Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Spiritualist Photography Hoax–William H. Mumler


William H. Mumler (1832–1884) was an American spirit photographer who worked in New York and Boston. His first spirit photograph was a self-portrait which developed to apparently show his deceased cousin. 

Mumler then left his job as a jeweler, instead opting to work as a full time photographer, taking advantage of the large number of people who had lost relatives in the American Civil War. Perhaps his two most famous works are the photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband Abraham Lincoln, and his photo of Master Herrod, a medium, with three spirit guides.

After being accused of various activities, he was taken to court for fraud, with noted showman P. T. Barnum testifying against him. Though found not guilty, his career was over, and he died in poverty. Today, Mumler's photos are considered to be fakes.


Before beginning his career as a spirit photographer, Mumler worked as an engraver in Boston, practicing amateur photography in his spare time. In the early 1860s, he developed a self-portrait that appeared to feature the apparition of his cousin who had been dead for 12 years. This is widely credited as the first "spirit photograph"—a photograph of a living subject featuring the likeness of a deceased person (often a relative) imprinted by the spirit of the deceased. Mumler then became a full-time spirit photographer, and moved to New York where his work was analyzed by numerous photography experts, none of whom could find any evidence that they were fraudulent. Spirit photography is thought to have been a lucrative business thanks to the families of those killed during the American Civil War seeking reassurance that their relatives lived on.
Critics of Mumler's work included P. T. Barnum, who claimed Mumler was taking advantage of people whose judgment was clouded by grief. After the discovery that some of Mumler's 'ghosts' were in fact living people, and accusations that he had broken into houses to steal photos of deceased relatives, Mumler was brought to trial for fraud in April 1869. Barnum testified against him, hiring Abraham Bogardus to create a picture that appeared to show Barnum with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln to demonstrate the ease with which the photos could be created. Those testifying in support of Mumler included Moses A. Dow, a journalist who Mumler had photographed. Though acquitted of fraud, Mumler's career was ruined and he died in poverty in 1884. Today, his photos are considered hoaxes.


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