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Photography & the Paranormal: Part 1

One can essentially say that paranormal photography had its beginnings with William H. Mumler. As I began my research into this topic and Googled the words “Photography and Paranormal,” the first link on the page is titled: The Man Who Photographed Ghosts, by the Getty Center, October 27, 2021 (https://www.getty.edu). Each link thereafter mentions William H. Mumler to some degree or another.

If you are unfamiliar with Mr. William H. Mumler, then perhaps you are more familiar with his famous portrait photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln taken some time after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. What is so special about the photograph is the image of President Abraham Lincoln, then deceased, standing behind Mrs. Lincoln, hands resting on her shoulders looking down in a consoling manner.


Still not sure who William H. Mumler was or of any his works? Okay, Mumler lived in Boston, Massachusetts in the 19th century. He was an amateur photographer, whom some say was the first photographer to capture a spirit in a photograph. According to numerous articles on Mumler, after having just taken a self-portrait, he observed as the photo was developing, an image of a deceased family member standing behind him.


Mumler’s newfound special skill of capturing spirits in photographs soon attracted the attention of many believers and critics alike. According to one account, a fellow photographer named J.W. Black was approached and asked to reproduce Mumler’s spirit photographs. When Black could not, he sent an apprentice to Mumler’s studio to pose as a patron and learn what he could of Mumler’s process.


The photograph Mumler took of the apprentice produced a portrait picture of a young man with a shadowy image of the apprentice’s deceased father. The apprentice returned to Black’s studio unable to provide information to cast doubt onto Mumler’s photographs.


Following this failure, Black visited Mumler in another attempt to learn what trickery he used to produce spirit photographs. This time Black informed Mumler of his intentions, and Mumler welcomed Black to participate and observe each step of his process. Mumler permitted Black to inspect the equipment and develop his photograph. Black refused the offer, however, as Mumler was developing the photograph, Black observed a figure at his shoulder. Black was no longer a skeptic.


The 19th century was a time of spiritualism. A time when many were looking to speak with and connect to the dead. One prominent spiritualist was H. F. Gardner. Dr. Gardner was a prominent physician who lectured on spiritualism and was highly respected in the community. Dr. Gardner alleged the spirits in Mumler’s photographs were current Bostonians who were still very much alive at the time, and that the spirit subjects in Mumler’s photographs were images take from stolen pictures out of people’s homes.


As a result, Mumler left Boston and moved to New York City. Unfortunately, his time in New York became no less controversial and he was soon brought up on fraud charges by the New York prosecutor. The star witness for the prosecution was none other than P.T. Barnum. The trial lasted approximately seven days, the prosecutor failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt, and Mumler was acquitted of the fraud charges. The trial and the allegations all had their toll on Mumler, both personally and financially. He stopped producing spiritual photographs and destroyed all his negatives before his death in 1884.


Is it therefore safe to assume William H. Mumler is considered to be the Father of Paranormal Photography? Did he truly have an ability to capture images of death? One last thought to consider before siding with or against William H. Mumler and his ability to capture spirits, ghosts, or the paranormal in photographs -- on the day he took Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln’s portrait, the famous photo capturing the then deceased President Abraham Lincoln standing behind her, she was introduced to him as Mrs. Lindall.

Mary Todd Lincoln, circa 1870. Photograph by William H. Mumler

I hope you have enjoyed this very brief look into history, Photography & the Paranormal: Part 1. In Part 2, I hope to discuss techniques used to capture paranormal images. Stay well and safe.

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