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
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.