William H. Mumler, a name synonymous with spirit photography, was an American photographer known for capturing the images of departed souls. Born in 1832, Mumler embarked on his photography career in the mid-1800s, at a time when the American public was fascinated by the spiritualist movement. This movement, which claimed that the living could communicate with the spirits of the deceased, gained momentum during and after the Civil War as countless families grieved the loss of loved ones. Mumler’s ethereal photographs served as tangible proof for many believers, earning him a place in the annals of paranormal history.
Before venturing into spirit photography, Mumler worked as an engraver in Boston. His life took an unexpected turn when he accidentally discovered his ability to capture spirits on film. His photographs, supposedly featuring ghostly apparitions, garnered attention and intrigue from a society reeling from loss and longing for contact with the departed.
As his reputation grew, Mumler moved to New York City and opened a studio where he conducted séances and took spirit photographs. He was joined by his wife, Hannah Mumler, who played an integral role in his work and career.
How did William Mumler get into spirit photography?
Mumler’s foray into spirit photography was quite accidental. In the early 1860s, he was experimenting with photography and, after developing a self-portrait, he noticed a faint figure in the background. Believing this to be the apparition of a cousin who had passed away, Mumler showed the image to friends, who encouraged him to investigate further.
His wife, Hannah Mumler, was a prominent healing medium, and her involvement in the spiritualist movement inevitably influenced William’s work. The duo began to conduct séances, where Hannah would communicate with spirits while William captured their images on film. Hannah’s mediumship was believed to be the key that allowed spirits to materialize long enough for William to photograph them.
Word of Mumler’s spirit photographs spread like wildfire. The bereaved, seeking solace and connection with their departed loved ones, flocked to the Mumbler studio in the hopes of obtaining a tangible link to the afterlife through his photographs.
William Mumler and his photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s ghost
Arguably Mumler’s most famous photograph was that of Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of President Abraham Lincoln, with the ghostly figure of her late husband. The photograph was taken in the early 1870s, a few years after President Lincoln’s assassination.
After hearing of Mumler’s work through spiritualist circles, Mary Todd Lincoln, who had become interested in spiritualism following the deaths of her husband and children, sought him out. Disguised in a bonnet and veil, she visited Mumler’s studio under the pseudonym ‘Mrs. Lindall.’ It is said that Mumler did not recognize her until after the photograph was taken.
As Mumler developed the photo, he noticed the faint image of Abraham Lincoln standing behind Mary Todd. She was moved by the photograph, which seemed to provide the connection to her late husband she had been seeking.
William Mumler’s other famous spiritual photographs
Mumler’s portfolio of spirit photographs included several other notable images. Among them was the photograph of John J. Glover with the ‘ghost’ of an old lady thought to be his mother or another close relative. This image was characteristic of Mumler’s work, with a somewhat vague, translucent figure in the background.
Another image depicted Mrs. French with a child’s ‘ghost’. The ethereal figure of a child seemed to be embracing her, and this photograph was often cited as a poignant reminder of the loss experienced by so many during that time.
Mumler also captured a photograph of Moses A. Dow with the ‘ghost’ of his assistant. The photograph was one of his most discussed works, as it brought the presence of someone who had passed on into the professional realm.
Another notable photograph featured Fanny Conant with the ‘ghost’ of her brother. The image of her deceased brother behind her was both eerie and compelling, making it one of Mumler’s most sought-after photographs.
Was William Mumler’s spiritual photographs fake?
As Mumler’s photographs gained popularity, skepticism and accusations of fraud followed. Critics argued that Mumler’s photographs were simply the result of double exposure and other darkroom tricks. His detractors grew louder, and in 1869, Mumler was arrested and tried for fraud and larceny.
Prominent figures in the photography world testified against him, including Abraham Bogardus, who demonstrated how a photograph similar to Mumler’s picture of Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln’s ghost could be faked using darkroom techniques.
Although many believed that Mumler’s photographs were fraudulent, proving this in court proved to be difficult. There was no definitive evidence that conclusively proved he had manipulated the photographs, and many of his clients testified on his behalf, convinced that they had indeed received images of their loved ones’ spirits.
Legacy and the End of an Era
Despite the lack of concrete evidence against him, Mumler’s reputation was tarnished by the trial. He was ultimately acquitted but found himself financially ruined by the legal costs. After the trial, he returned to Boston and tried to rebuild his life, but his career as a spirit photographer never recovered.
Mumler maintained until his death in 1884 that his photographs were genuine. Some of his supporters and even a number of contemporary historians consider the possibility that Mumler may have actually captured something unexplainable in his photographs.
Today, William Mumler’s spirit photographs serve as an intriguing historical footnote, reflecting a time when the intersection of grief, technological advancement, and belief in the supernatural created a unique and captivating cultural phenomenon.