The Victorians preoccupation with death and their enthusiasm for the paranormal puzzle us today.

Perhaps earlier eras were focused on survival and had little leisure to be widely interested in things like séances, ectoplasms, and spirit photography. Later generations were certainly too skeptical.

But at the turn of the century, everything seemed possible. If people could ride in flying machines and sounds could be recorded and replayed thousands of miles away, who could say with certainty that it was impossible for a talented artist to photograph you and then discover the dearly departed beside you in the exposure?

Memories of the Past, ca. 1880
Library of Congress

Typically, spirit photography featured a grieving widow, or devastated parents of a young child who had come to a tragic end. These photographs were made by enterprising photographers who used photographic tricks like double exposures to create ghostly figures behind living persons. This became an easy way for unethical photographers to capitalize on individuals and families who were still reeling from grief.

William Mumler took this famous photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband President Abraham Lincolnstanding behind her. Later Mumler was exposed as a fraud.

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