October 12, 2013

The Spirit Photos of William Mumler

Have you ever seen a horror movie where someone holds a seance in a haunted house? Have you ever played with a Ouija board? If you answered yes to at least one of those, then you have some idea of what Spiritualism is. 

Started in upstate New York in 1848 by sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, Spiritualism claims that the spirits of the departed communicate with the living to give advice and inspiration. Certain people, called mediums, are more attuned to the spirit world and can communicate easily with the departed. For those of us not so gifted, the spirits are more likely to manifest as rapping sounds, movements on a Ouija board, and suddenly extinguished candles.

In the 1860s, Spiritualism swept across the United States like a ghostly wildfire. Hundreds of thousands had been killed in the Civil War, and Americans longed to hear that death was not the end. Spiritualism filled an aching need in the country's heart.

One problem with Spiritualism, though, was that it was so ephemeral. Rapping noises and messages delivered through an entranced medium were nice, but wouldn't it be better to have concrete proof that your deceased loved one was still with you?

William Mumler, a Boston jeweler, was able to provide that proof. He could give you a photo.

There was of course a price. Customers would pay $10 for a dozen photos, a high price for the time, and with no guarantee the spirits would appear. Sometimes they didn't, but when they did the results were pretty spectacular. Look at this photo:

Photo from the American Photography Museum.

Mumler's customers were generally satisfied with the results, even if the spirits in the photos didn't exactly look like their relatives. The veil between the worlds was hazy, and the spirits themselves were perfected and changed in the Summerland where they dwelt on the other side. No wonder they looked a little vague when captured on film.

Skeptical Bostonians argued that Mumler's photos were faked. Was it merely coincidence, they said, that the spirits photographed were usually the same ones that customers had told Mrs. Mumler about while in the studio's waiting room? Local pundit Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a pointed essay about how easy it was double-expose film, but faithful Spiritualists ignored the criticism and continued to patronize Mumler.

Photo from the American Photography Museum.
That is, until they began to notice that the spirits in the photos looked suspiciously like people still living in Boston. Feeling the heat, Mumler fled Boston for New York and set up a new studio. Things seemed to be going well in the new state until he was arrested and put on trial for fraud. 

Amazingly, he was found not guilty. A string of professional photographers testified they had watched him in the studio and saw no trickery. Many of satisfied customers also took the stand, claiming the spirits in their photos were indeed their dearly departed. If his customers were happy, the defense lawyers said, how could there be fraud?

Mumler returned to Boston after being released, and despite a tarnished reputation set up a small studio at his mother's house in the South End. A small trickle of clients continued to patronize him, including one woman dressed in black who refused to lift her veil until the camera was ready. She had been tricked before and didn't want to be tricked again. She wanted Mumler to prove he was the real thing.

Mumler produced the following photo for her:

Photo from Wikipedia.

The woman was Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's widow. I think you can guess who the spirit is. This is probably the last photo taken of Mrs. Lincoln before her death in 1882.

Mumler himself died in 1884. Shortly before passing away, he burned all his negatives.

You can find a lot more about William Mumler on the web. In particular I found this essay to be very informative.

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