Mumler, William H. (d. 1884)

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Mumler, William H. (d. 1884)

The first practitioner of spirit photography. He lived in Boston, Massachusetts, where he was employed as the head engraver of the jewelry firm Bigelow, Kennard & Co. According to his account, one day, in a friend's studio, he tried to take a photograph of himself by focusing the camera on an empty chair and springing into position on the chair after uncapping the lens. Upon developing the plate he discovered an extraneous figure, a young, transparent girl sitting in the chair, fading away into a dim mist in the lower parts. He identified the girl as his cousin who had died twelve years before. The experiment was repeated and he became satisfied that the extra faces appearing on his plates were of supernatural origin. The news of Mumler's discovery spread and he was besieged with so many requests for sittings that he gave up his position and became a professional spirit photographer.

Among the first to investigate Mumler's powers was Andrew Jackson Davis, then editor of the Herald of Progress in New York. He first sent a professional photographer to test Mumler and on his favorable report conducted an investigation himself. He was satisfied that the new psychic manifestation was genuine.

Mumler's reputation was established and, as his fame grew, he did tremendous business. His most famous picture was a photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln on which appeared a spirit portrait of the deceased president.

The first scandal, however, was not long in coming. It was discovered that he obtained from time to time the spirit portraits of men who were very much alive. Apologists claimed that the pictures must be genuine since they had been recognized by relatives and that the processes of production had been properly supervised to obviate fraud. It was thought that the living individuals might be doubles of the "spirits." Mumler himself could not explain the result, but eventually even local Spiritualists accused him of trickery. Such a hue and cry was raised that in 1868 he was forced to transfer his headquarters to New York.

He prospered for a while until he was arrested by the order of the mayor of New York on an accusation of fraud raised by a newspaperman. The journalist, P. V. Hickey, of the New York World, approached Mumler for a spirit photograph, giving a false name, hoping to get a good story for his newspaper. However, at the trial professional photographers and independent citizens testified for Mumler and he was acquitted.

His further career was filled with ups and downs; Mumler died on May 16, 1884, in poverty.


Aksakof, A. N. Animisme et Spiritisme. Reprint, Paris, 1985. English ed. as: Animism and Spiritism. Leipzig: Oswald Meats, 1890.

Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Mumler, William H. Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit Photography. N.p., 1875.

Sidgwick, Eleanor. "On Spirit Photography: A Reply to Mr. A. R. Wallace." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 7 (1891).