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Old 25-12-2008, 10:56 PM   #1
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Question The Mumler Mystery

Did He Capture Spirits?

The Mumler Mystery


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.

Mary Todd Lincoln, with her dead husband Lincoln behind.

P.T. Barnum got this made to show what kind of humbug it all was. .

William H. Mumler (1832-1884; active Boston & New York)

"Master Herrod in a Trance. His Spiritual Body Withdrawn and Appears Behind."

Albumen print carte de visite, circa 1868

Mumler 's advertisements in spiritualist publications offered two photographs of "Master Herrod of N. Bridgwater, Mass." for sale:

This young man is a medium. Before sitting for this picture three spirits offered to show themselves, representing Europe, Africa and America. As will be seen by the picture, this promise was fulfilled. Also a picture was taken while entranced, and shows his double. (The Religio-Philosophical Journal, August 24, 1872)

Dr. Nandor Fodor, in his Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science (1934), explains that the spirits representing the continents were "a European, a Negro, and an Indian." And Fodor further quotes Mumler as writing,

It then occurred to me to take [Master Harrod's] picture while entranced, to see if I could get the controlling power; and to that end I asked if there was any spirit present would he please entrance the medium. In a few moments he threw his head back, apparently in a deep trance. I then adjusted the focus and exposed the plate, and took the picture as represented. The spirit seen here is undoubtedly his double as it is unmistakably a true likeness of himself.

While Master Herrod seems rather young to be dabbling in the occult, it should be remembered that spiritualism in America was launched by two young sisters in 1848. Margaret and Kate Fox were ages 15 and 11 when they began to converse with spirits of the deceased at their home in Hydesville, New York. This communication took the form of mysterious rapping sounds that answered spoken questions.

It wasn't until 40 years later that the sisters revealed the source of the rappings that touched off the international spiritualist movement: loudly cracking the joints of the ankle or toe.

William H. Mumler ( 1832-1884; active Boston & New York)

Mrs. French of Boston with Spirit Son

Albumen print carte de visite, circa 1868

Mumler sold copies of this image through his ads in spiritualist publications, but provided no identification of the subject.

The pattern of subtle mottling around the spirit child is typical of Mumler's works. It may have been a deliberate effort to hide seams or other evidence of subterfuge.

However Mumler achieved his effects, he was clever enough to fool two of America's leading photographers: James W. Black of Boston and Jeremiah Gurney of New York. According to Mumler's 1875 memoir, Black challenged Mumler to take his spirit photograph, and to allow him to examine the entire process. If a spirit form was produced, Black would pay Mumler fifty dollars. Mumler accepted the challenge and says when the spirit of a man appeared beside Black's figure on the negative, "Mr. B., watching with wonder-stricken eyes this development, exclaimed: "My God! Is it possible?"

Gurney, called to investigate Mumler by the New York Sun, later testified that he witnessed Mumler preparing and taking his portrait but did not discover any deception; "in developing the negative," Gurney testified, "I applied the chemicals myself, and upon the negative was a shadowy form."

William H. Mumler ( 1832-1884; active Boston & New York)

Unidentified Man with Two Spirits

Albumen print carte de visite, circa 1870.

This image, unlike the other examples in this gallery, does not seem to show a celebrity or noted spiritualist. Perhaps this sitter is more typical of those who flocked to Mumler's galleries, seeking contact with deceased relatives or friends.

Members of photographic trade groups sought to condemn Mumler as a matter of professional pride and public service. The New York photographer Abraham Bogardus testified at Mumler's 1869 court hearing that he belonged to the National Photographic Association, which had among its goals "putting down any humbug we could discover." After the court dropped charges against Mumler, the Photographic Section of The American Institute passed a resolution "That the Photographic Section... take the earliest opportunity to condemn all such methods of working upon the credulous and uninitiated."

William H. Mumler ( 1832-1884; active Boston & New York)

Moses A. Dow, Editor of Waverley Magazine, with the Spirit of Mabel Warren.

Albumen print carte de visite, circa 1871.

Moses A. Dow (1810-1886) founded Waverley Magazine in Boston in 1850. The magazine catered to amateur authors and reached a circulation of 50,000 copies before the Civil War. It continued to appear until 1908. Dow published the works of schoolgirls and other young writers; by one account he would print nearly anything that was offered to him free. The tactic made him wealthy, because the friends and relatives of contributors would all purchase copies.

Mabel Warren was a young protege of Dow. She submitted her writing to him in 1862, when she was apparently fresh out of high school. He published her work and hired her as his assistant, a post she held until her death following a brief illness in July of 1870.

Dow was led into spiritualism by his housekeeper, who invited a medium to tea. Barely a week after Mabel's death, Dow felt his deceased assistant was communicating with him. In seance after seance, Dow received messages written mysteriously on slates or in ink on paper. Ultimately, Mabel's spirit directed Dow to Mumler's studio where she promised to appear with a wreath of lilies on her head. Dow explains, "The picture was small, but with the aid of a microscope it was magnified to the natural size of the human face, and in that face I saw the perfect picture of my friend. I was both surprised and delighted and wrote to Mr. Mumler and told him I was perfectly satisfied, and gave him my true name."

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'spirit photography', 1800's, hoax?, lincoln, mumler

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