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A Ghostly Image: Spirit Photographs

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Can you take a photograph of a ghost? Will a spirit pose for your camera? Looking at “spirit photographs” from the mid-1800s to early-1900s, you might be tempted to answer, “Yes”!

Claims of capturing a spirit with the camera lens were made as early as the 1850s, when photography was relatively new to the world.  At that time, the process of photography was mysterious enough to most people that the idea of a photograph capturing the latent image of a spirit seemed quite possible.

By the time spirit photographs were being publicized in the 1860s, professional photographers had developed several techniques to portray ghost-like apparitions through composite images, double exposures, and the like.

The Haunted Lane. Photo by Melander & Bro., 1889.

In fact, Sir David Brewster, in his 1856 book on the stereoscope, gave step-by-step instructions for creating a spirit photo, beginning with:

“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.”

He went on to explain how this was easily done. Simply pose your main subjects. Then, when the exposure time is nearly up, have the ‘spirit’ figure enter the scene, holding still for only seconds before moving out of the picture. The ‘spirit’ then appeared as a semi-transparent figure, as seen in The Haunted Lane.

"Spirit" photograph. Photo by S. W. Fallis, 1901.

One of the more famous–and infamous–spirit photographers was William H. Mumler of Boston. He turned his ability to make photographs with visible spirits into a lucrative business venture, starting in the 1860s. Doubts grew about his work, but even when a spiritualist named Doctor Gardner recognized some of the so-called spirits as living Bostonians, people continued to pay as much as $10 a sitting. Mumler was charged with fraud in 1869, though not convicted, due to lack of evidence.  However, his career as a photographer of the spirit world was essentially over.

Celebrities took sides in the debate in the 1920s. Famed author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an outspoken Spiritualist who believed that the supernatural could appear in photographs, while illusionist Harry Houdini denounced mediums as fakes and spirit photography as a hoax. Doyle and Houdini publicly feuded in the newspapers.

Houdini and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Lantern slide, betw. 1920 and 1930.


To demonstrate how easy it was to fake a photograph, Houdini had this image made in the 1920s, showing himself talking with Abraham Lincoln. He even based entire shows around debunking the claims of mediums and the entire idea of Spiritualism.

That said, since today is Halloween, a day for the spooky and the unexplained, you might want to keep your digital camera handy, just in case!

Learn More:

Try a search in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog for spirit photographs or Halloween

Find out more about Halloween in the collections of the Library of Congress: Today in History: Oct. 31

Discover more about Harry Houdini through the American Variety Stage online presentation

Do Spirits Return? Poster, circa 1909.

Sources & Bibliography:

Brewster, David. The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory, and Construction: With Its Application to the Fine and Useful Arts and to Education. London: J. Murray, 1856.  (page 205)  Available as full text through the Hathi Trust:

Hannavy, John. Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. New York: Routledge, 2008.  (pages 552, 960-962,1332-1333)

Krauss, Rolf H. Beyond Light and Shadow: The Role of Photography in Certain Paranormal Phenomena: an Historical Survey. Munich: Nazraeli Press, 1995.

Permutt, Cyril. Photographing the Spirit World: Images from Beyond the Spectrum. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England: Aquarian Press, 1988.

Woodbury, Walter E. Photographic Amusements: Including a Description of a Number of Novel Effects Obtainable with the Camera. New York: Scovill & Adams Company, 1896. 1905 edition available as full text through the Hathi Trust:


Comments (8)

  1. Thanks for you

  2. Pretty neat. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Where are the modern day houdinis? Paul Daniels doesn’t count!

  4. Its real.

  5. Thanks for the great information about this mid-19th-century practice.

  6. Thanks for posting this, these Spirit Photographs show the true pioneering of early photographers. I made several spirit photographs myself from about age 9 to 12.
    Many young, budding photographers in the film age dabbled in this, as double-exposures were a fun and easy way to create photographic special effects.

  7. I have seen spirits because of the gift of E.S.P. the pics I have seen here don’t give credit to the trueness of spirits. They do have a grey like appearance, but also look like the living. I haven’t figured out why that is fact. A spirit can walk this earth as we know it.there is something’s that will go unexplained. If you don’t have insight into the spirit that just hangs around or able to see them,most spirits will leave because you can see them. So the taken pics of them all the ones I came in contact with where very almost life like but had the ability to come and go. So do people go to hell or Heaven at death???

  8. I have a picture and I can’t explain it and I was wondering if someone could look at it and tell me what you think

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