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When a 19th-Century ‘Spirit Photographer’ Claimed to Capture Ghosts Through His Lens

October 17, 2019 in History

By Dave Roos

In the post-Civil War era when many Americans were reeling from loss, a photographer claiming to capture ghosts on film enjoyed swift business.

Even 150 years later, the eerie spirit photographs taken by Boston photographer William Mumler pack an emotional punch. A mourning mother is visited by the angelic silhouette of her departed daughter, the young girl resting her tiny hand on her mother’s lap. A mutton-chopped widower, his head hung in grief, is comforted by the glowing soul of his loving wife, her hands draped across his heavy shoulders.

It’s not hard to understand why 19th-century Americans enamored with the growing Spiritualism movement would have believed that these photographic apparitions were real, even as high-profile skeptics like P.T. Barnum , he also doesn’t discount the healing function that Spiritualism served.

“It was a genuine religious movement that meant a lot to people a time when the nation was going through mourning and loss like it had never had before,” says Manseau.

Mumler was, in Manseau’s words, a “kitchen tinkerer”—an amateur chemist and incurable entrepreneur who once peddled his own homemade elixir for curing dyspepsia. Trained as a silver engraver, Mumler decided to try his hand at photography, this wondrous new technology that produced portraits that people would pay a whole dollar to purchase.

While taking self-portraits for practice, one of Mumler’s prints came back with an unexplainable aberration. Although he was “quite alone in the room” when the shot was taken, there appeared to be a figure at his side, a girl who was “made of light.” Mumler showed the photo to a spiritualist friend who confirmed that the girl in the image was almost certainly a ghost.

Manseau says that Mumler had a knack for self-promotion and his otherworldly photo was written up in popular spiritualist newspapers like the Banner of Light and also the mainstream press. Bostoners began lining up at his small portrait studio to pay as much as $10 for their likeness with a lost loved one.

“Mumler sold himself as someone who could not explain what was happening or why he was chosen to take these pictures,” says Manseau. “He was as astonished as everyone else that suddenly his camera could take pictures of ghosts.”

A visitor to Mumler’s studio would be told that there’s no guarantee that a departed soul would appear. Mumler didn’t “command the spirits,” says Manseau, they …read more


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