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An 1869 engraving of Mumler's spirit photography studio.

The History of Spirit Photography

EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY

Spirit photography originated with the invention of the daguerrotype in 1839.

The daguerrotype process required individuals to pose for as long as 30 seconds before their portrait fully developed. Since people often shifted positions during the sitting, blurred and transparent images were frequently produced.

An 1840s daguerreotype portrait of an unidentified male subject. His eyes appear glassy due to blinking during the sitting.

BREWSTER’S GHOSTS

The earliest account of a ghost photograph appears in Sir David Brewster’s 1856 book The Stereoscope: It’s History, Theory, and Construction. In the text, Brewster describes how he was developing a daguerreotype when his subject moved and created a blurry image.

He goes on to suggest that if a white clothed figure is briefly introduced to the photographic process and then removed, a “photographer might carry us into regions of the supernatural.”

The “Ghost in the Stereoscope” stereoview card. The photograph credits the image as being “Kindly Suggested by Sir David Brewster.”

EARLY SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY

Brewster’s discovery is credited with spawning spirit photography, a form of picture taking in which psychic ability is used to manifest supernatural entities on film.

Spirit photography became popular during the Civil War years among Spiritualists seeking to reconnect with the dead. The ghostly images provided comfort in knowing that “they are with us, and seize every opportunity to make themselves known.”

WILLIAM H. MUMLER

William H. Mumler is widely recognized as the first commercial spirit photographer.

In 1861, Mumler was taking a self portrait and developed a picture featuring a ghostly extra hovering in the background. Upon closer inspection, he realized the spirit in the image was his cousin who had died 12 years earlier.

News of Mumler’s psychic ability traveled fast and soon people were clamoring to have their picture taken by him.

A 1870s spirit photograph by William H. Mumler featuring Mary Todd Lincoln and the spirit of Abraham Lincoln.

MUMLER’S BUSINESS

William H. Mumler conducted business out of studios located at 258 Washington Street in Boston and 640 Broadway in New York City.

When visitors first arrived they were seated in a Chippendale chair and told to remain still until Mrs. Mumler had summoned the spirits. Although it often took several tries before a ghost image developed, customers always left “fully satisfied that the pictures were what they claimed to be—real photographs of real spirits.”

MUMLER’S TRIAL

Not everyone believed Mumler’s pictures were authentic and in 1869 he was brought to trial by Joseph Tooker for “fleecing the public”.

Tooker argued that Mumler’s photos were “absent of supernatural means” and produced entirely by ”mechanical means”. Even though Tooker submitted several samples of fraudulent pictures as evidence, Mumler was acquitted when it could not be determined how his images were made.

Following the trial Mumler returned to his New York studio where he remained inundated with requests for spirit photographs until his death in 1884.

An 1869 engraving featuring images from Mumler’s trial. His court case was on of the first to be nationally publicized in print media.

ROBERT AUGUSTUS BOURSNELL

Inspired by Mumler’s financial success, Robert Augustus Boursnell began developing spirit photographs in England during the 1880s. He conducted business at several locations throughout London, including studios at 89 Union Road and 58 Uxbridge Road.

Boursnell distinguished himself from other spirit photographers by using clairvoyance to predict the names and appearances of ghosts before they developed.

BOURSNELL’S LEGACY

With outbreaks of cholera and smallpox invading London during the late 19th century, Victorians turned to spirit photos and other mementos as a way to mourn the dead. Although Boursnell made it clear his ghost images were nothing more than “shadows in the background,” most customers chose to believe it was a portrait of the deceased.

The Spiritualists Association of London confirmed their faith in Boursnell’s clairvoyant abilities by honoring him in 1903 with a purse of gold and an affidavit signed by 100s of members.

A 1890s spirit photograph by Richard Boursnell featuring an unidentified man and a spirit draped in flowers.

PSYCHIC PHOTOGRAPHY

With the development of psychology in the early 20th century, scientists became interested in the relationship between paranormal occurrences and altered states of consciousness. Since supernatural phenomena often accompanied trances, it was speculated that “mental peculiarities” of the brain “furnished evidence of a hidden life.”

Psychology impacted the work of spirit photographers by shifting their focus toward capturing psychical images like thoughtographs and skotographs.

A 1920s thoughtograph postcard featuring three spirit images hovering in a scene at Camp Chesterfield, Indiana.

FALCONER BROTHERS

Psychic photography was popularized in the late 1920s by Craig and George Falconer, Scottish mediums who specialized in developing thoughtograph images. Their photos typically contained a single spirit face inside a misty cloud and provided customers with “amazing evidence of continued existence beyond the material world.”

To prove their authenticity, the Falconer Brothers allowed customers to load their camera with fresh film and closely observe the entire process from exposure to development.

FALCONER BROTHERS EXPOSED

In 1931 the Falconers were visiting South Africa when two customers discovered cotton wool and a photographic cutting of a “spirit” face in their possession. The brothers were immediately arrested, tried, and convicted of fraud after it was determined their images were nothing more then screen-printed cutouts.

Although forced to give up their equipment and pay fines of 150 pounds each, Craig and George Falconer maintained a steady demand for their spirit photographs into the late 1930s.

A 1920s spirit photograph, taken from a 35mm slide, by The Falconer Brothers featuring Craig Falconer and the spirit of a dog surrounded by ectoplasm.

MODERN SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY

Spirit photographs continue to find an audience at the turn of the 21st century. Although the days of professional and intentional ghost photography are gone, they have been replaced by amateur picture taking and accidentally obtained images that defy all logic.

From orbs to ethereal blobs and streaks, many of us have yielded something on film that confirms “we can see and feel the presence of someone taken by the passage of time or of death itself.”

Archive ID: 2020.16.1071

Period: 1850s

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