Monday, December 5, 2011

Ghosts in the Library? Spirit Photography at the Clements


Mrs. H.F. Stuart, ca. 1865
One of the tools of the ghost-hunting trade is spirit photography, the attempt to capture images of ghosts. Early spirit photographs were usually portraits of living people with faint, ghostly images floating behind them. These figures, supposedly the impressions of departed loved ones, were actually produced by photographic editing methods such as double exposures.

William H. Mumler made the first known spirit photograph in 1862, a self-portrait which purportedly revealed the ghost of his cousin. Realizing the potential of this method, he went into business as a spirit medium, taking people's photographs and doctoring them to add images of the deceased.
The Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler (1875).
In 1869, Mumler was charged with fraud after he accidentally put identifiable living people into his photographs as supposed spirits. The famous showman P.T. Barnum testified against him, as well as several reputable photographers who showed how the same "spirit" effects could be produced by darkroom tricks. Although Mumler's reputation suffered, he continued to produce spirit photographs and even wrote a pamphlet about his work in 1875.

Interest in spirit photography continued into the early twentieth century. Its advocates included the author Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for his Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle became a fervent believer in spiritualism after the deaths of several family members. In 1923, he published The Case for Spirit Photography to argue that spirit photographs provided insurmountable technological evidence of the spirit world.
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case for Spirit Photography (1923).
Further reading:
"Do You Believe? The Mumler Mystery," online exhibit from The American Museum of Photography. 
Louis, Kaplan. The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

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