Immersed in death and sorrow, 1860s America was fertile ground for a man who claimed the power to photograph spirits.
A woman of dark mystery appeared at William Mumler’s Boston studio in 1871 to have her photograph taken. Attired in mourning, she gave the well- known photographer a false name and kept her faced concealed behind a black veil. “I requested her to be seated, went into my darkroom and coated a plate,” Mumler said four years later in his autobiography. “When I came out I found her seated with her veil still over her face. I asked if she intended to have her picture taken with her veil. She replied, ‘When you are ready, I will remove it.’ ” She was used to dealing with mediums and knew how to prevent their tricks. Her dead husband had appeared to her at a séance while she was in Boston, and now she wanted her picture with him. Mumler would later claim that he did not recognize her until the negative had been developed, which revealed Mary Todd Lincoln embraced by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.
Shattered by her husband’s assassination and the loss of three of her four sons, dead before their 18th birthdays, Mary Lincoln cleaved to spiritualism, the belief that spirits of the dead can be contacted through mediums. She must have been satisfied, even consoled by the image, but to the objective eye, this photograph of Mary Lincoln is a touching, if sadly preposterous, fake. Nonetheless, it was Mumler’s most famous portrait.
Mumler began his career in Boston peddling his expertise as a “medium for taking spirit photographs,” part of the growing phenomenon of spiritual manifestations introduced in 1848 by the Fox sisters of Hydesville, N.Y. Their séances, with attendant spirit rappings and table tippings, caused a sensation that had spread across the country. Boston, combining traditions of intellectual dissent with enthusiasm for transcendental philosophies, became a quasi-capital for the movement, and was attracting spiritualists from all over to the mysterious world of the “higher plane.” Coming as it did with the new era of scientific technology—the camera and photography, as well as electricity and the telegraph—people were seeing and hearing the unexplainable.
America in the 1860s was a mournful country, immersed in civil war and disease. Death leeched into everything: the filthy water, the consumptive air, the blood-soaked battlefields of the South. Cameramen such as Mathew Brady were on the battlefields, too, recording sadness and loss in black and white. Heartbroken survivors, desperate for tokens of enduring life, clutched at any straw of hope. And a spirit photograph was that straw painted to a fine, bright shine.
William Mumler’s spirit photographs stand out as one of the grand hoaxes of the period. His misguided craft—the pretended ability to capture the shadows of the dead on photographic negatives—puts him in the same “Barnum’s circus” arena as the other tricksters, hucksters and confidence men of mid-19thcentury America. Over nearly three decades, Mumler’s occult artistry made him wealthy and famous, and, as is the destiny of these affairs, it nearly destroyed him.
Like many hoaxes, the story of spirit photography begins with an accident and a joke. In 1861 Mumler was a 29-year-old jewelry engraver living in Boston who enjoyed experimenting with the nascent science of photography. In his autobiography, The Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit Photography, Mumler explained that one day, while developing a self-portrait, he noticed the mysterious form of a young girl on the negative. Mumler printed this curiosity and showed it around to friends, telling them it looked like a dead cousin. Being of “a jovial disposition, always ready for a joke,” Mumler said, he decided to jest with a spiritualist friend and pretend that his picture was a genuine impression from the world beyond. The friend fell for the gag. Soon cartes de visite of Mumler and his spirit “extra” circulated through the city, while news that the first spirit photograph had been taken appeared in The Banner of Light and other spiritualist newspapers. The spirit cousin in all likelihood was no more than the residue of an earlier negative made with the same plate, but it quickly ripened into a revelation, with Mumler, the mischievous jeweler, heralded as the oracle of the camera.
Mumler soon went into the photography business full time and opened his first studio on Washington Street in Boston. His wife, Hannah, or an assistant greeted his clients on arrival, and after some preliminary chitchat, when the clients often— and helpfully—discussed the spirits they wished to appear, they went in for the sitting. Hannah had a reputation as a clairvoyant, and she often commented about the spirits that surrounded her husband’s clients. For Mumler’s part, he was as passive as a “vacuum tube,” he explained, that glows when an electrical current is run through it—a force he then channeled into the camera. It was as simple as that.
His fees were extravagant. At the height of his success, Mumler charged $10 for a dozen photographs, or five times the going rate, with no guarantee that any spirit “extras” would appear. Often they did not, and clients had to make repeated trips to Mumler’s studio before they were blessed with a presence. “The spirits,” Mumler explained by way of justifying his price, “did not like the throng.”
Boston’s other photographers were less enchanted with Mumler the medium. James Black, famous for his aerial views of the city, assumed Mumler cheated, and he thought he knew how. Black bet Mumler $50 that he could catch him at it. He examined Mumler’s camera, plate and processing system, and even went into the darkroom with him. In his auto – biography, Mumler described Black’s astounding dis belief when a ghostlike image emerged on the negative. “Mr. B., watching with wonder-stricken eyes…exclaimed, ‘My God! Is it possible?’”
The technical question of how Mumler’s pictures were made was the subject of great speculation. In an 1863 essay for Atlantic Monthly, Oliver Wendell Holmes, himself an avid photographer, not only gave step-by-step instructions on how to obtain a double exposure (“An appropriate background for these pictures is a view of the asylum for feeble-minded persons…and possibly, if the penitentiary could be introduced, the hint would be salutary”), but also contemplated the popularity of Mumler’s pictures.
“Mrs. Brown, for instance, has lost her infant, and wishes to have its spirit-portrait taken,” Holmes wrote. “It is enough for the poor mother, whose eyes are blinded with tears, that she sees a print of drapery like an infant’s dress, and a rounded something, like a foggy dumpling, which will stand for a face.”
Holmes, a Bostonian and an intimate of Black, almost certainly had Mumler’s dubious shapes in mind when he penned those lines. While many of Mumler’s spirits indeed fail the “foggy dumpling” test, they are in general less theatrical than the sheet-draped stage spooks that haunt most 19thcentury spirit pictures. Instead the apparitions in a
Mumler photograph have human features, silky gestures and misty, entwining forms—up to the point where they melt away. They are spirits, not ghosts, and in that gentle difference lay the secret of Mumler’s success. Mumler depicted what spiritualists believed—that the afterlife was a paradise, a “summerland” with its own schools, farms and intimate relationships, exalted and deathless. The spirits in a Mumler picture are just people—if now more radiant—right down to their coiffure, their flowers, their clinginess and their clothes.
Business in Boston fell off for Mumler, however, as his apparitions were called hoaxes. There had been censure, too. Even prominent spiritualists had been stunned to discover that some of Mumler’s photographic spirits were in fact people still very much alive. Letters to newspapers in Boston publicized these double-exposures, and Mumler’s reputation suffered. The spirit photographer confessed nothing, but with business going bad, it was time for him to get out of town.
Mumler relocated to New York in 1868 and found work in one of the many photographic studios clustered on Broadway. “It is now some eight years since I commenced to take these remarkable pictures, and thousands…bear testimony to the truthful likeness of their spirit friends they have received through my mediumistic power,” Mumler rhapsodized in a promotional pamphlet. “What joy to the troubled heart! What balm to the aching breast!…To know that our friends who have passed away can return and give us unmistakeable evidence of a life hereafter.”
Mumler applied a lot of balm. By early 1869, he was the best-known practitioner of spirit photography in New York. He had taken roughly 500 photographs and bought a studio at 630 Broadway. It was there that he photographed a Wall Street financier named Charles Livermore.
Livermore, himself a spiritualist, had been sent by the New York Sun as part of a team of investigators preparing a report on the photographer. Looking for the trick, he sat as still as a statue before the camera lens while Mumler counted off the seconds on his watch. With a flourish, Mumler replaced the lens cap and delicately retrieved the glass negative. In his dark closet, he floated the negative in a toxic bath to develop and fix the image.
Livermore observed as his features slivered in black traces through the white collodion that waxed the negative. Then, wondrously, another form etched into the glass, this one behind him, embracing him. He had been skeptical at first, but now, as he watched Mumler’s every move, he believed. Out of the emptiness, his dead wife returned to him. Her spirit seized him. Here, for all the critics and the skeptics, was the picture, here was the proof.
On March 16, 1869, another gentleman entered No. 630 Broadway. He introduced himself as William Bowditch and asked Mumler for a portrait with a dead relative. When he paid for his photograph but failed to see the spirit promised him, Bowditch pulled off his own act of revelation: He was, in fact, Joseph Tooker, New York City marshal, working undercover—the sharp end of an elaborate police sting being run against Mumler, courtesy of the office of the mayor, A. Oakey Hall.
Earlier in the month, a science editor at World newspaper had approached Mayor Hall with complaints against Mumler made by members of the Photographic Section of the American Institute of the City of New York (PSAI), a society of reputable photographers dedicated to advancing the science of photography. Seeking to keep the medium truthful, and realizing the medium’s power, the society had expressed outrage against Mumler and demanded action.
Tooker’s men arrested Mumler on April 12 for “swindling credulous persons by what he called spirit photographs,” and, in a cruel stroke of irony for the world’s first spirit photographer, Mumler was incarcerated in New York’s most infamous prison: the Tombs.
“Spiritualism in Court,” “A Stupendous Fraud,” “The Alleged Spirit Photograph Swindle”—the New York papers swarmed over the news of Mumler’s arrest, their sensational headlines blaring like trumpets. “The intensity of the interest manifested by the public in this case has perhaps never been surpassed in reference to any criminal investigation in this city,” exclaimed the New York Daily Tribune. On April 21, Judge Joseph Dowling opened the Court of Special Sessions, the police court for the Tombs, with a preliminary hearing into Mumler’s case. He would listen to counsel for both sides, weigh up the evidence and, if the facts warranted, put the case to the grand jury.
No members of the public displayed greater interest in the trial than the many spiritualists who filled the courtroom in support of Mumler. Newspapers had a field day describing their odd demeanor and appearances. The New York Times jibed that the women, “worn down” in their study of “ethereal essences,” and the men “with sickly sentimental eyes, and cavernous, lantern-jawed physiognomies,” seemed to “fill the room with a cold and clammy atmosphere.” For the press, as for the prosecution, William Mumler would be only a symbol of the trial’s real accused: the modern spiritualist movement.
As the spectators settled into their places, prosecutor Elbridge T. Gerry rose and opened the trial by calling Marshal Tooker to the stand. Tooker deftly related his experience purchasing spirit photographs from Mumler, and then, apparently satisfied that Tooker’s statement was definitive for the purposes of an indictment, Gerry rested for the prosecution.
Mumler had assembled a crack defense team for the hearing, led by an aggressive lawyer named John D. Townsend. The first witnesses Townsend called were photographers, all of whom had keenly scrutinized Mumler at work in his studio without detecting any chicanery. Townsend then summoned to the stand a parade of Mumler’s clients. One by one, these heartsore people testified in defense of their oracle, clutching their spirit photographs, which were shown to the courtroom and entered into evidence.
Charles Livermore testified that it was indeed his wife in his photographs, an identification with which all of his friends agreed. “I went there with my eyes open, as a skeptic,” Livermore said. He had tried to outwit Mumler: He made an appointment for a sitting on a Tuesday, but went on Monday, “to disconcert him. [I] suddenly changed my position so as to defeat any arrangement he might have made….I was on the lookout all the while.” The two pictures of Livermore and his ghost wife appeared in the May 8, 1869, edition of Harper’s Weekly, which covered the trial and ran nine engravings of Mumler’s photos on its frontpage.
Judge John Edmonds, a former justice of the New York Supreme Court, astonished the assembled by testifying that not only could he see the dead, but he also often conversed with them during trials, when they assisted with his decisions. He told the court that he was satisfied with his pictures, as the spirits were “charmingly pretty.”
Perhaps the most heart-rending testimonial came from Luthera Reeves, who identified the spirit in her picture as a son she had lost. Her boy, she explained, had suffered from the same curvature of the spine as the spirit. It must be him.
With these witnesses, Townsend opened a gaping sinkhole at the prosecution’s feet: How could Mumler be accused of cheating people who clearly claimed to see their loved ones in his pictures?
Realizing now that the prosecution had rested too soon and could not rely solely on Tooker’s testimony to prove Mumler a fraud, prosecutor Gerry reopened his case. Gerry summoned his own battery of photographers, each of whom laboriously explained how using double exposures, costumed confederates, trick lenses and other arcane, but purely mechanical, devices, Mumler created his apparitions.
“A transparent lie on its face,” declared one photographer, examining Charles Livermore’s picture, explaining how Livermore cast a shadow in one direction, while his wife’s spirit shadow slanted in the other, an affect which could only be achieved with two different light sources. The images must have been made separately. It was either a double exposure or a manipulated negative. And why should an ethereal vapor cast a shadow anyway?
Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Bar – num was called as a witness for the prosecution and was his own greatest exhibition. As the country’s leading wizard of sham and spectacle, his appearance in the courtroom was a showstopper. A sort of expert on the artful deceptions popularly known as “humbugs,” Barnum had re cently published an exposé on spiritualism, excoriating its leading adherents as “blasphemous mountebanks and impostors.” In this same book, Barnum described his purchase some years before of spirit photographs, which he displayed in his museum. Now Barnum testified that the man he had purchased those pictures from was none other than William Mumler. In letters they exchanged, Barnum claimed, Mumler had essentially confessed his pictures were fakes. Alas, Barnum said, the letters were lost when his museum burned down in 1865.
Defense attorney Townsend’s cross-examination of Barnum was character assassination leavened with bursts of pure farce. “He is a man who smells of fraud in the very nostrils of the people of New York,” Townsend said. When Barnum could not produce any of the letters he had purportedly received from Mumler, Town – send accused Barnum of lying. He also declared that Barnum, the purveyor of such dubious curiosities as the “Feejee mermaid” and “the woolly horse,” was an even greater “humbugger” than simple William Mumler. Barnum responded testily that he did not display anything that did not give people their money’s worth “four times over.”
As the trial twisted its way through this catacomb of fantasy and despair, Mumler remained a “calm and fathomless” presence in the courtroom, with “a face which one would scarcely be able to believe in at first sight.” On May 3, the photographer rose for the first time to address the court. Again, he confessed nothing: “I positively assert that in taking the pictures, I have never used any trick or device, or availed myself of any deception or fraud.”
When Mumler finished, Townsend and Gerry stepped forward to give their closing remarks. Townsend spoke first, rousing himself for two hours of “powerful and highly finished” argument. “Men like these would have hung Galileo, had he lived in their day,” Townsend thundered, oratorically thumping the prosecution and its witnesses.
Gerry swatted back with a “lengthened dissertation” that roved through hallucinations, Biblical phantoms, the heathenish nature of spiritualism and the nine methods of faking spirits. “There is no positive proof whatever of any spiritual agency,” in Mumler’s photographs, Gerry exclaimed. “Only evidence that certain persons believe it exists.”
And then, without much further ado, Judge Dowling announced his decision with a verdict fogged in ambiguity. The judge shared Gerry’s belief that Mumler was crooked, pronouncing himself “morally convinced,” that Mumler had practiced “fraud and deception.” And then he set the photographer free. Prosecutor Gerry had not pinpointed Mumler’s trickery and, therefore, had not made his case.
It was a decision that satisfied neither party. Did Judge Dowling take the easy way out with this mixed decision? Or did he take a deeper view and conclude that in matters of belief there are degrees of reality and degrees of truth, and it was not in his power to decide upon them? In any event, Mumler was released, and his comrades in the movement of the “new light” rejoiced that their martyr had escaped the bonds of the Tombs.
Even though Mumler had garnered a certain amount of fame from the case, he left New York immediately after the trial. He had accumulated thousands of dollars worth of legal fees and decided to return to Boston, where he opened another studio, this time in diminished circumstances in his mother-in-law’s home at 170 W. Springfield St.
He continued his strange profession there, photographing believers such as Mary Todd Lincoln and providing them with dubious jewels of consolation. Mumler understood that this belief is its own fact, its own vision. That insight, beyond whatever devices he employed in the dark room, was the most cunning tool in his trick-bag of deceptions. Mumler’s Lincoln image is his most reproduced photograph, and it is believed to be the last one taken of Mary before her death in 1882. Yet the former first lady’s patronage was no mark of improvement in Mumler’s fortunes. He died in 1884 holding patents on a number of brilliant photographic techniques, including Mumler’s Process, which allowed publishers to directly reproduce photographic illustrations in newspapers, books and so forth. Indeed, his skill as a photographer rivaled his talents as a con artist, but he was somehow still poor. In spite of it all, he maintained to the end that he was “only a humble instrument” for the revelation of a “beautiful truth.” Should there be any doubt, Mumler destroyed all of his negatives shortly before he died.
William Mumler’s photographs may be products of pure hoaxing, but the question of whether technology is capable of catching phantoms is still relevant. In 2003 a security camera at Hampton Court Palace, just west of London, picked up the image of a robed figure opening and closing a fire door. The enormous press generated by the event suggests the deeply enduring charm of the supernatural. Even in the modern era, an age of computer manipulation and air brushing, there remains a willingness to believe not only in the world beyond but also in the power of the camera’s prophetic eye to reveal it.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.