I'll Believe It When I See It

A photographic ghost story

by by Christina McCausland

illustration by by Diane Zhou

In 1869, the spirit photographer William H. Mumler was brought to court in New York City. Perhaps best known for his portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her deceased husband, Abraham Lincoln, behind her, his hands on her shoulders, Mumler was charged with fraud for purporting to be a spiritual medium when, as the defense claimed, he was actually producing the spirit photographs via mechanical means. The images are consistent-the living person, in sepia tones, seated and often not looking at the camera; the ghosts, usually behind the sitter, a little above their head, faded and translucent, making unsettling eye contact with the camera.

By his own account, Mumler took his first spirit photograph accidentally, as an amateur photographer. He took a self-portrait, and as he developed it, noted that a ‘spirit-form’ was visible. He could not account for this second figure, but upon consulting a professional photographer concluded that it was simply an effect of using an old glass to take the negative—when the second portrait was taken, the old form was re-developed to a shadowy outline. This accidental process was well-known among professional photographers and ‘spirit’ photographs were often sold for entertainment. Additionally, due to long exposure times, ‘ghostly’ figures were common in photographs—anything that left a camera’s frame before the exposure ended was only partly registered and thus appeared as translucent or ghostly. In fact, contemporary with Mumler’s practice, the London Stereoscopic Company (stereoscopes are binocular-attuned instruments that create the illusion of a three-dimensional image) used these methods to create several sets of stereo cards—one set called New “Spirit” Photographs—depicting spirits intruding upon scenes of domestic life. As suggested by the quotation marks around “spirit,” these cards were seen as entertainment, and not as evidence of spiritual truths.

Around this time, however, a religious movement known as Spiritualism had taken root in America. This mid-nineteenth century phenomenon upheld the possibility of communication between the dead and the living. The credo of the New England Spiritualists’ Association, published in 1854, summarizes the project: “Our creed is simple, Spirits do communicate with man—that is the creed.” Spiritualists often cite March 31, 1848 as the beginning of the movement, when the young sisters Kate and Margaret Fox of Hydesville, New York, claimed to have made contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler, allegedly buried in the basement of their home. The spirit communicated with the girls through mysterious “rappings,” which they used to devise a sort of Morse Code to communicate with the dead. The girls were taken into the home of family friends later that same spring, who were immediately convinced of the authenticity of these communications and proceeded to convert their circle of radical Quaker friends. These Quakers had been growing increasingly dissatisfied with established churches, which in their view had done little to advance abolitionism or women’s rights. Spiritualism became tied up in these interests, allowing women public roles as mediums and trance leaders. Through its insistence on the possibility of communication with the dead, the movement appealed to the large number of people who lost relatives in the American Civil War.

Since Spiritualism emerged in a Christian environment, it shares some features with Christianity, particularly its moral system and the practice of Sunday worship. However, Spiritualism was also decried as blasphemy, mainly because of its belief that a spiritual existence is preferable to a bodily one is not compatible with the Christian doctrine of eventual physical resurrection. Spiritualism was essentially invested in the desire to deny the limits imposed on humanity by death. A popular method of consulting the spirits was table-turning—several people would sit around a table, resting their hands on it, and wait for the table to move. A successful table-turning meant that the table would rotate rapidly, and rise into the air. Séances were also popular—mourning the death of her son, Mary Todd Lincoln organized séances in the White House, which were also attended by her husband.

According to Mumler, his portraits became famous through an accidental association with Spiritualism. “One day a gentleman visited me who I knew was a Spiritualist,” writes Mumler in his autobiography, “and not at that time being inclined much to the spiritual belief myself, and being of a jovial disposition, always ready for a joke, I concluded to have a little fun … at his expense.” He showed the man his fake spirit photograph, pretending to not know how it happened. The man was fooled, and later in the week an account of the event was published in a Spiritualist newspaper, to Mumler’s embarrassment. When people began to appear at his door demanding their own spirit photographs, Mumler demonstrated the prank’s process. But, to his surprise, extra figures continued to appear in his photographs, and his Spiritualist patrons continued to recognize them as their own deceased friends and family, accepting the photographs—a medium conventionally understood as having a privileged relationship to reality—as proof of their Spiritualist beliefs. Mumler, likewise, was forced to accept his position as a medium in this strange phenomenon, and therefore claimed no knowledge of the process in his trial. Though the prosecution presented nine different mechanical ways to make ghostly figures appear in photographs, no one could prove which, if any, Mumler was using, and thus he was acquitted.


The use of photography as proof of Spiritualism’s doctrine married new technology to ancient beliefs, combining belief in invisible realities with belief in the camera’s objective and mechanical eye. Indeed, photographic experimentation during the 19th century had a definite interest in capturing parts of reality invisible to the naked eye. Photographic pioneers Eadweard Muybridge and E.J. Marey are both known for their time-motion studies, using a quick succession of photographs in order to isolate tiny parts of movement not otherwise discernable. Muybridge, for example, was able to prove that there is a point in a horse’s gallop where all four of its hooves are off the ground. Spirit photography’s allying of science and technology was part of this understanding that photographic technology could provide access to that which was normally beyond powers of perception.

In 1863, a man named Charles Seely predicted in the American Journal of Photography that “in short time spirit photographs will be generally looked upon as a low swindle.” However, the products of these photographic practices have become increasingly considered both documents from the history of photography, slowing wending their way into the realm of high art. In 2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented an exhibition called “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult,” which included photographs by Mumler, as well as other images depicting both visible manifestations of mediums’ work—levitation, séances, and the production of ectoplasm (a mucus-like substance believed to be the materialization of a spirit)—and invisible “vital substances and forces,” produced by mediums (like dreams or energy), all “without authoritative comment on their veracity.” This exhibition therefore deliberately plays up the expectation of visual truth through the photographic medium, while undermining it by fastening it to the dismissable mysticism of the spiritual medium. As of this month the museum has another exhibition, “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” meant to demonstrate the manipulability of photographs since their inception. This exhibition also includes photographs by Mumler, but with the explicit designation of the portraits as mere “amusement.”

As historian Tom Gunning suggests in his article “To Scan A Ghost,” our continued fascination with these images “may come less from what they indicate about a belief in ghosts than what they reveal about our beliefs in photographs.” The interest of these photographs lies in the unsettling experience of seeing something in a photograph—especially an old one, which perhaps codes authenticity for us—that we intellectually know (believe) was not really there.

CHRISTINA MCCAUSLAND B’12.5 is the perfect medium.