The Spirit Photography of William H. Mumler

By on October 28, 2016

Who created the first spirit photograph? Here’s the history behind the final October Instagram giveaway question.
William H. Mumler created the first spirit photograph

Since we’ve been giving away copies of Colin Dickey’s new book Ghostland all month in memento mori-themed “Boxes of Weird” for the October Instagram trivia contest, it only seemed fitting to reach out to the author himself for the fourth and final question.

Mr. Dickey graciously accepted the challenge, asking “Who created the first spirit photograph?”

Interestingly, the question highlights a quirky bit of history. In 1862 a New York jewellery engraver and amateur photographer named William H. Mumler created what is considered the first spirit photograph when he accidentally shot a double exposure image. He joked with a friend that it was a ghost. The friend believed him and began spreading the word. Soon business was booming for Mumler as people who had lost loved ones in the civil war flocked to him for one last photo of the deceased.

Mumler even captured a photograph of the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln with what appeared to be the spirit of her assassinated husband, President Abraham Lincoln. Mumler claimed he didn’t even know who the woman was when he photographed her, so he couldn’t have faked the photo.

William H. Mumler spirit photograph of Abraham Lincoln
Spirit photograph of Abraham Lincoln by William H. Mumler, c.1872

READ: The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer by Louis Kaplan

Ironically, P. T. Barnum took him to court in 1869. The showman, who was responsible for numerous hoaxes himself, was accusing Mumler of fraud. Mumler, he said, was taking advantage of people whose judgment was clouded by grief. He supported this with claims that some of Mumler’s spirits were still among the living, as well as accusations that he had broken into people’s homes to steal photos of the deceased. The famed spirit photographer was found not guilty, but the accusations were enough to end his career.

While Mumler’s original photo is considered the first official spirit photograph, a man named W. Campbell from Jersey City actually did it first. A year prior to Mumler’s photo, Campbell took a test shot of an empty chair. But when the plate was developed, the image of a small boy had appeared in the chair. Campbell was never able to reproduce it, though, so Mumler’s uncanny ability to capture ghosts again and again was favored by the burgeoning spiritualist movement.

While the answer we were looking for was William H. Mumler, technically W. Campbell could not be discounted.

After putting it to vote, the winner of the 4th and final question this Halloween season is:

Spirit photography
Spirit photography by Troy Walter @fiend4halloween

There were a couple other really great contenders:

Spirit photography
Art by T. Davidsohn @thmdvdshn

William Mumler spirit photography
Mumler Family Photo by Squid @spookysquids

Memento Mori

Memento mori box of weird featuring macabre oddities

Thank you so much to everyone who played along this month, there were so many great entries! And HUGE thanks to Viking Books for contributing copies of Ghostland by Colin Dickey, Dead Sled Brand for the Hearse Drivers Union buttons, Grave Digger Candles for the black beeswax spine candles, and Poison Apple Printshop for “The Pallbearers” patches!

Happy Halloween! Follow @cultofweird on Instagram. And don’t forget, when you find weird things on your adventures tag @cultofweird or #cultofweird.

Here are the results of the previous weeks:

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What do you think?