Early Attempts at Spirit Photography

The idea of taking photographs of spirits burst into public notoriety in 1868, when William Mumler, a Boston engraver who was married to a trance medium, first widely exhibited outside the spiritualist community what purported to be photographs of spirits.  He had been experimenting since 1861, with varied results.  Many critics assumed that Mumler had his success because, unlike other experimenters before him, who had attempted spirit photography in good faith, he deliberately faked his pictures.

His efforts did not take place in a vacuum.  Double exposures had been used to create deliberately fanciful pictures of ghosts, readily acknowledged by their creators to be the product of their imaginative manipulation of the photographic process.

Mr. [Clark Harrison] Lillibridge presented a 7 x 9 photograph of a Ghost, very well executed, the drapery being very delicate, the chair beyond being clearly depicted through the drapery.

—From the report of a meeting of the Northwestern Photographic Society in Chicago, in which the Vice-President demonstrated an image of a ghost, created by double exposure.  Northwestern Photographic Society, Philadelphia Photographer, March 1865: 47.

But as early as the end of 1862 and beginning of 1863, even some spiritualists had developed misgivings about Mumler’s work.

  Spiritualist Skepticism about Spirit Photographs

Many other people at the time were seriously trying to capture spirits in photographs, as the following article from Philadelphia physician Henry Teas Child (a spiritualist associate of Isaac Rehn) makes clear.  The article, which appeared a year before Mumler’s popular “success,” also describes photographic images that appeared on the glass plates of a lampshade, when the lamp was lighted—suggesting that the images were activated by heat.  Child does not make clear the identities of the New York experimenters to whom he refers.

New Phase of Spiritual Phenomena.

A very interesting phenomenon has occurred recently in one of the interior towns of the State [i.e., Pennsylvania], which I hope may become as general as it will be interesting.

A young lady, the daughter of a physician, has become developed as a medium and is influenced when sitting in the family circle, and while under the influence, there are to be seen pictures upon the glass shade over the lamp which are distinctly visible and easily recognized by all present; sometimes several of these may be seen in a single sitting.

The lamp being lighted at the time renders the pictures visible.

Photography is a spiritual art and I doubt not there are to be many improvements in this glorious means of obtaining records, more or less permanent of the shadows that are continually falling unseen around us.

I have watched with much interest, every effort which has been made to produce spirit pictures and spirit photographs, and although many difficulties have existed and still exist, I have no doubt that there have been cases in which partial success has attended the efforts, and there will come a time when the visions of seers will be rendered perceptible to mortals generally.  Let us hail every effort in this direction, while we wait patiently, and endeavor to co-operate with the loved ones in all their labors to bring the two worlds into a closer and more perceptible relationship to each other.

One of the most encouraging features in this, is that phenomena more or less successful are occurring in many places and under different phases.  Some very interesting facts have occurred in New York, which I have no doubt will be thoroughly investigated as the parties engaged therein are among the most intelligent and competent of the “living” observers, as we sometimes say of those who are groping among the shadows of earth.

The experiences of Spiritualism more than any other, it seems to me, have a tendency to prepare us to wait patiently for the unfolding of that which is to come, not supinely or indifferently, but with a consciousness that wiser heads and abler hands are at the work, and that it is our privilege to co-operate with these just in proper time as we fulfill the laws of our being.  And thus each revolving year brings to us its new developments.

Spiritual Republic (Chicago), April 6, 1867: 215.

S. B. BrittanThe following articles describe attempts (which include both the serious and the naive) at spirit photography, long before Mumler turned his hand to the “art.”  The descriptions of these daguerreotypes suggest that the photographers might have profitably checked their cameras for light leaks.  The last article, however, suggests a deliberate deception and a double exposure or other manipulation of the photographic plates.

The New York-based editors of The Spiritual Telegraph, in which the articles in this section appeared, were Samuel Byron Brittan and Charles Partridge.  Brittan had been trained as a painter before turning to the Universalist ministry and then to spiritualism.  He was convinced that mind had a determinative influence on matter, a principle that he applied even to the formation of the human embryo: The thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of a man and woman in the moments of sexual intercourse, according to Brittan, were “daguerreotyped” upon the womb, and consequently had a profound effect on forming the mind and body of the embryo and ultimately the fully-developed child.  If the parents-to-be were in contact with “higher spirits” during intercourse, however, such spirits could imprint themselves onto the newly-conceived embryo, resulting in the elevation of the human race, by allowing the spirits to be embodied again.  This gave a new meaning to the notion of the resurrection of the dead.

SPIRITUAL FORMS DAGUERREOTYPED.—Many experiments have been made for the purpose of testing the question whether spiritual forms and appearances may be transferred to a daguerreotype plate, but these, we believe have been uniformly unsuccessful, with the exception of a case which has just been communicated to the writer, in a private letter, by an esteemed friend in New Orleans. The essential facts of this case we condense, by permission, from our friend’s letter, as follows: Mr. H., a daguerreotypist and medium, attempted, on the 8th inst., to take the picture of his infant son, two months old, as it lay in the lap of its grandmother. Two impressions were obtained which, though good pictures, were not in all respects satisfactory. “At the third sitting,” says my friend who was personally present, “a beautiful picture was obtained, but strange to relate, from the top of the picture streamed, from a point somewhat resembling a cloud, a broad ray of light, descending on the infant’s shoulder, and there losing itself. The ray of light, as seen in the daguerreotype, is broad and massive, presenting the appearance of a ray of sunlight streaming through a hole or opening. [. . .] When closely observed it presents the appearance of transparency, and in the daguerreotype presents just the appearance which a skillful artist would give, who should attempt to represent on canvas the descent of influx so that the external eye might perceive it. Moreover, the ray in the daguerreotype is a most perfect illustration of a stream of interior influx, as we whose interiors have been opened see it in spirit. No previous picture presented any thing of the kind, and our most careful examination of surrounding objects could not assign even a plausible reason for the effect produced.” My friend adds that there was a strong spiritual influence felt at the time the picture was taken, and the spirits told Mr. H. that the ray of light was a representation of spiritual influx. It will be observed that this result was produced without any special mechanical contrivance on the part of the operator, and when the latter was not anticipating it; which fact seems to attribute it altogether to the power and ingenuity of the invisible intelligence.

Since the above was written, a copy of the picture referred to has been received at this office. It agrees in all respects with the description given of it above, and we have no doubt it is a veritable spiritual production.

Spiritual Telegraph (New York), February 24, 1855: 171.

Spirits and Photography.

A few days since Mr. Henry H. Hebbard, of this city, exhibited in our office a beautiful photographic picture of his little son, some ten years of age, which presented a singular phenomenon, consisting of an intense light, which, taking an elliptical form, passes obliquely across the region of the thorax, terminating at one extremity outside and near the left shoulder, and at the other under the rigid arm. The light is strongest directly over the center of the chest, and diminishes toward the extremities. There does not appear to have been any natural cause for this phenomenon that either the artist or any one else can discover.

Desiring to learn something of the cause of this singular effect, we solicited the use of the picture—which was on thin paper—for a day or two, and inclosing it in a new envelope, we submitted it without explanation or comment to Mrs. [Jennie E.] Kellogg, resolving in our own mind that she should discover it to be a letter instead of a picture. Taking the envelope and its contents Mrs. K. spake as follows:

I do not see any letters here, but I see the odic light or spiritual illumination around line or characters which I can neither read nor describe. This is a difficult thing to explain—it never has been explained. It does not seem to me like any writing of a medium; but it seems to have been the work of a moment. I should not be surprised if what is here inclosed should fade away some time. This is the strangest thing I ever attempted to examine. There is something here—it can not be a blank. It can not be a picture, can it? Whatever it is, it certainly was never done by a human being. It is a picture, Mr. Brittan.

I have the most singular impression. It seems to me that the odic light is the foundation of the whole thing. O it is curious! I can not perceive that any thing merely earthly has done this. It was a Spirit that did this. There are exquisite lines here, and every one is a line of beauty. I get an impression that it is a head. It is beautifully done. I see the Spirit that did this; he had a very singular head, the perceptive faculties are developed to great fullness. He was an artist, if he ever lived on earth. If he made pictures, he made them with a very few lines. This strange impression remains with me—I can not shake it off—that this was all produced by using what forms or constitutes the odic light.

I can see now why some of the drawings made by the Spirits are as imperfect. It seems to be owing to the distance at which the Spirit works. I must mention this because it is a singular fact. The light which produced this seems to have emanated from the Spirit’s fingers. The light does not proceed in currents the size of the fingers, but is very fine electric scintillations; it first flashes out in sparks like electricity, and then flows continuously. By moving the fingers the Spirits can vary the degree of light, and diffuse it over a larger or smaller surface at pleasure. This is certainly the most singular thing I ever saw in my life. I can see just how it is done, but I can not describe the process. The picture looks life-like.

I receive a decided impression that it is a male. The Spirit tells me that it is young—it appears to be a child. It can not determine the precise age, but it appears to be quite young.

The following was elicited by asking questions:
The Spirit-manifestation connected with this, is intended to indicate something with respect to the child. It denotes something regarding his spirit state. He is a medium. It indicates nothing respecting his physical condition.
The italicising in the above communication was done by the Spirit that influenced Mrs. Kellogg during its delivery. Mrs. K. has her rooms at 625 Broadway.

Spiritual Telegraph (New York) March 3, 1855.

Spiritual Light Daguerreotyped.
New Orleans, Feb. 9, 1855.
S. B. Brittan, Esq.

Dear Sir and Brother in the Cause of Truth.—A most wonderful spiritual manifestation occurred in my daguerreotype saloon about 11 or 12 o’clock yesterday forenoon. I was taking a likeness of my mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore, of Philadelphia, with my seventh son, an infant just two months old, in her arms, and after three unsuccessful trials in consequence of the babe’s moving, I prepared a plate for a fourth trial; and having learned by two year’s experience that we are dependent upon the Lord for all things, I sought success through prayer (let the skeptic sneer), and then took an impression in a single second—my usual time for taking an impression of an infant. I found a beautiful, sharp, distinct picture of the babe and his grandmother, and upon the arm of the babe a bright ray of golden-colored spiritual light, which extended from an angle of ten degrees south of the zenith, alongside of the grandmother’s head, descending upon the arm of the babe a bright ray of golden-colored spiritual light, which extended from an angle of ten degrees south of the zenith, alongside of the grand mother’s head, descending upon the arm of the babe. I send you by mail a copy of the picture, which I trust you will retain in your own hands, as there are many copies of this to be taken, I am impressed. Now, that such a ray of light can be produced in such a picture by natural appliances of art, I do not for one moment believe. The ray, you will perceive, is of almost equal width through the entire length, and in this it differs from natural rays of light entirely. Now let the scientific world solve the problem by natural philosophy if they can! After a close examination of all the circumstances of the case, endeavoring to account for this wonderful phenomenon, I was about concluding that it was an accident, and thus unaccountable; but the Spirit immediately told me it was a spiritual ray, from an angel of light—one of my own children. On the evening of the same day I was impressed to go to Mrs. R.’s, a most reliable and exceedingly lucid medium. I obeyed that impression; handed the portrait to her, and asked her if it was permitted to know from whence this ray of light proceeded! Mrs. R. saw at once a beautiful little girl, who informed her “that it proceeded from her, by the Lord’s permission, and was given to convince her grandma of the truth of spiritual manifestations (her grand mother being exceedingly skeptical), that she had often asked to be permitted to impress her, but had found it impossible, after repeated trials, because she was asleep (spiritually so, we understand it), and therefore she had been permitted to throw this ray of light in the external, that it might be daguerreotyped and perpetuated for her grandma’s sake, and fixed in the external as an everlasting truth from the Lord Jehovah.” Then my two other babes, little boys, appeared with her (I have three in the kingdom of heaven), and a long communication followed, which was of a personal character, and I will not trouble you with it, although it was of great importance to myself. Subject the ray in the copy to the power of a magnifying glass, and you will observe that it appears to consist of exceedingly fine particles of gold. Now, again, bear in mind, if you please, that the portrait was taken in a south southwest light (a side window), between 11 and 12 o’clock in the forenoon, and you will readily understand that the light is a very strong one to produce a portrait in one second. You will also be enabled to form some idea of the intensity of the spiritual ray, which in that brief period had so distinctly marked itself as to entirely obscure the back-ground—a very dark one, which stood about three or four feet in the rear of the sitter—thus proving that spiritual light is so much more powerful than natural light as to render the latter comparative darkness. Verily we have fallen upon strange times! I am aware that materialistic minds will denounce this as an imposture; that they will proclaim to the world that “they can produce similar results scientifically;” but I desire them to try it before deciding.

Yours, in the cause of truth.
The daguerreotype came safe to hand, and can be seen at this office. It is different from the one referred to in a late number of our paper, but equally unaccountable on any material hypothesis. —ED.

Spiritual Telegraph (New York) March 31, 1855.

Sitting for the Picture of a Spirit.

Romeo, Macomb Co., MICH., April, 1855

Dear Sirs—In February, 1853, I lost a nephew by the name of John W. Briggs, who died in Kingston, Jamaica, W. I. He was formerly a resident of Vermont, and was sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions as a minister to this island, and died soon after his arrival, as reported by a minister resident at Kingston. Some time after the report reached me of his death, while attending a spiritual circle, the Spirit of this nephew was manifested by one of the mediums present. I talked with him about his sickness and death, and about his relatives now living. Soon afterward, at the same circle, a Spirit manifested himself through another medium, and said that he was the physician who attended upon this nephew during his last sickness, and that he was now in the Spirit-land. This latter manifestation so surprised me that I soon afterward addressed a letter to a gentleman in Kingston, requesting him to inform me if the physician who attended my nephew in his last sickness was still living. I did not receive an answer to my letter. About a year ago I was attending a spiritual circle, and the Spirit of the physician before mentioned manifested his presence again to me through another medium, a young man with whom I had long been acquainted. The physician was personated in this medium, and placed himself in the most gentlemanly position, with his fingers upon his own pulse, and his eyes wide open. The medium, while thus exercised, did not look at all like himself. I had much conversation with the physician about my nephew’s sickness and death, and his own sickness and death. He informed me that he died with the same disease that my nephew died with. I said to him that I had written to Jamaica to find out something about him, but as yet had received no answer. He replied that I should have to write again, and direct the letter to the Missionary Board at Kingston, Jamaica. After having much conversation with the Spirit, I remarked to a gentleman sitting by, that I should like a daguerreotype of the physician deceased. The medium at once replied, “You can have it.” I then asked if I should take this medium to a daguerrean gallery could I obtain the picture? “Yes” he replied. Soon the medium became conscious, when I related to him the conversation which was held between the Spirit (manifested through him) and myself. In a few days after, I accompanied the medium to a daguerrean artist in the town of Pittsfield, Mass. The medium had not been in the gallery fifteen minutes before he became entirely unconscious to all appearance. The physician manifested himself again, and the medium put himself in the same position, and appeared precisely as he did at the previous sitting before mentioned. The picture taken was a beautiful one—who it resembled I know not, but it certainly does not resemble the medium. The artist said it was a fine picture, but he did not know who it looked like; he did not think it resembled the medium. I showed the daguerreotype to a number of persons who were well acquainted with the medium, but they could not recognize it. Some time during the past autumn I directed a letter to the Missionary Board at Kingston, Jamaica, W. I., requesting them to send me the name of the physician who attended upon my nephew during his last sickness, and also to inform me whether said physician was dead; if so, by what disease he died. A few days ago I received a letter in reply from one of the Board, a minister and physician, who signed his name P. M. Way. In his letter he informed me that he had formerly lived in the city of Albany, N. Y., and that he went to Kingston in the capacity of a minister and physician. After giving me an account of the sickness and death of my nephew, he then gave me the name of the physician who attended upon my nephew in his last sickness, and stated that he afterward died of the same disease.

I shall probably never know whether I have a correct likeness of the deceased physician, but am confident in my own mind that it must resemble him.

You are at liberty to publish the above statement of facts if you think it may aid to advance the cause of Spiritualism.

Yours, very respectfully,
R[obert] R. Briggs.


[ Photographing Heaven ] [ Ephemera Home] [ Spiritualist Listings ]