Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Abraham Lincoln is Watching Over You: The Strange World of Victorian Spirit Photography

William Mumler, Portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln with Abraham and Thaddeus, 1872

For my first viz. post ever, I thought I’d take a look at the Victorian phenomenon of spirit photography.  Truly timely, right?  But in the wake of Errol Morris’s new book on photography, Believing is Seeing, which is concerned with sussing out the relationship between objective truth and the photograph, thinking about this mid-Victorian malarkey suddenly seems more culturally relevant to me than it did, say, a week ago.  After all, the controversy over spirit photographs represents the first serious sustained debate about photography’s truth-telling powers.   But more importantly, spirit photography remains, if you’ll pardon the obvious pun, visually haunting: at its most basic rhetorical level, its wish-fulfilling nature provides access to powerful cultural fantasies.   Read more after the break.

 Probably the single most (in)famous spirit photographer, William Mumler is a prime example of sheer American hucksterism.  Born in 1832, he worked as a jewel engraver until 1861, when “spirits” began appearing in Mumler’s amateur photographs.  Capitalizing on the nascent rage for Spiritualism and a powerful sentimentality engendered by the mass casualties of the American Civil War, Mumler set up shop as the nation’s chief spirit photographer.  Mumler’s career skyrocketed until 1869, when a trial for fraud, initiated in New York City, made him notorious.  One of the events of the season, Mumler’s trial represents a key moment in the history of photography, as for the first time the medium’s relationship to truth was being brought into the legal arena.  The trial saw P. T. Barnum testify against Mumler, where Barnum (prophetically?) circulated a photograph of himself with the blurry head of Abraham Lincoln in the background as evidence that spirit photographs could be faked.   Though William Mumler was found not guilty, the trial effectively ended the first portion of his career.  After 1869, Mumler continued to circulate spirit photographs—including some of his most famous—but biographical information becomes much more scarce.[1]

William Mumler’s most famous spirit photograph, shown above, captures a beatific, almost Christ-like Abraham Lincoln resting his transparent hands on the shoulders of Mary Todd Lincoln (harder to discern in all digital copies I’ve examined is the faint presence of Thaddeus Lincoln in the upper left-hand corner).  Mumler claims in his autobiography not to have known the subject was Mary Todd Lincoln—though he had previously photographed her (without spirits) in 1865—but instead thought she was a “Mrs. Lindall.”  His surprise when he learned the “true” identity of his illustrious sitters may be imagined.  Though even by Mumler’s standards the 1872 photograph isn’t a particularly convincing piece of work—Lincoln’s head seems strangely posed and stiff—it’s an audacious piece of mythmaking.  The photograph collapses the distinction between the national and the familial.  Mary Todd Lincoln, still dressed in black, still mourning her loss, stares out directly at the viewer, not challengingly, but with the beginning of a smile.  Behind her the iconic face of Lincoln looks downward, evading the viewer’s gaze, but he is smiling.  The viewer is encouraged to identify with Mary Todd—the grieving survivor—as she comes to realize a sense of security and protection in the ghostly hands of the great American myth, Abraham Lincoln.

William Mumler, Portrait of Fanny Conant, c. 1868


Not every spirit photographer was—or could be—as audacious as Mumler, yet all spirit photographs work by fulfilling a complicated set of desires.  On a personal level, they allow their subjects one more chance to see, whether in a cloudy mist or transparent blotch, loved ones thought gone.  Edouard Buguet, a Parisian spirit photographer, confessed during his trial to a number of fraudulent practices.  Yet, as Martyn Jolly puts it in his excellent 2006 book, Faces of the Living Dead, “witness after witness—journalist, photographic expert, musician, merchant, man of letters, optician, ex-professor of history, and colonel of artillery—came forward to testify in his defense….  One after another they left the witness box protesting that they chose to believe the evidence of their own eyes, rather than Buguet’s confession.”  There’s something deeper at work here than a basic fear of being exposed as a “gullible dupe,” as Jolly puts it, though that’s a part of it, of course. 

  William Mumler, Portrait of Moses A. Dow with the Spirit of Mabel Warren

Spirit photographs touch on matters of serious belief.  They provide seemingly objective proof that identity continues on after death in a reassuring, even comforting form.  These aren’t generic ghosts or tormented souls—these are people we can identify: family members, departed lovers, former schoolteachers, or even, as above, old assistants.  The desire to recognize is paramount in spirit photography.  Buguet testified that many of his frauds relied on dummies with false beards or studio assistants wearing drapes, with a collection of 300 or so heads that could be swapped out and exposed onto the plates.  Yet his clients would identify the same head as different people: “the mother of one sitter, the sister of a second, and the friend of a third” (Jolly 22).  Along with the ability to be recognized, the spirits in these photographs share another common trait—they are frequently quotidian.  Though they sometimes appear swathed and veiled in drapery, often they show up in normal dress.  Perhaps they look at us, or at the sitter, or rest hands or arms on them.  But mostly they just seem to be around, hanging out on the margins of our experience.  Rather than being upsetting, the most powerful spirit photographs suggest that there’s no break or discontinuity between the reality the living experience and that which the dead experience.  We go on, even if life doesn’t.

William Mumler, Portrait of Mrs. French with the Spirit of a Child, ca. 1870


Of course there’s an incredible comfort in this idea, especially for Western audiences after the 1850’s—and spirit photography seems to be almost entirely a phenomenon of France, Great Britain, and America.  Decimated by war, famine, and social upheaval, while simultaneously undergoing the first serious pangs of religious doubt, early spirit photography promised the West that modernity didn’t have to be as unsettling as it seemed.  Underlying the phenomenon of spirit photography is a persistent faith in technology.  It’s a weird paradox: on the one hand, spirit photographs act as a “Take that!” to materialists, confirming the existence of an unseen spiritual existence; on the other, the photographs strengthen the claims of technology to impartially and fully document material reality. 

Today, of course, it seems naïve to put so much faith into the photograph, which we now know is an infinitely manipulable medium.  Except, of course, that we still do.  The recent success of Paranormal Activity and its sequel—a third is on the way this October—only caps a decade which saw a return to a belief in photography and film as central media for the inscription and dispersal of “spirit.”  Films like The Ring series and White Noise, the increased interest in “electronic voice phenomena” (EVP), and (pseudo)scientific television programs like the History Channel’s MonsterQuest and MysteryQuest, all point to a continued cultural fascination with the possibilities of visual “proof” of continued, non-corporeal existence.  (That all the examples I’ve cited construct that existence negatively, as something malevolent or horrifying—very much unlike spirit photography—you may discuss amongst yourselves….)  The ghosts in the machine, it seems, are very much still among us.

Further Reading:

Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography, London: Mark Betty Publisher, 2006.

Kaplan, Louis.  The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

[1]For the preceding biographical information I’m greatly indebted to Louis Kaplan’s The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, an excellent casebook on Mumler, published in 2008 by the University of Minnesota Press.

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