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A Scanty Post-Mortem History Of Spirit Photography

A Scanty Post-Mortem History Of Spirit Photography
Copyright © Photograph by Nick Chao

To obtain some absolute evidence that the departed are not dead, not gone beyond recall, but that they can be reached and questioned as to their natures and states. Necromancy, magic, sorcery, “dealings with the Devil,” and other choice words and phrases have been used to describe the nature of the efforts made to gain the desired knowledge, while innumerable men and women have paid forfeit with their lives for daring to seek to penetrate the shrouded mystery which many still assert envelopes death.

The practical-minded ones of today do not so much ask what is the right or wrong of attempts to solve the mysteries associated with death and the beyond. Rather, in the light of the scientific spirit of the age, the question is: Is it possible? Science has no fear of any fact or set of facts. Her one purpose is to be sure of her facts, and when found to be facts to boldly follow them wheresoever they may lead. It is in this spirit, that of scientific but earnest and reverent inquiry, the present task is entered upon — the task of gathering some evidence in support of the contentions of all convinced Spiritualists that abundant proof has been obtained that the so-called dead continue to exist, and under certain conditions, and in accordance with natural law, can return to this life and demonstrate the fact of their continuing existence.

The proofs in support of the foregoing statement consist of a wide variety of tangible evidences, such as “rappings,” levitations of objects, visions, trances, “possessions,” direct voices, writings (produced directly by spirits), automatic writings by an individual impelled, compelled, or controlled, by spirits to write; by personations of departed people, accompanied by messages conclusively proving the identity of the spirit with that of someone previously living in this life, quite unknown by, and unknowable to, the “medium” used by the spirit. These and many other methods of obtaining the evidence in support of man’s belief in a future life have been practically utilised by Spiritualists since these modern miracles first occurred in 1848. The critic may object, and say that in these matters there is nothing new. The histories of the Wesleys, the records of psychic experiences of many of the great religious movements of the past and present, the accounts handed down to us regarding hauntings, demoniacal possessions, ghost stories, and tales of wraith and Banshee, have been current for ages, and present most of the familiar features connected with the phenomena of Spiritualism.

Yet there is one form of evidence which is not to be found in the old-time stories, sacred or secular. One form of manifestation by the inhabitants of the inner life which had not been utilised by them until the nineteenth-century had turned its prime. The possibility of it was found in the advancing knowledge of men. The twin sciences of chemistry and optics helped to build the way, and the initial experiments of the Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, laid the foundation for the obtaining of what in all reason may be admitted as affording irrefragable proof that “man survives bodily death,” to quote the term adopted by Frederic William Henry Myers, as descriptive of our future existence.

Between the discovery of a possible method and the working out of a practical process, there may be a long road to traverse. Many unsuspected difficulties may be encountered, many intricate problems may arise, while, if the field of the experiment is one that cannot always be coordinated to the usual methods of physical research, confusion and dissatisfaction may occur and the experimenters may lose heart or even doubt whether they have any real grounds for their conjectures. Such difficulty and doubt naturally arose in this matter, for here was a phenomenon which taxed the intelligence of the clearest-headed, as well as offering opportunities for the crafty to impose upon the credulous. Fifty-eight years ago photographic science was, compared to what it is today, in its childhood. The art of lens-making had not attained its present perfection. The old “wet,” i.e., collodion process was in use; P.O.P. had only been dreamed about, and the photographing of things invisible to the ordinary sight not practically demonstrated.

Those familiar with the process of the collodion days will recall that at times when a “plate” had been used the image was sometimes cleaned off and the plate used for further exposures. If the cleaning was not thoroughly effective a faint image of the previous picture was occasionally left, and some critics have used that fact as an argument against the credibility of spirit-photos. If it stood by itself, it might give us pause. For instance, if all spirit-photos were taken by the “wet” process, or if no such photo had ever been recognised, or if only photos of which similar ones were in existence had been obtained, the objection would be worthy of consideration. However, in 1874, John Cook Kennett issued his gelatino-bromide dry plates, and since then dry plates have become the established article for photographic work the world over. Such plates are so cheap that no one thinks of going to the expense of having them re-coated after use.

Down to the present time, the countries in which spirit photography has been most pursued are the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and France, the earliest experiments taking place in the year 1861. Indeed, no other evidence to the contrary, the first spirit photograph and photographer date from that year and in the city of Boston, the operator being one William H. Mumler, an engraver by profession. He was amusing himself in the studio of a friend by experimenting with his chemicals and instrument, and, he says, “One Sunday while entirely alone in this gallery I attempted to get a picture of myself, and then it was that I first discovered while developing it that a second form appeared on the plate. At this time I had never heard about spirit pictures, although I had been somewhat interested in the doctrine of Spiritualism. At first, I laboured under what is now the general impression, that the plate upon which the picture was taken could not have been clean, and that the form which showed itself beside my own must have been left on the glass, and I so stated to my employers and others.” As to this trial it may be again re-stated that William H. Mumler was discharged, for we read that “At the close of the addresses of the counsel the judge ordered the prisoner to be discharged, the prosecution having in his opinion failed to make out a case to go to a jury.” The account from which the foregoing is taken narrates the cases of at least seven photographs which were unmistakably recognised as those of people who were dead. The striking testimonies of Mrs Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of the martyred President, of Mrs Emma Hardinge Britten, of Professor W. D. Gunning, the eminent American geologist, and of Moses A. Dow, cannot be pooh-poohed out of court by the unsupported assertion of credulity upon their parts, nor the allegation of fraud against William H. Mumler.

The only copy of William H. Mumler’s results which we have available for the purpose of illustrating the earliest efforts to obtain postmortem pictures is the one printed herewith, and described as “the Mumler picture.” The picture was obtained in the year 1861, and it is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of William H. Mumler’s pictures obtained professionally for a client. In a letter dated “Boston, Mass., U.S., September 28th, 1874,” sent to “M.A., Oxon.,” Mr Dow tells the story at length. It can only be summarised here, and is to the following effect: He employed a number of young ladies in his publishing office. He was a proprietor, publisher, and editor of a widely-circulated periodical, “The Waverley Magazine,” and the employer of a considerable staff of lady assistants. The picture in question is that of Mabel Warren, and so far as can be ascertained it is the first spirit photograph obtained by Mr William H. Mumler. When dealing with the evidential section of this account further particulars will be given.

From 1861 down to the present time a number of other mediums for spirit photography have exercised their vocation but, with the exception of Mr William M. Keeler, few have left any deep impression upon the pages of American Spiritualism. An old friend of the writer, Dr Henry B. Hansmann, of Washington, has obtained a large number of psychic pictures through Mr William M. Keeler’s mediumship, and, while the results can be accepted as genuinely psychic in characteristic appearance, they lack the main element of practical utility, as few present evidential value of personal identity, which alone makes such pictures of supreme importance to the world outside Spiritualism. In private life amateurs have essayed experiments, and not a few successful results have been achieved, but, from a variety of reasons, such experimenters will not allow their names nor their experiments to be made public. Indeed, it may be observed in passing that the almost entire failure to tabulate results, names of mediums, dates and places of experiments are serious difficulties in the way of presenting, in orderly sequence, the historical record of these phenomena in whichever country they have occurred. The definite fact, however, remains ― that the first experiments in obtaining post-mortem photographs commenced with William H. Mumler, in Boston, United States of America, in the year 1861, thirteen years after the outbreak of the modern spiritual phenomena at Hydesville, New York State.

Sarah Genner
Sarah Genner

Edited and proofread by Sarah Genner, a British Dark Artist who creates obscure home decor and design for fans of horror and skulls.

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