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The Spirit Photography Photography of William H. Muller from the late 19th Century

Spiritualists believed the human soul exists beyond the body and that the dead can communicate with the living. After the Civil War, the US gained momentum in this concept developed in the 1850s. Mumler (1832–1884) believed he was capable of photographing the spirits of deceased loved ones. He made ghostly images by incorporating an existing picture of the deceased into a new photograph he took of the surviving relative. Highly publicized civil court trials marked his eight-year-long activity for fraud.

Thousands of families sought reassurance that their loved ones lived on after death through spirit photography due to the vast death toll caused by the American Civil War. Mumler worked as a jewelry engraver in Boston before becoming a spirit photographer. He created a self-portrait that appeared to feature the ghost of a long-dead relative in the early 1860s. This is widely acknowledged as the first spirit photograph, which features the likeness of a deceased person (often a relative) imprinted by the spirit of the deceased. Eventually, Mumler moved to New York City, where his work was analyzed by numerous photography experts, none of whom was able to find any signs of fraud. Mumler became a full-time spirit photographer, working in Boston and eventually moving to New York City.

A critic of Mumler’s work was P.T. Barnum, who claimed that Mumler exploited grief-stricken people’s judgment. Mumler had been accused, among many others, of staging ghosts of people who were still living and stealing photos of deceased relatives from houses. Barnum’s accusation was one of many in a chorus of accusations. When people realized that some of the supposed spirits were still alive, he was exposed as a fraud. Mumler was eventually brought to trial for fraud in April 1869. To demonstrate how easy it was to create spirit photographers, Barnum hired Abraham Bogardus to create a photograph that appeared to depict Barnum with Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. Moses A. Dow, a journalist Mumler had photographed, testified in support of Mumler. Mumler was acquitted because the prosecution could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the photographs were fabricated. As a result of the trial, some sources reported that he died penniless and disgraced, while others claimed that his business took off due to the publicity. After working in photography, Mumler developed a process by which photo-electrotypes could be made and printed as quickly as woodcuts (known as the “Mumler Process”). He died on May 16, 1884, and his obituary briefly mentioned the earlier spirit photography scandal in the last line.

#1 Portrait of Robert Bonner with a faint image of a woman behind him.

Portrait of Robert Bonner with a faint image of a woman behind him.

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#2 Photograph of a statuette and drawing on a side table, with a faint image of a woman and baby in the background.

Photograph of a statuette and drawing on a side table, with a faint image of a woman and baby in the background.

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#3 Portrait of a woman sitting in a chair, wearing a dark dress and with her eyes downcase.

Portrait of a woman sitting in a chair, wearing a dark dress and with her eyes downcase.

There is a faint image of a man with his arm raised visible behind her.

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#4 Portrait of Col. Cushman with a goatee. There is a faint image of a woman with bobbed hair above him.

Portrait of Col. Cushman with a goatee. There is a faint image of a woman with bobbed hair above him.

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#5 Portrait of John J. Glover, with a faint image of an old woman above him.

Portrait of John J. Glover, with a faint image of an old woman above him.

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#6 Portrait of Mrs. Tinkham with the spirit of her child.

Portrait of Mrs. Tinkham with the spirit of her child.

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#7 Portrait of Mrs. French, wearing a dark dress, holding a book in her lap. The faint image of a boy appears beside her.

Portrait of Mrs. French, wearing a dark dress, holding a book in her lap. The faint image of a boy appears beside her.

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#8 Portrait of Charles H. Foster with a mustache and goatee. A faint image of a woman appears above him.

Portrait of Charles H. Foster with a mustache and goatee. A faint image of a woman appears above him.

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#9 Profile portrait of a seated man with a goatee. A very faint image of a woman is visible above him.

Profile portrait of a seated man with a goatee. A very faint image of a woman is visible above him.

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#10 Portrait of Bronson Murray with full sideburns looking down. A faint image of a woman is visible above him.

Portrait of Bronson Murray with full sideburns looking down. A faint image of a woman is visible above him.

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#11 Small statuette and photograph on a side table, with the faint image of a young boy floating next to it.

Small statuette and photograph on a side table, with the faint image of a young boy floating next to it.

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#12 Small round table with a portrait sitting atop it, with the faint image of a group of five people, a man and four children, floating above it

Small round table with a portrait sitting atop it, with the faint image of a group of five people, a man and four children, floating above it

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#13 Profile portrait of Ella Bonner, with a faint image of a child visible next to her.

Profile portrait of Ella Bonner, with a faint image of a child visible next to her.

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#14 A portrait of Mr. Tinkham perched on a side table, with the faint image of a woman and baby next to it.

A portrait of Mr. Tinkham perched on a side table, with the faint image of a woman and baby next to it.

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#15 A small photograph propped against a vase of flowers on a side table. Faint images of a woman and two children are visible next to the table.

A small photograph propped against a vase of flowers on a side table. Faint images of a woman and two children are visible next to the table.

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#16 Unidentified young woman seated with her arms crossed. Faint images of three arms and flowers float over her head.

Unidentified young woman seated with her arms crossed. Faint images of three arms and flowers float over her head.

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#17 Portrait of a seated man, facing the camera with his arms folded across his chest.

Portrait of a seated man, facing the camera with his arms folded across his chest.

The faint image of a woman appears above him.

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#18 Portrait of a seated elderly woman, holding a book in her lap. Faint images of a woman and two men are visible above her.

Portrait of a seated elderly woman, holding a book in her lap. Faint images of a woman and two men are visible above her.

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#19 A photograph propped against an album on a side table, with the faint image of a woman next to it.

A photograph propped against an album on a side table, with the faint image of a woman next to it.

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#20 Portrait of L.A. Bigelow with mutton chop whiskers, with the faint image of a woman visible behind him.

Portrait of L.A. Bigelow with mutton chop whiskers, with the faint image of a woman visible behind him.

Her arms appear to come over his shoulders and rest on his chest, holding a tool of some sort between her two hands.

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#21 Portrait of Mrs. H.B. Sawyer, looking down at her hand. The faint image of a person is visible above her, with the faint image of a baby across her.

Portrait of Mrs. H.B. Sawyer, looking down at her hand. The faint image of a person is visible above her, with the faint image of a baby across her.

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#22 Profile portrait of a man with a beard seated in an upholstered chair, next to a side table. The faint images of three children appear behind him.

Profile portrait of a man with a beard seated in an upholstered chair, next to a side table. The faint images of three children appear behind him.

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#23 Portrait of a woman seated with her arms crossed. The faint image of a younger woman wearing a floral hair wreath appears above her.

Portrait of a woman seated with her arms crossed. The faint image of a younger woman wearing a floral hair wreath appears above her.

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#24 Portrait of a seated woman holding a guitar in her lap. A very, very faint image of a person is behind her.

Portrait of a seated woman holding a guitar in her lap. A very, very faint image of a person is behind her.

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#25 Portrait of a woman seated with her hands clasped in her lap.

Portrait of a woman seated with her hands clasped in her lap.

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#26 Portrait of William Lloyd Garrison with the faint image of a woman above him.

Portrait of William Lloyd Garrison with the faint image of a woman above him.

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#27 Portrait of Mrs. Conant with her arms crossed. The faint image of a bearded man appears above her.

Portrait of Mrs. Conant with her arms crossed. The faint image of a bearded man appears above her.

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#28 A framed portrait of Mr. Brown perched on a side table, with the faint image of a woman next to it.

A framed portrait of Mr. Brown perched on a side table, with the faint image of a woman next to it.

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#29 Portrait of Mrs. S.A. Floyd, wearing a dark dress with her arms crossed.

Portrait of Mrs. S.A. Floyd, wearing a dark dress with her arms crossed.

A faint image of a man wearing a toga-style wrap and feathers in his hair appears next to her.

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#30 Portrait of a bearded man, holding an open book in his lap. The faint image of a hand holding flowers is coming over one shoulder to his chest.

Portrait of a bearded man, holding an open book in his lap. The faint image of a hand holding flowers is coming over one shoulder to his chest.

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#31 A photograph propped against a vase of flowers on a side table, with the faint image of a woman reaching out with one arm next to the table.

A photograph propped against a vase of flowers on a side table, with the faint image of a woman reaching out with one arm next to the table.

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#32 Portrait of Mrs. Swan with her arms crossed. Faint images of a man and a woman reaching out her hand are next to Mrs. Swan.

Portrait of Mrs. Swan with her arms crossed. Faint images of a man and a woman reaching out her hand are next to Mrs. Swan.

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#33 Portrait of Master Herrod. Faint images of a man and a woman are visible behind him.

Portrait of Master Herrod. Faint images of a man and a woman are visible behind him.

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#34 A photograph propped against an album on a side table, with faint images of a woman and three men floating next to the table.

A photograph propped against an album on a side table, with faint images of a woman and three men floating next to the table.

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#35 Profile portrait of a seated man with a beard. A faint image of a woman is visible behind him.

Profile portrait of a seated man with a beard. A faint image of a woman is visible behind him.

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#36 Portrait of Harry Gordon looking down into his hand, while the faint figure of a bearded man appears behind him, with hands that seem to be placing a crucifix into the open hand of the sitter.

Portrait of Harry Gordon looking down into his hand, while the faint figure of a bearded man appears behind him, with hands that seem to be placing a crucifix into the open hand of the sitter.

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Written by Jacob Aberto

Sincere, friendly, curious, ambitious, enthusiast. I'm a content crafter and social media expert. I love Classic Movies because their dialogue, scenery and stories are awesome.

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