Mumler, William H. (d. 1884)
The first practitioner of spirit photography. He lived in
Boston, Massachusetts, where he was employed as the head engraver
of the jewelry firm Bigelow, Kennard & Co. According
to his account, one day, in a friend’s studio, he tried to take a
photograph of himself by focusing the camera on an empty
chair and springing into position on the chair after uncapping
the lens. Upon developing the plate he discovered an extraneous
figure, a young, transparent girl sitting in the chair, fading
away into a dim mist in the lower parts. He identified the girl
as his cousin who had died twelve years before. The experiment
was repeated and he became satisfied that the extra faces appearing
on his plates were of supernatural origin. The news of
Mumler’s discovery spread and he was besieged with so many
requests for sittings that he gave up his position and became
a professional spirit photographer.
Among the first to investigate Mumler’s powers was Andrew
Jackson Davis, then editor of the Herald of Progress in New
York. He first sent a professional photographer to test Mumler
and on his favorable report conducted an investigation himself.
He was satisfied that the new psychic manifestation was genuine.
Mumler’s reputation was established and, as his fame grew,
he did tremendous business. His most famous picture was a
photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln on which appeared a spirit
portrait of the deceased president.
The first scandal, however, was not long in coming. It was
discovered that he obtained from time to time the spirit portraits
of men who were very much alive. Apologists claimed that
the pictures must be genuine since they had been recognized
by relatives and that the processes of production had been
properly supervised to obviate fraud. It was thought that the
living individuals might be doubles of the ‘‘spirits.’’ Mumler
himself could not explain the result, but eventually even local
Spiritualists accused him of trickery. Such a hue and cry was
raised that in 1868 he was forced to transfer his headquarters
to New York.
He prospered for a while until he was arrested by the order
of the mayor of New York on an accusation of fraud raised by
a newspaperman. The journalist, P. V. Hickey, of the New York
World, approached Mumler for a spirit photograph, giving a
false name, hoping to get a good story for his newspaper. However,
at the trial professional photographers and independent
citizens testified for Mumler and he was acquitted.
His further career was filled with ups and downs; Mumler
died on May 16, 1884, in poverty.
Aksakof, A. N. Animisme et Spiritisme. Reprint, Paris, 1985.
English ed. as Animism and Spiritism. Leipzig Oswald Meats,
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Mumler, William H. Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler
in Spirit Photography. N.p., 1875.
Sidgwick, Eleanor. ‘‘On Spirit Photography A Reply to Mr.
A. R. Wallace.’’ Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research
7 (1891).