In the 19th century, death was trending. The newly invented medium of photography became a way to cope with death, and post-mortem photography offered a popular new way to preserve the memory of loved ones.
The invention of photography also coincided with the increasing popularity of hauntings, seances, and mediums during the rise of the spiritualist movement. Photography was a perfect way to connect with the spirit realm…or so it seemed.
William H. Mumler cashed in. A jeweler’s engraver by trade and the accidental inventor of “spirit photography,” Mumler figured out how to produce images with double exposures, giving one of the figures a ghostly quality.
His first ghostly image taken in March of 1861 was a total accident. He took a self-portrait in a friend’s studio using a plate that already was exposed. This image was circulated as a gag, and then fell into the hands of somebody at The Herald of Progress, a spiritualist journal. And from there his popularity exploded and his story began to change.
Soon, accounts of Mumler’s first self portrait were embellished with stories of his arm feeling numb. Some stories claimed he couldn’t take more than two or three spirit photographs a day, for connecting with the spirit world was exhausting work.
For just shy of two years, Mumler worked as a medium, taking portraits of living folks and “capturing” the spirits of their lost loved ones or sometimes lost strangers from beyond the grave.
These ghostly renderings became so popular that spiritualists hailed these photographs as scientific evidence of their beliefs. Even Mary Todd Lincoln had her photograph taken by Mumler.
In February 1863, a doctor sat for a portrait and when his spirit photograph developed, he recognized the spirit as a man who was very much alive. He was outraged and led the crusade to oust Mumler as a faker. Mumler was sued and acquitted, but his reputation was ruined.
The Getty owns an album of 39 Mumler spirit cartes-de-visite bound in a leather album. See each of the 39 spirit photographs here, or flip through the slideshow below to see the album handled by our fabulous cataloguer Miriam Katz.