Caught on Camera: The Darker Role That Photography
Played in Spiritualism

Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Photo by William H. Mumler, date unknown but presumably prior to 1869

Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Photo by William H. Mumler, date unknown but presumably prior to 1869 [PD]

It probably started out as a happy accident: a glass plate that had previously been exposed but not yet developed was placed back into the camera and exposed for a second time. The resulting double-exposure, when printed, would have produced a somewhat ghostly effect. With a certain amount of pre-planning and a little tweaking here and there, the effect could be heightened and repeated time and time again. Such is undoubtedly the case with the American William H. Mumler (1832-1884), who started out as an amateur photographer in Boston, then quit his job as an engraver when he realized that he could make his living by photographing New England's many mediums in the company of assorted spirits, and moved to New York in the early 1860s to take up his particular brand of photography full time. His most famous photo appears to show Mary Todd Lincoln flanked by the spirit of her dead husband.

P. T. Barnum with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, made at Barnum's request. Photo by Abraham Bogardus, 1869

P. T. Barnum with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, 1869 [PD]

In the April of 1869 Mumler was brought to trial for fraud after it was alleged that he'd broken into houses to steal the portraits of his sitters' dead relatives. One of the witnesses to testify against him was the showman and entrepreneur P. T. Barnum. Barnum had commissioned the photographer Abraham Borgadus to make a portrait of him, and, exactly as with Mary, accompanied by Abraham Lincoln's spirit, to demonstrate how easily it was that such photos could be faked. The photograph was presented in evidence at the trial. Although Mumler was eventually acquitted, his career as a spirit photographer was over.

Séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England

Séance conducted by John Beattie, England [PD]

How could people be so gullible? To answer this question it's important to appreciate the naivety of the general public in their ability to read and understand photographs at the time. The following extract is from Statement of a Photographic Man, from Volume 3, Part IV (Street artists) of Henry Mayhew's 1861 work, London Labour and the London Poor. The speaker is a young working-class man from the slums of Lambeth, who, on tiring of busking for his living, borrows money for a camera and darkroom equipment and sets up as a photographer with his mate Jim, though both men lack the technical expertise they require. Through trial and error his work gradually improves, but along the way he dreams up a number of hilarious tricks and dodges to mask his failures, one of which, the fobbing-off on customers of hastily-wrapped specimen-photographs taken from his window display when the light is too poor for an adequate exposure or the sitter is in a hurry, he discusses here:

"…We have made some queer mistakes doing this. One day a young lady came in, and wouldn't wait, so Jim takes a specimen from the window, and, as luck would have it, it was the portrait of a widow in her cap. She insisted on opening, and then she said, 'This isn't me; it's got a widow's cap, and I was never married in all my life!' Jim answers, 'Oh, miss! why it's a beautiful picture, and a correct likeness,'—and so it was, and no lies, but it wasn't of her. Jim talked to her, and says he, 'Why this ain't a cap, it's the shadow of the hair'—for she had ringlets—and she positively took it away believing that such was the case; and even promised to send us customers, which she did.

"There was another lady that came in a hurry, and would stop if we were not more than a minute; so Jim ups with a specimen, without looking at it, and it was the picture of a woman and her child. We went through the business of focussing the camera, and then gave her the portrait and took the 6d [half a shilling]. When she saw it she cries out, 'Bless me! there's a child: I haven't ne'er a child!' Jim looked at her, and then at the picture, as if comparing, and says he, 'It is certainly a wonderful likeness, miss, and one of the best we ever took. It's the way you sat; and what has occasioned it was a child passing through the yard.' She said she supposed it must be so, and took the portrait away highly delighted.

"Once a sailor came in, and as he was in haste, I shoved on to him the picture of a carpenter, who was to call in the afternoon for his portrait. The jacket was dark, but there was a white waistcoat; still I persuaded him that it was his blue Guernsey which had come up very light, and he was so pleased that he gave us 9d [three-quarters of a shilling] instead of 6d. The fact is, people don't know their own faces. Half of 'em have never looked in a glass half a dozen times in their life, and directly they see a pair of eyes and a nose, they fancy they are their own.

"The only time we were done was with an old woman. We had only one specimen left, and that was a sailor man, very dark—one of our black pictures. But she put on her spectacles, and she looked at it up and down, and says, 'Eh?' I said, 'Did you speak, ma'am?' and she cries, 'Why, this is a man! here's the whiskers.' I left, and Jim tried to humbug her, for I was bursting with laughing. Jim said, 'It's you ma'am; and a very excellent likeness, I assure you.' But she kept on saying, 'Nonsense, I ain't a man,' and wouldn't have it. Jim wanted her to leave a deposit, and come next day, but she never called…"

William Crookes with the spirit of Katie King. Photo by William Crookes, circa 1873 [PD]

William Crookes with the spirit of Katie King, circa 1873 [PD]

The photographs of the spirit of Katie King, however, stretch credulity to a brand new level. The first set was taken in a hotel room at Florence Cook's request by the reporter W. H. Harrison with an eye to publication in The Daily Telegraph; the rest—the ones we're most familiar with today—were taken by the scientist William Crookes at two private but well-attended soirées in his own home. In both cases neither the negatives nor the prints were tampered with in any way, and, considering the circumstances, it seems unlikely that Crookes (if not Harrison too) set out to perpetrate any fraud. But, studying them, it's hard to imagine that anyone was fooled. The words of Edward William Cox when describing one of Katie's later appearances sum up the situation neatly, "They were solid flesh and blood and bone."

Frances Griffiths surrounded by fairies. Photo by Elsie Wright, 1917

Frances Griffiths surrounded by fairies. Photo by Elsie Wright, 1917

People see what they want to see. The photo you see to the left is another interesting case in point. It was taken by a sixteen-year-old in 1917 and features her nine-year-old cousin sitting in their garden surrounded by a number of posed, cut-out fairy figures. Again, there is no double-exposure or tampering with the print. What you see is exactly what you get. Yet this image was passionately championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series, who, despite his naivety, was a great believer in spiritualism. And he was not the only person to be taken in. Here is what Edward Gardner, a leading member of the Theosophical Society at the time, had to say: "…the fact that two young girls had not only been able to see fairies, which others had done, but had actually for the first time ever been able to materialize them at a density sufficient for their images to be recorded on a photographic plate, meant that it was possible that the next cycle of evolution was under way."

Houdini with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, made at Houdini's request. Photographer unknown, circa 1920-1930. Library of Congress

Houdini with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, made at Houdini's request. Photographer unknown, circa 1920-1930. Library of Congress

Frances, the young girl in the photo above, finally admitted to the fraud in later life: "I never even thought of it as being a fraud—it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can't understand to this day why they were taken in—they wanted to be taken in."

Fifty years after Mumler, professional debunkers—often stage magicians who objected to their artistry being brought into disrepute by spiritualist hoaxers—were still at work trying to expose the tricks involved in the production of spirit photography. Here is one of the most recent examples I could find, showing Houdini, one of the greatest escapologists and debunkers of all time, with (yet again) the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, who must surely be the most photographed "spirit" on the planet.

Next chapter: Ghost-grabbers: Tackling the Spirits Head-on