Boston

The Apparitions of William Mumler

Engraving of Mumler published in Harper's Magazine, May 1869. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Engraving of Mumler published in Harper's Magazine, May 1869. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Picking up a camera out of personal interest, the Boston jewellery engraver probably never imagined that any fame he’d garner would be for capturing the spirits of the dead.

This was the golden age of modern spiritualism; much of what we consider today as superstition was held as steadfast belief for many.  Spiritualists clung to anything that validated their beliefs, so when word got around that William Mumler was capable of producing photos of the dead, everyone flocked to him.

People sat poised in the hopes of seeing their loved ones, and many of them proclaimed Mumler’s legitimacy as the images of long-dead family members emerged from the negatives. Most of his clients had lost relatives in the Civil War and sought closure from his services. And while he advertised his work as a balm for the grieving heart, charging $5-10 for his compassion afforded him a rather comfortable lifestyle for that era.

Mumler welcomed numerous skeptics to investigate his process and catch where he was at fault; they all found nothing. His developing methods were standard, as was his equipment, and no one detected any possible sleight of hand. Every theory they prepared was not given a shred of solid, credible proof. It truly seemed that he was the real deal, and his fame spread with each attempt at debunking him.

It didn’t last. His business in spiritual photography soon declined in Boston, however, when even other mediums and spiritualists began denouncing his reputation. Mumler packed up shop and headed for New York, but he still wasn’t clear of accusations.

Mumler was charged with fraudulency and put under criminal investigation. At a hearing, multiple photographers voiced all of the potential ways trickery could produce a spectral figure, the most likely explanation being double exposure. But there were also many professional photographers who stood by Mumler, giving his case credibility in the courtroom.

Unknown woman with a spectral child, taken by Mumler. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Unknown woman with a spectral child, taken by Mumler. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It’s worth mentioning that Mumler never guaranteed his photos would produce any spirits. In his personal advertisements, he declared that his main object was to bring families comfort in their mourning.

Mumler’s defense team also arranged for a number of his clients to take the stand, and they all testified that the images were legitimate and provided the comfort they sought. In turn, the prosecution called upon Phineas Taylor Barnum (P.T. Barnum).

A well known showman and hoax artist, Barnum was known for revealing the truth of phony acts created to deceive people into forking over their dollars. He himself had lined his with pockets with money made from deceptions, his most famous being the “Feejee Mermaid”.

Barnum swore before the judge that he had, in the past, purchased some of Mumler’s photographs for his museum, and that Mumler himself admitted that they were all fake. But since Barnum was unable to provide the condemning letters, this part of his testimony held no weight in the courtroom.

However, Barnum was able to provide some key evidence against Mumler. He hired professional photographer Abraham Bogardus to take a photo of him and use it to recreate Mumler’s famed spirit photos. Bogardus easily duplicated a ghostly image of Abraham Lincoln into the background. But this was the only solid piece of evidence presented in the courtroom, and since duplication was still presented as only a potential method of deception, witnesses were divided amongst themselves.

In the end, the judge ended up dropping the charges due to the lack of substantial evidence against him, even though he also believed Mumler was a fraud. Mumler was free to leave the courtroom and continue conducting his business. 

However, his reputation had once again been dragged through the mud, and this time it was stained. 

Although the evidence brought before the judge was not enough to put Mumler behind bars, it was more than enough to turn away potential customers. The technical explanations professional photographers presented outweighed the lack of evidence in their minds. No one wanted to place their money on a scam. 

His works have since been discredited as acts of double-exposure since Mumler potentially had access to already existing photos of the deceased to develop over, thus creating the illusion of their spirit. As for how he would have accessed these photos, or how more professionally trained photographers were unable to catch any proof of fraudulency, one can’t say for sure.

In any case, Mumler destroyed all of his negatives before he died, so there is no longer any way to examine them further with today’s technology.

The only notable commission he received after his hearing would be from Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Aware of Mumler’s negative reputation, she was nonetheless still pleased with the results and found great comfort in the photograph for the rest of her days.

Eventually, his photography career would pick back up again, as he stopped taking commissions for spirit photos and only produced legitimate photos of living persons. His success would never reach its former heights, though.

But what about the people who swore the phantom figures held the likeness of their loved ones?

Most of Mumler’s photographs were not extremely detailed—most of the alleged spirits showed up as a blur or an outline. So the most logical explanation is that their loved ones appeared simply because they were desperate to see them again. Their minds made the likenesses out of the obscure lines just to once again have something tangible to cling to.

Perhaps the true deceptor was in their own minds.

The photo taken of Mary Todd Lincoln, found on Wikimedia Commons.

The photo taken of Mary Todd Lincoln, found on Wikimedia Commons.

The only notable commission he received after his hearing would be from Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Aware of Mumler’s negative reputation, she was nonetheless still pleased with the results and found great comfort in the photograph for the rest of her days.

Eventually, his photography career would pick back up again, as he stopped taking commissions for spirit photos and only produced legitimate photos of living persons. His success would never reach its former heights, though.

But what about the people who swore the phantom figures held the likeness of their loved ones?

Most of Mumler’s photographs were not extremely detailed—most of the alleged spirits showed up as a blur or an outline. So the most logical explanation is that their loved ones appeared simply because they were desperate to see them again. Their minds made the likenesses out of the obscure lines just to once again have something tangible to cling to.

Perhaps the true deceiver was in their own minds.


Michelle Bonga

Michelle is a wandering soul. She doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life. She hopes she’s doing something right. She is a great person to talk to; doesn’t talk much herself. If you’re nice, she’ll haunt you forever. Or until she’s bored.

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