william mumler’s spirit photography for piano
Written for Ian Pace | Dedicated to Chrissie Caulfield | Duration circa 10 minutes
This composition is generously sponsored by Lindsay Edkins and Lucas Yeats.
In 1861 William Mumler was working as a jewelry engraver in Boston and dabbling in photography on the side. One day, after developing a self-portrait, he noticed what appeared to be the shadowy figure of a young girl floating beside his own likeness. Mumler assumed it was an accident, the trace of an earlier negative made with the same plate, but friends told him the figure resembled his dead cousin. Soon the unusual photo came to the attention of the spiritualist community, who proclaimed it to be the first photo ever taken of a spirit. Mumler didn’t argue with them. Instead he took advantage of the interest in the photo to go into business as the world’s first spirit photographer. He grew wealthy producing spirit photos for grief-stricken clients who had lost relatives in the Civil War. However, Mumler attracted an enormous number of critics as well as supporters. Some members of the spiritualist community accused him of fraud, alleging that the “spirits” in his photo resembled people who were not only still alive, but who had sat for him recently. Rival photographers grew increasingly alarmed at his popularity, believing that he was blackening the reputation of the profession.
In 1869, after moving to New York City, he was brought up on charges of fraud by the police department who had sent an undercover agent to sit for him. The resulting trial pitted believers in spiritualism against supporters of scientific rationalism. The prosecution brought in professional photographers who explained how Mumler could have easily created the spirit-photo effect through the use of double exposure. The photographer Abraham Bogardus prepared a “fake” spirit photo (middle) in which the ghostly image of Abraham Lincoln could be seen floating behind the shoulder of the notorious showman P.T. Barnum. However, Mumler’s defense team brought in many of his clients who testified that they believed his spirit photos to be real. In the end, Mumler was acquitted.
After the trial, Mumler moved back to Boston. It was here, around 1871, that he produced his most famous photo (bottom) when Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, showed up at his studio. It is said that she introduced herself using the assumed name “Mrs. Lindall.” The resulting photo, which seemed to show her being embraced by the spirit of her dead husband, was widely circulated. It is believed to be the last photo ever taken of Mrs. Lincoln, who died in 1882.
Mumler published an autobiography in 1875, but his career was in decline. He stopped producing spirit photos in 1879. When he died in 1884 he was, by most accounts, penniless.
Duration: circa 10 minutes