Day: May 27, 2019

Invisible Evidence: Building a Case for Spirit Photography

What is spirit photography?

In his 1960 work The Encyclopaedia of Occultism, Lewis Spence describes spirit photography as "The production of photographs on which alleged spirit-forms are visible. When the plate is developed there appears, in addition to the likeness of the sitter, a shape resembling more or less distinctly the human form, which at the moment of exposure was imperceptible to normal vision."(pg. 379) Obviously, Spence was speaking of spirit photography in the 1800s, when an early camera called a "Daguerreotype" used tin plates bathed in various chemicals to produce still images of a posed subject. The progression of photographic technology since the 1800s has demanded that we broaden this definition to incorporate more modern methods of capturing ghost images, including the use of infrared films, stop-motion cameras, and digital video. Generally speaking, spirit photography is the attempt to capture on a photographic medium those things that cannot be observed with the naked eye, such as ghosts, spirits, and so on. It has only been in recent years that spirit photography has gained some credibility in the scientific community as a prospective tool for serious paranormal investigation.

Spirit Photography: A Brief History

Though alleged photographs of ghosts and spirits had been taken before the 1860s, it was an American photographer and engraver, William H. Mumler of Boston, who brought spirit photography to the public ("Occultism and Photography", Cheroux, Oxford Photography Encyclopedia). In 1862, Mumler offered to photograph clients in the company of one or more "ghosts". Though the ghosts would be invisible at the time the picture was taken, they would appear later during the development process. One of Mumler's most famous photographs was a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of assassinated president Abraham Lincoln. The alleged spirit of Abraham Lincoln can clearly be seen over the subject's shoulder (illus. 1). The popularity of the Spiritualism movement in America was largely to blame for Mumler's success, though he was suspected of forgery and fraud. Mumler resurfaced in New York in 1869, and in 1872 authorities attempted to prosecute him. Although many of his photographs were exposed as hoaxes, Mumler was acquitted of fraud due to a lack of evidence.

By this time, the practice of spirit photography had spread to England. Two popular spiritualist mediums, Mr. Samuel Guppy and his wife, Agnes Guppy-Volkert, had been attempting to duplicate Mumler's procedures on their own without success. At length, they called in a professional photographer, Frederick Hudson, for assistance. Hudson was successful in producing spirit photographs, and the ease of his success attracted the attention of noted skeptics and scientists including Trail Taylor, the editor of the British Journal of Photography ("Spirit Photography", online Occultism and Parapsychology Encyclopedia, Hudson reportedly allowed skeptics to view and document his entire photographing and developing processes, but no fraud could be determined. Other spirit photographers soon followed, including Edouard Jean Buguet of France, who appeared in London in 1874 and was ultimately tried and convicted of fraud by the French government. In spite of these setbacks, spirit photography continued to be popular, especially in the years immediately following the first world war. Fraud was rampant, attracting the attention of famous celebrities including former supporter P. T. Barnum and the illusionist Harry Houdini, who began a well-publicized personal crusade against fraud in spirit photography in the 1920s. He published the results of his investigations in the book A Magician Among the Spirits in 1924 (John Mulholland, "Houdini, Harry", World Book Encyclopedia, 1966).

Spirit Photography and the American Spiritualism Movement

Noting the impact of American spiritualism on the history of spirit …