fascinated with phenomena of ectoplasm. He studied the medium Marthe Beraud for over a decade documenting her otherworldly manifestations. In America, spiritualist medium Mina Stinson Crandon, a favorite of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, became so popular that her prayers were read by the U.S. Army.

Related: Memento Mori: The Macabre Victorian Art of Death Photography

In 1924, Crandon was submitted as a candidate for a prize of $10,000 offered by Scientific American to any psychic who could successfully demonstrate their ability. The famous illusionist and committee member Harry Houdini soon exposed the mechanics of her trickery during a séance. Around the same time, Canadian medium Mary Ann Marshall who had also found fame from photos of her exhuming ectoplasm from her nose was also exposed as a fraud, using cloth, tissue, and magazine cut-outs of people to create the fake ectopalsm.

Echoes of the Past: The Strange History of Spirit Photography
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, taken by Captain Hubert C. Provand in 1936
One in a Million

As the credibility of spirit photography and Spiritualism waned under the weight of fakeries and fraudsters there came a photograph that seemed to have captured the impossible. Taken in 1937 by Captain Hubert C. Provand during a photo shoot for Country Life magazine in the Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England. Provand appeared to have captured a ghostly apparition standing on the building’s main staircase. Subsequently named the Brown Lady, the spirit is said to be Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726), the sister of the first Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Just as with William Mumler’s  first spirit portraits, believers of the supernatural rejoiced claiming that this was clear scientific proof of the existence of ghosts. Harry Price even came to investigate the photograph and declared it to be genuine. But as is part of the course for spirit photography, the Brown Lady image also came with its fair share of detractors who said the image was nothing more than the product of being shaken during exposure, which caused the abnormality.

Today, it’s conservatively estimated that over 15 trillion photos are taken each year, and ghost photos remain as popular as ever with strange, seemingly unexplainable phenomena captured on cameras popping up on the internet daily. It seems that nothing can be certain when it comes to the spiritual realms. In a world full of believers and skeptics alike, can there ever be such a thing as definitive proof?  Of course, while spirit photography, for the most part, is regarded as nothing more than a hoax, the photographs and the stories behind them remain fascinating artifacts of a past full of longing and a need for answers to what happens when we die and what comfort can be had by those who are left behind.

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