William H. Mumler

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William H. Mumler
Mumler (Mumler).jpg
Robert Bonner, supposedly with the spirit of his wife, Ella Bonner. William H. Mumler, 1872.
Born 1832
Died 1884 (aged 51–52)
Occupation Photographer
Known for Spirit photography
Home town Boston

William H. Mumler (1832–1884) was an American spirit photographer who worked in New York and Boston.[1] His first spirit photograph was a self-portrait which developed to apparently show his deceased cousin. Mumler then left his job as a jeweller, instead opting to work as a full-time photographer, taking advantage of the large number of people who had lost relatives in the American Civil War. Perhaps his two most famous works are the photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband Abraham Lincoln, and his photo of Master Herrod, a medium, with three spirit guides.

After being accused of various activities, he was taken to court for fraud, with noted showman P. T. Barnum testifying against him. Though found not guilty, his career was over, and he died in poverty. Today, Mumler's photos are known to be fakes. Yet, they circulated widely in the following years and decades, and were marketed as objects of belief and visual curiosities both within and beyond the spiritualist movement.[2]


P.T. Barnum hired Abraham Bogardus to fabricate this photo of Barnum and the 'ghost' of Abraham Lincoln. This picture was then tendered in evidence at Mumler's trial for fraud to show how easy it was to forge spirit photographs.

Before beginning his career as a spirit photographer, Mumler worked as a jewellery engraver in Boston,[3] practicing amateur photography in his spare time.[4] In the early 1860s, he developed a self-portrait that appeared to feature the apparition of his cousin who had been dead for 12 years.[4][5] This is widely credited as the first "spirit photograph"—a photograph of a living subject featuring the likeness of a deceased person (often a relative) imprinted by the spirit of the deceased.[6] Mumler then became a full-time spirit photographer, and moved to New York City where his work was analyzed by numerous photography experts, none of whom could find any evidence that they were fraudulent.[4] Spirit photography is thought to have been a lucrative business thanks to the families of those killed during the American Civil War seeking reassurance that their relatives lived on.[6]

He was married to a famous "healing medium," who conducted her own business beside her husband's.[7]

Critics of Mumler's work included P. T. Barnum, who claimed Mumler was taking advantage of people whose judgment was clouded by grief,[6] following a discovery that some of Mumler's 'ghosts' were in fact living people,[4] and accusations that he had broken into houses to steal photos of deceased relatives.[5] According to Joe Nickell "Mumler was exposed as a fraud when people recognized that some of the supposed spirits were still among the living."[8] Mumler was brought to trial for fraud in April 1869.[6] Barnum testified against him, hiring Abraham Bogardus to create a picture that appeared to show Barnum with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln to demonstrate the ease with which such photos could be created.[6] Those testifying in support of Mumler included Moses A. Dow, a journalist who Mumler had photographed.[9] Though acquitted of fraud, Mumler's career was ruined.

After the trial, he went on to be a "photograph publisher," discovering a photo printing process from wood-cuts, known then as the "Mumler process." [7] He died in 1884.[4] Today, his photos are considered hoaxes.[10]


Ghost of Abraham Lincoln[edit]

Mary Todd Lincoln with the "ghost" of her husband.

Mumler's most famous photograph apparently shows Mary Todd Lincoln with the "ghost" of her husband, Abraham Lincoln.[4] Paranormal researcher Melvyn Willin, in his book Ghosts Caught on Film, claims that the photo was taken around 1869, and that Mumler did not know that his sitter was Lincoln, instead believing her to be a 'Mrs Tundall'. Willin goes on to say that Mumler did not discover who she was until after the photo was developed.[4] The College of Psychic Studies, referencing notes belonging to William Stainton Moses (who has appeared in photographs by other spirit photographers), claim that the photo was taken in the early 1870s, that Mrs. Lincoln assumed the name of 'Mrs. Lindall,' and that she had to be encouraged by Mumler's wife (a medium) to identify her husband on the photo.[9] Although the image has been dismissed as a fraudulent double exposure,[11] it has been widely circulated.[9]

Master Herrod[edit]

An image of Herrod with a single "ghost".

Master Herrod was a young medium from Bridgewater, Massachusetts photographed by Mumler in about 1872.[4] One photograph, once developed, apparently showed Herrod in a trance surrounded by the spirits of Europe, Africa and America.[4] The photograph was advertised for sale in The Religio-Philosophical Journal on August 24, 1872.[9]

Other photographs[edit]

Other photographs by Mumler included pictures showing various spirits (including relatives, fiancés, actresses and spirit guides) with living sitters.[4] Other well-known sitters include Moses A. Dow (editor of The Waverley Magazine) whose photograph apparently showed the spirit of his assistant Mabel Warren, and Fanny Conant, a well-known medium from Boston, apparently photographed with the ghost of her brother Chas.[9]


  1. ^ Boston Directory. 1873
  2. ^ Natale, Simone (2016). Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. pp. 147–149. ISBN 978-0-271-07104-6. 
  3. ^ Boston Directory. 1856, 1858, 1862, 1868
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Willin, Melvyn (2007). "The Earliest Images". Ghosts Caught on Film: Photographs of the Paranormal. West, Donald. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-7153-2728-9. 
  5. ^ a b "The paranormal pictures of William Mumler". College Times. 2006-04-20. Archived from the original on 2006-04-22. Retrieved 2008-05-04. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Boese, Alex. "William Mumler's Spirit Photography". Retrieved 2008-05-04. 
  7. ^ a b Kaplan, Louis (2008). The Strange Case of William Mumler. University of Minnesota Press. p. 304. ISBN 978-0-8166-5157-3. 
  8. ^ Nickell, Joe. (2008). "Photoghosts: Images of the Spirit Realm?". Csicop.org. Retrieved 2014-07-12.
  9. ^ a b c d e "William Stainton Moses collection". College of Psychic Studies. Retrieved 2008-05-04. 
  10. ^ Wagner, Stephen. "Paranormal Photo Hoax". About.com. Retrieved 2008-05-04. 
  11. ^ Wagner, Stephen. "Presidents and the Paranormal". About.com. Retrieved 2008-05-04. 

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