Spirit Photography
The production of photographs on which alleged spirit
forms are visible. When the plate or film is developed there
sometimes appears, in addition to the likeness of the sitters at
a séance, a shape resembling more or less distinctly the human
form, which at the moment of exposure was imperceptible to
normal vision.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Spiritualists asserted
that there were photographs of spirits (the spirits of departed
friends and relatives of the sitters) and that the presence
of a medium was generally required to facilitate their production.
Even though the main evidence in favor of spirit photography
rests on recognition of the supposed spirit by the sitter
and others, the ‘‘astral figure’’ is often very vague and indistinct,
with the head and shoulders enveloped in close-clinging
draperies.
The practice of ‘‘spirit photography’’ originated in the United
States in the nineteenth century and enjoyed a fitful existence
through the 1930s. It was first introduced in 1862 by William
H. Mumler, a Boston photographer. A Dr. Gardner, of
the same city, was photographed by Mumler, and on the plate
appeared an image that the sitter identified as his cousin, who
had died 12 years before. Gardner published his experience,
and the new spirit photography was at once adopted by Spiritualists,
who saw in it a means of proving their beliefs. In 1863,
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however, Gardner discovered that in at least two instances a living
model was the subject of Mumler’s ‘‘spirit’’ pictures. Although
he continued to believe that some of the photographs
might be genuine, his exposure of Mumler as fraudulent effectively
checked the movement for a time.
After a lapse of six years, Mumler appeared in New York,
where the authorities endeavored to prosecute him, but the evidence
against him was insufficient to prove fraud, and he was
acquitted.
Spirit photography had flourished in the United States for
some ten years before it became known in Britain. Samuel
Guppy and his wife, Agnes Guppy-Volckman, the well-known
Spiritualist mediums, endeavored without success to produce
spirit photographs in private, and at length called for the assistance
of Frederick A. Hudson, a professional photographer.
A photograph of Guppy revealed a dim, draped ‘‘spirit’’ form.
Hudson speedily became popular, and his studio was as
largely patronized as Mumler’s had been. He found support
from several outside observers. Thomas Slater, a London optician,
made careful observations of his process without being
able to detect any fraud. John Beattie, a professional photographer
and something of a skeptic, made the following statement
concerning Hudson’s performances ‘‘They were not made by
double exposure, nor by figures projected in space in any way;
they were not the result of mirrors; they were not produced by
any machinery in the background, behind it, above it, or below
it, nor by any contrivance connected with the bath, the camera,
or the camera-slide.’’ Trail Taylor, editor of the British Journal
of Photography, said that ‘‘at no time during the preparation, exposure,
or development of the pictures was Mr. Hudson within
ten feet of the camera or darkroom. Appearances of an abnormal
kind did certainly appear on several plates.’’
Such testimonies as these from the lips of skilled and disinterested
witnesses would naturally seem to raise spirit photography
to the level of a genuine psychic phenomenon. But a
careful analysis of the evidence, such as is given by Eleanor
Sidgwick in her article ‘‘On Spirit Photographs . . .’’ in the Proceedings
(no. 8, 1891) of the Society for Psychical Research
shows how even a trained investigator can be deceived by
sleight of hand. And it is notable that Beattie himself afterward
pointed out instances of double exposure in Hudson’s productions.
In spite of this, Hudson continued to practice, and various
Spiritualist magazines continued to lend him their support,
with the notable exception of the Spiritualist, whose editor, himself
a practical photographer, had aided John Beattie in denouncing
spirit photography. Another enthusiastic Spiritualist,
Enmore Jones, who at first claimed to recognize a dead daughter
in one of the pictured ‘‘spirits,’’ afterward admitted that he
had been mistaken.
Those who had pinned their faith to the genuineness of the
photographic manifestations were naturally unwilling to relinquish
their belief in what they considered sure proof of the reality
of the spirit world, and ingenious explanations were offered
to cover the circumstance of the apparent double exposures.
The spirit aura, they said, differed from the natural atmosphere
in its refracting power, and it was not to be wondered
at that objects were sometimes duplicated. And so Hudson retained
a considerable measure of popularity.
In 1874 the Paris photographer Édouard Buguet crossed
over to London and commenced the practice of spirit photography.
Many of the purported spirits in his pictures were recognized
by his clients, and even when he had been tried by the
French government and had admitted deception there were
those who refused to regard his confession as spontaneous, inclining
to believe that he had been bribed by ‘‘Jesuits’’ to confess
to fraud of which he was innocent.
Other spirit photographers were F. M. Parkes, a contemporary
of Hudson, and Richard Boursnell, who produced spirit
pictures in London in later years.
The principal evidence in favor of spirit photography is undoubtedly
the recognition of the spirits by their friends and relatives,
but the unreliable nature of such a test has been seen
time and again when a single ‘‘spirit’’ has been claimed by several
persons as a near relative.
One of the most prominent defenders of the mediumistic
photographers was W. Stainton Moses (who wrote under the
pseudonym M. A. Oxon), who saw in them the best proof of the
reality of Spiritualism. The same view was shared by Alfred
Russel Wallace, who said (Arena, January 1891), ‘‘It is that
which furnishes, perhaps, the most unassailable demonstration
it is possible to obtain of the objective reality of spiritual
forms.’’
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the whole idea of spirit
photography was called into question by psychical researchers.
In 1933 Fred Barlow and W. Rampling Rose presented the results
of their research to the Society for Psychical Research and
indicated that they had been unable to locate any spirit photographs
not produced fraudulently. Their opinion has remained
the consensus opinion of parapsychologists in the decades
since. No set of photographs have been offered in recent
decades for serious consideration as genuine spirit images.
‘‘Spirits’’ are not the only paranormal effects claimed in psychic
photography. Many photographs have been produced
that allegedly show ‘‘spirit writing,’’ some on photographic
plates not exposed in a camera (see Skotograph). In modern
times, Ted Serios of Chicago has produced what appear to be
‘‘thought pictures’’ of distant scenes on Polaroid film. The Japanese
investigator Tomobichi Fukurai used the term thoughtography
to denote ‘‘paranormal’’ images on photographic
materials.
Sources
Barlow, Fred, and W. Rampling Rose. ‘‘Report on an Investigation
into Spirit-Photography.’’ Proceedings of the Society for
Psychical Research 41 (1933) 121–38.
Christopher, Milbourne. Mediums, Mystics, and the Occult.
New York Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975.
Coates, James. Photographing the Invisible Practical Studies in
Supernormal Photography, Script, and Other Allied Phenomena.
London L. N. Fowler, 1911. Reprint, New York Arno Press,
1973.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Case for Spirit Photography. London
Hutchinson, 1922. Reprint, New York George H. Doran,
1923.
Eisenbud, Jule. The World of Ted Serios ‘‘Thoughtographic’’
Studies of an Extraordinary Mind. New York William Morrow,
1967.
Fukurai, T. Clairvoyance and Thoughtography. London Rider,
1931. Reprint, New York Arno Press, 1975.
Glendinning, Andrew. The Veil Lifted Modern Developments of
Spirit Photography. London Whittaker, 1894.
Houghton, Miss [Georgiana]. Chronicles of the Photographs of
Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye. London
E. W. Allen, 1882.
Mumler, William H. Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler
in Spirit Photography. Boston, 1875.
Patrick, C. V. The Case Against Spirit Photography. London
Kegan Paul, 1921.
Patterson, Tom. 100 Years of Spirit Photography. London Regency
Press, 1965.
Permutt, Cyril. Beyond the Spectrum A Survey of Supernormal
Photography. Cambridge, England Patrick Stephens, 1983.
Price, Harry. Confessions of a Ghost Hunter. 1936. Reprint,
Causeway Books, 1974.
Sidgwick, Mrs. Henry [Eleanor]. ‘‘On Spirit Photographs, a
reply to Mr. R. A. Wallace.’’ Proceedings of the Society for Psychical
Research 8 (1891) 268–89.
Stead, Estelle W. Faces of the Living Dead. London, 1925.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit Gale Research,
1993.
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Wilmot, T. S. Twenty Photographs of the Risen Dead. Birmingham,
England Midland Educational, 1894.