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The Birth and Death of Spirit Photography

Date Posted: January 29th, 2014

The Birth Of Spirit Photography

gm_10226501On this tour, we going to go back to 1861.  Here we see Mr. William Mumler working as a jewelry engraver in Boston.  He leaves his post for the day and goes home for dinner.  After dinner is over, he enters his make shift studio where he dabbles about with photography.  Playing with this new medium is something that he enjoys very much, but it is not something he can do to pay the bills, yet.

He decided to develop a self-portrait he took just the day before, and as the picture began to come into focus, he noticed what appeared to be the shadowy figure of a young girl floating beside him as he sat and posed for the portrait.  First assuming this was an accident, maybe a trace of an earlier negative made from the same plate, he discounted the mistake and moved onto other projects. 

Later friends of his arrived who had a strong belief in spiritualism (spiritualism was a system of belief or religious practice based on supposed communication with the spirits of the dead, esp. through mediums.  There was a large spiritualistic movement at the time with almost a third of Americans having belief in the practice and religion.), and he showed them some of his photographs.  Remember, at the time, photography was a fairly new medium and new technology.  It wasn’t readily available to the masses as it is today.  People didn’t walk around with cameras in their personal phones, a photography sitting took almost a whole day at the time.  One of the photographs that surfaced was the "mistake" that he made earlier.

A great discussion broke out over the picture.  Mumler’s friends insisted that the girl in the photograph resembled Mumler’s dead cousin.  Soon the unusual photo came to the attention of the spiritualist community, who proclaimed it to be the first photo ever taken of a spirit.

Mumler didn’t argue with them.  Instead he took advantage of the interest in the photograph to go into business as the world’s first spirit photographer, thus spirit photography was born.

He grew wealthy producing spirit photos for grief-stricken clients who had lost relatives in the Civil War.  People would line up to have their photograph taken by Mumler to see who would show up in their photographs.  Most of his clients where distraught since they just got the news that their loved one was killed while under fire, or that they newborn child did not survive through child birth.  Others would want to know what their spirit guide looked like or even how a long lost parent was doing in the afterlife.

One can just imagine Mumler’s studio on Washington Street in Boston.  His wife, Hannah, or an assistant greeted his clients on arrival, and after some preliminary chitchat, when the clients often-and helpfully-discussed the spirits they wished to appear, they went in for the sitting.  Hannah had a reputation as a clairvoyant, and she often commented about the spirits that surrounded her husband’s clients.  For Mumler’s part, he was as passive as a "vacuum tube," he explained, that glows when an electrical current is run through it-a force he then channeled into the camera. It was as simple as that.

Mumler had a very successful practice, sometimes charging upwards of $10 for a dozen photos.  This was almost 5 times the  going rate of other photographers, and there was no guarantee that a spirit would appear in the photograph.  Often times the "spirits" did not appear, and clients would have to make repeated visits to Mulmer’s studio until the spirits would reveal themselves.  Of course, the clients would be charged with each sitting accordingly.

Leaving Boston

Although he was very successful, Mumler attracted an enormous number of critics as well as supporters. Some members of the spiritualist community accused him of fraud, alleging that the "spirits" in his photo resembled people who were not only still alive, but who had sat for him recently.

Boston’s other photographers were less enchanted with Mumler the medium. James Black, famous for his aerial views of the city, assumed Mumler cheated, and he thought he knew how.  Black bet Mumler $50 that he could catch him at it. He examined Mum­ler’s camera, plate and processing system, and even went into the darkroom with him. In his auto­biography, Mumler described Black’s astounding disbelief when a ghostlike image emerged on the negative. "Mr. B., watching with wonderstricken eyes…exclaimed, ‘My God! Is it possible?’"

The technical question of how Mumler’s pictures were made was the subject of great speculation. In an 1863 essay for Atlantic Monthly , Oliver Wendell Holmes, himself an avid photographer, not only gave step-by-step instructions on how to obtain a double exposure ("An appropriate background for these pictures is a view of the asylum for feeble-minded persons…and possibly, if the penitentiary could be introduced, the hint would be salutary"), but also contemplated the popularity of Mumler’s pictures.

"Mrs. Brown, for instance, has lost her infant, and wishes to have its spirit-portrait taken," Holmes wrote. "It is enough for the poor mother, whose eyes are blinded with tears, that she sees a print of drapery like an infant’s dress, and a rounded something, like a foggy dumpling, which will stand for a face."

Holmes, a Bostonian and an intimate of Black, almost certainly had Mumler’s dubious shapes in mind when he penned those lines. While many of Mumler’s spirits indeed fail the "foggy dumpling" test, they are in general less theatrical than the sheet-draped stage spooks that haunt most 19th-century spirit pictures. Instead the apparitions in a Mumler photograph have human features, silky gestures and misty, entwining forms-up to the point where they melt away. They are spirits, not ghosts, and in that gentle difference lay the secret of Mumler’s success. Mumler depicted what spiritualists believed-that the afterlife was a paradise, a "summerland" with its own schools, farms and intimate relationships, exalted and deathless. The spirits in a Mumler picture are just people-if now more radiant-right down to their coiffure, their flowers, their clinginess and their clothes.

Business in Boston fell off for Mumler, however, as his apparitions were called hoaxes. There had been censure, too. Even prominent spiritualists had been stunned to discover that some of Mumler’s photographic spirits were in fact people still very much alive. Letters to newspapers in Boston publicized these double-exposures, and Mumler’s reputation suffered. The spirit photographer confessed nothing, but with business going bad, it was time for him to get out of town, so he left for New York and took up work at many different photography studios.

New York City

By early 1869, he was the best-known practitioner of spirit photography in New York. He had taken roughly 500 photographs and bought a studio at 630 Broadway. It was there that he photographed a Wall Street financier named Charles Livermore.

Livermore, himself a spiritualist, had been sent by the New York Sun as part of a team of investigators preparing a report on the photographer. Looking for the trick, he sat as still as a statue before the camera lens while Mumler counted off the seconds on his watch. With a flourish, Mumler replaced the lens cap and delicately retrieved the glass negative. In his dark closet, he floated the negative in a toxic bath to develop and fix the image.

Livermore observed as his features slivered in black traces through the white collodion that waxed the negative. Then, wondrously, another form etched into the glass, this one behind him, embracing him. He had been skeptical at first, but now, as he watched Mumler’s every move, he believed. Out of the emptiness, his dead wife returned to him. Her spirit seized him. Here, for all the critics and the skeptics, was the picture, here was the proof.

The Arrest and Trial

On March 16, 1869, another gentleman entered No. 630 Broadway. He introduced himself as William Bowditch and asked Mumler for a portrait with a dead relative. When he paid for his photograph but failed to see the spirit promised him, Bowditch pulled off his own act of revelation: He was, in fact, Joseph Tooker, New York City marshal, working undercover-the sharp end of an elaborate police sting being run against Mumler, courtesy of the office of the mayor, A. Oakey Hall.

Earlier in the month, a science editor at World newspaper had approached Mayor Hall with complaints against Mumler made by members of the Photographic Section of the American Institute of the City of New York (PSAI), a society of reputable photographers dedicated to advancing the science of photography. Seeking to keep the medium truthful, and realizing the medium’s power, the society had expressed outrage against Mumler and demanded action.

Tooker’s men arrested Mumler on April 12 for "swindling credulous persons by what he called spirit photographs," and, in a cruel stroke of irony for the world’s first spirit photographer, Mumler was incarcerated in New York’s most infamous prison: the Tombs.

"Spiritualism in Court," "A Stupendous Fraud," "The Alleged Spirit Photograph Swindle"- the New York papers swarmed over the news of Mumler’s arrest, their sensational headlines blaring like trumpets. "The intensity of the interest manifested by the public in this case has perhaps never been surpassed in reference to any criminal investigation in this city," exclaimed the New York Daily Tribune . On April 21, Judge Joseph Dowling opened the Court of Special Sessions, the police court for the Tombs, with a preliminary hearing into Mumler’s case. He would listen to counsel for both sides, weigh up the evidence and, if the facts warranted, put the case to the grand jury.

No members of the public displayed greater interest in the trial than the many spiritualists who filled the courtroom in support of Mumler. Newspapers had a field day describing their odd demeanor and appearances. The New York Times jibed that the women, "worn down" in their study of "ethereal essences," and the men "with sickly sentimental eyes, and cavernous, lantern-jawed physiognomies," seemed to "fill the room with a cold and clammy atmosphere." For the press, as for the prosecution, William Mumler would be only a symbol of the trial’s real accused: the modern spiritualist movement.

As the spectators settled into their places, prosecutor Elbridge T. Gerry rose and opened the trial by calling Marshal Tooker to the stand.  Tooker deftly related his experience purchasing spirit photographs from Mumler, and then, apparently satisfied that Tooker’s statement was definitive for the purposes of an indictment, Gerry rested for the prosecution.

Mumler had assembled a crack defense team for the hearing, led by an aggressive lawyer named John D. Townsend. The first witnesses Townsend called were photographers, all of whom had keenly scrutinized Mumler at work in his studio without detecting any chicanery. Townsend then summoned to the stand a parade of Mumler’s clients. One by one, these heart-sore people testified in defense of their oracle, clutching their spirit photographs, which were shown to the courtroom and entered into evidence.

Charles Livermore testified that it was indeed his wife in his photographs, an identification with which all of his friends agreed. "I went there with my eyes open, as a skeptic," Livermore said. He had tried to outwit Mumler: He made an appointment for a sitting on a Tuesday, but went on Monday, "to disconcert him. [I] suddenly changed my position so as to defeat any arrangement he might have made….I was on the lookout all the while." The two pictures of Livermore and his ghost wife appeared in the May 8, 1869, edition of Harper’s Weekly , which covered the trial and ran nine engravings of Mumler’s photos on its frontpage.

Judge John Edmonds, a former justice of the New York Supreme Court, astonished the assembled by testifying that not only could he see the dead, but he also often conversed with them during trials, when they assisted with his decisions. He told the court that he was satisfied with his pictures, as the spirits were "charmingly pretty."

Perhaps the most heart-rending testimonial came from Luthera Reeves, who identified the spirit in her picture as a son she had lost. Her boy, she explained, had suffered from the same curvature of the spine as the spirit. It must be him.

With these witnesses, Townsend opened a gaping sinkhole at the prosecution’s feet: How could Mumler be accused of cheating people who clearly claimed to see their loved ones in his pictures?

Realizing now that the prosecution had rested too soon and could not rely solely on Tooker’s testimony to prove Mumler a fraud, prosecutor Gerry reopened his case. Gerry summoned his own battery of photographers, each of whom laboriously explained how using double exposures, costumed confederates, trick lenses and other arcane, but purely mechanical, devices, Mumler created his apparitions.

Witnesses for the Prosecution

mumler_barnum_large"A transparent lie on its face," declared one photographer, examining Charles Livermore’s picture, explaining how Livermore cast a shadow in one direction, while his wife’s spirit shadow slanted in the other, an affect which could only be achieved with two different light sources. The images must have been made separately. It was either a double exposure or a manipulated negative. And why should an ethereal vapor cast a shadow anyway?

Phineas Taylor "P.T." Bar-num was called as a witness for the prosecution and was his own greatest exhibition. As the country’s leading wizard of sham and spectacle, his appearance in the courtroom was a showstopper. A sort of expert on the artful deceptions popularly known as "humbugs," Barnum had re­cently published an exposé on spiritualism, excoriating its leading adherents as "blasphemous mountebanks and impostors." In this same book, Barnum described his purchase some years before of spirit photographs, which he displayed in his museum. Now Barnum testified that the man he had purchased those pictures from was none other than William Mumler. In letters they exchanged, Barnum claimed, Mumler had essentially confessed his pictures were fakes. Alas, Barnum said, the letters were lost when his museum burned down in 1865.

Defense attorney Townsend’s cross-examination of Barnum was character assassination leavened with bursts of pure farce. "He is a man who smells of fraud in the very nostrils of the people of New York," Townsend said. When Barnum could not produce any of the letters he had purportedly received from Mumler, Town­send accused Barnum of lying. He also declared that Barnum, the purveyor of such dubious curiosities as the "Feejee mermaid" and "the woolly horse," was an even greater "humbugger" than simple William Mum­ler. Barnum responded testily that he did not display anything that did not give people their money’s worth "four times over."

The Decision

As the trial twisted its way through this catacomb of fantasy and despair, Mumler remained a "calm and fathomless" presence in the courtroom, with "a face which one would scarcely be able to believe in at first sight." On May 3, the photographer rose for the first time to address the court. Again, he confessed nothing: "I positively assert that in taking the pictures, I have never used any trick or device, or availed myself of any deception or fraud."

When Mumler finished, Townsend and Gerry stepped forward to give their closing remarks. Townsend spoke first, rousing himself for two hours of "powerful and highly finished" argument. "Men like these would have hung Galileo, had he lived in their day," Townsend thundered, oratorically thumping the prosecution and its witnesses.

Gerry swatted back with a "lengthened dissertation" that roved through hallucinations, Biblical phantoms, the heathenish nature of spiritualism and the nine methods of faking spirits. "There is no positive proof whatever of any spiritual agency," in Mumler’s photographs, Gerry exclaimed. "Only evidence that certain persons believe it exists."

And then, without much further ado, Judge Dowling announced his decision with a verdict fogged in ambiguity. The judge shared Gerry’s belief that Mumler was crooked, pronouncing himself "morally convinced," that Mumler had practiced "fraud and deception." And then he set the photographer free. Prosecutor Gerry had not pinpointed Mumler’s trickery and, therefore, had not made his case.

It was a decision that satisfied neither party. Did Judge Dowling take the easy way out with this mixed decision? Or did he take a deeper view and conclude that in matters of belief there are degrees of reality and degrees of truth, and it was not in his power to decide upon them? In any event, Mumler was released, and his comrades in the movement of the "new light" rejoiced that their martyr had escaped the bonds of the Tombs.

Return to Boston

mumler_lincoln_c1871Even though Mumler had garnered a certain amount of fame from the case, he left New York immediately after the trial. He had accumulated thousands of dollars worth of legal fees and decided to return to Boston, where he opened another studio, this time in diminished circumstances in his mother-in-law’s home at 170 W. Springfield St.

He continued his strange profession there, photographing believers  and providing them with dubious jewels of consolation. Mumler understood that this belief is its own fact, its own vision. That insight, beyond whatever devices he employed in the dark room, was the most cunning tool in his trick-bag of deceptions.

One evening A woman of dark mystery appeared at William Mumler’s Boston studio in 1871 to have her photograph taken. Attired in mourning, she gave the well-known photographer a false name and kept her faced concealed behind a black veil. "I requested her to be seated, went into my darkroom and coated a plate," Mumler said four years later in his autobiography. "When I came out I found her seated with her veil still over her face. I asked if she intended to have her picture taken with her veil. She replied, ‘When you are ready, I will remove it.’ " She was used to dealing with mediums and knew how to prevent their tricks. Her dead husband had appeared to her at a séance while she was in Boston , and now she wanted her picture with him. Mumler would later claim that he did not recognize her until the negative had been developed, which revealed Mary Todd Lincoln embraced by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.

Shattered by her husband’s assassination and the loss of three of her four sons, dead before their 18th birthdays, Mary Lincoln cleaved to spiritualism, the belief that spirits of the dead can be contacted through mediums. She must have been satisfied, even consoled by the image, but to the objective eye, this photograph of Mary Lincoln is a touching, if sadly preposterous, fake. Nonetheless, it was Mumler’s most famous portrait.

It is believed to be the last photo ever taken of Mrs. Lincoln, who died in 1882.

Mumler’s Lincoln image is his most reproduced photograph, yet the former first lady’s patronage was no mark of improvement in Mumler’s fortunes. He died in 1884 holding patents on a number of brilliant photographic techniques, including Mumler’s Process, which allowed publishers to directly reproduce photographic illustrations in newspapers, books and so forth. Indeed, his skill as a photographer rivaled his talents as a con artist, but he was somehow still poor.  In spite of it all, he maintained to the end that he was "only a humble instrument" for the revelation of a "beautiful truth." Should there be any doubt, Mumler destroyed all of his negatives shortly before he died.

Mumler published an autobiography in 1875, but his career was in decline. He stopped producing spirit photos in 1879. When he died in 1884 he was, by most accounts, penniless.

Resources:

http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/…
http://www.historynet.c…

 

 

 

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