William Hope (1863–1933) was a famous spirit photographer, considered a genuine master by some and a consummate trickster by others. Although often accused of fraud, William Hope was never caught in trickery.
Hope was born in 1863 in Crewe, England. He became a carpenter. His talent for Spirit Photography first emerged about 1905, when he and a friend took turns photographing each other. In the picture which Hope took there was an “extra”—the image of a figure who was not physically present when the picture was taken—who turned out to be none other than his friends’ deceased sister.
After this episode, a group of six persons organized in the Spiritualist Hall at Crewe for the purpose of SPIRIT photography. This group became renowned as the Crewe Circle, and Hope was at its center. This early group destroyed all its original negatives, out of fear of being suspected of being in league with the Devil, until the Archdeacon Thomas Colley joined them. Colley had been a lifelong enthusiast of the psychic and of Spiritualism, and his support gave credence to the enterprise.
Ironically, Hope’s first brush with exposure came in Colley’s first sitting. When Hope doctored the spirit photograph, he mistakenly used the wrong extra, substituting another elderly woman for Colley’s mother. When Hope sought to confess to Colley, however, the clergyman dismissed it as nonsense, insisting that he could recognize his mother when he saw her. To prove his case, Colley put a notice in the newspaper asking for all who remembered his mother to meet him at the rectory. No fewer than 18 persons selected Hope’s photograph from among several others, as definitely representing the late Mrs. Colley.
A few years later, in 1921, there was another exposure— one which almost backfired on the accuser, and about which there remain questions. Hope had by this time moved to London and established himself at the British College of Psychic Science (BCPS). The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) saw the opportunity for an investigation of Hope’s claims and sent a new member, Harry Price, who had good knowledge of conjuring. Price reported what he claimed was evidence of trickery by Hope, but questions immediately arose about whether it was Price, and not Hope, who had tampered with the photographic plates. Author Brian Inglis observed that if Hope was a fraud, he almost certainly used a more sophisticated technique than the one Price charged him with.
Like all self-proclaimed Mediums, Hope had his supporters as well as his detractors. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle produced The Case for Spirit Photography (1923) in response to Price’s “exposure.” One of those who allied himself with Doyle at that time, Fred Barlow, of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures, later reversed himself. In the SPR Proceedings for March 1933, Barlow said that further experience enabled him to say quite definitely that Hope’s abilities were not psychic.
No less than Sir William Crookes and Sir William Barrett endorsed Hope, although Sir Oliver Lodge wrote that he had “not the slightest doubt” that the sealed packet of plates he sent to Hope had been opened before being returned to him. There is also reason to suspect trickery in Crookes’s case. The physicist was in his 80s in 1916 when he had his sitting, having just lost his wife. His assistant at the time, J. H. Gardiner, told Crookes’s biographer, E. E. Fournier d’Albe, that the negative from which Hope’s photograph of Lady Crookes was reproduced showed clear signs of double exposure, but that Crookes preferred to ignore these signs.
The Japanese researcher of “thoughtography” Tomokichi Fukarai used Hope as a subject when he visited London in 1928. (Thoughtography, a term coined by Fukarai, is a type of paranormal photography in which a living person psychically projects images onto photographic film, with or without the aid of a camera.) Hope died on March 7, 1933, at the age of 70.
- Barlow, Fred, and W. Rampling-Rose. “Report of an Investigation into Spirit Photography.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)41 (1933): 121–38.
- Inglis, Brian. Science and Parascience: A History of the Paranormal, 1914–1939. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.
- Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850–1914. London: Cambridge University Press, 1985.