William H. Mumler, Spirit Photographs, Amazed Audiences With Ghostly Images

08/22/2013 05:18 pm ET | Updated Aug 22, 2013
  • David Moye Pop culture journalist, HuffPost Weird News

If you look closely at these photos -- and even if you don't -- there's more than a ghost of a chance that you might see what looks like spirits or apparitions.

The paranormal pics are the work of William H. Mumler, a mid-1800s engraver in Boston who rose to fame as a "spirit photographer."

Mumler's stock-in-trade was taking photos of people whose relatives died during the Civil War and making it look as if the spirits of their souls were also posing.

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Mumler's most famous photo was of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghostly image of President Abe Lincoln in the background. His work was so popular for a time that he was able to charge $10 for a picture at a time when other photographers charged a fraction of that, according to the American Philosophical Society.

Of course, those photographers didn't have ghosts in their shots.

But neither did Mumler, whose ghosts appeared via a double exposure technique he discovered while experimenting with a camera.

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Mumler's spirit photography was a popular fad, but it also attracted critics like showman P.T. Barnum, who felt that Mumler and other spirit photographers were taking advantage of grief-stricken people.

In 1869, some people discovered that the so-called ghosts in Mumler's photos were actually living Bostonians, and Mumler was tried for fraud, according to MuseumOfHoaxes.com.

Barnum -- who had earlier purchased photos from Mumler to display -- testified against him and showed a photo done by a different photographer in order to demonstrate how easy it was to fake ghost photos.

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Although the judge dropped the charges against Mumler, citing a lack of evidence, he did concede it was possible that the photographer had practiced "trick and deception."

Despite the apparent victory, Mumler spent $3,000 defending himself (the equivalent of $51,724) and was stuck in a financial hole he never got out of by the time he died in 1884, according to PhotographyMuseum.com.

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Mumler's techniques for taking photos are primitive compared to the advances made in digital technology.

However, researcher Ben Radford says there is one thing his photos have in common with modern-day ghost pictures.

"Despite ever-increasing technology, real photographic proof of ghosts remains as elusive as ever," he wrote in LiveScience.com

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