split image of spirit photographs by william mumler

In 1862, a Boston jewellery engraver and amateur photographer by the name of William H. Mumler created what is known as the First “Spirit Photograph.”

The photograph was apparently taken accidentally when he shot a double-exposure image. 

When the image was developed, it seemed to reveal the “spirit” of Mumler’s deceased cousin who had been dead for 12 years.


After joking with a friend that the photo revealed an actual ghost, word began to spread. 

Business began to pick up for Mumler when people who had lost loved ones during the American Civil War began to approach him for photos of the deceased.

At the time, spirit photography was a profitable business because families were seeking reassurance that their loved ones lived on after their passing and were desperate to make some sort of supernatural connection with them.

Mumler left his job as an engraver and began to pursue spirit photography as his main job. 

He quickly developed a reputation as a man who could photograph the deceased.

Mumler continued working in Boston but eventually moved to New York City. 

There, his work was analysed by many photography experts, who couldn’t find any proof that his photos were fraudulent.

As a famous healing medium herself, Mumler’s wife, Hannah Mumler, assisted her husband while also working on her own spiritual business.


Some of Mumler’s most famous photos include Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of her husband, Abraham Lincoln. 

According to the book Ghosts Caught on Film, the photograph was taken around 1869. 

Mumler supposedly didn’t know that the spirit in the photograph was Lincoln and did not realize who it was until the photo was developed. 

Another famous photo shows Master Herrod, a young medium from Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1872. 

Once the photo was developed, it showed Herrod surrounded by spirits representing America, Africa, and Europe. 

The photo was eventually publicized and marked for sale in The Religio-Philosophical Journal on 24 August 1972. 

Other photographs by Mumler include photos showing different spirits with living sitters.

However, not everyone believed Mumler had a true talent for spirit photography. 

According to a History article, Peter Manseau, curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, says Mumler was a fraudster, but admitted he did not know how the photographer managed to pull off his hoax.

“It was a genuine religious movement that meant a lot to people at a time when the nation was going through mourning and loss like it never had before,” Manseau said in the article.

According to the History article, there was a case where Mumler created a spirit photograph for a woman who had recently lost her brother in the Civil War. 


Eventually, her brother returned home, but rather than accusing Mumler of fraud, the woman blamed it on an evil spirit trying to deceive her.

In another case, a man visiting Mumler’s studio recognized a female ghost in a photo as his wife, who was very much alive and had her photo recently taken by Mumler.

In fact, in 1869, PT Barnum took Mumler to court.

Although the showman was responsible for being deceptive himself on multiple occasions, he accused Mumler of fraud and preying on grieving people. 

Barnum told the court that Mumler had broken into people’s homes to steal photographs of the deceased. 

Although Mumler was found not guilty, the accusations alone were enough to tarnish his career, eventually ending it. 

His images, which were widely circulated, were eventually found to be fraudulent double exposure.

Because photography was a new invention at the time, people were easily deceived because they didn’t have other photos to compare the spirit photography to.

However, it is said that some photographers were sceptical of Mumler’s work because they were trialing double exposures and superimposed negatives themselves, which created the same effect as Mumler’s spirit photography.

After Mumler was acquitted, he returned to Boston where he began to focus on developing photos rather than shooting them. 

He invented a technique that became known as the “Mumler process” which allowed the very first photos to be printed on newspapers. 

The process eventually transformed the world of journalism. 


Read more about the first "Spirit Photograph" as part of the myths and magic spread in Guinness World Records 2024, out now!

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