William Mumler Spirit Photography

The story of photographer William Mumler and his famous spirit photography...

William Mumler was a spirit photographer, famous for capturing deceased relatives of his customers in photographs. The spirits would typically appear behind the person sitting in the photo, and were not visible at the time of the sitting. Mumler's photography created a sensation in the media, eventually causing him to be brought to trial for fraud. Though no one could ever prove his spirit photographs were fraudulent, the trial with testimony by famed circus owner PT Barnum, who purposely had a photo produced of himself with the assassinated President Lincoln standing behind, eventually ended William Mumler's lucrative career.

Beginning as a Boston jewelry engraver, William Mumler experimented with photography in his spare time. Apparently, he devised a method for producing spirit photographs that was undetectable to those whom he would allow to closely examine his process of producing spirits in photos. The first known spirit photograph was credited to Mumler in 1862, and was purportedly his own deceased relative appearing behind Mumler in the photo. This photo began his successful spirit photography business in Boston. By 1868, Mumler moved it to New York. The timing for spirit photography was right, for many lost loved ones in the Civil War. Also important to understand is that the rise of Spiritualism, the belief in spirits existing with and around the living, was on the rise and becoming a religion of sorts, itself. Spiritualists were all too eager to welcome proof of their claims which could be found in Mumler's photography.

William Mumler's work is intriguing, as he allowed many skeptics as well as photograph experts to fully examine his process from start to finish, including his equipment. No one was ever able to figure out how Mumler created his spirit photographs, as all of the known techniques of the day for creating similar apparitions were apparently not being employed by Mumler. Interestingly, those who investigated Mumler's process of creating the photos only noticed one thing: Mumler would put his hand on top of the camera while taking the picture to act as a medium.  However, no one was able to find anything different with his camera, plates, plate holder or anything else within Mumler's developing process.

However, his fraud trial was brought about after some of Mumler's ghosts were purportedly found to be living people, coupled with accusations swirling about that Mumler had broken into residences to steal photographs of deceased loved ones. These accusations coupled with others' ability to produce spirit photographs that looked similar, made William Mumler's work seem dubious. Mumler was eventually acquitted of the fraud charge, due to lack of proof of the claims against him; but the career of William Mumler was in effect ruined and he later died in poverty. Still, William Mumler was never proven a fraud, and this is remarkable given the number of photographic experts who examined his spirit photography from start to finish. Even using others' cameras, plates and chemicals, Mumler was able to produce spirits in photographs.

Recommended Reading: The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer by Louis Kaplan. This fine book includes William Mumler's biography, news coverage from the day, and numerous photographs by Mumler. It is a wonderful book that presents all information with his story.