The Mysterious Photographs of William Mumler

When we think of ghost photography we generally like to think about advanced cameras with filters that reveal more than meets the eye when encountering a ghost.  But it may come as a surprise to some that some of the most incredible photography was taken by an engraver by the name of William Mumler.  Among the photographs he took were some big names, even including Abraham Lincoln – years after his death.

In testing out his camera in 1861, William Mumler took a photo of himself.  Taking it back to his dark room he developed it and was shocked to see a defect on the frame despite the studious and careful manner he had employed to develop the photograph.  Hoping to discover the source of the mysterious shape in the photo he scrutinized it under a magnifying glass – and discovered it was not a mistake he had made at all.  It was a crystal clear image of his cousin standing behind him.  This would be unusual to begin with, but he quickly recalled that his cousin had died years before.  He took it to a local trailblazer in the newly emerging discipline of photography and had him look at it.  William Black studied the image, skeptical at first upon hearing Mumler’s claim.  After studying the image he found it to be genuine.  It was one of the earliest cases of an entirely new phenomenon – ghost photography.

The spiritualist movement, which was quickly gaining momentum, soon found an outlet for Mumler’s mysterious photographs.  Quickly he discovered that as he continued to take photos more people started appearing.  This eventually reached the pinnacle of his career when he encountered Mary Todd Lincoln and photographed what is believed to be one of the earliest photos of Abraham Lincoln’s ghost in 1869.

The photos are still considered today to be some of the most interesting of the time, though quickly similar photographers started marketing double exposure pictures as novelty contact with the spiritual realm.  It is still unknown today whether Mumler was a hoaxer hoping to give people a look into the spiritual realm and finding it difficult to compete with the incredible displays put on by spiritualists and mediums, or if he genuinely stumbled upon something beyond explanation.  Generally, Mumlers photographs do end up being lumped in with all of the others of the era, despite catching the attention of the Lincoln widow for his unique paranormal photographs.  One of the interesting things in the photo of Lincoln in particular is how the hands seem to be holding her shoulders with the arm and body then passing behind her obscuring the apparition.

It could have all been an elaborate hoax.  Certainly by today’s standards there are ways of faking photographs like these.  But there is something about the idea of Mumler in particular that interested mediums and the spiritual.  Perhaps it was the photographs he took, or perhaps it was how genuine he seemed while doing it.