Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop
Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop

Victorian Spirit Photography is More than Bad Photoshop

Aimee Heidelberg - October 23, 2023

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.