The technological breakthroughs of the 19th century were, to many people, both equal parts exciting and terrifying. Known as the black arts, the newly emerging techniques of commercial photography were often spoken about as though they were a mysterious or even supernatural process. Of course, there was nothing supernatural about the new technology, at least, not for most photographers. When William Mumler picked it up as a hobby, lured in by his attraction to a local studio owner and a propensity to tinker, he decided to lean into the mystery by offering a spyhole into the unseen world of the dead, shooting portraits of clients sitting alongside the spirits of their lost loved ones.
Manseau, Peter (2017) The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost. Houghton Mifflin, MA, USA
Capron, E.W. & Barron, H.D. (1850). Singular Revelations: Explanation and History of the Mysterious Communion with Spirits, Comprehending the Rise and Progress of the Mysterious Noises in Western New York. 2nd ed. Auburn, NY: Capron and Barron.
Nartonis, D. K. (2010, June 1). The Rise of 19th‐Century American Spiritualism, 1854–1873. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01515.x
The London Evening Standard (1869) From Our Own Correspondent. 11th May, 1869
The Banbury Advertiser (1869) Spiritualiatic Photography. 29 April, 1869Elgin Courier (1863) Spirit Photographs. 6 February, 1863
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Photography, Spiritualism & The World of William Mumler
The technological breakthroughs of the 19th century were, to many people, both equal parts exciting and terrifying. Known as the black arts, the newly emerging techniques of commercial photography were often spoken about as though they were a mysterious or even supernatural process. Of course, there was nothing supernatural about the new technology, at least, not for most photographers. When William Mumler picked it up as a hobby, lured in by his attraction to a local studio owner and a propensity to tinker, he decided to lean into the mystery by offering a spyhole into the unseen world of the dead, shooting portraits of clients sitting alongside the spirits of their lost loved ones. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
The Civil War, Death & National Mourning
In a small farmhouse cottage in Hydesville, New York, 14 year old Maggie and 11 year old Kate lay awake listening intently to the knocks, thuds and raps that had sounded throughout their room every night for the past month. The young sister’s mother, Margaret was terrified. She’d heard rumours shortly after moving into the house, three months prior in December of 1847, that a peddler had been murdered on the property and had taken it very much to heart. She had quickly become convinced that every creak of a door or thump on a floorboard was the manifestation of the peddlers ghost, haunting the property and now her daughters were apparently attempting to communicate with it. “Mr Splitfoot”, as they called the spirit, was clearly keen to dance to the young girls tune, dutifully repeating a series of knocks after they’d asked it to “do as I do”. Unable to resist her own curiosity, despite her fear, Margaret tentatively began to question the ghost herself.
“I then asked if it was a human being that was making the noise, and if it was, to manifest it by the same noise. There was no noise. I then asked if it was a spirit, and if it was, to manifest it by two sounds. I heard two sounds as soon as the words were spoken. I then asked, if it was an injured spirit to give me the sound, and I heard the rapping distinctly. I then asked if it was injured in this house, and it manifested it by the noise. If the person was living that injured it, and got the same answer. I then ascertained, by the same method that its remains were buried under the dwelling, and how old it was.”
Quickly the news of the spirit spread around the neighbourhood. Margaret invited the locals in to the house to experience the phenomena for themselves and it wasn’t long before the entire story was laid out for the Fox family and the curious men and women of Hydesville. The deceased peddler had made himself known as a Mr Charles B. Rosna, murdered in the cellar of the house by a local man named Bell who had previously lived in the house. The cellar was promptly excavated, but no body was found, however, the knocking continued and so too, did the enthusiasm for the curious otherworldly conversation. It was decided that the communications were linked somehow with the young girls and they were sent to New York and submitted to various tests, split up and sent to live with their older siblings. Interest in the girls’ talents continued to grow, especially amongst a small Rochester community of Quakers, helped along by Amy and Isaac Post, long time friends of the Fox family and what had begun as a family affair and grown into small private gatherings eventually blew up into wider, public exhibitions, with complete strangers paying to witness the girls communication with the dead. By 1850, the young girls’ reputation had grown to such an extent in New York, performing to prominent members of polite society, that they now found themselves painted as spirit mediums, regarded by many as the pre-eminent of their kind and had spawned a host of fans and imitators. The girls began touring cities throughout New York and as they travelled, the word of their talents spread, along with the grandiosity of their mission. Fans became followers and Spiritualism, the belief that spirits of the dead exist with both the ability to contact the living and the will to dole out their moral and intellectual knowledge, was born. The problem with all of this was, of course, that the Fox sisters were a fraud and the entire affair had been the case of a prank that had spiralled severely out of hand.
In its earliest days, the concept of Spiritualism was often valued as a loose, unorganized set of beliefs for and of the people. Despite many of it’s early followers’ middle and upper class leanings, it was a religion that was often seen to shun stuffy class hierarchies, as well as typical gender biases, holding many women as prominent figures during a time that saw women largely marginalised by the traditional male dominated structures of traditional spiritual bodies.
Mid 19th Century America had seen a series of revivalist movements challenge orthodox religion on the grounds of several social movements. Prominent amongst these were the abolition of slavery and womens rights, both of which were seen to be constantly overlooked by traditional churches. Amongst the congregations, many of the more radical believers branched out, seeking to square both their spiritual existence with their sense of social morality. At the same time, industrialisation and large scale immigration saw people look to embrace a new drive for individualism and rapid scientific experimentation and invention within the realms of electricity and telegraphy fueled an atmosphere that suggested to the laymen that anything could be possible.
Within this forward thinking environment and helped along by its founders of radical thinkers and activists, Spiritualism continued to grow amongst reformist circles, making it an organisation often associated with progressive movements. It was a threat to established religions not only due to what it could offer its followers on a spiritual level, but also what it could offer them on a social and moral level too. It challenged established religions authority and decentralised spirituality. It could entertain, provide solace and hope. It often aligned itself with contemporary scientific advancements, helping it to appear both credible and enlightened and it championed social causes that were considered by many as the inevitable and most welcome future. It was, especially in the North Eastern states, a fashionable force to be reckoned with and in no time at all, saw itself with a following that whilst difficult to track due to its unorganised nature, is believed to have extended into the millions.
Spiritualism as a recognisable movement did have a fundamental problem that threatened its intense growth. The beliefs unorganised nature saw it difficult to perpetuate outside of its North Eastern hotspots of Boston and New York and eventually, it did begin to see a waning of interest. Just as interest in Spiritualism began to dwindle, however, the bells of war rang out signalling the bloody clash of the Civil War. As the bodies piled up on battlefields across North America, totalling over three quarters of a million dead, interest with the Spiritualist movement would find itself renewed as belief in an ever living, evolving afterlife gave welcome solace to a nation which was slipping into a deep mourning. Death was becoming easier to address in conversation as news of bloody battles hit the press, whilst photographers set out to embed with soldiers in order to bring home the true devastation of war. Spiritualist beliefs were once again a great comfort and many practices that leant heavily into those beliefs saw a sharp increase in interest. Seances, spirit writing and various other forms of communicating with the dead once again became a popular past time. It is amongst this atmosphere that Bostonite William H. Mumler, an engraver by trade, stumbled into a situation that, not entirely unlike the Fox sisters earlier tale of shenanigans, quickly spiralled into a grand tale of smoke, mirrors and spirits from the other side.
William H. Mumler, Boston & Photography in the 19th Century
Born in 1832 to John and Susan Mumler, a pair of confectioners working in Boston, Massachusetts, William H. Mumler lived a quiet and unassuming life working as an engraver of jewelry and high end metal work under Messrs. Bigelow Bros. & Kennard, a well to do jewellers, advertising rich jewellery, fine watches and gems from their upscale storefront in Washington Street. For the period, it was an extremely well paid, highly skilled position. Bigelows had been in operation since before Mumler was born and the shops reputation saw Mumler engraving goods that were shipped across the nation, to clients as far as New Mexico and the West Coast. Mumler was a creative at heart and the ages propensity to encourage experimentation and invention often led him down quite disparate paths, suffering from Dyspepsia, one of his most successful and as it would turn out, fateful inventions, was that of a stomach remedy that was based on an old German recipe, which he sold locally, under the inventive name of “Mumlers German Remedy” advertising in the Boston classifieds. This relief for his own ailments, seemed to work well enough for the locals too and his miracle cure afforded him enough money to spring out on his own and start his own engraving business.
Whether by coincidence or design, Williams new store sat just a few doors up on Washington Street from a small photography studio run by Hannah Stuart, a young portrait artist who William had met and took a shining to via Bigelow & Kennards, which had been situated lower down on Washington Street. Hannahs studio was one of hundreds of Boston studios, specialising in taking portraits of punters in a pastime that had boomed with recent advancements in photography.
When Louis Jaques Daguerre introduced his daguerreotype process to the world in 1839, in Paris, Samuel Morse, the American inventor of the telegraph took a keen interest. Visiting Paris to promote his own invention, he saw the announcement of the new technology and fearing the competition in may bring to telegraphy, he met with Daguerre and was given a tour of the photographers studio, where he was introduced to both the results and the process first-hand, he later wrote a letter to his brother that would go on to be the first published first-hand account of the technology in America,
“It is one of the most beautiful discoveries of the age. I don’t know if you
recollect some experiments of mine in New Haven, many years ago, when I had my
painting room next to Prof. Silliman’s, experiments to ascertain if it were possible to fix
the image of the Camera Obscura. I was able to produce different degrees of shade on
paper, dipped into a solution of nitrate of silver, by means of different degrees of light;
but finding that light produced dark, and dark light, I presumed the production of a true
image to be impracticable, and gave up the attempt. M. Daguerre has realized in the most
exquisite manner this idea.”
Upon publication of his letter in the New York Observer, which was quickly syndicated across the country, Morse was not the only budding photographer who salivated at the invention’s potential for commercial success. Until now, people were still paying good money for miniature portrait painters for a copy of their image. With this new photographic process, the same could be achieved with a perfect likeness in a fraction of the time, at a fraction of the cost, bringing the possibility of owning their own pocket sized portrait to the masses. The biggest problem initially with this potential, however, was the sheer length of time it took to expose a sitter to the silver plates that captured the image. Early attempts saw contraptions strapped to the back of chairs that held the sitters held firmly still, however, this did nothing to solve the image of blinking. Simply put, the living were not good subject matter for the early daguerreotypes. Whilst this did create an interesting niche of capturing the image of the deceased, Morse was still keen to bring it to the more numerous living.
Teaming up with John William Draper, a medical Doctor and professor at the University of New York, Morse set about opening a photography studio in the roof of the university building, complete with glass ceiling, which they named the “Palace for the Sun.” This studio was the first of it’s kind to offer portrait photography, boasting of improving the original Daguerreotype to the point that they could capture the images of living humans “quite perfectly.” In the early days, Morse and Draper charged up to $5 an image and whilst the venture was commercial to a degree, it was essentially an experimental process that utilised many imported pieces of equipment, exotic chemicals and catered largely to the more well off gentry of New York. Despite this, the pair were kept busy, capturing the images of the upper-middle classes when weather permitted and teaching their processes to others on days when the clouds obscured the light they so desperately needed in order to keep the exposure time down.
Morse and Drapers partnership in photography continued for a year before they split, with Draper wishing to return his focus to teaching, however, Morse pressed on with his venture, experimenting and improving. At the same time, as other photographers learnt the process of portraiture, similar glass roofed studios sprung up across America, popularising the miniature portrait, helping to bring costs down and improving the process rapidly.
Back in Boston, Hannah Stuart had opened her own studio several years later. By the 1860’s the cost of having a photographic portrait made was reachable to every level of society, becoming a common and popular pastime for those leisure seekers with a few cents to spare. Photographic studios had popped up on almost every corner of the American city and Boston was no different. Hannah’s mother was a spiritualist medium by trade and though Hannah took photos in her studio as her main income, she too advertised her secondary services as a spiritualist healer, an occupation that saw her speaking with the deceased spirit of a man named Doctor Benjamin Rush, who aided her in diagnosing her clients. Boston had, over the past 30 years, become something of the capital of Spiritualism and whilst its popularity had waned towards the end of the 1850’s, submitting Boston to the butt of many a joke, with the outbreak of the Civil War, the spiritualist resurgence once again saw Bostons spiritualist communities boom. For a healer like Hannah, mixing the two very different businesses was not, therefore, altogether unusual and rarely seen as anything but a boon.
For William Mumler, spiritualism was nothing more than a novelty, he was once quoted as saying that, for him, as far as most spiritualists were concerned, “I was always ready for a joke.” His admiration for Hannah lay in other areas, not least of which was her knowledge of photography. At weekends, he began to work at her studio as an assistant, cleaning the plates and learning the photographic process for himself. At the same time, he could spend time with Hannah, who was recently widowed after her husband was killed in battle whilst fighting for the 53rd Regiment in Louisiana.
Working as her assistant during his free time, William took photos when he could, often of himself and spent much of his time in the studio tinkering with the development process of the completed images. As an amateur, his early photographs were entirely unremarkable, however, this would all change with one image in the summer of 1862. It was a Sunday, late in August and under the blazing summer sun, the studio was full of usable light. Grasping the moment, William set up the camera, slid the glass plate into the contraption and opened the shutter. He quickly stepped in front of the lens, held his position as best he could and then tossed himself back out of the frame to close down the shutter and stop the exposure. As he developed the image, the sodium thiosulphate cleared away the obscured image on the metal plate, the familiar image of himself peering back slowly appeared, only in this photo, he wasn’t the only subject. Standing behind him, there seemed to be a ghostly visage of a young woman, a young woman that he recognised. Alarmingly, he felt for sure it was an image of his cousin, however, his cousin was already dead.
“The outline fo the upper portion of the body is clearly defined, though dim and shadowy. The chair is seen distinctly through the body and arms, also the table upon which one arm rests. Below, the waist (which apparently is clothed in a address with low neck and short sleeves) fades away into a dim mist, which simply clouds the lower part of the picture.”
This description of the photo came from Dr Gardner, William’s friend who had seen the picture back in Williams engraving shop a few days later. For William, he thought the photograph an interesting novelty, but nothing more, he claimed to Gardner that the result was simply “unaccountable” and chalked it up to an accident or mistake made somewhere in the process of preparing the plate for the image. Perhaps, he considered he had not cleaned the plate correctly before he had started. Regardless, he had printed a copy to paper in order to show his friends and enjoy their reactions of himself sitting in a photograph with a ghost. Gardner failed to find the amusement in it, however, and asked William if he could borrow the image to show some of his Spiritualist friends, asking him also to write testimony on the rear of the small black and white image.
“This photograph was taken of myself, by myself, on Sunday, when there was not a living soul in the room besides me. The form on my right, I recognize as my cousin, who passed away about twelve years since.”
To Williams’ slight shock, Gardener’s Spiritualist friends were not quite as private as he had first imagined when he agreed to lend out the photograph. Within a week, a description of the photograph was printed in the New York Spiritualist newspaper “The Herald of Progress”, this might have slipped by the attention of William, had it not been for the Boston Spiritualist rag “The Banner of Light” reprinting the article word for word on the 18th of November, amending it only to add the name and location of Hannahs studio where the photo had been taken. If William was concerned how Hannah might react to the new influx of Spiritualist interest to her studio that his image had created, he needn’t have worried. She had decided outright that the image absolutely was that of the spirit of Williams’ cousin and welcomed the attention her studio was receiving from the local spiritualist community.
Meanwhile, Gardner, who perhaps belatedly decided it might be a good idea to verify the veracity of the newly penned “spirit photography”, sat for a new portrait by the hand of William. This time, not one ghostly image hovered behind the living sitter, but three. Gardner took the resulting photograph to another Boston photographer, James Wallace Black to see what he made of it. Black had risen to fame in the photography world a few years prior, when he filled a hot air balloon and took to the skies to record America’s first aerial photographs, showing the people of Boston their city from high above. Looking at the unbelievable photograph in his hands, he simply shook hi shead, as far as he could say, he knew of no way that William had doctored the image to create the ghosts. Intrigued, Black sent his own assistant, Horace Weston, to Hannahs studio in order to have him sit for a photo and inspect Mumler as he carried out his process. When Horace returned to Black with a photo of himself flanked by the spirit of his dead father, he told him simply,
“I have seen nothing different from taking an ordinary picture.”
It was certainly curious, however, everyone at Blacks studio were still a little more skeptical than the larger Spiritualist community. They may not have been able to tell how WIliam had duped them, but they were quite sure he had somehow done just that. Fortunately, in article after article, William had mentioned that he was happy to welcome investigation into the matter,
“The whole thing is a marvel any way, and deserves to be investigated by scientific men. From the description given to us, Mr and Mrs Mumler are perfectly frank, ingenious persons, with no appearance of imposture about them. They court the most rigorous investigation, and will extend every facility for inquiry to persons coming properly accredited.”
Black decided to do exactly that and visit the studio for himself. Upfront with his curiosities and suspicions, William agreed to photograph Black and even offered him to not only inspect the camera, but to take it apart and examine it piece by piece. Black shrugged off the suggestion, but watched him carefully throughout and then once he had finished sitting, once more turned down Williams offer of developing the plate for himself, however, he did follow William to the darkroom and continue to watch him as he worked. His reason for turning down such an intimate investigation as he was offered was simply one of arrogance, for Black, he was a serious and well respected photographer, he was quite sure that if William was pulling any trickery, he would recognise it immediately, “You are not smart enough to put anything on that negative without my detecting it”, he told William with no small amount of disdain. William replied by handing over a photograph of Black sitting in a chair with the spirit of a woman standing behind him, one hand on his shoulder and told the photographer he need not pay him for the pleasure.
As William Mumler rose to Spiritualist fame and Hannah’s studio climbed in notoriety throughout Boston and the wider area, the pair, who had for some time been growing closer, eventually married on October 12th of 1864. William closed down his engraving shop and turned instead to work full time in the photographic studio, offering his spirit photographs at $10 a turn, whilst Hannah operated as both receptionist to streamline the business and spiritualist healer to a captive clientele.
Not everyone was so willing to accept Williams photographs as the real deal, and there were equally skeptical pieces in the press, suggesting trickery, but for the most part, the overwhelming noise was that of positive support. If William ever failed to deliver on producing a ghostly image for a client, this too simply worked to bolster his legitimacy, the fact that he was so down to earth and had no previous history of spiritualism was not overlooked either. For every negative press piece on the studio, or every naysayer in the vars and streets of Boston, there was someone willing to see the spirits of there lost loved ones in the images and speak out for him. One example among many, is this testimony from Eliza Babbitt, a prominent Bostonite of the time, that was published extensively in the spiritualist press,
“This is to certify that I, Mrs Babbitt, have a spirit photograph of my husband, taken at your rooms, by Mr Mumler. It is recognised by all that have seen it, who knew him when he was upon this earth, as a perfect likeness, and I am myself satisfied that his spirit was present, although invisible to mortals.”
One of the more interesting elements was how the recipients of the images were always keen to point out that the ghosts in the pictures were always perfect likenesses of loved ones that they recognised with consistent ease. Just as with the press coverage, however, it was not all who accepted Williams’ work so easily and as his photos rose in fame, so too did the number of challenges from skeptics equally rise. William soon found himself becoming something of a target, a poster child for the Spiritualist movement, skeptics saw him as a prime target. If they could debunk William and his photographic process, they could, in turn, debunk all of Spiritualism at the same time and it wasn’t even just skeptics who spoke out about the work William was doing with his camera. There were many prominent spiritualists who spoke out against the photographs, either through competition, jealousy or protectionism, there were several who spoke out to the press, reminding the public to maintain a questioning eye on the images. Andrew Jackson Davis, a prominent New York Spiritualist and Magnetic Healer sent his own assistant, William Guay, a photographer by trade, to Boston to check into Williams work for himself. It was a curious move, but as a long time Spiritualist and publisher of material around the subject, it was more than probable that it was motivated in no small part by a professional curiosity mixed with a twinge of jealousy. Guay sat for a photograph with William in his Boston studio and as so many before him had already done, watched carefully at every step of the process. William, as before, offered Guay to get involved with the process and even allowed him to prepare his own plate for the image,
“I took my seat in such a position as to see everything going on. Being seated profile, I could see pretty well the background, and also the camera box, Mr Mumler by it and the young man off in the corner, having previously made sure that there was nobody else besides us three. The focus being adjusted, I resolve and hope that the picture of my departed wife may come on the negative standing in front and by me. The cloth being removed, I fancied feeling rather queer during the operation. The sitting over, I immediately passed to the camera box, took out the plate holder, passed off to the dark room, followed by Mr Mumler. I must here mention that while I was preparing the glass and going through the operation, I pretty nearly made up my mind that nothing but my own picture would come on; and even when about to develop the same, I little believed I should get anything more. Having thrown on the developing solution, I closely watched what was coming. Well, then, to ym utmost, almost trembling astonishment, there I was seeing two pictures come out. I clasped the glass tightly, you may rest assured. Having got through, I washed it off, and put it into the fixing solution, watching it closely all the while. When done, I took it out, and there I stood, and precisely what I had desired. You may better conceive my feelings than I can even now explain to you.”
Unbelieving at what he was seeing in the dark room, Guay asked to sit once more and the second time, developed a second photograph, this time with the spirit of his deceased father realised, posing in the frame behind him. The result was a resounding endorsement from the photographer, published in press both in America, and across the world.
“I cannot detect a single syllable that goes to prove any fraud. Mr Mumler expresses a desire that I should be with him all the time, so that I may see how the work is done, having great confidence in my skill as a photographer. It is impossible for Mr Mumler to have procured any pictures of my wife or my father. The likeness of my father is clear and perfect; that of my wife is not. I have seen several letters from parties who have gone through as I have, and received satisfaction, certifying their failure to detect any possible detection.”
Guay was so impressed by the entire operation, in fact, that he ended up working at the studio in some assistant capacity in order to better improve the entire process for their now, never ending stream of clients. Like any good entrepreneur, William was not so happy with settling or stagnating, instead he branched out into mail order photography, charging people $7.50c for the pleasure of having a photograph of a spirit of a person they described sent to them no matter where they were in the nation. William sent his photos to all manner of people, including the legendary entertainer and master of the American humbug, P.T. Barnham himself. Just as his notoriety within Boston was reaching its peak, however, the spirit photographer hit a small hitch. On the 12th February, 1865, one of the studios visiting clients, was perusing the gallery of previous photographs whilst awaiting his turn to sit in front of the camera upstairs, when he noticed something curious in one of the photos. There, posing as a spirit was the perfect image of his wife. What was more curious, was that his wife was still very much alive. His wasn’t an isolated experience either. Worse for William was the revelation that John Latham, a visitor to the offices of the Spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light, saw one of Mumlers photographs on the editor’s desk. He was convinced that the spirit was of someone that he knew, or had seen before. It nagged on his mind for days after until he finally put two and two together and recognised it not as someone he knew, but he had seen the same spirit in another photograph he had seen months prior, belonging to a Mr Pollock. Investigating the image further, he discovered someone that recognised the spirit and once more, it turned out that the spirit was the image of someone very much alive and well. As it turned out, the ghostly image was of a previous client to Hannahs studio long before William had moved in and shot his first ever spirit photograph. With the original photograph as direct proof that the spirit in Pollock’s photo was a fraud, Williams’ blooming reputation as a talented medium crashed spectacularly. Guay left the studio overnight, and whilst the press lampooned him as an out and out fraud, William quietly backed away from the argument, stepping out of the public spotlight and hastening back into quiet obscurity. Debate raged on without the input of William for a while, but eventually, with no defense of the work being offered by the man himself, the realm of spirit photography fell into obscurity.
Mumlers return, New York, New York
All the while the Boston Spiritualist community were turning in on William Mumler and his photographic process, miles away in New York, P.T. Barnham was busy setting up a new gallery in his American Museum. He had received an image from William via his mail order service and become enamoured by the entire affair. Whilst one state derided William as a “heartless, humanity-less, tomb robbing ghoul,” Barnham was pronouncing him an “ingenious man of science.” During the Summer of 1865, he displayed an entire gallery of Mumlers photos to the public, whilst Mumler himself hid away from the public eye, doctoring photos of the confederate president, Jefferson Davis, outfitting him in a womens dress to sell via mail order. The photos were a satirical take on the capture and arrest of the ruined leader from the Spring of that year. In reality, the dress was only his wife’s shawl, thrown over his head and shoulders at the last moment to obscure him from the invading army in the hopes he would evade capture, however the press had run with the story and created a farce of the scene to great effect. For photographers with an inventive streak, much like William Mumler, it was a commercial opportunity too good to pass up. When Barnhams museum burnt down later that Summer, it would not have been a devastating blow to William to find out that the gallery, full of the body of work he had been attempting to distance himself from, had also gone up in flames along with it.
Over the next few years, William passed the time quietly. Always a tinkerer, he invented several small mechanical instruments and processed at least four new patents and for the most part, appeared to put photography behind him. That was until 1868, at least, when his old assistant, William Guay, showed up on his doorstep in Boston, bankrupt and looking for work. With some very gentle prodding, Mumler was convinced to step once more into the world of spirit photography. With their local reputation in tatters, this time, he reasoned, the outfit would need to get out of Boston and so instead began advertising a national tour of big cities, starting off in New York. Just a few blocks up from barnhams rebuilt American Museum, the trio found a space to rent in W. W. Silvers photographic studio on 630 Broadway. Silver was a legitimate portrait photographer who had been in the business for over six years, and when he first discovered the type of operation that William Mumler intended to run from his premises, he was not in the least bit impressed. At least, he was unimpressed until he sat for a photograph himself. Watching William with a close eye, he sat back and awaited the results to emerge from the dark room, only to be astounded to see that his image now contained the spirit of his dead mother. Convinced, his tune changed appreciably and Mumlers way was clear to ply his spiritualist trade to a new audience. William charged $10 for 12 prints and though this was three times the going rate for normal portrait photography at the time, the studio was soon filled to the rafters with people gagging to try out this fantastical new fad, within the space fo weeks, Silvers studio was as busy as Hannahs had ever been back in Boston, helped along by some positive press coverage, “This may be a humbug,” one story read, “but I am too stupid to discover it myself.”
Just as it had before, Mumlers process attracted not only paying clientele, but also the critical eye of his peers. Photographers were soon pouring over his images and sending their assistants to sit for photos, eagerly awaiting their feedback, hoping in hope that this time, they might be the one clever enough to uncover Mumlers special secret. None were successful, however, and his popularity continued to grow into the closing years of the century. After they had been in New York for a year, the Photographic Section, a group of professional photographers based in New York, set up an exhibition with a selection of Williams photos. In order to advertise himself to the punters, William prepared a pamphlet that explained his unique ability.
“It is now some eight years since I commenced to take these remarkable pictures, and thousands, embracing as they do scientific men, photographers, judges, lawyers, doctors, ministers, and in fact all grades of society, can bear testimony to the truthful likeness of their spirit friends they have received through my mediumistic power.”
“What joy the troubled heart! What balm to the aching breast! What peace and comfort tot eh weary soul! To know that our friends who have passed away can return and give us unmistakable evidence of a life here after – that they are with us, and seize with avidity every opportunity to make themselves known; but alas, in many instances, that old door of sectarianism has closed against them, and prevents their entering once more the portals of their loved ones and be identified.”
“But, thank God, the old door is fast going to decay; it begins to squeak on its rusty and time worn hinges; its panels are penetrated by the worm holes of many ages, through which the bright, effulgent rays of the spiritual sun begin to shine, and in a short time, it will totter and tumble to the earth.”
“Boston has been the field of my labors most of the time since I commenced taking these wonderful pictures, where I have been visited by people from all parts of the Union; but at the earnest solicitation of many friends, i have concluded to make a tour through the principal cities of the United States, that all may avail themselves of this opportunity to obtain a likeness of their loved ones.”
It was a bold mission statement, but one that would hopefully keep him moving, keep him earning and keep him one step ahead of all the naysayers that so insistently followed him around. At least, it would have, but his grand national tour was about to be derailed, by an Irish immigrant journalist who saw nothing but the work of the devil in each photograph.
In the 1860’s, New York was headed by a mayor that was hoping to clean up the cities act. Part of his plan to do so was to install a complaints book in the Town Hall offices that was open to the public to write theri complaints in. This book was jam packed with complaints of petty criminals, anonymous con men and domestic squabbles. It was the job of Joseph H. Tooker, the city marshal, to head up a team of a dozen assistants to trawl through the book, separating the useful complaints from the droll bickering. In March of 1869, one story stuck out in the complaints to both Tooker and the Mayor himself. The complaint came from one Patrick V. Hickey, an Irish journalist who wrote for the New York Sun on affairs in relation to science. As well as priding himself as a man of science, he was a devout Catholic and from the moment he had seen William Mumlers spirit photographs, he had taken deep offense at what the man was doing. He first saw Williams photos in the Photographic Section gallery after which he had paid Mumlers studio a visit and then immediately marched over to City Hall to lodge his complaint with the authorities against William. For Tooker and the Mayor, they saw William as little more than a straight con man and so, at the Mayor’s request, Tooker began an investigation into William personally. He visited Silvers studio under cover of a false name to get a photo taken by William. Using his false name of William Wallace, he explained how he wished to see the spirit of his father-in-law, paid a $2 deposit, sat for the photos and then, the next morning, returned to collect his developed photos. The moment William Handed over his photos, complete with the Marshals fictional father-in-law, Tooker, arrested William for fraud and took him straight to the Tombs to await a preliminary hearing.
Mumlers trial was set up with due haste and two weeks after his initial preliminary hearing, William was whisked off to stand in defense for “Obtaining money by trick and fraud”. In his defense, he had hired John D Townsend, a fearless lawyer who had gained a reputation for fighting lost causes and winning. As one can imagine, the trial was a public spectacle, followed by a packed courthouse and the international press. The trial opened up with Tooker taking the stand to explain how he had come into contact with Williams photographic process and to address the charges against him,
“Well, when I went into the room certain representations were made to me which were not afterwards carried out as promised. Mr Mumler promised to give me a picture of a relative or of someone deceased near in sympathy to me, this he failed to do, and I therefore consider that was a trick and a deception practiced on me.”
Williams defense was quick to seize the initiative, pouncing on Tookers use of fake name, which was explained away by Tooker stating that he did not want to colour any treatment made towards him if his name as the City Marshal was recognised. More damning, however, was the revelation dug out through questioning, that he had never actually seen his father-in-law whilst he had been alive. This, explained Townsend, surely meant that he cannot know if the likeness in the photograph was in fact that of his father-in-law or not? With a heavy sigh, Tooker could do little but to declare that, yes, that was in fact the truth of the matter.
Next to the stand was William Guay, who backed William to the hilt, explaining how he had met the photographer eight years prior and had been so moved to end up working alongside him,
“Though I tested the process by every means I could desire, I could find no trick or device, and became convinced that the spectral pictures appearing on photographs of living persons were actually and the true likenesses of those departed, and were produced by means other than those known by artists. I know of two or three methods of producing ghost-like figures similar to these: One by placing a person behind the sitter, another by a peculiar arrangement of reflections, and a third by chemical means.”
Once he had furnished the courtroom with his photographic knowledge, he then went on to assure the judge that he was quite sure that William had not made use of any of the means he had described. Guay wasn’t the only expert to take the stand over the course of the trial either and several prominent photographers gave similar statements to the court, suggesting ways that a photographer could potentially make a spirit photograph in the same vein, but then assuring the court that they do not believe William to have utilised any of them himself. Equally, springing to Williams defense was a steady stream of happy clientele, all spiritualists from New York, many prominent figures in society, who gave testimony that they were more than happy with the process and of having partook in a Mumler shoot. One of the most prominent to be called to witness, was Hon W. Edmonds, a 70 year old judge from New York who was widely respected. Himself a spiritualist, he managed to garner such a level of respect for his other endeavours, that even a retelling of a somewhat deluded spiritualist yarn in the courtroom could not stand against him in the opinions of even the prosecution, who held him in great esteem.
As an expert witness, William Slee was called to the stand. A photographer from Poughkeepsie for over ten years, he was to give his technical opinion on Mumlers photographs, but he too coil donly admit that out of curiosity, he had previously invited Mumler to his own studio and offered up all his equipment to him to attempt to take a spirit photograph in a controlled environment. When the photograph was produced by William, complete with ghostly visitor, Slee could only say that though he thought it was possible for a photographer to create the photographs using natural techniques, it would be very difficult.
The trial was not to go completely in Williams favour, however, and it was time for the prosecution to call their star witness. Despite his earlier admiration of Mumler, P. T. Barnham could not resist the lure of publicity for testifying against him in a public court. As soon as the first question of him was asked, he launched into an answer which would characterise the flair he intended to bring to the trial, “Do you believe in spooks?” The prosecutor asked Barnham,
“I do, it is very easy to see them, if you only believe in them, when I was a boy I believed in them, and saw lots of them.”
His reply drew laughter from the onlookers and danced gracefully around any question of his own beliefs. As it happened, Barnham had always been an outspoken critic of Spiritualism, but perhaps with a captive audience, he felt it better to string them along to the inevitable punchline, and what a punchline it was to be. After a long speech concerning the subject of seeing and believing, Barnham produced a photograph of himself, with the spirit of the recently assassinated PresidenT Lincoln standing behind him. It was not a Mumler photograph, he assured the court, but was taken just like Mumler would have taken his spirit photos, throughout the sitting, he assured the court, he had seen no trickery whatsoever, just like all the experts had previously said of William, but there it was, an image of himself so absurd, that it simply cannot have been real. The photograph was of course, a great cause of amusement to the court, but it was also a damaging image against Williams defense. It tore down the legitimacy of his argument and turned spirit photography into a clear farce.
On the 1st May, the prosecution and defense rose to give their closing statements. It was the turn of Townsend for the defense first,
“Mumler is charged with fraud because the prosecution cannot understand how the sprit form was produced; and owing to the fact that Tooker and thise who testify on the part of the people are unable to account for the appearance of these shadowy forms, therefore it is sought to hunt down the prisoner, and fix on him the brand of cheat and humbug.”
Townsend asked why a case, which should have been comparatively small, was blown to such grand proportions? He suggested that the case was no longer against Mumler, but against Spiritualism and belief itself. It was a fairly effective line and he paired it with another, by pointing to the long line of prominent experts and New York high society who had lined up to testify for the defense, despite Williams’ short time living in New York. On the other hand, he pointed out, the prosecution had brought forward Barnham, a man who was well known to fraud people openly. He then closed by suggesting that if Spiritualism was on trial, then he believed it to not be the problem that it is often seen as, calling to the Bible and reading scripture directly that supported the communication with the dead.
“If the spiritual belief is true, then we must admit that there is nothing in Mumlers works to justify the charge brought against him. Spiritualists found their belief in the Bible, if we believe in the Bible, we cannot fail to believe that spirits do appear, at times, and are palpable to the sight of these mortals gifted with the power of seeing them.”
It was a fairly powerful and convincing statement. In retaliation, the defense closed with a statement that focused on the simple matter of fraud, calling mumlers racket a “wholesale swindle” and bracketed it amongst many other cons that the city was pushing to expel in order to protect its citizens. When all was said and done, the judge made his deliberations.
“After careful attention to the case, I have come to the conclusion that the prisoner should be discharged. However, I might believe that trick and deception has been practiced by the prisoner, as I sit here in my capacity of magistrate, I am compelled to decide that the prosecution has failed to prove the case.”
It had been a long, drawn out and very public trial, but at the end of it, William Mumler was ruled an innocent man, free to go about his own way.
As it had been in Boston in the years prior, Mumler found his reputation forever tarnished in New York, despite the innocent verdict, He returned to Boston where he advertised mail order spirit photographs for sale. The Mumler studio, instead turned more towards Hannahs Spiritualist Healing abilities, which they adverttised openly and saw a decent trade. In keeping with his inventive nature, Mumler went on to develop the “Mumler Process” a photographic technique that significantly cheapened and made more efficient the printing of photographs, which was widely adopted by newspapers nationwide. Despite casting aside Spirit photography for the most part, he captured probably his most famous photograph three years after his trial ended, when he shot an image of President Lincoln’s widow, a prominent spiritualist herself, she visited the Mumler studio one morning in the spring on 1872, and left with a photo of herself, along with the ghost of the dead president hovering over her left shoulder.
William Mumler died in 1884, aged 51 years old. His obituary made only passing mention of his spirit photography, instead focusing more on the Mumler process, for which he had gained considerable fame, the description of him as having “much innate genius and a taste for experiment” only alluded to the days gone when he would seat his clients in front of a camera, only to produce an image of ghosts pulled from thin air.