Ghosts in the machine

The story behind the world’s first spirit photos

Created date

September 13th, 2018
In this "ghost image" a man reads while surrounded by three “spirits.”

In this "ghost image" a man reads while surrounded by three “spirits.”

On a warm Sunday morning in August of 1862, William Mumler found himself alone in a Boston, Mass., photo studio. A jewelry engraver by trade, Mumler knew very little about the emerging art of photography, but he was smitten with Hannah Green Stuart, owner of the studio, so he happily volunteered to organize her darkroom chemicals and check the focus of her massive camera.

Mumler had spent considerable time observing Stuart as she photographed her clients, so once the studio was in order, he decided to try his luck at picture taking.

With the sun’s rays streaming in through a large skylight, Mumler prepared a photographic plate and focused the lens. He removed a piece of wood to allow light to enter the camera, then quickly positioned himself in front of the lens doing his best to remain as still as possible during the minute-long exposure time.

Next, he proceeded to the darkroom to develop his very first photograph. As the image emerged, Mumler was taken aback. He must have made some sort of mistake because the photo showed Mumler beside a wispy image of a girl sitting in a chair that had been empty all morning.

Mumler concluded that he may not have cleaned the glass plate well enough, but when he showed the image to Stuart, she came to an entirely different conclusion. Not only was Stuart a photographer, she also worked as a psychic, leading her to believe that Mumler had captured an otherwise unseeable image of a spirit.

News travels

Stuart shared the photograph with a prominent Boston spiritualist who saw it as proof that spirits were real. He asked to borrow the photo to share with his associates. Before he left, he instructed Mumler to write down his technique on the back of the print.

Mumler wrote, “This photograph was taken of myself, by myself, on Sunday, when there was not a living soul in the room beside me.”

Not only did Gardner share the remarkable photo with his associates, he shared it with a reporter from a prominent New York City newspaper who wrote a lengthy article about the image.

Next, Banner of Light, a prominent spiritualist publication, reprinted the article adding the name and address of the photo studio where the image originated.

Initially, Mumler was mortified. He was not one of the many Americans captivated by the Spiritualist Movement that was sweeping the nation.

Naturally, as a practicing medium, Stuart was delighted by the attention. It didn’t hurt that her studio’s waiting room was crowded with customers willing to pay $10 (about $300 today) for their own spirit photo.

Civil War

Shortly after Mumler took that first spirit photograph, the country found itself in the midst of the Civil War. As the casualty count mounted, devastated families sought out ways to contact their dearly departed.

The sheer number of people in mourning most certainly fueled the Spiritualist Movement. Eager to make contact with their deceased loved ones, people held séances and turned to psychics and mediums for guidance.

To capitalize on the tremendous demand for spirit photos, Mumler and Stuart—who had married by this time—moved to New York City.

To accommodate those who couldn’t make it to their studio, the Mumlers started accepting mail orders. Customers could send them $10 and a brief description of the person they sought to contact. In return, Mumler would send them their very own spirit photo.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the so-called spirit photos. Photography experts were dispatched to uncover the ruse they were certain Mumler was perpetrating. They observed every step of Mumler’s process, from the sitting to the development of the image, but no one could identify how Mumler captured the departed.

Charged with fraud

Business at the studio continued to surge until patrons started to recognize the “ghosts” that appeared in their photos as people who were still very much alive.

In April of 1861, Mumler was charged with fraud and held in the city’s notorious jail known as “the Tombs.”

Among those testifying against Mumler was none other than showman P.T. Barnum. (Despite the fact that Barnum operated Barnum’s American Museum, an institution that displayed a purported mermaid and other questionable exhibits, he was vocal and voracious in his attempt to expose fraud perpetrated by others.)

In the end, no one could find any proof of Mumler’s deception and he was acquitted. Seeking a fresh start, the Mumlers moved back to Boston.

Mrs. Lincoln

In 1872 Mary Todd Lincoln, still grieving from the loss of her husband, paid a visit to Mumler’s studio. The result was an image that became Mumler’s most significant work. It shows Mrs. Lincoln, dressed in dark clothes staring almost defiantly into the lens as the ghostly image of her husband rests his transparent hands on her shoulders.

Before he died in 1884, Mumler destroyed all his negatives leaving only the prints for future generations to marvel at.

Though photo experts consider Mumler’s photos to be a hoax, he never revealed how he did it.   

For more information, look for The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost by Peter Manseau (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).