October 2, 2015 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
We have encountered photographs of the dead all our lives, relatives beaming from the mantle, strangers in the obituary pages (or more recently in Facebook tributes), and celebrities from an earlier era, eternally held in black and white. But all these people were photographed before they had died. William Mumler, and those like him, offered his customers a wholly different sort of way to see dead people…
It was the confluence of two then-recent phenomena – the Spiritualist movement and the development of photography – that gave birth to spirit photography. The pioneer in taking pictures of the dead was the Boston-born William Mumler. Born in 1832, Mumler worked as a silver engraver and part-time photographer in Boston. When, in 1861, the image of a cousin twelve-years dead appeared* in a self-portrait he had taken, a new career in spirit photography was launched. (*most likely the ‘spirit’ was the result of the reuse of glass plates in the photographic process of the period).
Mumler’s spirit photos tapped into a popular need for a direct connection to the supernatural, possibly fueled by the human carnage of the American Civil War (not that people in the 19th century weren’t already far more exposed to death and dying that we are today) and manifested in culture-wide fascination with mediumship and the supernatural.
To our modern eyes, Mumler’s photographs are obvious double exposure fakeries, using photos of the deceased and posed human models or paper cut-outs for the posed body, but to people who had witnessed the birth of photography in their lifetime, it was seen as proof of the afterlife and the wider claims of spiritualism. Despite all our assume sophistication, consider how often bogus, usually photo-manipulated, images are passed off as legitimate. Mumler’s work was widely covered by a largely uncritical mass media, (especially newspapers and magazines after he moved to New York which was then as now the heart of the American press), who found a ready audience for stories about Mumler and to see his photos of the dead. Several photographers and journalists investigated Mumler and were convinced of his legitimacy.
Mumler married the medium Jennie “Fanny” Conant (b. 1831 in Portsmouth NH) and mediums became some of his most notable customers, as his photos proved the reality of their supernatural claims.
Mumler’s most famous sitter was Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of the slain President. Supposedly Mrs. Lincoln used an alias when she came to Mumler and only after when he presented her the photo (at the left) of a bearded man standing behind her. She immediately identified it as the martyred President.
Not everyone was a believer in Mumler’s work, most notably P.T. Barnum, who condemned him for exploiting the grieving. After accusations that some of Mumler’s “spirits” were still among the living (mostly in Boston) and that individuals in his employ had broken into the houses of some of his clients. In 1869 Mumler was tired on fraud charges. The case was widely reported with notable people testifying on both sides of the case, including Barnum, who provided the court a ‘spirit photograph’ of his own, especially faked for the trial. Despite being acquitted, Mumler’s career declined. He died in 1884.
For further information of Mumler’s life and on the spirit photograph movement more generally, see Louis Kaplan’s The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer (2008).