Lifespan: 1832 - 1884
Hometown: Boston, MA
Studio: 170 West Springfield Street, Boston, MA; 630 Broadway New York, NY
William H. Mumler was an American spirit photographer who worked in New York and Boston. His first spirit photograph was apparently an accident—a self-portrait which, when developed, also revealed the “spirit” of his deceased cousin. Mumler then left his job as an engraver to pursue spirit photography full-time, taking advantage of the large number of people who had lost relatives in the American Civil War. His two most famous images are the photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband Abraham Lincoln and the portrait of Master Herrod, a medium, with three spirit guides.
Mumler was eventually taken to court and tried for fraud and larceny. Noted showman P. T. Barnum testified against him. Though the judge acquitted him (Mumler’s trial was not by jury), the event ruined his career and Mumler died in poverty. Today, Mumler’s photographs are recognized as fakes but they circulated widely during the last quarter of the 19th century and were marketed as objects of belief and visual curiosities both within and beyond the spiritualist movement.
Before beginning his career as a spirit photographer, Mumler worked as a jewellery engraver in Boston, practicing amateur photography in his spare time. In the early 1860s, he developed a self-portrait that appeared to feature the apparition of his cousin who had been dead for 12 years. This is widely credited as the first “spirit photograph”—a photograph of a living subject featuring the likeness of a deceased person (often a relative) imprinted by the spirit of the deceased. Mumler then became a full-time spirit photographer, continuing to work in Boston but eventually moving to New York City, where his work was analyzed by numerous photography experts, none of whom could find any evidence of fraud. Spirit photography was a lucrative business thanks to the enormous death tolls that resulted from the American Civil War, and the thousands of families who sought reassurance that their loved ones live on after death.
Mumler’s wife, Hannah Mumler, was also a famous “healing medium,” and conducted her own spiritual business in addition to the business of assisting her husband.
Critics of Mumler’s work included P. T. Barnum, who claimed that Mumler was taking advantage of people whose judgment was clouded by grief. Barnum’s accusation was one of many in a chorus of voices that had accused Mumler of staging “ghosts” of people who were still in fact living, and breaking into houses to steal photos of deceased relatives. According to Joe Nickell “Mumler was exposed as a fraud when people recognized that some of the supposed spirits were still among the living.” Mumler was eventually brought to trial for fraud in April 1869. Barnum testified against him, having hired Abraham Bogardus to create a picture that appeared to show Barnum with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln to demonstrate the ease with which such “spirit photographers” could be created. Those testifying in support of Mumler included Moses A. Dow, a journalist whom Mumler had photographed. Ultimately Mumler was acquitted because the prosecution could not prove beyond all doubt that he was fabricating the photographs, but following the trial his career never fully recovered.
Mumler continued working in photography (though never spirit photography), and later discovered a process by which photo-electrotype plates could be produced and printed as easily as woodcuts (known as the “Mumler Process”). He died on May 16, 1884, and his obituary focused on his photographic contributions in general, making only a passing reference to the earlier spirit photography scandal in the last line. (“The deceased at one time gained considerable notoriety in connection with spirit photographs.”)