Eerie 19th Century Photographs of Ghosts: See Images from the Long, Strange Tradition of “Spirit Photography”

We might draw any num­ber of con­clu­sions from the fact that rats’ brains are enough like ours that they stand in for humans in lab­o­ra­to­ries. A mis­an­throp­ic exis­ten­tial­ist may see the unflat­ter­ing sim­i­lar­i­ty as evi­dence that there’s noth­ing spe­cial about human beings, despite our grandiose sense of our­selves. A medieval Euro­pean thinker would draw a moral les­son, point­ing to the rat’s glut­tony as nature’s alle­go­ry for human greed. And a skep­ti­cal observ­er in the 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies might take note of how eas­i­ly both rats and humans can be manip­u­lat­ed; the lat­ter, for exam­ple, by pseu­do-phe­nom­e­na like Spir­i­tu­al­ism, which encom­passed a wide range of claims about ghosts and the after­life, from seances to spir­it pho­tog­ra­phy.

One such skep­ti­cal observ­er in 1920, Mil­la­ias Culpin, even wrote in his Spir­i­tu­al­ism and the New Psy­chol­o­gy of the “’sci­en­tif­ic’ sup­port­ers of spir­i­tu­al­ism,” most of them “emi­nent in phys­i­cal sci­ence.” They are eas­i­ly con­vinced, Culpin thought, because “they have been trained in a world where hon­esty is assumed to be a qual­i­ty of all work­ers. A lab­o­ra­to­ry assis­tant who played a trick upon one of them would find his career at an end, and ordi­nary cun­ning is for­eign to them. When they enter upon the world of Dis­so­ci­ates, where deceit mas­quer­ades under the dis­guise of trans­par­ent hon­esty, these emi­nent men are but as babes—country cousins in the hands of con­fi­dence-trick men.”

Such adher­ents of Spir­i­tu­al­ist beliefs were tak­en in not because they were nat­u­ral­ly cred­u­lous or stu­pid, but because they had been “trained” to trust the evi­dence of their sens­es. So-called spir­it pho­tographs, like those you see here, allowed peo­ple to “show mate­r­i­al evi­dence for their beliefs.” Pho­tog­ra­phers who cre­at­ed the images, Mash­able explains, could “eas­i­ly make two expo­sures on a sin­gle neg­a­tive, manip­u­late the neg­a­tive to cre­ate ghost­ly blurs, or over­lap two neg­a­tives in the dark­room to pro­duce an extra face with­in the resul­tant frame.”

The audi­ence for this work was “vast,” and many fit Culpin’s gen­er­al­iza­tions. In 1921, for exam­ple, para­nor­mal inves­ti­ga­tor Here­ward Car­ring­ton wrote of “a num­ber of ‘spir­it’ and ‘thought’ pho­tographs, the evi­dence for which seemed to me to be excep­tion­al­ly good.” In describ­ing oth­er pic­tures as “obvi­ous­ly fraud­u­lent” or “extreme­ly puz­zling,” Car­ring­ton made crit­i­cal dis­tinc­tions and appeared to use the meth­ods and the lan­guage of sci­ence in the eval­u­a­tion of objects pur­port­ing to prove the exis­tence of ghosts.

It may seem incred­i­ble that spir­it pho­tog­ra­phy had wide­spread appeal for as long as it did. The pho­tographs first began appear­ing in the 1860s, emerg­ing “from a small Boston por­trait stu­dio” and first made by William H. Mum­ler, the genre’s inven­tor and “most promi­nent ear­ly pro­po­nent,” writes Mash­able.

Mum­ler was nei­ther a pho­tog­ra­ph­er nor a medi­um. He orig­i­nal­ly worked as a sil­ver engraver, while dab­bling in pho­tog­ra­phy in the local stu­dio of a woman named Mrs. Stu­art. One day in 1861, in the midst of devel­op­ing a self-por­trait, Mum­ler report­ed that the dim fig­ure of a young cousin who had died twelve years ear­li­er emerged in the final print.

These ghost­ly images con­tin­ued to appear—on their own, the sto­ry goes—and the studio’s recep­tion­ist, a part-time medi­um, helped pop­u­lar­ize them. Soon Mum­ler “received vis­i­tors from across Amer­i­ca, includ­ing the recent­ly wid­owed Mary Todd Lin­coln.” Most of these vis­i­tors did not work as sci­en­tists or pro­fes­sion­al para­nor­mal inves­ti­ga­tors. They were ordi­nary peo­ple bereaved by the mass death of the Civ­il War and deeply moti­vat­ed to accept phys­i­cal con­fir­ma­tion of an after­life. More­over, before the rise of Fun­da­men­tal­ist Evan­gel­i­cal­ism in the 1920s, Spir­i­tu­al­ism was on the front lines of an ear­li­er cul­ture war: spir­it pho­tog­ra­phy was “a tan­gi­ble sym­bol of the over­ar­ch­ing argu­ment of mys­ti­cism ver­sus sci­ence and ratio­nal­ism.”

The three images at the top of the post date from the ear­li­est peri­od of spir­it pho­tog­ra­phy, between 1862 and 1875, and they were all pro­duced by Mum­ler in Boston and New York, where he moved in 1869, and where he was charged with fraud, then “acquit­ted of all charges because they could not be suf­fi­cient­ly proven.” (See many more of his pho­tos at Mash­able and the Get­ty Muse­um online archive.) Though his busi­ness suf­fered, spir­it pho­tog­ra­phy only grew more pop­u­lar, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Spir­i­tu­al­ist cir­cles in Britain, where Arthur Conan Doyle, cre­ator of the hyper-ratio­nal Sher­lock Holmes, was one of the most ardent of Spir­i­tu­al­ist believ­ers.

Doyle sup­port­ed a British pho­tog­ra­ph­er named William Hope, who began tak­ing spir­it pho­tographs in 1905, found­ed a group called the Crewe Cir­cle and lat­er “went on to prey on griev­ing fam­i­lies,” writes Riv­er Don­aghey at Vice, “who lost loved ones in WWI and des­per­ate­ly want­ed pho­to­graph­ic proof that their rel­a­tives were still hov­er­ing around in spec­tral form.” Even after Hope and his crew were exposed, Doyle con­tin­ued to sup­port him, going so far as to write a book called The Case for Spir­it Pho­tog­ra­phy. The four pho­tographs above and below are Hope’s work (see many more at Vice and the Pub­lic Domain Review). They are seri­ous­ly creepy—in the way movies like The Ring are creepy—but they are also, quite obvi­ous­ly, pho­to­graph­ic fic­tions.

Even as view­ers of pho­tog­ra­phy became savvi­er as the cen­tu­ry wore on, many peo­ple thrilled to Hope’s work until his death in 1933, maybe for the same rea­son we watch The Ring; it’s a fun scare, noth­ing more, if we sus­pend our dis­be­lief. As for the true believ­ers in spir­it photography—they are not so dif­fer­ent either from us 21st cen­tu­ry sophis­ti­cates. We’re still tak­en in all the time by hoax­es and frauds, maybe because it’s still as easy to push the but­tons in our brains, and because, well, we just want to believe.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Arthur Conan Doyle & The Cot­tin­g­ley Fairies: How Two Young Girls Fooled Sher­lock Holmes’ Cre­ator

Dis­cov­er “The Ghost Club,” the His­toric Para­nor­mal Soci­ety Whose Mem­bers Includ­ed Charles Dick­ens, Arthur Conan Doyle & W.B. Yeats

Browse The Mag­i­cal Worlds of Har­ry Houdini’s Scrap­books

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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