The Steampunk Heart of Victorian Spirit Photography

The cover image for SÉANCE IN SEPIA 

Spirit photography embodies the ultimate Steampunk conceit: it represents the nexus of two of the biggest Victorian obsessions--technology and the occult.

What was spirit photography? 

The first commercial spirit photographer set up shop in Boston in the early 1860's. His name was William Mumler and his photographs were an instant sensation. He soon moved to New York to further his reputation and success. The massive loss of life during the Civil War spurred interest in making contact with the departed. Séances were more than a popular parlor entertainment. A large percentage of the population sincerely believed they could contact spirits of deceased loved ones using the services of a medium.

Mumler began to conduct séances in his photographic studio and, because the technology represented by the new invention of photography, his spirit photographs had added credibility.  Technology was scientific and science couldn't lie, right? 

His most famous sitter was the recently widowed Mary Todd Lincoln whose portrait seems to show a spectral Abraham Lincoln standing behind her.

Harper's couldn't resist lampooning the Mumler trial in the cartoon
There were doubters, of course. P.T. Barnum and others charged Mumler with fraud, claiming that some of his ghost images belonged to living persons. The May 8th, 1869, issue of Harper's Weekly Magazine reported, "If there is a trick in Mr. Mumler's process it has certainly not been detected as yet. To all appearances spiritual photography rests just where the rappings  and table-turnings have rested for some years. Those who believe in it at all will respect no opposing arguments, and disbelievers will reject every favorable hypothesis or explanation. " 

Mumler was acquitted, but his reputation was damaged by the charges. Spirit photography's most famous proponent was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. In 1925, he wrote "The Case for Spirit Photography." 

A fascinating website is available from avid spirit photography collectors, Jack and Beverly of the BrightBytes Studio. They not only own an impressive collection of original spirit photographs, but offer a wealth of information and links to other sites on the subject.

In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art created an exhibit on the subject of Spirit Photography.  A beautiful coffee table-sized book called "The Perfect Medium" was produced from the exhibition and is still available on Amazon.

My forthcoming novel, SÉANCE IN SEPIA, is a Victorian mystery delving into the world of spirit photography. Real life feminist Victoria Woodhull is featured as the protagonist in that, before she was the first female presidential candidate and the foremost proponent of Free Love and other radical causes, she was a spiritualist and even served as the president of the American Association of Spiritualists in the mid-1870's. (for more information on Victoria, please see my previous post here.)