Hunting Ghosts – The Inventor of Double Exposures

Posted in History of Photography, Photoblog, Photography by Rollfilm on September 5, 2006

By accident William H. Mumler, a dilettante in photography, invented double exposures 1861. He sold this photographs as “spirit photographs”. At that time, the emerging spiritualism movement created a huge market for photographs like this.

“Spiritualism in America–and more specifically, spirit photography– was taken to court in New York City in 1869. The case: a preliminary hearing for William H. Mumler, who was charged with fraud for selling photographs that he claimed included images of ghosts or spirits. Testimony and arguments lasted for seven days. On Mumler’s side, witnesses included a prominent former judge who was also a spiritualist. Among the opposing witnesses were several photographers who explained how the same effects could be achieved by darkroom tricks, and P. T. Barnum–who said he purchased some of Mumler’s photographs to exhibit them in his museum as specimens of humbug.

The hearing attracted nationwide attention, including the full cover page (and back-page cartoon ) of the mass circulation Harper’s Weekly.

In the end, the judge in the case reluctantly decided to drop the charges against Mumler, citing a lack of evidence. According to The New York Daily Tribune, the judge explained “however he might believe that trick and deception had been practiced [by Mumler], yet, as he sat there in his capacity as magistrate, he was compelled to decide…the prosecution had failed to prove the case.”

Both sides were thus able to declare victory. The prosecution had exposed Mumler, revealing that the same “ghost” appeared in certain photographs taken in Boston and New York– a “spirit” who turned out to be very much a living mortal.

Mumler went back to spirit photography and gloated a bit in a pamphlet he published in 1875. But his brush with the law took its toll, both to his reputation and to his finances. Mumler never recovered from the $3000 cost of his defense, a staggering sum for its day. He destroyed all of his negatives shortly before his death in 1884.”




3 Responses

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  1. cha said, on September 5, 2006 at 6:30 pm

    i love your blog mister. reading every entry with the feeling of being taught something everytime. good feeling 🙂

    cheers from paris 🙂

  2. Suzan said, on September 7, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    Ahh, I love these kind of stories. So very interesting.

  3. charlotte said, on September 30, 2006 at 2:02 pm

    im an a level photography student, and am looking at double exposures, as i did in my first year and find them truly amazing, and this has opened my eyes to the way they first worked, when this first started they concentrated on doubling people and nowadays people tend to concentrate on texture and light, such as myself. I found this really interesting, thanx

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