Spirit photography

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: spirit photography.
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 collection.

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 in Cheshire (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 joyful apparition.
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.