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William Mumler: The Man Who Claimed to Photograph Spirits

William Mumler: The Man Who Claimed to Photograph Spirits

Among America's oddest purveyors of the unknown was William Mumler who was purported to take photographs of the dead, Marc Hartzman, author of "American Sideshow," told C2C on 8/24/15. Mumler, a former jeweler, began his checkered career in the late 1880s. An amateur photographer, Mumler’s first spirit photograph was a self-portrait – one in which the apparition of his cousin appeared next to him on the developed plate. The cousin had been dead for 12 years. Shortly thereafter, Mumler became a full-time spirit photographer, and his work became a sensation.

Among Mumler’s most famous photographs was one of newly-widowed Mary Todd Lincoln which showed the apparent shade of her assassinated husband, Abraham Lincoln, hovering behind her (center image). Another famed ghost-photo was of Master Herrod, a Massachusetts medium (right). Hartzman said that Mumler claimed to "have no idea how he was doing this" and back then "there were no existing photographs of a dead child or loved one" to discover and then drop into the portrait behind them. But people swore upon seeing Mumler’s work that it was indeed their dearly departed somehow brought back from the other side.

Mumler was challenged to take similar photographs in different conditions. Using his own camera he took a photograph but developed it at a critic’s lab. When Mumler was able to produce a spirit-photograph, his detractor was silenced. But as Mumler’s career flourished so did the number of questions. The great impresario, P.T. Barnum and others believed that the spirit-photographer was capitalizing on easy prey -- people whose judgment had been clouded by grief.

In April 1869, Mumler was brought to trial for fraud. The great showman Barnum himself testified against Mumler. He hired a professional photographer to produce a spirit-portrait, who did so quite easily by double exposing the film negative. Though he was acquitted, Mumler’s career was over – a brief footnote in the annals of the bizarre. For more from the fascinating interview with Marc Hartzman, which includes details about famous freaks like Johnny Eck, and the post-mortem odyssey of Oliver Cromwell’s head, listen to the 8/24/15 show in its entirety. Not yet a Coast Insider? Sign up here.

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