*Note: An interview about our spirit collection has been posed on Marty Weil's ephemera blog.


-Spirit Photographs in our collection - Page 1

How our collection started - Brewster & Mumler

During 30+ years of collecting we have often found that a sub-collection will just appear without our being aware that it was happening. This is the origin (really appropriate when you think about it) of our collection of spirit photography. We acquired an original edition of Brewster's book on the Stereograph and read his instructions for making a spirit photograph. We then realized that we already had a stereo card that gave him credit as well as more than 30 other stereos of "spirits".

We had read about Mumler and were delighted to acquire some of his carte-de-visites. We then picked up additional carte-de-visites and cabinet cards here and there and a few books on the subject. When the eBay internet auction became part of our life we found additional examples to add to our collection.

* Disclaimer * Our interest is in the photographic and social implications of the genre and we have yet to see or read anything that convinces us that there is no photographic "trick" involved.

-Brewster's Idea

Early in the practice of the photographic medium ghostlike images were noticed in images. Because of long exposure times anything that moved during the exposure was not recorded or was recorded as transparent. In 1856 Sir David Brewster, an important figure in the development of the medium, described in The Stereoscope, Its History, Theory, and Construction how ghosts could be made to appear in photographs for amusement.

On the right is an English stereo card of the period called "The Ghost in the Stereoscope" with an acknowledgment to Brewster.

While Brewster clearly saw this as an amusement and as a photographic trick others with a growing interest in the paranormal saw "proof" of the existence of spirits. Photographic seances and demonstrations of "photographing the invisible" became a familiar fixture in the 19th century.

Brewster spirit

ghost stereo

 

Below is the excerpt from chapter XIV "Applications of the Stereoscope to Purposes of Amusement" of Brewster's The Stereoscope, Its History, Theory, and Construction says:

"For the purpose of amusement, the photographer might carry us even into the regions of the supernatural. His art, as I have elsewhere shewn, enables him to give a spiritual appearance to one or more of his figures, and to exhibit them as "thin air"amid the solid realities of the stereoscopic picture. While a party is engaged with their whist or their gossip, a female figure appears in the midst of them with all the attributes of the supernatural. Her form is transparent, every object or person beyond her being seen in shadowy but distinct outline. ... In order to produce such a scene, the parties which are to compose the group must have their portraits nearly finished in the binocular camera, in the attitude which they may be supposed to take, and with the expression which they may be supposed to assume, if the vision were real. When the party have nearly sat the proper length of time, the female figure, suitably attired, walks quickly into the place assigned her, and after standing a few seconds in the proper attitude, retires quickly.. If this operation has been well performed, all the objects immediately behind the female figure, having been, previous to her introduction, impressed upon the negative surface, will be seen through her, and she will have the appearance of an aerial personage, unlike the other figures in the picture."

The London Stereoscopic Company stereo card below from the series New "Spirit" Photographs dates from the 1860s.

The buff curved card below, published in 1893 by Littleton View Company is titled The Haunted Lovers.

We have more than 30 stereo cards that show ghosts.

spirit stereo1 stirit stereo 2
-William Mumler's Carte-de-Visites

One of the best known practitioners was photographer William Mumler. We were fortunate to find carte-de-visites by Mumler and the Harper's Weekly from May 8, 1869 which features a story on Mumler's trial for fraud and the cartoon below that takes a humorous look at a Mumler sitting. A gentleman sits for a portrait and when it is presented he and his fiancee are shocked to find he is surrounded by his dead wives

William Mumler cartoon

Mumler Harpers

Mumler was not convicted because there was insufficient proof of fraud. He gave demonstrations to skeptics who were unable to spot any trickery. While they appear to be simple multiple exposures the controls placed on the experiments suggest that his technique must have been more complicated. One theory is that he was able to slip thin sheets of paper with an image into the camera or plate holder.

Two Mumler cards from our collection are seen below along with the back of the second card.

 

We have had the Mumler card above for many years but did not know the name of the subject. We were sure he was a medium because, unlike our other subjects with extras, he was aware of the presence of the spirit since he is looking at and reaching for the cross being passed to him by the ghostly presence.

To our delight there is a reproduction of the same image in Kaplan's book The Strange Case of William Mumler. It is from the Getty Museum and identifies the man as Harry Gordon.

From the internet we learn the Henry C. Gordon (also know as Harry Gordon) was the first American medium credited with levitation in February of 1851.

 

The Mumler card above was purchased at the same time as the card on the left. The back shows the subject is "Capt Montgomery". From the Kaplan book we also learned that the subject is Captain R. Montgomery of Hodgsdon Mills, Maine. The girl holding the flower to his face is said to be a likeness of his dead daughter. He sat for another Mumler portrait in which he received a likeness of his mother.

We are researching Captain Montgomery and hope to add more information about him. Hodgsdon Mills does not appear to be a current town in Maine but we have found a reference to a Captain Robert Montgomery who died in 1882 and was buried in Boothbay, Maine.


*Note: In October, 2007 this section of our site was expanded and rearranged. If an image is not in an expected place, please try one of the other pages from the list below.

Spirit Photographs: How our collection started/Brewster & Mumler < You are Here
Spirit Photographs: A Tintype Spirit Photograph *added 10/07
Spirit Photographs: Carte-de-visite spirit photographs
Spirit Photographs: Carte-de-visite of a spirit drawing *added 1/08
Spirit Photographs: Cabinet card spirit photographs
Spirit Photographs: Post card spirit photographs
Spirit Photographs: Post cards of unknown mediums
Spirit Photographs: Doyle and the Spirits *added 10/07
Spirit Photographs: How to make a fake spirit photograph
Spirit Photography: Bibliography & Links

Related interests of the Victorian Era and early 20th century in our collection:
Memento Mori - Remembering the departed: post mortem and memorial photography in the 19th and early 20th century
Mesmerism - "Flint the Mesmerist"
Phrenology - The study of human personality from the shape of the head

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**NOTE** All items on the Collection of Collections web site are in our private collection and are NOT for sale. From time to time duplicate items from our collection will be offered for sale in the Do You Remember This? shop on the GoAntiques cyber mall. Visit the Do You Remember This? inventory page for photographica and toaster related collectibles.

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Updated on 11/2008