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William H. Mumler

Controversial photographer William H. Mumler was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1832 to John G. J. and Susan Blowers Mumler. Little is known about his childhood or education, and it appears his professional career began as an engraver with a Boston-based jewelry company, where he spent the next two decades. Despite his success as an engraver, Mr. Mumler's interest in photography inspired him to leave his lucrative position and become a photographic publisher. Mr. Mumler combined his passion for photography with his fascination for spiritualism, with the assistance of his clairvoyant wife Hannah.

In 1861, Mr. Mumler boldly proclaimed he had not only captured a spirit in a photograph, but had succeeded in duplicating the process several times. With Civil War casualties mounting, grieving families flocked to Mr. Mumler's studio in hopes of capturing spirit images of their departed loved ones. Mr. Mumler eventually relocated to New York, and opened a highly profitable Broadway portrait gallery. The spirit photography technique he developed varied little from a conventional portrait sitting. A portrait was made, and then the spirit 'extra' would appear in the negative and print. Mr. Mumler charged $10 for a spirit photograph, which was five times the standard portrait price at the time. It is believed Mr. Mumler created spirit photographs through the manipulation of double exposures with the use of a slow lens, a practice that met with considerable disdain by photographic professionals who dismissed his work as amateurish at best.


Mr. Mumler was charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor in 1869 - defrauding the public, larceny, and taking money under false pretenses. The trial was a media sensation as experts on both sides argued whether or not his spirit photographs were legitimate or a hoax designed to exploit the grief of his unsuspecting patrons. Mr. Mumler was acquitted and continued making spirit photographs, but his professional reputation had been seriously damaged. This did not deter former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln from paying a visit to the Mumlers. In 1872, the year after her son Tad, a desolate Mrs. Lincoln sought solace in spiritualism. According to Mr. Mumler, his wife communicated with the spirits of Abraham and Tad Lincoln while Mrs. Lincoln posed while adorned in her 'widow's weeds.' Mr. Mumler later recalled that after his wife ended her spiritual connection, "She found Mrs. L. weeping tears of joy that she has again found her loved ones."

Despite his famous portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, Mr. Mumler's once thriving business began to decline after the trial and the waning interest in spirit photography after the Civil War. He focused his later years on the invention and production of photo-electrotype plates, and was experimenting with the use of dry plates to create instantaneous photographs. William H. Mumler succumbed after a brief illness in 1884, and left behind a professional legacy that is still being debated by photographic historians and legal scholars.



Ref:
2008 American History, Vol. XLIII (Leesburg, VA: Weider History Group), pp. 42-49.

2012 The Elements of Photography: Understanding and Creating Sophisticated Images (Waltham, MA: Focal Press), p. 239.

2008 Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 110.

1869 The Illustrated Photographer: Scientific and Art Journal, Vol. II (London: Edmund Dring), pp. 254-255.

1884 The Photographic Times, Vol. XIV (New York: Scovill Manufacturing Company), pp. 304, 347-348.

2010 Time and Photography (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press), p. 39.



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