Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop

Aimee Heidelberg - October 23, 2023

Spirit photography was more than just an 1800s curiosity. Picture a New York photo studio in 1865. A family sits for a portrait at a local photography studio to immortalize themselves in print. They recently lost their son Arthur in a Civil War battle. There were no photographs of Arthur, something they deeply regret. After negotiating a price and having a nice chat with the photographer, they sat for the portrait. As they sat as still as possible, the photographer captured their image. When they see the photo for the first time, there they all were, in their best dress and finely combed hair. Everyone looked good, Mother, Father, daughter Violet, young Frederick, and, faintly, Arthur. Arthur? The family just waded into the world of spirit photography, a way to show Arthur lives on. It was more than special effect- it was a connection with the afterlife.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
London Stereoscopic Company. Photo from the series of stereo cards Ghosts in a Stereoscope, c. 1850s. Public domain

Earliest Ghosts and Trick Photography

The earliest ghost images were deliberately playful, intended to be amusing special effects. These commercially produced stereocards sold for entertainment purposes only. There was no effort to claim they were actually capturing a spirit in the image. It was well-announced play-acting, and books like Walter Woodbury’s book Photographic Amusements explained how photographers could create their own ghosts. These early ghosts were created by first posing the sitter and the ghost together, with the ghost dressed in a white sheet or other ‘otherworldly’ garb. The pair would pose together for part of the exposure. The lens would be covered again while the ‘ghost’ left the frame, leaving only the main subject to sit for the rest of the exposure. As the film developed, the sitter who remained for the whole exposure looked perfectly intact, but there was only a faint, transparent image of the ‘ghost.’

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Hours with the Ghosts, or 19th Century Witchcraft, by Henry Ridgley Evans (1891). Public domain.

1800s Special Effects Photography

In the 1850s, photographers played with special effects and trick photography. They created ‘ghosts’ on their photographs through double exposure. As special effects photography evolved, photographers became more creative. They figured out how to manipulate glass plates and negatives to create ‘fun’ images. These might include multiples of a single person or someone standing holding their own severed head. Ghosts and spirits were popular subjects, but they were usually creating a play-acted story for the viewer. Nobody claimed these ghosts were real. In fact, these early images required the sitter to be fully aware that the ‘spirit’ was some guy in a sheet standing right next to them one minute, then stepping off to the side the next.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Kate and Maggie Fox, spirit mediums, Rochester NY (1852). Missouri History Museum, public domain.

Spiritualism in the Victorian era

Just as special effects and ghost photography gained popularity, the spiritualism movement was emerging. Spiritualism had a deep-seeded belief that the living could communicate with the dead, particularly through a spiritual medium. Mediums were the ‘portal’ to communicate with the dead. In the 1840s, Katie and Maggie Fox famously claimed to speak to a spirit called Mr. Splitfoot through a series of knockings and taps. The Fox sisters became a sensation after public demonstrations of their afterlife communication skills. It appeased the minds and hearts of those who were mourning someone, a child, a parent, a sibling, a lost love, and ushered them into the spiritualism movement. The New Yorker estimates between four million to eleven million people just in the United States claimed to be Spiritualists. They clung to hope that their loved ones lived on after death, breaking down the barrier between this life and the afterlife.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Seance conducted by John Beattie in Bristol, England (1872). Public domain.

The Rise of Spiritualist Scammers

The spiritualism movement’s ranks included true believers of life after death, those hoping to demonstrate the unique skill of communicating with the dead, and even scientists hoping to prove the spiritual realm as scientific fact. Despite the popularity of spiritualism, there were plenty of skeptics ready to offer evidence that the mediums were nothing but frauds, including celebrities such as P.T. Barnum and later Harry Houdini, both of whom knew the secrets of tricks and magic. Spiritualism also had its share of scammers tricking the public by charging money to “communicate” with their deceased loved ones. Even Scientific American got into the act, offering five thousand dollars to the person who could convince some of the greatest scientific minds at prestigious universities that the phenomenon was real (with reasonable certainty that they would never need to pay out). Spiritualism gave hope to a population who needed it.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Woman with a man’s spirit in the background (1865). George Eastman Museum, public domain.

Photographers Capitalize on a Trend

Shrewd photographers saw demand for mediums and spiritualism and figured out how to use the tools of their trade to capture that market. They had already convinced the public about the importance of taking a photograph of their deceased loved ones. Victorian postmortem photography gave people a chance to get one last photograph of their loved ones – sometimes it was the only photograph of their loved ones they would ever own. But postmortem photography only left people with an image of the physical body of their dead loved ones. Clever photographers who knew how to manipulate images through special effects or the developing process had a new way to break the wall between the alive and dead and not only give them a picture of their loved one’s body, but of their eternal soul.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Spirit photograph of medium Charles Foster. Emma Hardinge Britten (1884). Public domain.

Spirit Photography: A Meeting of the Supernatural Minds

The market reached beyond grieving loved ones, however. Sir David Brewster wrote in 1856, “For the purpose of amusement, the photographer might carry us even into the regions of the supernatural,” capturing mediums channeling spirits. Self-declared ‘mediums’ believed they had a special connection with the afterlife realm. They sat for portraits by certain sensitive photographers with the skill to capture spirits. When their picture returned, if they were lucky, the image would reveal a spirit trying to make a connection with them. They could claim to be ‘sensitive,’ or have a connection to the spirit world. It was a novelty, but one that these so-called sensitive people could capitalize upon and make a profit. As infamous spirit photographer William Mumler put it, “What joy to the troubled heart to know that our friends who have passed away can return.”

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Master Herrod with a ghost, photographed by William Mumler (c. 1868). Public domain.

How Spirit Photographers Convinced People the Images Were Real

Looking at the spirit photography images today, it’s hard to fathom how people could have believed these images were real. The ‘spirits’ in the image were too vague, blurry, and features were hard to discern. But in the 1800s, photography was a new, novel, and often expensive venture. It wasn’t accessible to everyone; when their loved ones passed, they had no photographic image for remembrance. Photographers, when negotiating the portrait session, would lead the discussion toward lost loved ones. The photographer, then, could reach into their portrait archives to find an image that fit the description, one that, through special effects, could be inserted into the portrait to look like a hazy ‘spirit.’ That spirit would be transparent and blurry but have enough resemblance to the sitter’s description to be convincing. It merely took some suggestion, and the subject could believe it was the returning spirit of their loved one.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Double exposed ‘ghost’ photograph (1899). Public Domain.

Spirit Photograph Techniques

Spirit photographers had a numerous ways to create a ghostly print. Photographers might use double exposure. The space would be photographed before the subject sat for their session, with a figure dressed in ghostly garb standing long enough to be captured, but not long enough to create a strong image on the print. The customer would be photographed later, with the proper exposure time. As these prints were developed, the photographer overlayed the negatives to make the ‘ghost’ figure appear transparent. A ghostly image was also left if a photographer hadn’t cleaned their photo plates, making the next photograph appear to contain a spirit. Some manipulated the glass or metal plate they used to capture the photograph before the portrait session, opening it up to add a figure or smudge that would look ghostly when developed. They would take the picture, and the defective plate would reveal a ‘spirit.’

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Photograph of an apparition at the home of the Duchess of Pomar (1896). Public domain.

Spirit Photography Tricks the Sitter, Not Just the Viewer

The public wasn’t as familiar with the technical aspect of photographic development and lacked access to tricks used by the photographers to achieve a spirit image. For most, a photograph was the most accurate depiction of reality. But special effects photography would soon evolve from novelty to audience misdirection. Spirit photographers played with the developing process, creating strange artistic fantasy. Trick photographs like ‘headless’ photography or pictures that show a single person twice, making them look like twins were common parlor tricks, the sitter is in on the prank. In the case of double-exposure spirit photographs done as a novelty, this, too, is the case. In spirit photography, people believed because they weren’t in on the trick. The photographer applied their tricks in the dark room, out of sight of the subject. It was the Victorian version of today’s deepfake, and it sparked hot debate in Victorian circles.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
William Mumler, pioneer of Spirit

Pioneer Spirit Photographer William Mumler

William Mumler figured out the tricks early in his career, cashing in on the rise of spirit photography. Oddly enough, Mumler’s start was accidental. In 1861, he took a self-portrait, accidentally using a photographic plate that hadn’t been cleaned. The messy exposure left an eerie image, which he sent around as a joke. But as it made the rounds, it ended up published in the spiritualist journal Herald of Progress. From there, Mumler’s life took a turn toward the otherworldly. He claimed the camera was able to capture the spirits of loved ones, which would only become visible once the image was developed. As grieving families mourned their losses after the Civil War, Mumler sold these spirit photographs for five to ten US dollars. Mumler, with new notoriety, claimed to have spiritual powers, a medium who could channel the spirit world through photography.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Moses A. Dow, editor of Waverly Magazine, with spirit of Mabel Warren, photographed by William Mumler (1871). Public Domain.

Mumler was just the Middleman

Mumler’s images were the intimate images spiritualists were hoping for; ghostly figures not just appearing in the frame, but actually appearing to touch or embrace the living. For people who needed to believe their loved ones were still with them, or at the very least, that there was life beyond death, this was proof. The photographer was careful not to guarantee a spirit would appear. He never claimed to be able to summon spirits, nor summon specific spirits. Some of his photographs may not have a spirit at all. Others may not be the spirit the subject was hoping to see. Spirits were free to move in and out as they pleased, so if a client didn’t recognize the spirit in the image, well, that wasn’t exactly Mumler’s fault. He was a medium, able to channel the spirit world, not command it.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Mary Todd Lincoln spirit photography. William Mumler (1872). Public domain.

Mary Todd Lincoln

One of Mumler’s most famous portraits is this one of Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln believed in spiritualism. She had attended seances for years, hoping to contact her three deceased children. She even hosted séances in the White House Red Room. In 1870, she ignored the claims of fraud starting to emerge around Mumler, and asked for a portrait. The resulting image shows the widowed Mrs. Lincoln with by the visage of her late husband, who tenderly rests his hands on her shoulders and looks down toward her. His image is unmistakable; the beard, the floppy hair, the distinctive nose, it was blurry and transparent, but it was definitely the image of President Lincoln. Peter Manseau, who curates the American religious history unit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History notes the photograph is the last ever taken of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
A Mumler photograph with just a picture of the living person. Public domain.

Mumler Expands his Market

Mumler became so skilled at capturing the spirits, he developed a mail-in service to increase his market. He commissioned a regular advertisement in the Banner of Light, a spiritualist newspaper printed from 1857 to 1907. Under the banner, “Spirit Photographs by W.H. Mumler,” he offered to provide “Information how to proceed by those desiring a picture, without being present, and a beautiful specimen sent to any part of the world.” Clients would send a picture of themselves to Mumler. Mumler would then set the picture on a decorative display stand and photograph the photo. When he developed the image, spirits appeared in the photograph, remarkable proof of an afterlife, even when the spirit wasn’t specifically a loved one. While the spirit may not be specifically of a loved one, again, it was proof in the afterlife, and comfort in the wake of grief.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Woman with ghost child, photographed by William Mumler (c. 1868). Public domain.

The End of Mumler’s Reach into the Spirit World

Mumler’s reign as the medium photographer de rigueur would come crashing to an end in 1863. A doctor commissioned a spirit portrait at Mumler’s studio. When Mumler produced the final spirit portrait, his subject saw the ‘spirit’ of a man who was alive and well. The doctor went on a personal crusade to expose Mumler’s tricks. In 1869, Mumler faced lawsuits for fraud and larceny. Scientists and photographers explained how he was able to achieve the ghostly images using special effects. Despite the evidence presented by these technicians showing how Mumler could achieve his spectral photographs, he was acquitted. Nobody could prove definitely exactly how Mumler was able to create his photographs – and he wasn’t sharing his secret. Even so, being acquitted of criminal charges didn’t matter. His career as a spirit photographer was destroyed.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
P.T. Barnum with Abraham Lincoln. Public domain.

P.T. Barnum Exposes the Tricks

Mumler’s trial exposed the inner workings of photo manipulation. The fraud issue might have resolved as people were recognizing ‘spirits’ as other people alive and well and walking among them. Even infamous showman P.T. Barnum got in on the act. Barnum was horrified that spirit photographers such as Mumler were taking advantage of grieving families. He requested photographer Abraham Bogardus take a picture of him with the long-deceased Abraham Lincoln. Bogardus used that image at the Mumler trials in an effort to show the trickery of spirit photography. Barnum, as someone who featured skilled magicians in his shows, was brought in as a witness against Mumler’s practices. Barnum had no love for Mumler’s methods, offering a snarky observation that Mumler’s ghosts “were awfully fashionably dressed for having been dead so long.”

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Stanhope Templeman Speer and William Stainton Moses (standing) with spirit control Rector (1872). Public domain.

Victorian Spiritualism’s Skeptics Get Vocal

While Maggie and Kate Fox made a nice living as mediums, doubt was spreading about the movement. In 1888, Maggie Fox, one of the original spiritualist mediums, admitted that her, and her sisters, abilities were a hoax. She appeared onstage, with her sister in the audience, and demonstrated how the sounds of knocking and rapping came from her ability to loudly crack her toe joints on demand. To punctuate her point, she shouted, “Spiritualism is a fraud from beginning to end!” People occasionally recognized the spirit in photographs as people alive and well. Even self-proclaimed mediums like William Stainton Moses, after examining six hundred spirit photographs, scoffed that there are people who “would recognize a sheet and a broom as their dear departed.” Moses may have been a spiritualist, but he (allegedly) couldn’t abide fraud.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Medium Linda Gazzera and visiting spirit (1909). Public domain.

Spiritualism Didn’t Die, it just Advanced

Spiritualism didn’t die out with the rampant wave of skepticism, though. And the indelible spiritualism of the Victorian era, and spirit photography as its evidence, continued into the 1900s. But it changed a bit. Along with manipulated photographs, the advent of magnesium flash photography in 1899 allowed pictures to be taken almost instantly instead of requiring an unmoving sitter for minutes at a time. This allowed photographs to be taken in an instant, and not necessarily in a studio. Pictures could be taken in dark rooms lit instantaneously by a flash, and as the action was happening. This moved spirit photography from the studio to where the action was happening, at actual séances. Photographers set up their cameras during a séance to capture the paranormal activity (or to disprove the claims of paranormal activity). Since the medium was doing a ‘live’ show, the photographers weren’t always in on the trick.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Medium Helen Duncan taken by Harvey Metcalfe during seance at Duncan’s home (1928). Public domain.

Seances Exposed!

The pinnacle of any séance is the moment a medium contacts a spirit and presents the spirit to the audience. Mediums had their preferred personal ‘trick’ of choice to convince the audience they were communicating with the spirit world. Some of them used spirit writing, where the medium held a pencil and let the spirit guide. Spirits could also make noises, knocking once for “yes,” twice for “no,” or whatever method the medium proposed. And some mediums took pride in their ability to make the spirits materialize. But flash photography quickly exposed these ‘spirits’ as living people dressed in gauzy garb, or a dummy dressed as a ghost hooked up to a rig. Neither of which was very convincing in the light of a camera flash.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Medium Jack Webber covered in ectoplasm during seance (c. 1940). Public domain.

Enter Ectoplasm

By 1894, mediums had turned to a new way to prove their connection to the spirit world. Mediums always had preferred methods of proving their ability to contact the spirit realm, specializing in certain magic tricks to enthrall their audiences. The Fox sisters had knuckle-cracking ‘rapping,’ Mumler had his spirit photographs. One of the most visually intriguing tricks mediums in the late 1800s was their ability to summon ectoplasm. Ectoplasm, a sticky or gauzy residue secreted from spirits, miraculously ejected from the medium during the séance to prove they connected with the spirit realm. After they made ‘contact,’ the medium would eject their ectoplasm from their mouth, nose, ears, or even genitals. Some mediums would swallow the material they used as ectoplasm before the séance, then vomit it up during the climatic moment. And better yet – it could be photographed.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Medium Eva C during a seance (1920). Public domain.


Ectoplasm had more power than just appearing out of thin air. Stories from seances of the past include ectoplasmic tendrils tipping over tables. But most ectoplasm was simply some sort of slime or material. Psychical research G.C. Barnard called it “…variable in appearance, being sometimes vaporous, sometimes a gelatin, or a plastic paste. It is sometimes a bundle of fine threads, or a membrane with swellings or fringes, or a fine fabric-like tissue.” It was usually white – a color most easily seen in a dim séance setting. Mediums like Eva Carrière (aka Eva C.) could allegedly produce ectoplasm. The skeptic’s spirit photography, however, caught Carrière in her deception – when photographed, the ectoplasmic faces she emitted were pictures of “two well-known men” painted with phosphorescent paint (Black, 1922). Despite their impressive efforts toward misdirection, ectoplasm made for an eerie photograph, but was never proven as anything but audience misdirection.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Mary Marshall and ectoplasmic eruption from nose, taken by Thomas Glenmdenning Hamilton (1932). Public domain.

Ectoplasm Debunked

Séance images reveal the suspicious nature of ectoplasm. Flashbulbs captured the moment ectoplasm appeared on the medium, revealing an emission that looked more like a cotton wad than otherworldly residue. In 1923, Hungarian medium Ladislaus Lazlo was confronted with images of his ectoplasm attack. He admitted that he used a wad of “cotton wool smeared with goose fat.” Skeptic Walter Prince noticed that ectoplasm looked suspiciously like a wad of gauze, paint, and cotton batting, and occasionally newspaper cutout faces embedded in the ectoplasm. The ectoplasm was obscured enough in the dark but in the light of the flashbulb appears to be comprised of craft store supplies. Medium Mina Crandon’s credibility was lost when the ectoplasm hand she emitted during a séance turned out to contain a fingerprint from her (very much alive) dentist. Ectoplasm’s popularity waned, but spiritualism continued to flourish.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
A couple with a female ghostly figure taken by spirit photographer William Hope (c. 1920). Public domain.

Spirit Photography in the Early Twentieth Century

Spirit photography was moving out of the studio and into the séance room with the advent of flash photography. But photographers like William Hope were still bringing clients into his studio for a spirit portrait session. Hope’s career as a spirit photographer began after photographing a friend for a portrait session. The resulting photograph showed a spirit had intruded in their photo session. His ability to channel the spirits drew quite a bit of attention. He amassed a following of fellow spiritualists called the Crewe Circle and declared himself their leader. After all, he could prove his ability to capture spirits. Despite claims of fraud and trickery, Hope’s spirit photography allowed people to connect with departed loved ones, a particularly poignant market after so much loss in World War I and the influenza epidemic.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
William Hope’s image of investigator Harry Prince and spirit. Public domain.

Hope Exposed

Like William Mumler, William Hope had his critics. In 1922, the Society for Psychical Research investigated Hope’s practices. They sent investigator Harry Price to Hope’s studio to look into the claims that Hope could materialize spirits through his photography. What Hope didn’t know was that when Price went for his session, the photographic plates he gave to Hope for the session were marked. When Hope developed the images from the session, revealing the ‘spirits’ in the frame with Price, Price was able to prove that Hope switched the plates with his own. Price’s investigation proved Hope’s fraud, although he continued to have some prominent friends come to his defense. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the mind behind Sherlock Holmes, defended Hope’s work in The Case for Spirit Photography.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and spirit, taken by Ada Deane, 1922. Public domain.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, True Believer

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spoke out in support of spiritualism and the possibility that some spirit photographs could not be explained, he came from a place of pain and hope. Doyle dabbled in spirituality since 1887, attending seances and exploring telepathy. He had suffered loss with the death of his wife Louisa to tuberculosis in 1906. Shortly after, he lost his son Kingsley in 1918 from pneumonia as the young man was recovering from injuries during World War I. Doyle took comfort in the idea of breaking the veil between the living and dead, reinforcing his already strong belief in spiritualism. His spiritualist belief and staunch defense in its possibility led to a split with his friend, the vocal skeptic Houdini. But Doyle was steadfast in his belief in spiritualism and held on to that belief even when it was denounced in a very public manner.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Houdini performance poster, 1909. Library of Congress, public domain.

Houdini Joins the Skeptic’s Circle

There were skeptics among Doyle’s circle of friends, including Harry Houdini, one of the most famous magicians of the time. He pulled off miraculous stunts and created illusions that awed even skeptics. His insider knowledge of audience misdirection and slight-of-hand led him to believe mediums were using the same sort of tricks. He took particular delight in debunking mediums and vocally dispelling how ‘spirits’ would communicate with the living. He declared spirit photography a hoax. To prove his stance, he enlisted the help of Harry Price, magician and member of the Society for Psychical Research. In 1922, Price authored an article, “Cold light on Spiritualistic Phenomena” in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Houdini respected Price’s candor in exposing the trick behind spirit photography and asked Price to take this ‘spirit photograph’ showing him in a frame with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, like P.T. Barnum before him.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1923. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Photography Collection

Doyle and Houdini

Despite differing greatly in their belief of spiritualism, Houdini and Doyle were actually good friends, having met in 1920 during Houdini’s English tour. Doyle had, by this time, halted his writing career to lecture about the validity and value of spiritualism. Doyle respected Houdini’s efforts to debunk fraudulent mediums because it shattered the credibility of the true, ‘legitimate’ ones and damaged the spiritualist movement altogether. Houdini, however, believed all mediums were frauds, and tried to show Doyle how they pulled off tricks. Doyle, however, felt Houdini’s effort was pointless – even though mediums could pull of tricks doesn’t necessarily mean they did. The two never agreed on the subject. Doyle soon claimed Houdini wasn’t actually a skeptic at all – that he was using spirit powers to pull off his spectacular magic. Houdini risked revealing his own secrets to debunk Doyle’s claim. The friendship between the two started to erode.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Doyle favorite and Medium Mina Crandon with ‘ectoplasm’ on her face during seance (1930). Public domain.

Doyle’s Lecture Series

In spring of 1922, Doyle made his beliefs very public. He gave a series of lectures about spiritualism and the ability to photograph spirits in massive, packed venues like Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He showed images of spirit photography and ectoplasmic emissions from mediums like Mina Crandon, drawing attention from believers and skeptics alike. In response to the images Doyle displayed, the Evening World printed a scathing headline,All Women Pretty and 25, Men 30, In Doyle’s Heaven.” The lectures, rather than proving spiritualism existed, gave a greater platform to the skeptics. Houdini met with Doyle after the lecture, hoping still to convince his friend that spiritualism was a fraud, one of the few tricks Houdini was never able to successfully complete.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Article headline detailing the murder-suicide of Maud Fancher and her son Cecil, San Francisco Call and Post, 17 April 1922.

The Deadly Consequences of Spiritualism

Unfortunately, as the lectures proved life after death, and the possibility of something better in the afterlife, some people wanted to cross over a little early to get a jump on their spiritual reward. Suicides and murders increased in the wake of Doyle’s popular lectures. In one headlining case, a woman named Maud Fancher murdered her baby son, then killed herself. As she was dying, she wrote to Doyle, whose lecture she heard on the radio, saying Spiritual drove her to it. She also wrote to her husband, asking that her murdered toddler be buried with her, placed in her arms. There is no word whether Mrs. Fancher has appeared in a spirit photograph, but spirit photography, promoted by Doyle in his lectures, gave her hope in life after death, but instead led to tragedy.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Parapsychologist Walter Franklin Prince, c. 1935. Public domain.

Prince Among Skeptics

In December 1925, parapsychologist Walter Franklin Prince wrote an article for Scientific American denouncing spirit photography. He contacted mediums such as William Hope, W.M. Keeler, and other well-known spirit photographers. Most refused to let Prince sit for a session, staving off Prince’s attempts to observe their spirit photography processes. In response to their rejection, Prince quipped, “Their spirits are selectively bashful.” Prince observed how photography existed for twenty years before the first spirit images appeared. But after Mumler’s portrait sessions accidentally produced spirits along with the subject in the 1860s, “the accidents rapidly spread.” Prince called out the change in spirit photograph from a full-body spirit leaning against their living one to the contemporary version, where the spirits appear as a “face only, fading out at the edges in a moony fashion.” Prince’s article had more scathing accusations lobbed at spirit photographers.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Turn of the century spirit photographs (c. 1900). Preus museum., public domain.

Ghostly Cut-Outs

Prince’s Scientific American article wasn’t just an analytical breakdown of how spirit photographers pulled off their swindle, it was a mockery of the techniques used to produce the images. He made fun of how spirits dressed for each photographer, with some draping themselves in long, flowing mantles, others in floral wreaths and crowns. But Price’s humor comes out in his observation that some of the spirits look like reprints from magazines, “Did spirits, not Keeler, cut out figures from Hoffman’s ‘Christ in the Temple,” trim their bears a bit, and shift them into a different arrangement Did his spirits copy an old picture from the Cosmopolitan Magazine?” Prince astutely observed that the psychic laws were different from photographer to photographer.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities, Bartolome Muriilo, c. 1675. Public domain.

Doyle’s Mistake

But Prince aimed his most scathing criticism at Doyle. During his lectures, Doyle presented an image captured in ectoplasm, then photographed as evidence of the otherworldly realm. He called the “most remarkable spirit photograph he had ever seen.” The image is of a bearded man, flanked by a bevy of nude children. Four mothers identified the children as their own, in baby form. Price, however, had something to say about Doyle’s favored image. “Do London spiritualists never visit their National Gallery?” He identified the image as the uppermost portion of Murillo’s Holy Family, with the children as the angelic cherubs. “But I will not dispute that this is the best spirit photograph ever,” Price says, making light of other spirit photographs that are even more poorly executed.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Medium Stanislawa Popielska with ectoplasm projecting from mouth (1920). Public domain.

Doyle Responds But Still Believes

Doyle quickly responded with his own Scientific American op-ed piece (February 1926). He addressed the charge of being snowed by the Holy Family painting. Doyle refutes this by saying he knew they were marvelously artistic, but that he was well aware that it was an altered image, and the ‘ectoplasm’ was just cotton. He admits one of the photographs he showed at the lecture was debunked by Prince. But he claims he never acknowledged the image to be real. Doyle thought it gentlemanly that Prince discreetly told him the image was a fake in a letter rather than confronting him during the lecture. But the goodwill expired when Prince described the image – and his knowledge of its fakery, in the Scientific American article. As much as his Sherlock Holmes books are respected, Doyle had lost his friend Houdini and credibility in skeptical circles for his belief in spiritualism.

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Spirit photography, Preus Museum (c. 1900). Public domain.

Spirit Photography Helped Grieving Families

While spirit photography seems kitschy and unbelievable by modern standards, it was a soothing balm for grieving families. The strong impact of spirit photography is evident in a heart wrenching letter from a widow to spirit photographer William Hope. He had captured an image of her deceased husband during a portrait session, showing the two side-by-side once again. She told him it was one of the brightest days of her life. She knew then that her husband was watching over her, and that she wouldn’t feel lonely anymore. Spirit photography’s place in the spiritualism movement cannot be underestimated; at a time when photography was considered second only to being an eyewitness, it was evidence that there was more after death, and that brought comfort and hope to millions of people.


Where did we find this stuff? Select sources and readings

A ghostly image: Spirit photographs. Kristi Finefield, Library of Congress Blogs, 31 October 2011.

Clearing up some myths about Victorian ‘Postmortem’ photographs. Sonya Vatomsky, Atlas Obscura, 11 October 2021.

Ectoplasm and Ectoplasmic Fakers. James Black, Scientific American, September 1922 (vol. 127(3), pp. 165, 215).

Inside the haunting history of spirit photography. John Kuroski, All That’s Interesting, 11 October 2021.

My doubts about spirit photographs. Walter Frankling Prince, Scientific American, December 1925.

Phantoms and frauds: the history of spirit photography. Kate Scott, OUPblog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World, 29 October 2013.

Seeing Ghosts: A brief look at the curious business of spirit photography. Emilia Mickevicius, SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), October 2021.

The intriguing history of ghost photography. Howard Timberlake,, 30m June 2015.

The man who photographed ghosts. Sarah Waldorf,, 27 October 2021.

The significance of spiritualism in the work of William Hope. Iva Dobreva, Scient and Media Museum, 30 June 2021.

Why did so many Victorians try to speak with the dead? Casey Cep, The New Yorker, 24.May 2021.