Once upon a time people believed the camera did not lie. They believed that looking at a photograph was as good as seeing something with your own eyes. However, not long after the invention of photography, devious minds began working on how to use the camera to deceive.
In its infancy photography used glass or metal plates coated with a light-sensitive emulsion that were placed inside the camera to be exposed. The advantage of the glass plate was that the negative image allowed an unlimited number of prints to be made from them.
William H Mumler worked as an engraver in his home town of Boston, Massachusetts. He had an interest in photography and access to a friend’s studio. One day in 1861 while alone in the studio he took a self-portrait. To his surprise when he developed the plate he saw beside himself a ghostly image. After the incident he soon changed trades to become a professional spirit photographer. He offered grieving families both consolation and proof of life after death. He claimed he could photograph the spirits of the dead.
The number of grieving families in America was swollen by the civil war that began in 1861 and ended in 1865 with over 600,000 people dead. Business was good for spiritualists and mediums – Mumler and his wife Hannah (who was a clairvoyant) prospered.
Not everyone believed Mumler though, and having moved to New York he was charged in 1869 for “swindling credulous persons by what he called spirit photographs”. The prosecution demonstrated various methods to replicate a spirit photograph. The defence countered with a series of witnesses that testified that their photographs undoubtedly showed the spirit of their deceased loved ones. Mumler was acquitted of the charges and moved back to Boston setting up a studio in his mother-in-laws house. Although, the trial had drained his finances and he had made powerful enemies in New York. Back in Boston it was business as usual and it was here that he produced his most celebrated photograph. Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of the assassinated president Abraham Lincoln was persuaded to visit Mumler’s studio for a photograph.
You might think that spirit photographs would not deceive the analytical mind possessed by the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Yet even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an ardent believer in and supporter of William Hope, a British spirit photographer based in Crewe, England. In 1922 Conan Doyle published The Case for Spirit Photography to help answer claims that Hope was a fraud.
From my own experience I know the most important factor in accepting the validity of a photograph is if it confirms a belief or even a wish. I will admit a fake photograph once fooled me.
As a child I loved dinosaurs, and the possibility that a few might still survive hidden away somewhere was an attractive idea even as an adult. The cornerstone of that belief was a photo taken by a surgeon from the shores of Loch Ness in 1934. I believed in the authenticity of that photo for years until I watched the 1933 version of King Kong. In one short scene there was a similar creature to the one in the photo which had been made as part of the film, and if the team behind the film could do it then so could someone else. My suspicions were confirmed in 1999 when one of the perpetrators admitted it was a hoax.
Both language and photography offer a way to communicate the truths in our lives. Though those that practice to deceive us use both to weave a tangled web knowing those who want to believe always will do.
William H Mumler destroyed all his glass plates shortly before his death in 1884. It is not known how he faced his appointment with the Grim Reaper.
Technical Note: The most straightforward method used to make a spirit photograph was to first photograph a print of the deceased obtained by nefarious means. The exposed plate was then placed in a camera and a portrait of the bereaved was taken. This double exposed plate was developed and printed to show both images combined.