Mumler, William H.

Mumler, William H. (d. 1884)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

According to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the first spirit photographs were probably taken by the English photographer Richard Boursnell, in 1851. Unfortunately none of these photographs were preserved, so William H. Mumler of Boston, Massachusetts, is generally regarded as the first spirit photographer.

Mumler was an engraver with Boston jewelers Bigelow, Kennard & Co. He was not a Spiritualist or even a professional photographer. One day in 1861, he was at the studio of a photographer friend, amusing himself with the equipment. He tried to take a photograph of himself; the resulting picture showed another figure beside him. His technique was to set up the camera and focus it on a chair. He would then uncap the lens and jump into position, standing beside the chair and holding still while the camera mechanism tripped and took the photograph. On the back of that first photograph, he wrote,

“This photograph was taken of myself, by myself, on Sunday, when there was not a living soul in the room beside me—so to speak. The form on my right I recognize as my cousin, who passed away about twelve years since.”

The photograph shows a young girl sitting in the chair, with the chair itself visible through her body. A contemporary account said that the form faded away into a dim mist that clouds over the lower part of the picture.

News of this phantom photograph spread quickly. Many people approached Mumler and asked him to take their photograph, in the hopes that a ghost would appear in them. So many asked, in fact, that Mumler was obliged to give up his job as an engraver and become a professional photographer. Bookings were made weeks ahead by doctors, ministers, lawyers, judges, professors, mayors, and all types of business men. The Spiritual Magazine of 1862 contains detailed accounts of many of the sittings.

Many appointments were made by people who believed that it was some sort of trick. Consequently, they asked Mumler to take photographs with marked plates, with other people’s equipment, and with other people handling the whole procedure from loading the camera to developing the picture. But still the spirit forms appeared. Herald of Progress editor Andrew Jackson Davis sent William Guay, a professional photographer, to check out Mumler. Guay reported that he controlled the whole procedure himself on several separate occasions, and always the result was the same—spirit photographs. He was convinced of the genuineness of the affair.

One of Mumler’s best known photographs was of Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Under the pseudonym of “Mrs. Tyndall,” she went to Mumler’s studio. She was still dressed in mourning black and heavily veiled prior to the taking of the photograph. When the picture was developed another woman present saw an image standing behind Mrs. Lincoln. She said, “Why, that looks like President Lincoln.” Mrs. Lincoln replied, “Yes it does. I am his widow.”

Not all people believed the results were genuine, however. Even some of Mumler’s friends thought that he had to be faking them. In a letter to the Banner of Light on February 20, 1863, Dr. Gardner said, “While I am fully of the belief that genuine spirit likenesses have been produced through his mediumship, evidence of deception in two cases, at least, has been furnished me, which is perfectly conclusive … Mr. Mumler, or some person connected with Mrs. Stuart’s rooms, has been guilty of deception in palming off as genuine spirit likenesses pictures of a person who is now living in the city.” This did happen on occasion—and not only to Mumler—and no one has been able to explain how or why. The “evidence of deception” was the image of someone who was still living appearing in one of the photographs, in the same way that the dead spirits did. Whether or not the charge of fraud was true, this turned pubic opinion against Mumler and he left Boston for New York. However, other people endorsed Mumler, including many professional photographers who were not Spiritualists. Jeremiah Gurney said, “I have been a photographer for twenty-eight years; I have witnessed Mumler’s process, and although I went prepared to scrutinize everything, I could find nothing which savoured of fraud or trickery.” William Mumler wrote his own account of this time in Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit Photography (Boston, 1875). He died penniless in 1884.

The spirit world had predicted the advent of spirit photographs. Thomas Slater, an optician, was holding a séance with Lord Brougham and Robert Owen, in 1856, when the received rappings spelled out that Slater would one day take spirit photographs. Owen commented that if he was dead by the time such photographs were possible, then he would make a point of appearing in one himself. According to The Spiritualist of November 1, 1873, that is exactly what happened.


Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan: The History of Spiritualism. New York: Doran, 1926
Fodor, Nandor: Mind Over Space. New York: Citadel, 1962