October 29, 2022 | Last updated Sep 21, 2023

Spirit Photography

Unidentified woman and her attendant spirit c.1890.(RG3507.PH11-7)


With the discovery of photography, along with using the technique of double exposing a negative, many interesting images have appeared through the years.

The deliberate creation of a spirit photograph by a photographer in an attempt to financially exploit believers became a rather lucrative business back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Credited to William H. Mumler of New York in the early 1860′s, the spirit photograph was promoted as capturing  a ghostly figure in addition to the subject of the portrait.

Emerging onto the scene at about the same time was the Spiritualist Movement in the late 1860′s. The ability of photographing spirits was readily, and easily accepted as reality by a large number of people for many years.

Mumler’s fraud was discovered only after he used identifiable living residents of Boston as stand-in ghosts on occasion. The belief that spirits were being captured in photographs was eventually replaced with a better understanding of the techniques used to create the effect.

Here are examples of Spirit Photographs from the Elliott Coues Collection (RG3507).


Identified as Prof. Sprite, December 1879. (RG3507.PH11-9)


Unidentified man and face, January 1893 (RG3507.PH11-6)


Unidentified woman and a somewhat disturbing spirit, c.1890. (RG3507.PH11-8)

Dale Bacon,
Assistant Curator

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