In the late 19th century, Boston photographer William H. Mumler posed his subjects by a window in his studio – grieving fathers, distraught lovers, even Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of Abraham Lincoln. Mumler’s customers paid good money ($10, or around $370 today) not just to see their own portrait, but also their loved ones, the dear departed hovering above them in the backdrop of the photograph. When Mary Lincoln received her portrait from the spirit photographer, framed behind her was the spectral figure of her husband, Abraham Lincoln, his hands lovingly resting upon her shoulders. “What peace and comfort to the weary soul! To know that our friends who have passed away can return and give us unmistakable evidence of a life hereafter – that they are with us,” declared Mumler, whose techniques using harsh chemicals in a dark room gave grieving parents and spouses a physical connection to the dead. While spirit photography was a comfort for mourners, not everyone was convinced that spirits could be recorded on photographic plates. Eventually, Mumler was taken to court and tried for fraud and larceny, where a series of experts presented myriad techniques he may have used to create his ghostly apparitions. Despite the damning evidence against him, Mumler was acquitted. Nonetheless, for those who visited Mumler’s studio, grieving the loss of dearest friends and relatives, the solace to be had from viewing the false images was priceless.


Mrs. Tinkham; William H. Mumler (American, 1832 - 1884)


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