Dan Meinwald



[intro] [part 1] [part 2] [part 3] [part 4] [part 5] [part6]



If many Americans of the nineteenth century tended to deny death, it was not on ideological principle. After the middle of the century, however, a belief in Spiritualism provided large numbers of people with a philosophic and even, in many cases, a religious basis for the denial of death. Spiritualism, which began in America, and spread quickly to many parts of the Western world, was not an organized movement. It had no unified doctrine except the conviction that the human spirit survived the death of the body. This conviction was based on what, for Spiritualists, was the indisputable fact that the spirits of the dead could communicate with the living.

Though a belief in the existence of spirits is common in many societies, Spiritualism sought to transform this belief into empirically verifiable fact. In a society making a transition from a religious to a rational, materialist world view, Spiritualism, which combined the two positions, was particularly attractive. Organizations were formed, journals published, and public and private activities of all kinds took place. The issue of human survival of death was one of considerable interest and debate, and the data available as proof were found acceptable by many people, at every level of society.84

Much of this evidence was derived from mediumistic seances, and took a wide variety of forms, from knockings, rappings, and table tilting to the materialization of objects and spirit beings. Photography became another form of evidence in 1861, when William Mumler, an engraver for a Boston jewelry firm, announced that he had not only made a successful photograph of a spirit, but had been able to obtain repeatable results. He went into business as a spirit photographer, providing pictures for ten dollars apiece at a time when a normal portrait photograph could be obtained for a few cents. The procedure was not substantially different from a normal portrait sitting. The person desiring a photograph of a deceased friend or relative would simply pose as if for their own picture. The spirit "extra," as it was called, did not appear in the studio, but in the negative and the subsequent print.85

Response to Mumler's announcement in the Spiritualist press is typified by this quote from an 1863 editorial:

If [spirits] can appear and throw their image upon a glass, so as to be visible to us, the whole question of impossibility falls, for the photographer's art is merely the preserving of such an image when once thrown upon his camera or plate.86

Photographers nevertheless tended to be skeptical, as indicated by this editorial in the American Journal of Photography:

How wonderful is the recent progress of our art! We now in the usual way go through the process of having our picture taken, but when the finished photograph is presented, lo! beside our lovely image is the attendant spirit, a babe, or a grandfather, or an unknown!... spirit photographs show, that the spirits dress in clothes of earthly fashion, that they sit in chairs, and that in sitting for their pictures they put on the smirks which some have supposed peculiar to mortals.87

By 1869, Mumler had moved his operation to New York City, where he was promptly arrested and charged with public fraud, larceny, and obtaining money under false pretenses.88 The arguments of the defense and prosecuting attorneys during the highly-publicized trial correspond precisely to the opposing sides of the argument over spirit photography itself. Mumler's defense attorney argued that Mumler used ordinary photographic methods, and that his success in obtaining spirit figures was not subject to his control. He also stressed that Mumler's procedures had been scrutinized and no evidence of deception found, and that many customers had recognized the features of departed loved ones in his pictures, even in cases in which no likenesses of these persons existed. The fact that many of the spirit "extras" in Mumler's photographs had been identified was the central feature of the defense attorney's argument. How, he asked, could identifiable spirit portraits be produced by fraudulent means?

The prosecutor offered a simple explanation. He suggested that the vagueness of the spirit forms in Mumler's photographs left most of the matter of identification to the imagination, and that the sitters credulously imagined that they saw what they wished to see. In his words:

Those who went to [Mumler] prepared to believe, of course did believe on very slight proof.... that is all this evidence [of recognition] proves. It proves the existence of a belief in the prisoner's statements, not the truth of those statements."89 (Emphasis in original.)

Though the prosecutor was certainly correct in this assessment, the argument can be made to work both ways. The Spiritualists, who wanted to believe Mumler, looked only at the evidence that supported their belief. The skeptics, on the other hand, did not want to believe Mumler, and did precisely the same thing. Since the two beliefs were diametrically opposed, it was impossible for either side to convince the other. The veracity of photography was never at issue. Both sides believed implicitly that photographs could not lie, and both arguments in fact depended upon that presumption.

The real conflict, therefore, was between a belief system that included the existence of spirits and one that did not. The ideological nature of the conflict was made explicit by the prosecutor, who attacked Spiritualism on religious grounds. Spiritualism, he passionately asserted, was "antagonistic to the Christian religion."90 Though the weight of public opinion was clearly on the prosecutor's side, neither attorney proved his case, and the judge dismissed the charges for lack of evidence.

While mentions of other spirit photographers turn up in the Spiritualist literature of the period, most of them wisely avoided publicity, moving from place to place, quietly catering to the Spiritualist community. The next spirit photographer to receive wide attention was the first practitioner in England, Frederick Hudson, who emerged in the early 1870s.

Detailed descriptions of sittings with Hudson are provided by Miss Georgiana Houghton, author of the first book on spirit photography, which is essentially a series of such descriptions.91 To say that Miss Houghton was a trusting and credulous person would be a grievous understatement. She lived her life under the guidance of a personal band of seventy archangels, who not only chose her home and the wallpaper and carpets to decorate it, but even directed her feet when she went for a walk. Since she believed implicitly in Hudson, her account often guilelessly reveals his methods. In one instance, she notes that Hudson's associate, a well-known medium, had been sitting behind the backdrop curtain, this being the location in which her spiritual influence was the most effective. The photograph made on that occasion shows a white-robed figure emerging from behind the curtain.

Other examples of Hudson's spirit photography indicate that British ghosts differ from American ghosts, the Old World spirits being swathed in supernatural drapery while in the New World they appear much the same as mortal beings, only less substantial. Though the drapery in Hudson's pictures frequently covered or obscured the faces of the spirit figures, they were no less recognizable to his customers than Mumler's. Miss Houghton, for one, frequently consulted her otherworld guides as to the identity of these figures, and always trusted their identifications.

Spiritualism in France took a somewhat different form than it had in England and America. In France, it became allied with the already-popular doctrine of Mesmerism, or Animal Magnetism. Mesmerism was both a pseudoscience and a system of healing derived from mystical tenets of the existence, within and around all living creatures, of a "subtle" or "etheric" body connected to all other living bodies in the universe.92 According to this doctrine, the etheric body exerts a "magnetic force," which can not only be transferred from one body to another, but transmitted through a conductive medium. For healing purposes, a large tub would be filled with bottles full of magnetized iron filings, under water. Patients, who would grip iron rods inserted into the tub, experienced bodily sensations which led to a convulsive state, and then to a cure.

The link of Mesmerism to Spiritualism came about through the fact that certain of Mesmer's patients exhibited features of what would later be called mediumistic trance. The link to spirit photography was made by a Parisian photographer named Buguet, who routinely had himself--and sometimes his camera--mesmerized before attempting spirit pictures. Buguet's career, which began in 1873, ended in 1875, when he was arrested on charges of swindling. His sensational trial followed the pattern of Mumler's in most respects, but differed in one significant particular: Buguet immediately confessed that he had never taken a genuine spirit photograph.

This nevertheless did not daunt Buguet's customers and supporters in the slightest. Witness after witness testified that they were satisfied that his pictures were authentic, and that they recognized the spirit figures as departed loved ones, even when confronted in the courtroom with the dummy heads, false beards, cheesecloth, and other paraphernalia with which the prosecutor insisted that Buguet had accomplished his results. One photograph caused a considerable stir when it was discovered that the spirit face, positively identified as belonging to a man dead for twelve years, actually belonged to a man very much alive, and very much annoyed to be serving as a spirit before his time.

The Spiritualist position in the scandal was that Buguet had made a false confession under duress, or in the interests of gaining leniency, and that his mediumship--and his photography--was genuine, though he may occasionally have resorted to trickery when his powers were at an ebb. This last argument was often used in cases in which mediums were accused of fraud. One editor even postulated that Buguet was under the influence of bad spirits, and used the opportunity to ponder whether it would be possible to ascertain why "good influences" acted at one time and bad ones at another, and how to tell the difference. Very few Spiritualists accepted Buguet's statement of guilt. He retracted his confession after the trial, but never attempted to re-establish himself as a spirit photographer.

The spirits in Buguet's photographs combine the drapery of Hudson's spirits with the incorporeal but clearly-defined faces of Mumler's. As opponents of Spiritualism frequently pointed out, these were all popular notions of the appearance of ghosts. The "extras" in these pictures were recognizable as spirits (if not necessarily the spirits of friends and relatives) because they matched the expectations of their viewers.

For believers in spirit photography, however, trickery was not an issue. Like Spiritualism itself, spirit photography fulfilled a genuine need. For Spiritualists, death was merely a state of being that existed after life. If it reassured them to believe that life did not terminate, their convictions differed only in degree from those of society at large. The majority sought the less extreme--and more conventional--means of assurance that their culture provided.

[intro] [part 1] [part 2] [part 3] [part 4] [part 5] [part6]