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In one of the most famous instances of spirit photography, American photographer William Mumler "captured" Abraham Lincoln standing behind his wife, Mary Todd. Public Domain
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But showman P.T. Barnum proved it to be a fake by recreating the image. Public Domain
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Medium Charles Foster poses for a portrait taken by spiritualist Emma Hardinge Britten. A ghostly image drapes itself over his shoulders. Circa 1884. Emma Hardinge Britten/Public Domain
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F.M. Parks, one of the earliest spirit photographers in Victorian England, claimed that he listened to "spirits" as he worked.
In this photo by Parks, a woman identified as Ms. Collins sits with the "spirit" of her deceased father in law in 1875. Her husband had some doubts about the image, writing: "although it certainly is very like [my father], there are one or two discrepancies..."
Nevertheless, he added: "I must say that I consider spirit photography the most interesting and truthful manifestation we have yet been blessed with."F.M. Parks/Public Domain
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In a photo taken by British spirit photographer Frederick Augustus Hudson, a woman sits with her head bowed. In front of her is allegedly the ghostly image of her deceased daughter. Circa 1872. Frederick Augustus Hudson/Public Domain
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The fascination with spirit photography stretched across the English Channel to France. According to English medium Stainton Moses, this 1874 photo by Edouard Isidore Buguet is one of the "most important spirit photographs ever."
Allegedly it shows "Mons. Leymarie and Mons. C. with Spirit of Edouard Poiret." Poiret was a friend of the two subjects who'd died 12 years earlier.
Buguet was later exposed as a fraud, but many spiritualists — including Moses — stood by his side. Though Buguet initially confessed, he later recanted and claimed that most of his photographs were genuine. Edouard Isidore Buguet/Public Domain
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Here, Hudson "captures" a spirit hovering in the upper right hand corner of the frame. Circa 1870. Frederick Augustus Hudson/Public Domain
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This photograph, possibly by Hudson, shows a ghostly figure sitting between two men. Circa 1872. Sotheby's
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This Hudson photo shows British medium Georgiana Houghton with her deceased aunt. Circa 1872. Frederick Augustus Hudson/Public Domain
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This 1893 photo by spirit photographer Robert Boursnell allegedly shows a deceased "family doctor" standing to the left of the two subjects. Robert Boursnell/Public Domain
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In this self-portrait, taken circa 1902, Boursnell poses with "spirits" that gather en masse to his left. Robert Boursnell/Public Domain
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This photo shows Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist, with the ghostly form of his mother. Frederick Augustus Hudson/Public Domain
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This image appears to show the deceased mother of the subject, William Turketine. 1873. Frederick Augustus Hudson/Public Domain
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This series of four photographs appears to capture a spirit moving about. 1872. Frederick Augustus Hudson/Public Domain
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Born in the British Commonwealth, Edward Wylie had a long career as a spirit photographer. Here, he's added the subject's deceased wife and mother to the photograph, as well as a message that reads: "I am so glad thee have gotten the light at last and that thou are so happy."Edward Wylie/Photography Museum
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This photograph shows a man named Raby Wootton surrounded by three ghostly figures. Circa 1875.
On the back of the photo, someone has noted in ink that Wootton arranged the photos after being told to do so in a seance. "The gentlemen operated themselves without allowing Hudson to take any part ... The result was exactly as the spirits had told beforehand it would be."
It identifies the three spirits as "Countess," "James Lombard," and "Tommy."Frederick Augustus Hudson/Public Domain
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This blurry photo, taken by British artist and spiritualist Georgiana Houghton, shows a man sitting with a very-solid looking spirit hovering over him. 1882. Georgiana Houghton/Public Domain
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The subject in this 1886 photo identified the "spirit" that appeared as her former schoolmaster. She also noted that she took the photograph alone before giving it to someone else to develop, perhaps spiritualist William Eglinton. Public Domain
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Here, Eglinton — a spiritualist who some claim floated during a seance — is photographed with the "spirit" of Abdullah, a ghost he claimed to have summoned. Circa 1880-1887. Public Domain
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Two ghostly figures appear on this image. Sotheby's
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Victorian spirit photographers lay the foundations for others who emerged later, as well. One of the best known was William Hope.
In this photo by Hope, the subject identified the "spirit" that appeared to his right as a colleague who had died 32 years ago. Circa 1920. William Hope/National Media Museum
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A woman wearing a long veil appears in this portrait of three. Circa 1920. William Hope/National Media Museum
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An elderly couple with a female "spirit" behind them. Circa 1920. William Hope/National Media Museum
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The ghostly image of a woman from the Spiritualist Church appears above a couple posing for a photograph. Circa 1920. William Hope/National Media Museum
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Here, Welsh medium Joe Thomas poses for a portrait. He did not identify the "spirit" that appeared, and some believe that he collaborated with Hope to give Hope's photograph's legitimacy. William Hope/National Media Museum
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The clergyman pictured here hoped to summon a photo of his stillborn daughter. Instead, his deceased father "appeared."
Coincidentally, Hope had asked him to bring a photograph of his father in order to "summon" spirits. William Hope/National Media Museum
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In this portrait, the sitter's deceased wife "appears" next to him in a cloud of mist.
It's possible that Hope already had her photograph, or he may have asked the subject to bring it to help summon her spirit. William Hope/National Media Museum
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This man — possibly the same sitter as in the previous slide — identified the "spirit" here as his deceased second wife.
He claimed that a voice instructed him to sit for a photo during a seance in May 1923. William Hope/National Media Museum
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In this photo, a woman and her son stand over the body of her deceased husband. His ghostly image appears between them. William Hope/National Media Museum
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Here, a ghostly image appears over the face of the woman sitting on the right.
But it's the back of the photograph that's truly haunting. Someone — possibly one of the subjects — has written: "Why is the child always pushing to the front?" and "Do we get messages from the higher spirits?"William Hope/National Media Museum
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Hope suggested that his friends take this photo with their car, in hopes of summoning a spirit.
The image that appears atop the vehicle is the couple's deceased son. William Hope/National Media Museum
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Ada Emma Deane, a spiritualist, in a self-portrait with a ghost in the corner. Public Domain
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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who defended Hope against allegations of fraud, sits for one of Deane's portraits. Public Domain
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Another of Deane's subjects, visited by a ghost apparition. Public Domain
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Here, spiritualist Mary Ann Marshall is pictured with "ectoplasm" — a substance believed to emanate from mediums during seances — coming from her nose. It is, however, clearly paper. Public Domain
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.
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.
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.
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.
William Hope/Public DomainHarry Price with a "spirit" in a ghost photograph taken by William Hope.
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.
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 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.