In her preface to Chronicles Of The Photographs Of Spiritual Beings, Georgiana Houghton refers to the photographs she collected thusly, “I send them forth in full assurance that they carry a weight of evidence as to the substantiality of spirit beings far transcending any other form of mediumship.” The year was 1881, and Spiritualism was reaching its peak.
Spritirualism emerged in the 1840s, and its rise coincided with that of photography (at least for a time). Spiritualists believed that the dead are among us as ghosts. This is the time when mediums, séances, hypnotism, trances, secret societies, and ectoplasm began to enter the popular lexicon. Mediums – very often women – were conduits to the deceased. They were somehow more in tune with the spirit world. Among the most famous were the Fox sisters. On March 31, 1848, they were in contact with a deceased man who, through his communications with the girls, claimed to have been murdered and buried on their property in New York. They were able to communicate with the man through noises he made, referred to as “rappings”. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a noted spiritualist, included the incident in his history of spiritualism. He quotes an account by their mother, in which she says the younger daughter, 11 year old Cathie (Kate), said “Oh mother, I know what it is. To-morrow is April-fool day, and it’s somebody trying to fool us.”
The Fox sisters became famous mediums, performing séances for many years. Doyle attributes the younger sisters’ confession of fraud in 1888 to a fight between the three springing from religious fanaticism and alcoholism. It is not hard to imagine that what was perhaps an April Fools Day joke got away from them as the adults in their lives took their claims very seriously.
The spirits mediums saw were invisible to the human eye. The camera, however, is in some ways a more powerful tool. Because of their realistic appearance, photographs are often taken at face value. And because so many lives were lost in the Civil War, the time was ripe for enterprising individuals to make a comfortable living assuring the bereaved that their loved ones were still with them.
The first spirit photograph was a mistake, taken by William Mumler in the early 1860s. In what was most likely a double exposure, his own self portrait contained a ghostly image in the background. Selling himself as a photographer with the powers of a medium, Mumler charged up to $10 to photograph someone with a spirit. His most famous spirit photograph was of Mary Todd Lincoln, with Abraham Lincoln’s “ghost” standing behind her. Before the end of the decade Mumler faced charges of fraud. P. T. Barnum was among his critics who testified against him.
Mumler got away with his deceptions, but many other spirit photographers continued working. Spiritualism’s popularity began to wane in the 1920s, but even today people use photographs as “evidence” of the paranormal. Often “orbs” which are invisible to the eye appear hanging in the air of images. In reality they are easily explained, often as dust or water in the air reflecting light. Other effects caused by movement of a person in a long-exposure image, a double exposed negative, a light leak in the camera body, or any number of digital manipulations can give the impression of a spirit presence. In the end, though, people will believe what they want to believe. As long as that is the case, others will be out there to take advantage.