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Supernatural Snapshots: William Mumler's Spirit Photos

If you find ghostly apparitions on your film photos creepy, William Mumler found it a lucrative business. Find out how this jewelry engraver established a career as a spirit photographer in the 1860's!

William Mumler was a jewelry engraver in Boston who also practiced amateur photography during his free time. After developing a self-portrait sometime in 1861, Mumler noticed an image of a young girl afloat beside his own. He dismissed the photo at first, thinking it was just an accident and nothing but a residue from the negative he had previously made on the same plate. However, his friends said the apparition looked much like his cousin, who was already dead for 12 years.


Above: The spooky self-portrait that started it all

Such a bizarre and spooky photo cannot escape the radars of spiritualists, so eventually, the photo was declared the first photograph of a spirit. Instead of getting creeped out by the idea of having photographed a ghost, Mumler had a lightbulb moment. Why not go into business as a spirit photographer and take advantage of all those wealthy, grief-stricken people who lost their relatives in the American Civil War? Surely, they would want (and pay a good price) to have a photograph with their dearly departed beside them!

As Mumler rose to fame as the world’s first spirit photographer, he also attracted several critics, including some photographers who feared that he was corrupting the profession. Even a number of spiritualists thought he was doing business out of fakery, and pointed out the resemblance of the “ghosts” to some people. Not only were these people very much alive; by some fishy coincidence, they had recently sat for him as models!

After he moved to New York in 1869, the police sent an undercover agent to model for Mumler, bothered by accusations of fraud, and accounts of the so-called spirit photographer breaking into his clients’ houses to steal photos of their relatives. Mumler was put on trial in April 1869, where his act was uncovered. A number of professional photographers were brought in by the prosecution to show how Mumler could have effortlessly utilized double exposure to create his hair-raising photographs. Photographer and daguerreotypist Abraham Bogardus was also able to successfuly create a spirit photo of P.T. Barnum with the ghostly figure of Abraham Lincoln to prove Mumler’s act of deceit.


Above: Spirit Photograph by Abraham Bogardus

One of Mumler’s most popular spirit photographs is that of Mary Todd Lincoln with the phantom image of her husband, Abraham Lincoln, taken in 1871. According to stories, Mrs. Lincoln introduced herself as “Mrs. Lindall” (or “Mrs. Tundall” in some stories), and Mumler had no idea who she actually was until the photo was developed. The photo, despite dismissal as an accidental double exposure, became widely circulated. If there’s anything creepy about the photo, it’s the eerie coincidence of being Mrs. Lincoln’s last photo before she died in 1882!

Above: The famous Mary Todd Lincoln spirit photo

Photos from Museum of Hoaxes and Zupi

Have you produced any creepy double exposure photos? Share it with us through a comment below!

written by plasticpopsicle

1 comment

  1. bear_feet

    bear_feet

    You know, it looks like there is a third person in that Mary Todd Lincoln spirit photograph.

    over 3 years ago · report as spam