The word “photography,” which roughly means “light-writing”, was coined in 1839 by chemist and inventor Sir John Herschel. There were some cameras prior to this year, like the camera obscura. But 1839 saw the birth of many new photographic techniques. Louis Daguerre introduced the “daguerrotype” method of photography, which did not require the hours of exposure necessary for a camera obscura.
It can be hard to get those pesky pixies to stay still for long! So, these advancements made it possible for the first time to claim photographic proof, and so objective “scientific” proof, of the supernatural.
Within a few decades of photography’s commercial success, “spirit photographers” emerged. They took photos during seances and documented the presence of ghosts, as well as the ectoplasm the mediums often exuded during spiritual encounters. Mediums would pull this spirit goo (which bore a striking resemblance to cheese cloth) out of all kinds of orifices (and I do mean all) to show a physical manifestation of contact with the beyond. The “ghosts” were sometimes mannequins the mediums worked with a pulley, or were created by the photographer during development.
Though they may not have had Photoshop in the steam era, they certainly had trick photography. It didn’t take long for people to realize that they could alter negatives and combine multiple photographs to create false images that looked totally real. I know it looks like those stone-faced urchins above gave their mama forty whacks, but headless portraiture was all the rage. No mothers were harmed in the making of that photo.
William H. Mumler: Professional Faker
And spirit photography was no different. Through double exposures, photographers could create semi-transparent beings looming over the shoulders of their subjects. The first of this particular brand of frauds was William H. Mumler in the 1860s. His first spirit photograph was actually a self-portrait, and his deceased cousin appeared to be standing behind him. None of the “experts” could prove it was faked, and he went on to experience great success. This was due in a large part to the grieving families who had lost loved ones during the American Civil War. He took advantage of their desperation to see their fallen sons and husbands one last time.
Mumler broke into the homes of the grieving in order to steal the likeness of their relatives. Unfortunately for him, customers started to recognize some of his “spirits” as living people. He was taken to court in 1869. Though they never found him guilty, he left the spirit photography business afterwards.