The Strange World of Spirit Photography

Read more about Seance in Sepia here.

In my newest Victorian mystery novel, Séance in Sepia, I invite the reader to enter the strange world of spirit photography. This was a very real phenomenon that flourished during the second half of the Nineteenth Century and well into the early Twentieth.

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. 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." 

He also defended a contemporary spirit photographer of his named William Hope. Some of Hope's photos inspired my descriptions of spirit photographs in Seance in Sepia.

Read the first two chapters of Séance in Sepia by clicking here.

Available from Amazon.com.


Liz said...

What faith in photography.

Somewhere I read that photographs were taken of the eyes of several of Jack the Ripper's victims, in the hopes that his image would be impressed there.

Michelle Black said...

Liz--That is interesting information about the Ripper murders. Wouldn't it be great if that really happened--that our last vision was recorded on our retinas?