The ghost photographer who became a sensation in Gilded Age New York City

In the early 1860s, William Mumler was a Boston-based silver engraver who peddled homemade medicine and dabbled in photography. He might have remained out of the public eye if something seemingly otherworldly hadn’t appeared in one of his photos.

“While taking self-portraits for practice, one of Mumler’s prints came back with an unexplainable aberration,” explained Dave Roos at Although he was the only person in the room when the shot was taken, a figure could be seen at his side, “a girl who was ‘made of light,'” stated Roos.

This self-portrait launched Mumler’s short but infamous career as a “spirit photographer,” taking photos of living people and capturing the ghosts of dead loved ones in the images—typically behind the living person or in some kind of embrace.

Anyone who claims to be a ghost photographer today would be met with raised eyebrows. But in the middle of the 19th century, a movement called Spiritualism swept across the nation. Self-proclaimed mediums promised people that they could communicate with deceased family members, offering to perform seances and convey messages from the other side (for a fee, that is).

The possibility of seeing the likeness of dead loved ones in a photo, as Mumler offered, was hard for many grieving people to resist. That was especially true during the Civil War, which claimed thousands of lives and left so many Americans in mourning.

With photography a relatively new and mysterious practice, people were even more willing to believe Mumler’s claims. “These ghostly renderings became so popular that spiritualists hailed these photographs as scientific evidence of their beliefs,” stated the Getty Museum, which owns several Mumler spirit photos. “Even Mary Todd Lincoln had her photograph taken by Mumler.” (Fourth image)

But fellow photographers became suspicious. “Manipulating images was a known part of the photographic artform and other photographers were openly experimenting with double exposures and superimposed negatives, all of which could create the effect of Mumler’s spirit photography,” wrote Roos.

Mumler’s answer to his skeptics in Boston was to relocate to New York City. In 1869 he opened a studio at 630 Broadway, between Bleecker and Houston Streets, continuing his spirit photography business.

Unlike in Boston, however, New York officials were onto Mumler. Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall ordered an investigation and asked a city marshal to sit for a photo under a fake name.

“After the taking of the picture the negative was shown to [the city marshal], with a dim, indistinct outline of a ghostly face staring out of one corner; and he was told that the picture represented the spirit of his father-in-law,” stated an 1869 article in The Illustrated Photographer.

The marshal, however, “failed to recognize the worthy old gentleman, and emphatically declared that the picture neither represented his father-in-law, nor any of his relations, nor yet any person whom he had ever seen,” stated the publication.

Mumler went on trial for fraud later that year, with several photographers, as well as P. T. Barnum, testifying against him. In the end, he was acquitted, since the prosecution could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the images were fakes.

Back in Boston, Mumler continued to work as a photographer; he passed away in 1884 at age 51. Though he is still associated with spirit photography, he eventually lent his name to a process he invented that made it possible to print photos on newspaper, stated Roos, which changed the face of journalism.

[Photos 1, 2, and 5: Getty Museum; Photo 3: Wikipedia; photo 4: Massachusetts Historical Society]

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8 Responses to “The ghost photographer who became a sensation in Gilded Age New York City”

  1. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    Definitely some quackery is afoot here.

  2. countrypaul Says:

    He may have been a quack, but obviously made a serious contribution to photojournalism.

  3. velovixen Says:

    A proto-Photoshop?

    I am guessing that because exposure times were much longer, it was easier for “ghosts”–i.e., anything that might be in the background–to make its way into one of those early photographic images than it would be in today’s photography. Also, there weren’t as many ways to filter light or anything unwanted as there is in current image-making.

    Mykola and countrypaul: What does it say when P.T. Barnum testifies against you?

  4. Kira Moon Says:

    The first picture there’s actually 3 faces in it along with the one with Lincoln. I’m a psychic medium and this article fascinates me!! For the skeptics, I have seen apparitions of those who have crossed over and when I describe who I’m seeing to a client/friend, they confirm who they are to a T….

  5. Kira Moon Says:

    Upon looking at the pictures again this morning….there are 4 faces in the first picture!

  6. Alex Says:

    Is it at all possible that this guy’s antics are the reason that people began to widely conceive of ghosts as transparent entities? I have a vague sense that before a certain point they were commonly thought of as appearing solid, like the ghosts in A Christmas Carol.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      That’s a good question, and I suspect you might be right. So we can possibly credit Mumler with the modern-day ethereal, transparent ghost seen in a century of horror movies.

  7. countrypaul Says:

    To Velovixen: P. T. Barnum aside – yes, the photos are quackery – we have photos of people from the time, which I consider photojournalistic artifacts of the era.

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