Phantom Photographs

The death and destruction of the Civil War gave rise to “spirit photography,” a cottage industry where charlatans convinced grieving family members that their dead loved ones could be captured on camera. The scam art was pioneered by William H. Mumler, who was eventually exposed:

Mumler_(Lincoln)Witnesses appearing at the highly-publicized hearing included prominent Spiritualists as well as skeptical photographers, who identified nine possible methods by which “spirits” could be imitated, including double exposure and combination printing. Constructing admittedly fake spirit photographs had already become a source of fun for some photographers, and witness Abraham Bogardus submitted one of his own as evidence. Taken at the request of showman P.T. Barnum, the image featured Barnum with the somber “ghost” of President Lincoln. Barnum was called to the witness stand as well, as an expert on “humbuggery.” He had previously railed against Mumler in his own writings, pointing out how some of Mumler’s ghosts were awfully fashionably dressed for having been dead so long. …

The friendship between illusionist Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fell apart in the 1920s when Houdini made public statements deriding spirit photographs as farcical. Doyle, an ardent Spiritualist who had written a book in support of spirit photography, was crushed. The possibility of contacting his dead spouse and children was too great a comfort to him, as it had been to Mary Todd Lincoln fifty years earlier. Lincoln supposedly wept upon receiving William Mumler’s pictures of herself next to her husband [seen above].