The Birth of Spirit Photography
Today we begin a three-part series in Spirit Photography by author PETER TOWNSEND. This week we look at how the Victorian era embraced photographing ghosts.
In the Victorian era photographing ghosts came to be known as spirit photography. Today, ghostly anomalies on photographs generate lively debate on the internet. Some people assert that these haunting images are authentic paranormal evidence of the return of the dead. In contrast, others will claim that they are merely random images, or even worse, crude and unconvincing fakes.
There is nothing new about this debate. In Victorian times there were a number of spirit photographers on both sides of the Atlantic claiming to have proof of ghosts of dead family members and friends reappearing on the photographs they had taken. Sceptics begged to differ, usually pointing their finger to fraud being involved.
An early pioneer of spirit photography was Boston engraver and keen amateur photographer William Mumler. When taking his self-portrait in 1861 he was stunned to see a strange face next to his on the developed plate. Mumler claimed it was the image of a cousin who had died some years earlier. He went on to build up a profitable trade as a spirit photographer. Critics claimed that the images were the result of double exposure techniques. His lucrative trade suffered, when allegations surfaced suggesting that a number of the ghostly images were in fact living Boston individuals.
As a response to this crisis Mumler decided to move his business to New York. Business was brisk, but it wasn’t long before he encountered problems. One of the influential men in New York, was the Supreme Court Judge, John Edmonds. He visited his studio, apparently convinced that Mumler was a fraud. However, he left the studio with the firm belief that these were genuine spirit photographs. Mumler was charged with fraud and brought to trial in 1868. The testimony of Judge John Edmonds could well have been one factor in ensuring that a not guilty verdict was reached.
Mumler paved the way for a long line of successors, both in the USA and UK. Ghostly photographs gained popularity, and this also fuelled the remarkable growth of the Spiritualist church.
In England, in the 1870s, there were a number of people engaged in spirit photography. One such person was Frederick Hudson, who worked closely with the medium Mrs Guppy. Critical voices within Spiritualism thought Hudson had prepared his plates in advance, or double-printed two negative plates into one print. Some even suggested that he had accomplices dressed up as ghosts. Problems came to a head after an article in the Spiritualist magazine on September 1872. It claimed that a number of plates revealed signs of double exposure. In one example given, it was said that the pattern of a background carpet was seen through the dress of a woman having her photograph taken.
Nevertheless, Hudson and fellow spirit photographers had a loyal band of followers. Many Spiritualists and other supporters took great comfort in photography as reliable evidence of the spirit world. This was summed up by Rev. H. R. Haweis when he stated: “Photograph me a ghost: chemicals have no fancies, plates don’t get nervous, and lenses tell no lies!”
Heavyweight support for spirit photography came from Sir William Crookes and Alfred Russell Wallace. Crookes, a noted chemist and physicist, studied spirit photography for many years and broadly believed in its authenticity. Wallace, eminent as the co-developer of the theory of evolution, believed spirit photography merited serious scientific study.
The Lord Combermere photograph, first taken in 1891 and later published in 1895, proved to be a sensation. Sybell Corbet took a very lengthy exposure of the Combermere Abbey library, when no one else but her was present. The figure of a man can be seen sitting in one of the chairs, believed to be the ghost of Lord Combermere. At the time Corbet was taking the photograph Combermere’s funeral was taking place a few miles away.
Sceptics would point out that a semi-transparent image could easily have appeared with a lengthy exposure – particularly if a servant had entered the room and sat in the chair for a fleeting moment. However, it was claimed that all servants and members of the household were attending the funeral at the relevant time.
The second article on spirit photography will follow the turbulent fortunes of spirit photography after World War 1. During this period famous figures such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini clashed on the practice of spirit photography. Conan Doyle is world famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but some readers today might be surprised to learn what his views were on spirit photography…and also on fairies!
NEXT Friday PETER TOWNSEND continues his series on Spirit Photography looking at spirit photography after the First World War
PETER TOWNSEND has written a novel about Victorian spirit photography, titled Ghostly Images. Peter was born in Sheffield and has a variety of interests including history, music and art. One of his current fascinations is the history of Victorian England. he now lives by the northeast coast of England and regularly walks on the local beach or on the cliff top path towards Whitby where Ghostly Images is set. The book is available from Amazon here. Visit his blog on ghostly images. Follow him on twitter