top of page
  • eframss

William H. Mumler: The World’s First Spirit Photographer

One of the most famous spirit images ever to be captured in a photograph was produced by the American photographer William H. Mumler during the second half of the nineteenth century. It features a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, the former First Lady of the United States, and the spirit of her deceased husband Abraham Lincoln. There is some debate about the exact date when the photograph was taken, but it was produced sometime between 1869 and 1872, depending on the source. At the time of its processing, many believed that the image was real, and that Mumler had somehow managed to capture the spiritual presence of the former president on a photographic plate.

Part of the credibility surrounding the photograph was due to the claim that Mumler was unaware that his sitter was Lincoln’s widow. As the story goes, when Mumler met Mary, she was introduced to him as Mrs Tundall. The appearance of Lincoln’s spirit in the background, therefore, could not have been forged, because Mumler had no knowledge of Mary’s real identity. It only appeared in the image because it was a genuine spiritual presence.

SOURCE : Spirit photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln

Today Mumler is best remembered as the first professional spirit photographer, who despite almost certainly faking his images, managed to evade any serious criminal convictions. His story is an interesting example that highlights some of the challenges of trying to verify supposed extraordinary phenomena.

During the early 1860s Mumler ran a highly successful business in Boston, Massachusetts selling so-called genuine spirit photographs to an enthusiastic clientele. You can find some wonderful examples of Mumler’s photographs via the Getty Museum’s image catalogue. One of the images in Getty’s collection is of the well-known nineteenth-century medium Charles H. Foster.

SOURCE: Charles H. Foster

Originally from Salem, Massachusetts, Foster was known for a type of phenomenon called skin writing or dermography, where messages from the deceased would suddenly appear on part of his body. He also performed a feat known as pellet reading, in which sitters would write the names of deceased people on slips of paper, which would be rolled into pellets and put into a bowl. The medium would then pick one randomly, and without opening it, speak about the deceased person’s life.

SOURCE: How Pellet Reading Works

Foster was exposed as a fraud in 1872 by John W. Truesdell, who figured out that he used basic misdirection techniques to switch the pellets. Truesdell was a self-proclaimed pick-pocketer and former fake medium, who after a period of remorse over his former indiscretions, decided to use his skills to expose other fraudsters. Truesdell’s most famous work on fake mediumship was Bottom Facts Concerning the Science of Spiritualism (1883).

At the time of his photographing, however, Foster still maintained a reputable status among spiritualists. Nevertheless, Foster’s exposure as a fraud only served to further highlight how unreliable spirit photographs were as sources that supported the genuineness of spirit phenomena. Any kind of extraordinary occurrence associated with Foster was naturally greeted with scepticism. Given that Mumler produced the spirit image with Foster, it raised doubts about the photographer’s credibility as well.

Mumler’s good fortunes came to a swift end when another local spiritualist, a physician named H. F. Gardner, argued that many of the alleged spirits in the photographs were recognizable Bostonians, who were still alive. Gardner’s declaration was accepted by most observers—he was a highly respected member of the Boston spiritualist community, who regularly delivered public lectures on the topic. His training in medicine also strengthened his credibility as a trustworthy exponent of genuine spirit phenomena. Mumler was completely ruined by the claim, and in an attempt to rebuild his reputation, he relocated to New York City.

Things were not much better after the move. He made several powerful enemies in New York, including the famous American impresario P. T. Barnum. Mumler was eventually charged with fraud, and during the trial, Barnum acted as a star witness for the prosecution. He even hired the famed photographer Abraham Bogardus to recreate a picture that appeared to show Barnum with the ghost of Lincoln, demonstrating how easily fake spirit photographs could be produced. Fundamentally, Barnum argued that Mumler was a swindler. He was duping vulnerable people, suffering from grief, into paying high fees for photographs supposedly containing evidence of their deceased loved ones continued spiritual existence after death. A duplicitous business such as Mumler’s photography studio would have been closed down immediately.

SOURCE: P.T. Barnum

SOURCE: Abraham Bogardus

However, as the anthropologist Edward Clodd recalled in his book The Question: A Brief History and Examination of Modern Spiritualism (1917), Mumler “got off owing to a technical defect in the indictment,” which was due to an insufficient amount of evidence showing his guilt. In other words, Mumler was acquitted because the prosecution could not prove “beyond all doubt” that he was fabricating the photographs.

Although he was acquitted of any wrongdoing, Mumler’s career as a spirit photographer was over. As the alleged founder of spirit photography, it certainly opened up questions about the legitimacy of the practice, and these questions continue to persist today. And yet, despite the scandal, Mumler still left a positive mark on early photographic practice. Later in his career, he discovered a process by which photo-electrotype plates could be produced and printed as easily as woodcuts. This process came to be known as the “Mumler Process.”

Further Readings

Carrington, Hereward, Personal Experiences in Spiritualism: Including the Official Account and Record of American Palladino Séances, London: T. Werner Laurie Ltd., 1913.

Clodd, Edward. The Question: A Brief History and Examination of Modern Spiritualism, London: Grant Richards, 1917.

Hamer, Felicity Tsering Chödron, “Helen F. Stuart and Hannah Frances Green: The Original Spirit Photographer,” History of Photography 42 (2018), 146-167.

Harvey, John, Photography and Spirit, London: Reaktion Books, 2007.

Kaplan, Louis, The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Natale, Simone, Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016

Truesdell, John W., The Bottom Facts Concerning the Science of Spiritualism: Derived from Careful Investigation Covering a Period of Twenty-Five Years, New York: G.W. Carleton and Co., 1883.

422 views0 comments


bottom of page