Inside The Haunting History Of Spirit Photography

Published October 11, 2021
Updated November 8, 2023

After the Civil War, opportunistic "spirit photographers" claimed to conjure the spirits of lost loved ones on camera — sparking an eerie trend in America and Victorian England.

Mumler Abe Lincolns Ghost
Barnum Lincoln
Charles Foster
Ms Collins And Father
Inside The Haunting History Of Spirit Photography
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Take a seat. Stare at the camera. Turn your mind toward your lost loved ones, and hope that they'll appear when the photo develops. This was the crux of spirit photography.

Starting in the 1850s, early photographers claimed to capture "ghosts" on camera. Of course, they weren't really ghosts — photographers used tricks like double exposure to make these images appear. But to someone hoping to connect with a lost loved one, they were convincing enough.

In the gallery above, see how early photographers like William Mumler and William Hope produced these "spirit photos" — and how they lay the foundation for future generations of ghost photographers.

The Birth Of Spirit Photography In Post-Civil War America

As camera technology emerged in the 19th century, early images often captured something strange: a ghostly figure. This was because taking a photo required a long exposure. If someone moved into the frame, they left an impression.

Prince Arthur Spirit Photography

The Royal Photographic Society CollectionEarly ghost photographs like this were purely accidental and came from long exposure times, like this one of Prince Arthur and his nurse.

It didn't take long for crafty photographers to see how they could profit from this. Sir David Brewster even explained how in his 1856 book The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory, and Construction.

"For the purpose of amusement, the photographer might carry us even into the regions of the supernatural," Brewster wrote.

"His art... enables him to give a spiritual appearance to one or more of his figures, and to exhibit them as 'thin air' amid the solid realities of the stereoscopic picture."

In the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States, photographer William Mumler began selling "spirit photos" for $5 to $10 — a hefty price at the time.

Mumler claimed that, as a medium, he could capture spirits on film. To his clients, he insisted that although they couldn't see the ghosts, cameras could.

As a result, people mourning the loss of their fathers, brothers, and husbands in the war, flocked to Mumler to have their photos taken. Even Mary Todd Lincoln sat for Mumler, who happily summoned the ghost of her assassinated husband, President Abraham Lincoln.

Mary Todd Lincoln Spirit Photograph

In one of Mumler's most famous ghost photographs, Mary Todd Lincoln sits with a ghostly image of her late husband behind her.

Though Mumler was later accused of fraud, spirit photography quickly found its way across the Atlantic to Victorian England.

Ghost Photography In Victorian England

Victorians in England lived during a turbulent time. The 19th century produced new technologies — like the camera — but also questions about life, death, and the afterlife.

The spiritualism movement emerged to answer some of these questions, and it offered the comforting notion that deceased loved ones remained nearby as ghosts. And spirit photography seemed to offer concrete "proof" that spiritualism was legitimate.

"[Spirit photography] serves as a stage where Victorians could plot out a reassuring version of the afterlife, particularly in an age of eroding faith," explained English scholar Jen Cadwallader.

Lord Combermere Ghost Photograph

Sybell Corbett/Public DomainA famous ghost photograph from Victorian England, which allegedly shows the deceased Lord Combermere.

Victorian spirit photographers swiftly followed the mold set by Mumler. If they had a picture of someone their living clients wanted to contact, they often added it to the photo. If not, they got creative.

One photo, taken by Frederick A. Hudson, shows a woman with her deceased father-in-law. Her husband had some doubts about the ghost photographs.

He wrote, "My wife obtained a tolerably clear photograph of (it is supposed) my father, and although it certainly is very like, there are one or two discrepancies which do not justify my coming to a fixed conclusion on the point."

However, he also noted that he saw no "trickery" or "delusions" and added, "I must say that I consider spirit photography the most interesting and truthful manifestation we have yet been blessed with."

The proliferation of Victorian spirit photography did produce skeptics, however. William Stainton Moses, an English priest and medium, examined 600 photographs and concluded that some people "would recognize a sheet and a broom as their dear departed'."

However, Moses also stood by spirit photographers who he saw as genuine. Though one such photographer, Frenchman Edouard Isidore Buguet was accused of fraud, Moses claimed that one of Buguet's 1874 photos — featured in the gallery above — was the "most important spirit photographs ever."

As time went on, doubts about spirit photography waxed and waned, but it remained a popular novelty nonetheless. Photographers in Victorian England even lay the foundation for one of the most famous spirit photographers in the post-World War I period: William Hope.

William Hope: The Spirit Photographer Of The 1920s

After the devastation of World War I, spirit photography enjoyed a new popularity. Photographer William Hope offered people a way to commune with their dead loved ones.

In the 1920s, Hope printed a number of shocking spirit photographs. Working with better technology than the Victorians, his images are clearer, crisper, and more convincing.

Hope had his fair share of skeptics, however. In 1922, the Society for Psychical Research sent paranormal investigation Harry Price to investigate Hope's ghost photography.

Price went to sit for a photo in Hope's studio. But he had a trick up his sleeve.

Harry Price

William Hope/Public DomainHarry Price with a "spirit" in a ghost photograph taken by William Hope.

The investigator had marked the plates he gave to Hope. As such, he was able to prove that Hope had switched them with pre-exposed plates.

Though this exposed Hope as a fraud, many prominent members of the spiritualism movement rose to his defense. Notably, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — who created the character of Sherlock Holmes — stood by Hope's side. He even published his own fiery report, The Case for Spirit Photography.

In the end, ghost photography like this offers an eerie look at how people once viewed life and death. To many, they offered comfort. To some, they represented the worst kind of fraud.

In the gallery above, peruse spirit photographs from Victorian England and beyond. Though the photographers' tricks have been exposed, their photos are still plenty creepy today.

After learning about the history of spirit and ghost photography, learn about the strange and haunting practice of Victorian death photos. Or, see how Victorians delighted in killing animals and turning them into furniture.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Inside The Haunting History Of Spirit Photography.", October 11, 2021, Accessed June 14, 2024.