Gurney Tests Mumler

Albert Morton, “Spirit Portraits by W. H. Mumler,” The Carrier Dove (Oakland), February 1886: 43

Not having the proper data at hand, it is not in my power to give dates and full details regarding Mr. Mumler’s work as a spirit photographer.  W. H. Mumler was one of the first mediums developed in this country in the special line in which he soon became noted.

His occupation was formerly that of engraving upon silver, in which he was very skillful.  While experimenting in the study of photography, in the gallery of the lady who afterwards became his wife, he was annoyed by spots upon the negatives, which shortly developed into forms and faces which were recognized as the likenesses of deceased persons.  Much excitement was caused by the production of these likenesses, and Mumler became the target for an immense amount of denunciation.  It was claimed the pictures were produced by the use of means well known to photographers, and was simply the money making scheme of an unsuccessful man, when, in fact, he never realized so much money from the production of spirit pictures as he could have done by the practice of his art as an engraver.

Theory after theory was given as a complete solution of the manner in which the spurious likenesses were obtained, but like all of the explanations given of spiritual phenomena, the theories did not harmonize with the facts.  The ghosts were as irrepressible as Banquo’s, and would not stay down at the bidding of scientists, theologians or any other dabblers in matters beyond their materialistic ken.  Removing to New York, after many struggles, Mumler became established in the practice of his mediumship, and caused a great deal of attention among investigators, producing, at the same sitting pictures of the same spirit in different positions—among others the spirit wife of Joseph Jefferson, the celebrated actor, in which were clear and unmistakable portraits of deceased persons, of whom, in many instances no likenesses were extant.  The theory that the pictures were produced on plates previously used, and been imperfectly cleaned, or from the exposure of old negatives with that of the sitter at the time of development of the plate, was thus early in 1869 demonstrated to be fallacious.

Mumler was arrested by the City Marshall of New York, for obtaining money under false pretences.  When the case came on for trial, eminent counsel appeared on both sides.  The trial was long and voluminous reports of the evidence appeared in the daily papers.  Many leading citizens, among them Mr. Livermore, formerly a prominent banker, Judge Edmonds, who was pre-eminent in the legal profession, and the elder Gurney, at that time one of the foremost photographers in the country, testified in the most positive manner as to the genuineness of the prisoner’s mediumship.  Mr. Gurney commenced a thorough and scientific examination of the phenomena with the determination to expose what he believed to be a fraud.  He furnished his own plates and chemicals, and in a gallery strange to the medium, performed all the services necessary for the production of pictures, from the preparation of his own clean plates to the development of the negatives, not permitting Mumler, whose only act was placing his hand upon the camera during the exposure of the plate, to see the plates until they were developed.  The result was quite different than he expected; the spirit forms would appear, and the final result (as I can personally testify to from his statements to me) was that he accepted the phenomena as genuine, and so testified in court.  He became an ardent Spiritualist, and a personal friend of the man he expected to expose.  The result of the trial was a complete vindication of Mumler from the charge of fraud, and a grand triumph for Spiritualism, for it had gained a hearing throughout the country.  Alas for the poor medium!  As in many other similar instances, the triumph was his material ruin.  The costs of the trial amounting, for his personal expenses, to over $3,000, completely ruined him.  There were no wealthy spiritualists, for whose religion he had been sacrificed, to rehabilitate his fallen fortunes and enable him to resume business.

On my return from Cuba, in May, 1869, I found him at the residence of the mother-in-law in Boston, in very reduced circumstances.  Unable to furnish a gallery, he was gaining a meagre support from taking spirit photographs, using the pictures of patrons to attract the desired spirits, and in giving circles for the production of emblematic drawings.  I do not remember seeing any statements in the Spiritual press in relation to this beautiful phase of his mediumship.  Having proferred the services of my daughter as pianist at his circles, it was my privilege, as her escort, to attend many of them.  The production of the pictures was in such a manner as to preclude all possibility of fraud.

The medium sat about ten feet distant from a light only sufficiently strong to make every movement plainly visible to all the sitters, who were requested to write the names of spirit friends on ballots, which, being done, they were then folded so that it would have been impossible to read the names thereon by the writer.  The medium was entranced, his eyes were bandaged in a secure manner, so as to exclude every ray of light, and his left hand being placed upon the ballots he proceeded to make exquisitely fine pencil drawings within the sight of those present.  As each drawing was completed, Mrs. Mumler took the card and unfolded ballots from the table, and, reading the name, or initial, on the card, presented them to the claimant, the ballots not being opened from the time of folding until returned to the writer.  In this manner I have seen twenty-two drawings of artistic design and exquisite execution made within the space of two hours time, a feat which would be very difficult for a rapid draughtsman to perform under the most favorable conditions.  The description of one drawing before me will suffice to give you an idea of them.  The card is about three by five inches in size; on the upper part a female form is represented in the act of reaching downward to assist a person rising above the encircling clouds; on the clouds is written the sentence, “I will lift thee up.”  Underneath is a bouquet of flowers, among which is written the name upon my ballot, that of my sainted mother.

Mr. Mumler, failing to receive adequate support from his mediumship, engaged in the business of photo-engraving, in which he was interested at the time of his transition to the higher life, a short time since.  I will close this article with the advice to those fortunate enough to possess copies of his photographs to carefully preserve them, for he informed me, a few months previous to his decease, that the negatives of his pictures had been destroyed.


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