P.T. Barnum and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln
The first daguerreotype was marketed in 1839. Around ten years after
the emergence of photography,
the spiritualist movement was born in the small town of Hydesville
(New York). It did not take long for these two events to find common ground:
However, it was not until the start of the American Civil War in 1861
that a photographer by the name of William
H. Mumler took a picture of himself and then 'discovered' a
ghost on the print. It wasn't long before high
prices were being commanded for photo sessions at which the client could
have himself photographed in the company of the dead. These kinds of
swindles always do well in time of war, with the con man taking
advantage of the emotional turmoil of families who have lost someone dear
to them. In those days, subjects posing for a photograph had to
remain perfectly still for a full 60 seconds.
While the subject was sitting still, one of William Mumler's assistants, dressed in a
robe or sheet, would slip in behind the subject, stand there for
around 20 seconds and slip back out again. The result was a faint,
ghostly apparition on the daguerreotype. He also used the principle of
double exposure and other tricks to create his special effects.
His most celebrated customer was Mary Todd
Lincoln, the widow of US President Abraham Lincoln (assassinated at Ford's
Theater in 1865) and a well-known spiritualist. The photo below is from the Lloyd Ostendorf
In 1869, Mumler was taken to court in New York City
to determine whether he should be charged with fraud. The debate lasted
seven days; one of the witnesses called on Mumler's behalf was a
judge who was passionately interested in spiritualism. The witnesses
against him included Phileas T. Barnum. Even though Barnum was a leading expert in swindles and cons, he felt that at least his audiences
got their money's worth when they went to his shows.
Barnum - well known for being able to gain publicity from
anything - submitted to the court a photograph of himself standing next
to the ghost of Abraham
Lincoln, who had been assassinated a few years previously. Harper's Weekly
covered the case in great detail and published Mumler's photos on its front
page. In the end the judge decided that the case was inadmissible
because even if fraud had taken place, the indictment had not been able
to demonstrate it. Mumler was released. Both sides declared victory, but Mumler
was ruined by his lawyers' costs ($3,000, a fortune at that time) and
the negative publicity against him.
One of Mumler's photos dating from 1868 and entitled
Mrs French of Boston with Spirit Son
By the 1890s spirit photography had become common practice. While
certain tricks were still being used and strange reflections on the film
could give the impression of being apparitions, there were still some
instances that were never explained.
The most famous of these unexplained cases was the photo of Lord Combermere
published in 1895. Taken in December 1891 by Miss Sybell Corbett at Combermere's Abbey
(England), no explanation has yet been found for what it depicts.
The photo was taken with a one-hour exposure in the
manor's library. Although nobody was in the room, one can see an old man
sitting in the armchair on the left of the photo. He looks like Lord Combermere,
who had been killed in a road accident in London and buried that same day.
The surge of publicity surrounding the
photo attracted the attention of Sir William Barrett from the Society
of Psychical Research. After initially dismissing it under the assumption
that it could simply have been the result of the unwitting presence of a
servant, Barrett changed his mind and said he was unable to find a rational
explanation for the apparition.
One of the most famous spirit photographs of the 20th century is the
photo of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall (Norfolk, England),
taken in September 1936 by photographer Indre Shira.
Hired by Lady Townsend of Raynham Hall to take a series of photographs
of the home for publication in Country Life magazine,
Shira was setting up his photographic equipment along with his assistant
when he thought he saw a "vaporous shape that gradually took the form of
a woman wearing a shroud" moving down the enormous staircase in the
house. He took a picture, despite the fact that his assistant, Captain Provand,
did not see anything and assumed that his boss was hallucinating.
He changed his mind when, once the photo was developed, the form was
visible to the naked eye. Experts who have examined the photograph have
been unable to find any sign of trickery.
The apparition is thought to be the ghost of Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726,
sister of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole), who once lived in Raynham Hall. She officially died of smallpox at the age of 40 after
living a cloistered life in the home following a scandalous love affair (before
and during her marriage) with Lord Wharton. She may have been pushed
down the stairs and broken her neck. Some say that she wanders through
the house seeking her husband and the five children from which she was
so suddenly separated. The ghost of Lady Dorothy
Walpole also haunts Sandringham House in the form of a younger, more
Such photos - for instance the photo of Corroboree Rock
taken by the Reverend Blance, and the Newby Church photo - are regularly published in
magazines around the world, reviving the old controversy. We urge you to
take a look at the photo of Beersel Castle (part of the Surnateum
collection) and to judge for yourself.
The personnel of the Surnateum invite you to visit our collection of spirit photos.
Slides and glass plates were used at lectures given in favour of or against
spiritualism, much like the lectures Harry Houdini gave in his crusade
against phony mediums.