The art of spirit photography took off in the 1860s and has as a main focus photographing ghosts, or spiritual entities. It was basically used to hunt ghosts.
This crazy hobby started when William H. Mumler, who worked as a jeweler in Boston and was an amateur photographer on the side. Apparently, Mumler took a photograph of himself and, upon being developed, it showed a ghost-like image of his deceased cousin. Taking full advantage of his newly acquired skills, he left his day job and became a full-time spirit photographer.
Spirit photography was a lucrative business, especially due to the large number of people grieving the loss of loved ones during the American Civil War, who were seeking closure. When he moved to New York to practice his ‘profession’, his worked was analyzed by several photography experts, yet none of them actually found any evidence that Mumler’s photographs were fraudulent.
One of Mumler’s most famous photographs is that of Mary Todd Lincoln, whom he photographed with her husband’s ‘spirit’, Abraham Lincoln. According to the American Philosophical Society, this made his work so popular, that he could charge $10 for a single photograph, in a time when photographers could only ask a fraction of that.
One of Mumler’s biggest critics was P. T. Barnum. He was so enraged by Mumler’s practice, that he called it a way of taking advantage of other people’s grief. Eventually it was discovered that the ‘spirits’ in Mumler’s photographs were actually living people and, along with this discovery, came several accusations that he had broken into his clients’ homes and stolen pictures of dead relatives. The professional spirit photographer was sent to trial in April, 1869, with charges of fraud.
During this very public trial, Barnum not only testified against Mumler, but went a step further and hired Abraham Bogardus to take a photograph of Barnum, in which the ‘ghost’ of Abraham Lincoln appeared. This was meant to demonstrate how easy it was to create ‘spirits’ in photographs.
While Mumler was acquitted of fraud, his career as a spirit photographer was completely ruined. His life wasn’t however. He went on to become a photograph publisher and even discovered a photo printing process known as the ‘Mumler process’.
Today, while spirit photography is still an obscure practice, considered very real by some, it’s considered fake by the masses. Mumler’s photographs, however, will still be part of the history of photography.