William Mumler Spirit Photographer

William H. Mumler

Lifespan: 1832 - 1884

Hometown: Boston, MA

Studio: 170 West Springfield Street, Boston, MA; 630 Broadway New York, NY

Alias: William H. Mumler, William Mumler, W. H. Mumler

William H. Mumler was an American spirit photographer active in Boston and New York in the 1860s and 1870s. He discovered his abilities in 1862 when taking a self-portrait which when developed revealed a spirit image of his deceased cousin. He was married to Hannah Frances Green-Mumler who also worked as a medium and assisted him with his spirit photographs.

Before beginning his career as a spirit photographer, Mumler worked as a jewelry engraver in Boston, practicing amateur photography in his spare time at the studio of Helen F. Stuart. While taking a self-portrait in October of 1862 Mumler discovered the spirit image of his cousin who had been dead for 12 years. This is credited as the first spirit photograph. The following month, news of his discovery was published in The Herold of Progress, headlined, “Spirit Photographs / A New and interesting Development”.[1]

The articles describe the discovery as follows:

Mr. W. H. Mumler, an amateur photographer and practical chemist of Boston, was engaged on Sunday, October 5th, at the photograph gallery of Mrs. Stuart, at No. 258 Washington Street, in adjusting the chemicals, which had become disarranged. Having prepared a plate, and placed a chair near the focus of the camera, by which to adjust it, he proceeded to take his own photograph, card size, by quickly jumping into position and standing still the required time. The picture — a copy we have seen — represents Mr. Mumler as an active, rather athletic looking man, standing with his coat off, and the black cloth used to cover the camera, in his hand. Upon the back of this card appears the following statement:

“This photograph was taken of myself, by myself, on Sunday, when there was not a living
soul in the room beside me — ‘so to speak.’ The form on my right I recognize as my
cousin who passed away about twelve years since,” W. H. Mumler.

The form referred to is that of a young girl apparently sitting in the chair, which appeared on developing the picture, greatly to the surprise of the artist. The outline of the upper portion of the body is clearly defined, though slim and shadowy. The chair is distinctly seen through the body and arms, also the table upon which one arm rests. Below the waist, the form (which is apparently clothed in a dress with low neck and short sleeves) fades into a dim mist, which simply clouds the lower part of the picture.

The Herald of Progress – Nov. 1, 1862

Mumler soon quit his as an engraver and began working as a full-time spirit photographer. He began advertising his services in Spiritualist papers including The Banner of Light stating “Persons residing at any distance from Boston, desirous to obtain Photographs of their departed friends, by Mr. W. H. Mumler, will please send for circular, which gives all particulars.”.

Mumler was analyzed by many photography experts, none of whom could find any evidence of fraud. An article published in The Spiritual Magazine details one investigation:

Having been permitted by Mr. Mumler every facility to investigate, I went through the whole of the operation of selecting, cleaning, preparing, coating, silvering, and putting into the shield, the glass upon which Mr. M. proposed that a spirit form and mine should be imparted, never taking oft’ my eyes, and not allowing Mr. M. to touch the glass until it had gone through the whole of the operation. The result was, that there came upon the glass a picture of myself and, to my utter astonishment having previously examined and scrutinized every crack and corner, plate-holder, camera, box, tube, the inside of the bath, &c. —another portrait.

Having since continued, on several occasions, my investigations, as described above, and received even more perfect results than on the first trial, I have been obliged to endorse its legitimacy. Respectfully yours, W. M. Guay

The Spiritual Magazine – Jan. 1863

Mumler eventually took over Mrs. Stuart’s studio and operated there until 1868 when he moved to NYC and opened up a new studio at 630 Broadway New York, NY. When he first started he charged $5 per photo but by 1869 the price had increased to $10. His photos typically featured a seated sitter and a single full-body spirit, with the spirit often resting an arm on the sitter.[2]

Throughout his career, Mumler faced numerous critics who accused him of fraud and taking advantage of people who were grieving the loss of loved ones. One of the most notable critics was P.T. Barnum, who claimed that Mumler was preying on people whose judgment was clouded by sorrow. Some even accused Mumler of breaking into houses to steal photographs of deceased relatives. Joe Nickell, a prominent skeptic and paranormal investigator, accused Mumler of fraud stating that people recognized some of the supposed spirits in his photographs as still alive.

When a journalist named P.V. Hickey lodged a complaint directly to City Hall against Mumler and his “fraudulent” photographs, city Marshall Joseph H. Tooker launched an investigation and in April 1869 Mumler was brought to trial for fraud. Barnum testified against him and even hired Abraham Bogardus to create a photograph that appeared to show Barnum with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, in an attempt to demonstrate how easily such “spirit photographs” could be created. Despite the accusations, some supporters came to Mumler’s defense, including Moses A. Dow, a journalist who had been photographed by Mumler. Ultimately, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, and Mumler was released. Ultimately Mumler was acquitted when the prosecution could not prove how he created his spirit images or that he acted with intent to defraud. The judge, Hon. John Dowling, stated “However I might believe that trick and deception has been practiced by the prisoner, as I sit here in my capacity of the magistrate, I am compelled to decide that the prosecution has failed to prove the case.”.[2]

Following the trial, Mumler returned to Boston and began operating out of his third studio located at 170 West Springfield St., Boston, MA. The trial and its coverage brought Mumler significant notoriety and demand for his photographs increased. It was during this time that some of his most famous photos are produced. Mumler ramped up his advertising efforts and even began offering reprints of his most popular photographs.[3]

Mumler’s most famous spirit photograph, “The Lincoln Spirit Photograph” was taken In 1872, when Mary Lincoln visited William Mumler’s studio using a fake name, Mrs. Tyndall, paying $10 for 12 photographs in advance. After having her picture taken, she returned the next day to pick up her photos. In the photograph, Mary is dressed in black with a bonnet tied loosely under her chin behind her stands the spirit of Abraham Lincoln with his hand on her shoulders and the spirit of their son Tad. Mary was noted as saying it was proof of her husband’s continued care. Mumler would go on to sell reprints of the photograph for 25 cents each.

Mumler would continue producing spirit photographs through the 1870s. Eventually retiring as a spirit photographer he remained working as a commercial photographer and discovered a process by which photo-electrotype plates could be produced and printed as easily as woodcuts known as the “Mumler Process”. Mumler passed away on May 16, 1884. His obituary mentioned his photographic contributions in general but only briefly acknowledged his spirit photography career, stating that “The deceased at one time gained considerable notoriety in connection with spirit photographs.”[4]

[1] The Herald of Progress – Nov. 1, 1862
[2] The Strange Case of William Mumler – 2008
[3] Banner of Light – Sep. 23, 1871
[4] Photographic Times and American Photographer – June 1884


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