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882.01 Spirit photography and paranormal manifestations > William H. Mumler: Spirit photography
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer
William H. Mummler (1832-1884) was one of American's great spirit photographers and also a considerable fraud. At the time of national grieving for the terrible losses of the American Civil War (1861-1865) he took photographs of people with departed relatives. The most famous of these is his portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of Abraham Lincoln, sitting with the departed President standing behind her with his hand affectionately resting on her shoulder. In April 1869 he was tried for fraud and P.T. Barnum testified against him and had the noted New York photographer Abraham Bogardus created a fake to show how it could be done.
A contemporary account of the evidence given by P.T. Barnum at the trial of William H. Mummler was published in the The Saturday Review and reprinted in The Living Age:
The celebrated Barnum was called among other witnesses for the prosecution, and he stated that he had devoted a portion of his life to the detection of humbugs. About seven years ago Mr. Barnum was composing a book on humbugs, and he wrote to Mr. Mumler that he wished to purchase specimens of his so-called spirit photographs for the Museum of humbugs established by him, Barnum. Spirit photographs were accordingly supplied by Mr. Mumler at two dollars apiece, and they were hung by Mr. Barnum on the walls of the Museum for three or four years. Among them were spirit photographs of Napoleon Bonaparte and Henry Clay, and the positions of the figures were exactly like the well-known engravings of these personages. The title of Mr. Barnum's book was The Humbugs of the World. All the chapter relating to spirit photographs, referred to Mr. Mumler, who does not seem to have objected to the celebrity thus bestowed upon him. The spirit photographs which were hung upon the walls of Mr. Barnum's Museum were labelled " humbug," and the compliment thus conveyed was not repudiated by Mr. Mumler.
882.02 Spirit photography and paranormal manifestations > P.T. Barnum: Spiritual Photography (1866)
Entertainer and promoter P.T. Barnum in chapter XIV of his 1866 book The Humbugs of the World (New York: Carleton) discussed spirit photography.
Spiritual Photographing.—?Colorado Jewett and the spirit-photographs of General Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Stephen A. Douglas, Napoleon Bonaparte, etc.—A lady of distinction seeks and finds a spiritual photograph of her deceased infant, and her dead brother who was yet alive.—How it was done.
In answer to numerous inquiries and several threats of prosecution for libel in consequence of what I have written in regard to impostors who (for money) perform tricks of legerdemain and attribute them to the spirits of deceased persons, I have only to say, I have no malice or antipathies to gratify in these expositions. In undertaking to show up the “Ancient and Modern Humbugs of the World,” I am determined so far as in me lies, to publish nothing but the truth. This I shall do, “with good motives and for justifiable ends,” and I shall do it fearlessly and conscientiously. No threats will intimidate, no fawnings will flatter me from publishing everything that is true which I think will contribute to the information or to the amusement of my readers.
Some correspondents ask me if I believe that all pretensions to intercourse with departed spirits are impositions. I reply, that if people declare that they privately communicate with or are influenced to write or speak by invisible spirits, I cannot prove that they are deceived or are attempting to deceive me—although I believe that one or the other of these propositions is true. But when they pretend to give me communications from departed spirits, to tie or untie ropes—to read sealed letters, or to answer test-questions through spiritual agencies, I pronounce all such pretensions ridiculous impositions, and I stand ready at any time to prove them so, or to forfeit five hundred dollars, whenever these pretended mediums will succeed in producing their “wonderful manifestations” in a room of my selecting, and with apparatus of my providing; they not being permitted to handle the sealed letters or folded ballots which they are to answer, nor to make conditions in regard to the manner of rope tying, etc. If they can answer my test-questions relevantly and truly, without touching the envelopes in which they are sealed—or even when given to them by my word of mouth, I will hand over the $500. If they can cause invisible agencies to perform in open daylight many of the things which they pretend to accomplish by spirits in the dark, I will promptly pay $500 for the sight. In the mean time, I think I can reasonably account for and explain all pretended spiritual gymnastic performances—throwings of hair-brushes—dancing pianos—spirit-rapping—table-tipping—playing of musical instruments, and flying through the air (in the dark,) and a thousand other “wonderful manifestations” which, like most of the performances of modern “magicians,” are “passing strange” until explained, and then they are as flat as dish-water. Dr. Von Vleck publicly produces all of these pretended “manifestations” in open daylight, without claiming spiritual aid.
Among the number of humbugs that owe their existence to various combinations of circumstances and the extreme gullibility of the human race, the following was related to me by a gentleman whose position and character warrant me in announcing that it may be implicitly relied upon as correct in every particular.
Some time before the Presidential election, a photographer residing in one of our cities (an ingenious man and a scientific chemist,) was engaged in making experiments with his camera, hoping to discover some new combination whereby to increase the facility of “picturing the human form divine,” etc. One morning, his apparatus being in excellent order, he determined to photograph himself. No sooner thought of, than he set about making his arrangements. All being ready, he placed himself in a position, remained a second or two, and then instantly closing his camera, surveyed the result of his operation. On bringing the picture out upon the plate, he was surprised to find a shadowy representation of a human being, so remarkably ghostlike and supernatural, that he became amused at the discovery he had made. The operation was repeated, until he could produce similar pictures by a suitable arrangement of his lenses and reflectors known to no other than himself. About this time he became acquainted with one of the most famous spiritualist-writers, and in conversation with him, showed him confidentially one of those photographs, with also the shadow of another person, with the remark, mysteriously whispered:
“I assure you, Sir, upon my word as a gentleman, and by all my hopes of a hereafter, that this picture was produced upon the plate as you see it, at a time when I had locked myself in my gallery, and no other person was in the room. It appeared instantly, as you see it there; and I have long wished to obtain the opinion of some man, like yourself, who has investigated these mysteries.”
The spiritualist listened attentively, looked upon the picture, heard other explanations, examined other pictures, and sagely gave it as his opinion that the inhabitants of the unknown sphere had taken this mode of re-appearing to the view of mortal eyes, that this operator must be a “medium” of especial power. The New York Herald of Progress, a spiritualist paper, printed the first article upon this man’s spiritual photograph.
The acquaintance thus begun was continued, and the photographer found it very profitable to oblige his spiritual friend, by the reproduction of ghost-like pictures, ad infinitum, at the rate of five dollars each. Mothers came to the room of the artist, and gratefully retired with ghostly representations of departed little ones. Widows came to purchase the shades of their departed husbands. Husbands visited the photographer and procured the spectral pictures of their dead wives. Parents wanted the phantom-portraits of their deceased children. Friends wished to look upon what they believed to be the lineaments of those who had long since gone to the spirit-land. All who sought to look on those pictures were satisfied with what had been shown them, and, by conversation on the subject, increased the number of visitors. In short, every person who heard about this mystery determined to verify the wonderful tales related, by looking upon the ghostly lineaments of some person, who, they believed, inhabited another sphere. And here I may as well mention that one of the faithful obtained a “spirit” picture of a deceased brother who had been dead more than five years, and said that he recognized also the very pattern of his cravat as the same that he wore in life. Can human credulity go further than to suppose that the departed still appear in the old clo’ of their earthly wardrobe? and the fact that the appearance of “the shade” of a young lady in one of the fashionable cut Zouave jackets of the hour did not disturb the faith of the believers, fills us indeed with wonder.
The fame of the photographer spread throughout the “spiritual circles,” and pilgrims to this spiritual Mecca came from remote parts of the land, and before many months, caused no little excitement among some persons, inclined to believe that the demonstrations were entirely produced by human agency.
The demand for “spirit” pictures consequently increased, until the operator was forced to raise his price to ten dollars, whenever successful in obtaining a true “spirit-picture,” or to be overwhelmed with business that now interfered with his regular labors.
About this time the famous “Peace Conference” had been concluded by the issue of Mr. Lincoln’s celebrated letter, “To whom it may concern,” and William Cornell Jewett (with his head full of projects for restoring peace to a suffering country) heard about the mysterious photographer, and visited the operator.
“Sir,” said he, “I must consult with the spirits of distinguished statesmen. We need their counsel. This cruel war must stop. Brethren slaying brethren, it is horrible, Sir. Can you show me John Adams? Can you show me Daniel Webster? Let me look upon the features of Andrew Jackson. I must see that noble, glorious, wise old statesman, Henry Clay, whom I knew. Could you reproduce Stephen A. Douglas, with whom to counsel at this crisis in our national affairs! I should like to meet the great Napoleon. Such, here obtained, would increase my influence in the political work that I have in hand.”
In his own nervous, impetuous, excited way, Colorado Jewett continued to urge upon the photographer the great importance of receiving such communications, or some evidence that the spirits of our deceased statesmen were watching over and counseling those who desire to re-unite the two opposing forces, fighting against each other on the soil of a common country.
With much caution, the photographer answered the questions presented. Arranging the camera, he produced some indistinct figures, and then concluded that the “conditions” were not sufficiently favorable to attempt anything more before the next day. On the following morning, Jewett appeared—nervous, garrulous, and excited at the prospect of being in the presence of those great men, whose spirits he desired to invoke. The apparatus was prepared; utter silence imposed, and for some time the heart of the peace-seeker could almost be heard thumping within the breast of him who sought supernatural aid, in his efforts to end our cruel civil war. Then, overcome by his own thoughts, Jewett disturbed the “conditions” by changing his position, and muttering short invocations, addressed to the shades of those he wished to behold. The operator finally declared he could not proceed, and postponed his performance for that day. So, excuses were made, until the mental condition of Mr. Jewett had reached that state which permitted the photographer to expect the most complete success. Everything being prepared, Jewett breathlessly awaited the expected presence. Quietly the operator produced the spectral representation of the elder Adams. Jewett scrutinized the plate, and expressed a silent wonder, accompanied, no doubt, with some mental appeals addressed to the ancient statesman. Then, writing the name of Webster upon a slip of paper, he passed it over to the photographer, who gravely placed the scrap of writing upon the camera, and presently drew therefrom the “ghost-like” but well remembered features of the “Sage of Marshfield.” Colorado Jewett was now thoroughly impressed with the spiritual power producing these images; and in ecstasy breathed a prayer that Andrew Jackson might appear to lend his countenance to the conference he wished to hold with the mighty dead. Jackson’s well known features came out upon call, after due manipulation of the proper instrument. “Glorious trio of departed statesmen!” thought Jewett, “help us by your counsels in this the day of our nation’s great distress.” Next Henry Clay’s outline was faintly shown from the tomb, and here the sitter remarked that he expected him. After him came Stephen A. Douglas, and the whole affair was so entirely satisfactory to Jewett, that, after paying fifty dollars for what he had witnessed, he, the next day, implored the presence of George Washington, offering fifty dollars more for a “spiritual” sight of the “Father of our Country.” This request smote upon the ear of the photographer like an invitation to commit sacrilege. His reverence for the memory of Washington was not to be disturbed by the tempting offer of so many greenbacks. He could not allow the features of that great man to be used in connection with an imposture perpetrated upon so deluded a fanatic as Colorado Jewett. In short, the “conditions” were unfavorable for the apparition of “General Washington;” and his visitor must remain satisfied with the council of great men that had been called from the spirit world to instill wisdom into the noddle of a foolish man on this terrestrial planet. Having failed to obtain, by the agency of the operator, a glimpse of Washington, Jewett clasped his hands together, and sinking upon his knees, said, looking toward Heaven: “O spirit of the immortal Washington! look down upon the warring elements that convulse our country, and kindly let thy form appear, to lend its influence toward re-uniting a nation convulsed with civil war!”
It is needless to say that this prayer was not answered. The spirit would not come forth; and, although quieted by the explanations and half promises of the photographer, the peace-messenger departed, convinced that he had been in the presence of five great statesmen, and saddened by the reflection that the shade of the immortal Washington had turned away its face from those who had refused to follow the counsels he gave while living.
Soon after this, Jewett ordered duplicates of these photographs to the value of $20 more. I now have on exhibition in my Museum several of the veritable portraits taken at this time, in which the well-known form and face of Mr. Jewett are plainly depicted, and on one of which appears the shade of Henry Clay, on another that of Napoleon the First, and on others ladies supposed to represent deceased feminines of great celebrity. It is said that Jewett sent one of the Napoleonic pictures to the Emperor Louis Napoleon.
Not long after Colorado Jewett had beheld these wonderful pictures, and worked himself up into the belief that he was surrounded by the great and good statesmen of a former generation, a lady, without making herself known, called upon the photographer. I am informed that she is the wife of a distinguished official. She had heard of the success of others, and came to verify their experience under her own bereavement. Completely satisfied by the apparition exhibited, she asked for and obtained a spectral photograph resembling her son, who, some months previously, had gone to the spirit-land. It is said that the same lady asked for and obtained a spiritual photograph of her brother, whom she had recently heard was slain in battle; and when she returned home she found him alive, and as well as could be expected under the circumstances. But this did not shake her faith in the least. She simply remarked that some evil spirit had assumed her brother’s form in order to deceive her. This is a very common method of spiritualists “digging out” when the impositions of the “money-operators” are detected. This same lady has recently given her personal influence in favor of the “medium” Colchester, in Washington. One of these impressions bearing the likeness of this distinguished lady was accidentally recognized by a visitor. This capped the climax of the imposture and satisfied the photographer that he was committing a grave injury upon society by continuing to produce “spiritual pictures,” and subsequently he refused to lend himself to any more “manifestations” of this kind. He had exhausted the fun.
I need only explain the modus operandi of effecting this illusion, to make apparent to the most ignorant that no supernatural agency was required to produce photographs bearing a resemblance to the persons whose “apparition” was desired. The photographer always took the precaution of inquiring about the deceased, his appearance and ordinary mode of wearing the hair. Then, selecting from countless old “negatives” the nearest resemblance, it was produced for the visitor, in dim, ghostlike outline differing so much from anything of the kind ever produced, that his customers seldom failed to recognize some lineament the dead person possessed when living, especially if such relative had deceased long since. The spectral illusions of Adams, Webster, Jackson, Clay, and Douglas were readily obtained from excellent portraits of the deceased statesmen, from which the scientific operator had prepared his illusions for Colorado Jewett.
In placing before my readers this incident of “Spiritual Photography,” I can assure them that the facts are substantially as related; and I am now in correspondence with gentlemen of wealth and position who have signified their willingness to support this statement by affidavits and other documents prepared for the purpose of opening the eyes of the people to the delusions daily practised upon the ignorant and superstitious.
882.03 Spirit photography and paranormal manifestations > Abraham Lincoln as a returning spirit
882.04 Spirit photography and paranormal manifestations > William Hope: Spirit photography and séances
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer
882.05 Spirit photography and paranormal manifestations > Cottingley Fairies
Two films Photographing Fairies (1997) and FairyTale: A True Story (1997) have been loosely based upon the 1912 Cottingley Fairies Hoax.
882.06 Spirit photography and paranormal manifestations > Ranger & Austen: Clairvoyant Medical Examinations - Buffum & Cleveland
Send lock of hair and $1.00, with name, age and residence, plainly written, and receive by mail complete diagnosis of disease and advice concerning treatment.
Buffum & Cleveland,
N.B. - The Photograph on the reverse is of Dr. C.T. Buffum, taken while entranced, and showing the controlling power, RED JACKET.
- Λ Louis Kaplan, 2008, The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, (University of Minnesota Press)
- Λ "Spiritual Photography", 1869, The Living Age, vol. 102, pp. 314-315 gives an account of the trial of William H. Mummler taken from The Saturday Review
Barnum, P.T., 1866, The Humbugs of the World: An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers generally, in All Ages, (New York: Carleton) [Chapter XIV is on "Spiritual Photographing"] [Δ]
Chéroux, Clément et al., 2005, The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press) [Δ]
Doyle, Arthur Conan, 1920, December, ‘Fairies Photographed‘, Strand Magazine, vol. 60, pp. 463-468 [Δ]
Doyle, Arthur Conan, 1923, The Case for Spirit Photography. With Corroborative Evidence By Experienced Researches and Photographers, (New York: George H. Doran Company) [Δ]
Permutt, Cyril, 1983, Beyond the Spectrum: Survey of Supernormal Photography, (Cambridge: Patrick Stephens Publishers Ltd) isbn-10: 0850596203 isbn-13: 978-0850596205 [Δ]
Readings on, or by, individual photographers
William H. Mumler
1869, ‘Spiritual Photography‘, The Living Age, vol. 102, pp. 314-315 [An account of the trial of William H. Mummler. Originally published in The Saturday Review] [Δ]
Kaplan, Louis, 2008, The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, (University of Minnesota Press) isbn-13: 978-0816651566 [Δ]
If you feel this list is missing a significant book or article please let me know - Alan - email@example.com
William Hope (1863-1933) • Keystone View Company • Benjamin West Kilburn (1827-1909) • London Stereoscopic Company • William H. Mumler (1832-1884) • William H. Rau (1855-1920) • Underwood & Underwood
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