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Robert Boursnell Spirit Photographer

Robert Boursnell

Lifespan: 1832 – 1909

Hometown: London, England

Studio: 58 Uxbridge Rd. London, England; Fleet St, London, England

Robert A. Boursnell was a British spirit photographer and medium active in London from the 1880s to 1900s. He was married and had a son who was in the military, who stated he also communicated with spirits and they “rendered him signal services in cases of extreme emergency.”[1]

Boursnell started as a professional photographer in the 1850s. When reusing photographic plates, he would frequently get an extra face on the resulting photos. His partner said he didn’t clean the plates properly. In a moment of frustration, Boursnell broke the plate. After that, spirit pictures never appeared in Boursnell’s photographs. In 1886, he was introduced to Spiritualism, and “to his great surprise” the spirits returned to his photographs.[2]

Boursnell created spirit photographs in studios located on Fleet Street and Uxbridge Road in London. His photos featured a variety of subjects, including birds, flowers, men, women, and children. He allowed his clients to select plates from a new pack, mark them, and oversee the developing process. One sitter stated he “saw the operation from first to last, so that no possibility of fraud could come in, besides having the satisfaction of recognizing the form produced”.[3]

One of Boursnells photographs that received notoriety was known as “The Piet Botha Psychic Photograph” which featured W. T. Stead and the spirit of Piet Botha.

Stead describes his experience as follows:

Mr. Boursnell said that some days before, an old Boer [spirit] had come into the studio carrying a gun, and frightened him; he asked him to go away, and he did so; the same spirit was there again but without his gun. So I sat down before the camera, and the exposure was made. Before the plate was removed I said to the photographer, ask him what his name is. ‘He says his name is Piet Botha.’

Light – Sep. 3, 1910

The spirit in the photograph was recognized by those familiar with Botha. Stead asserted that the photograph had a supernatural origin, and he had known of no photograph of him from when he was alive. Botha’s family and critics, however, declared the spirit photograph to be fake and stated that news of his death had been reported in London newspapers in 1899, along with an image.[4]

Boursnell faced allegations of fraud in 1908, when F. C. Barnes visited him in London for a spirit photograph. The spirit was identified as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and it was alleged that the likeness was clearly copied from a then-popular book, The Martyrdom of an Empress.[5] Researcher Ronald Pearsall also claimed Boursnell would paint a spirit on a background with a luminous substance such as quinine sulphite.[6]

Boursnell continued to work as a spirit photographer until his death in 1909. Afterward, the Spiritualist community expressed strong support for him, and many articles were written in his praise. In the weeks leading up to his death, Boursnell had expressed a belief that his death was imminent and had marked the exact date in his almanac as a day that would bring a great change in his life.[7]

[1] Light – Aug. 11, 1900
[2] Psychic Science – Jul. 1927
[3] Light – Mar. 26, 1910
[4] Light – Sep. 3, 1910
[5] The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal – 1996
[6] The Table-Rappers – 1972
[7] Light – Jan. 1, 1910

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