The Ghost Photography Craze

Oct 31, 2018

In the early 1860s, William Mumler, a young and enterprising Boston engraver that dabbled in photography, claimed to have captured the spirit of a deceased relative while developing a photograph. It unleashed one of the odder epochs in the relatively short history of photography: the age of ghost photography.

Mumler had stumbled into a phenomenal business opportunity, and much of it had to do with timing.

Spiritualism in the 1860s was mainstream. People across the country believed that the deceased could be summoned with séances, mediums and clairvoyants. Mary Todd Lincoln, a prominent spiritualist, was communicating with spirits in the White House.

At the same time, the American Civil War was raging, and grieving relatives of soldiers killed in battle, many of them quite young, were looking for anything that might comfort them. Mumler’s business boomed and soon he was doing nothing from morning to night but taking spirit photographs, as he called them.

But not everyone was happy with his sudden success.

Photography in the 1860s was still quite new, and the number of practitioners was still relatively small. That meant photographers were incredibly competitive. Jealous of Mumler’s success, numerous photographers and investigators visited his studio to investigate his methods and prove, they hoped, that he was a fraud.

Yet they were forced to concede that his results were legitimate. Soon Mumler was providing mail-order service. All you had to do was send him seven dollars and fifty cents and a description of the spirit you wished for him to summon.

Then it all came crashing down.

A passer-by of Mumler’s studio noticed something odd in one of his spirit photographs. The spirit was his wife, who has still alive and who had posed for Mumler years before he’d taken his supernatural turn.

Mumler fled Boston for New York, slipping into relative obscurity to escape prosecution in the later 1860s, though he briefly appeared to fulfil a request for a high-profile client: Mary Todd Lincoln. Mumler’s picture shows an ethereal President Lincoln resting his hands over the shoulders of the seated First Lady.

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