The Ghost in the Camera

ghost imageGhosts? Spirits? Wisps of ectoplasm? In 1861 Boston photographer William H. Mumler discovered that he could produce a second, “ghostly” image on his photographic plates if he deliberately re-exposed them for a short time. He claimed he had photographed actual ghosts, and using an appropriately costumed (or completely uncostumed) second subject, the double exposures were a perfect way for less-than-ethical Spiritualists—a movement founded on the belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living—to offer photographic “evidence” to those willing (or anxious) to believe in the phenomenon.

The Spiritualist movement was widespread in the years following the Civil War, when bereaved relatives hoped to communicate with sons and husbands killed in battle. In the years 1890-1895 the Lincoln city directory listed five clairvoyants. The Lancaster County Daily Fair News for September 7, 1882, included a front-page classified ad, headlined “Spirit Photography,” that read, “Mrs. L. Carter, spirit photographer, is in town and will take pictures for a short time at Clements gallery, Eleventh street.”

ghost imageOddly, spirit photographers had a wide following even though “ghost” images were relatively common in early photographs. Emulsions required long exposure times, and a moving vehicle or a walking person, moving too fast to be “seen” by the emulsion, might briefly pause, allowing a semi-transparent image to be recorded on the plate, then move on without being “seen” again.

These two spirit photographs are from the Elliott Coues Collection at the Nebraska State Historical Society (top: RG3507-11-6; bottom: RG3507-11-7). The subjects and photographers are not identified.

—Donald Cunningham, Associate Director / Publications (retired)

(This appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Nebraska History.)




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