Spirit Photography

Spirit photography was a commercially successful occupation from the 1860s to the 1890s. A person wanting a spirit photograph would go to a photography studio operated by a medium claiming to specialize in getting spirits to sit before the camera. The person would then have his or her picture taken, and upon the development of the glass plate (the era’s equivalent of today’s flexible film), there would often be an image of a deceased loved one beside the image of the living subject. The first spirit photograph was apparently made in Boston in 1862, when a professional photographer named Mumler displayed a self-portrait that had a ghostly image in the background. This image resembled Mumler’s cousin, who had died twelve years earlier, and Mumler claimed that he knew how to take pictures of other people’s dead relatives as well. He set up a thriving business in spirit photography but had to leave Boston when some of his background “spirit” images were recognized as Mumler’s employees in various costumes. Mumler later resurfaced in New York, where he was eventually accused of fraud and put on trial. His case was dismissed when several of his former clients stepped forward to defend his work as legitimate. The witnesses remained certain that they had seen spirits of their loved ones.

Nonetheless, Mumler lived in a time when photographers were well aware of a technique called the double exposure, whereby the photographer takes one picture on top of another using the same photographic plate. Mumler could easily have taken a picture of a “spirit” prior to his client’s sitting, then photographed his client on the same plate. Other so-called spirit photographers from the period used a similar method to put the figure of a famous deceased person in their pictures. They would cut out the face of Abraham Lincoln, or some other historical figure, for example, place it on a background, and photograph it as part of a double exposure.

Another way to create a false spirit photograph was to use a dummy. One spirit photographer named Buger, who worked in both Paris and London during the 1870s, employed a dummy whose head could be replaced. With a variety of heads to choose from, he was able to closely approximate the appearance of the deceased, based on details his clients unwittingly revealed about their loved ones. But just as with Mumler, when Buger was arrested for fraud and put on trial in 1875, his clients refused to believe they had been tricked— even though Buger confessed to the crime. They thought his confession had been coerced, and even when shown the dummy, they still denied that it could possibly have been used to make the images in the spirit photographs they had purchased. In the 1890s, however, with the advent of movies and the obvious special effects that cinematographers employed, people finally began to realize that what they saw in photographs did not necessarily reflect the truth.


  • Photographic evidence of Paranormal Phenomena


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning

Leave a Comment