William Mumler’s Spirit Photography
William Mumler, born in 1832, worked as a jewelry engraver in Boston. In his spare time, he would work as an amateur photographer, taking photographs of himself and his family.
In 1860, he took a self-portrait that appeared to feature an apparition behind him. The photo would go on to become the first ever “spirit photograph” — a photograph of a living person with the imprint of a deceased person behind them.
Realizing that there could be a market for these photos, Mumler quit his job as a jeweler to pursue spirit photography as a full-time gig.
As it happened, his wife was a “healing medium” who claimed to be able to contact the spirits of dead loved ones. The two began a relatively lucrative business of contacting and photographing people with their deceased loved ones.
One of the most famous of Mumler’s photos features Mary Todd Lincoln seated in a chair, with the ghost of her dead husband supposedly hovering behind her.
Mumler claimed that he didn’t realize his subject was the former first lady, instead believing her to be a “Mrs. Tundall.” President Lincoln as well seemed to be a favorite of Mumler’s, as he appeared in several spirit photographs.
However, Mumler’s fame was short-lived, as he was soon accused of being a fraud. Apparently, some friends of the “spirits” in the photos pointed out that they were still among the living, and that their images had been forged.
Mumler was eventually taken to trial and almost convicted of fraud after famed collector of oddities and Mumler critic P.T. Barnum revealed Mumler’s trick when he had a friend produce a “spirit photograph” just like Mumler’s. Although Mumler was nevertheless acquitted, his career was ruined.
Today, all of Mumler’s works are considered fake photos, a mere product of an ordinary double exposure technique.