The Photography Studio as Séance Room

In 1875, late in William Mumler’s career in spirit photography, he advertised the ability to take photos of persons who were not dead, but were simply somewhere else at the time—across the Atlantic, for example.  He seems to have arrived at the idea from reading a letter in the spiritualist press from William Stainton Moses about Monsieur Buguet, who had already taken up such trans-Atlantic and cross-Channel photography.  Around the same time, another similar phenomenon began to be reported in spiritualist papers, which continued for years afterwards, the “spectral appearances on window panes” of images of the faces or forms of spirits, lightly etched onto the glass.  Sometimes the images were permanent.  It was a kind of glass plate photography, but without chemicals or light.

“The Boston Scientist says:—Each and everyone of our readers have probably noticed the curious and always attractive shapes and forms in which moisture crystallizes on the window panes in a cold winter day or night.  Tall forests, snowy mountains, the outlines of an irregular island or rocky shores, with an occasional approach to Chinese characters or Egyptian hieroglyphics, are familiar pictures, more or less discernible in proportion to the fertility of the imagination.  This we may claim as a common experience; but when we transcend from imaginary pictures to positive portraits, when in place of an indescribable mixture of forms and figures we have a face clearly outlined and with features strongly defined, we present a statement which may seem incredible, but, nevertheless, is within the bounds of truth.  At the residence of one of our physical mediums, the window panes were as beautifully ornamented in this manner as though the tools of the engraver had labored to bring forth the result, and were witnessed by a number of neighbors and visitors.”

—“The Mediumship of ‘Jack Frost.’  How He Crystallized Moisture into the Semblance of the Departed,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, February 13, 1875.

Henry Jotham Newton (1823-1895), a New York inventor who had made a fortune in piano manufacturing, turned to photography as a hobby, and in the late 1860s and early 1870s made some important discoveries in photographic chemistry, which allowed the widespread use of the dry-plate process, a revolutionary development in the history of photography.  He became a leading figure in the American Photographical Society and the Chairman of the Photographical Section of the American Institute of the City of New York.

Before becoming interested in photography, he had taken up spiritualism.  By the time he was disseminating his innovations in dry-plate photography, he had become the President of the First Society of Spiritualists in New York City.

He became fascinated by Mumler’s and others’ seeming abilities at spirit photography.

Mumler and Henry Newton’s Photographic Association

Newton investigated and found some fraudulent practices in the “art,” but also became convinced that some spirit photography was genuine and he worked to achieve some success in it himself.

“Mr. Henry J. Newton, the President of the New York Society of Spiritualists, is one of the most prominent, as well as earnest workers in the cause of spiritualism.  He claims not only to have seen spirits, but to have been able to take some of their photographs, he being an expert in amateur photography.”
—“The Believers in Spiritualism,” Two Worlds (London), April 19, 1889: 270

Eventually he did achieve success in photographing spirits through the assistance of the extraordinary medium, “Dr.” Henry Slade, who was creating a sensation in New York City at the time, by conducting séances where he would levitate objects and people.  In 1861, Slade had invented “independent slate writing,” a mediumistic test in which a blank slate would be placed out of reach of the sitters and the medium at a spirit circle—often it would be locked inside a kind of case, as if it were a light-sensitive photographic plate—and after the lights were turned up again, the slate would have writing “developed” on it, ostensibly from the spirits.

At the time, as part of the spiritualist “Protective Committee” of New York (see Spiritualist Listings for 1875), Newton was engaged with Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in testing various mediums in New York and New England, including Henry Slade, and also including, in June, a Boston medium named Mary Baker Thayer, who was known as “The Flower Medium” because she was able to materialize objects—often fresh flowers—onto the séance table in the dark.

“A Séance in Black’s Photograph Gallery.

I have also talked with Mr. [James Wallace] Black, the well-known Boston photographer, about a séance held in his gallery one evening, at which some fifty persons were present, and at which many flowers were brought [i.e, materialized out of thin air by Mary Thayer]”

—Henry Steel Olcott, “Ghosts That Are Ghosts.  A Goddess of Flowers Seen by Mr. Olcott in Boston,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, September 4, 1875.

James Wallace Black (at the Getty Museum)

Photographers both in Boston and New York were operating on the analogy between the séance and the photo session, the dark cabinet and the darkroom.  Henry Slade’s experiences with slate-writing undoubtedly helped him get results for Henry Newton in the field of spirit photography.  Newton was not the only photographer in New York engaged in taking pictures of spirits at the time.  Another was Thomas R. Evans.

“We have much reason to rejoice in the progress of spirit photography.  Mr. Newton, who is president of the New York Photographic Association, and who consequently has great influence with the profession, for some time past has been endeavoring to obtain spirit forms in his own house, but without success until recently, when, after securing the presence of the wonderful phenomena medium, Dr. Slade, and following spirit direction, he has obtained excellent likenesses of the dear departed, and judging from the specimens seen they are superior in the important merit of natural distinctiveness to any I have seen, with perhaps one exception, that is, to those obtained by


392 Bowery, nearly opposite Cooper Institute.  The pictures received by this gentleman are creating considerable interest still.  He was formerly among the scornful, and a photographer in Washington, but the spirits so much interfered (blessed interference) with his ordinary business he scarcely got a single person without


which he supposed were simple remnants of previous sittings, until the extra forms were recognized by the sitter.  Resigning the regular business, and himself to the influence, he now receives faces and writings in the dark,


only requiring a sensitive plate.  He relies confidently upon his guides, chief of whom is his former partner in the photographic business.  Already his success here is assured; will give you further particulars after a personal trial.”

—Joseph Franklin Snipes.  “New York City.  Spiritualism and the Phonographic Society,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, May 8, 1875.  [Snipes was another member of the Protective Committee.]

In his own studio, Evans emphasized the equivalence between the séance and the photo session, as Joseph Snipes discovered.

DEAR JOURNAL:—After a careful, personal and thorough test investigation of the work and claims of Mr. Thomas R. Evans, 392 Bowery, New York City, I have the pleasure of submitting to an interested public, the following statement of facts:

Mr. Evans is a man of good exterior (in his best mood), large clear eyes, chubby cheeks (indicating good digestion), frank demeanor, and an equable temperament.  His wife is an unassuming little body, with a penetrating, clairvoyant eye, dividing her time with her husband and six children, as medium and mother.

They removed to New York from Washington, and by spirit direction, they say.  He seems to rely implicitly upon the advice of their risen and returning friends, in most business matters.  The results of their mediumship will doubtless commend them to notice and trial by the Spiritualists and the public.

May 19th last, I attended a circle at their rooms, as above.  About twenty-five persons were present, the seers seated alternately.  A small camera was placed on a stand in the center of the room.  The medium and his wife sat opposite each other at the stand, their hands upon it.  The lamplight was lowered, a song was sung to promote good feeling, and negativity, with organ accompaniment, followed by profound silence.  The light was raised in a few moments, a photographer’s tin-plate from a number on hand, was submitted for careful inspection, and privately marked by Col. Olcott, of Eddy fame, and by myself with phonographic words; the plate was then placed in the camera as usual, then withdrawn for development, when there appeared upon the same marked plate, the following message in clear, white, raised letters:

“Dear Friends:  We are very happy to meet you all here to night.  We will do the best we can.  [Signed]   DAGUERRE.”

This writing after careful examination was declared to be a perfect fac simile of the handwriting of the father of the daguerreotype.  The writing seemed as if written with a stick and white paint.

A similar plate was likewise marked, inserted, and withdrawn, exhibiting a clear head, and bust of a very aged man, large head, sunken lips and eyes, high cheeks, broad, square forehead, and thin gray hair.  It was circulated for identification, but no one recognized it until it reached the last sitter, Mrs. Mary A. Winslow, when she clasped her hands and exclaimed, “Why, it’s grandfather Crump, of England.”  Then going under control, said, “Yes, yes; it is me, and my son is with me,” referring to the lady’s father whom she had buried two weeks before.  Said she came hoping to get her child, was not thinking of the old gentleman, that he never had a picture taken in life, and that the likeness was unmistakable.

Of course, the reader will understand that these earth-forms are temporarily assumed, as they tell us, for the important purpose of recognition, and not to indicate their spiritual body with its improvements upon the physical, although preserving the distinguishing characteristics of the individual spirit.

A third plate was similarly treated; result, a fine likeness of James Fisk (to whose immortality we offer no objections), hair combed naturally, military mustache, etc.

The baptism of the fourth plate discloses the picture of a little boy, which was recognized as Willie Lyon, by his mother, who does not believe a mother can forget her child, Dr. Franklin’s experiment notwithstanding.

Upon the fifth and last plate appeared, simply the words, “Good night,” which were accepted as seasonable.

Mr. Evans offers (and with safety, I think), $1,000 as a gift to any photographer, who is not a medium, who will obtain the same results under the same conditions, that is, furnish strangers recognizable likenesses of their “dead,” and in the dark.

My skeptical nature inquired whether the brown coating of these tin-plates might not have concealed faces and writing previously prepared, which might reappear in the development, and arranged in order for use, with an understanding with some friendly visitor as to the recognitions.  But it is unreasonable to presume so many family likenesses from time to time should be acknowledged by persons who, for affectional reasons alone, are naturally interested in the truth of the matter.

Although the pictures obtained in the dark, are contrary to nature (of photography, as understood) those taken in the light are still more satisfactory to the common eye.  In the first case clairvoyant vision sees and predicts the result, in the latter the ordinary sense is free to observe, the result being the same.  It often happens, however, that persons have called in the day, sat repeatedly, and departed without success, material, time and labor wasted, occasioned by either too much repellant magnetism, or too much excitement; perfect passivity insuring receptivity.

I quote from two letters among others received by the medium from responsible parties.  J. H. Whitney, Esq., proprietor of the Weed Sewing Machine, writes:

“MY DEAR SIR:—It is with feelings of gratitude that I inform you of the recognition of the dear spirits on both of our cards.  Even a practical photographer, not a Spiritualist, who had taken many pictures of our darling daughter in the form, recognized her in spirit as the one he had previously made pictures form, some of which we have now.  Dr. Eugene Crowell, a very wealthy and estimable citizen of Brooklyn, has shown me three spirits likenesses taken by you of members of his family, all of which were readily recognized.”

David Bruce, Esq., 182 South 4th St., Williamsburg, L. I., writes:

“I take the earliest opportunity of expressing the great gratification of myself and friends in beholding the photograph with the spirit likeness of my old friend, Mr. Henry Witt, late of this place.  On taking it home, and handing it around the members of my family, and his immediate friends and amiable widow, it was readily recognized with bursts of surprise.  This spirit-likeness saves me a great deal of tiresome argument.  The circumstances under which it was taken precludes all suspicion of fraud or collusion.  We were entire strangers to each other, and the time occupied in talking and taking the photograph being not more than ten or twelve minutes.  If necessary the names of scores of ladies and gentlemen could be obtained, testifying their ready recognition of the old gentleman’s face.”

The following sitters, among others, have obtained likenesses of spirit-friends.  The relationship and address are given.  I have seen all of the pictures, and received personal assurance from many of them: Mrs. C. L. Gade, 109 E. Washington Place, New York City, (wife of Editor Commercial Advertiser) received two of her children; Dr. J[ohn] B[allou] Newbrough, 128 W. 34th St., New York, a child; Mrs. [Timothy B.] Taylor, 329 W. 43rd St., New York, her son; Mrs. Fisher M. Clarke, 739 Seventh Avenue, New York, two of her children (she saw them clairvoyantly beforehand.  Mrs. C. is a lady of long acquaintance, and highly esteemed for her amiability as a lady, and for the exercise of her spiritual gifts unprofessionally); Dr. [Henry] Slade, 18 W. 21st St., New York, a Highlander.

C. H. Daniels, N. Y. was instructed by spirit friends to visit the medium while in Washington.  Out of twelve sittings, obtained eight of his own family; left his photograph for trial in his absence, and obtained his mother.  He afterwards saw some of them materialized at Dr. Slade’s.  Judge A. G. W. Carter, N. Y., received twenty-four faces, representing all ages and both sexes, members of his “band;” Mr. Jackson, Williamsburgh, L. I., received his mother and son; D. Stratton, Baltimore, a friend; C. H. Watson, Baltimore, his mother; Mrs. Compton, Havana, New York [a medium recently investigated by Newbrough], her mother; perhaps the best effort yet made by a spirit in this branch of spirit science; clear, full-length, cabinet patterns of the floor transparent; the form overlapping the chair and shoulders of the sitter.  I enclose copy herewith.  The family likeness is unmistakable, the daughter having grown since the mother departed.

Alfred A. Maxwell, photographer in the same gallery with Mr. Evans, after several weeks association, professed one day to try the chemicals; had no intention of sitting for any other purpose; and he received an excellent likeness of his former photographic friend, Robert Weston, of this City.  Mr. Maxwell takes the ordinary pictures, while Mr. E. takes the extraordinary.

About four weeks since an extraordinary (to him) circumstance befell Mr. M.  Mr. E. was sitting a gentleman for a spirit picture.  Mr. M. was idle in the adjoining room, sitting and dozing, yet interested in the experiment.  Upon developing the plate, to the great surprise of the three, a distinct likeness of Mr. Maxwell appeared beside the sitter, among the painted shrubbery in the background.  The supposition is that while asleep his spirit, or double, followed the interest of his soul, and stood beside the sitter, thus proving the independence of the spirit from the body.  The same law, perhaps, accounts for apparitions living in all such cases, and is as interesting as it is remarkable.

June 19th, I made a personal trial.  The first and second attempts were unsuccessful.  The third time I obtained a second impress upon the transparent glass, but could not recognize it as man, woman, child or thing.  Meanwhile I requested a copy of it on paper, which was promised in a few days.  It is important to state here that I was permitted to bring my own glass, and watched the entire process from beginning to end, which I did with the most critical regard; so that in this and subsequent developments I can positively affirm that no opportunity was afforded, or sought, for fraud.  While waiting for the copy, I invoked my “dead,” when my father assured me the effort, though feeble, was his own.  Receiving the copy a few days after, the likeness, as far as it went was indeed that of my father.  The same stoop forehead, high cheek, thin features, etc.; the lower part in shadow.  The reason he assigned for no better result was the anxiety of the sitter, and his own inexperience.  I expect better things yet, temperament permitting.

June 29th I tried again, desiring my father.  After one or two failures, I finally received a clear, half-size figure of a middle-aged lady, with a very sympathetic countenance.  I did not recognize it.  I had a copy sent me to Staunton, Va., a few days later; family could not remember her.  I saw a medium in Staunton, who declared it was my mother’s aunt, dead many years.  Returning to New York, and keeping the secret, I consulted a reliable friend and medium, when my spirit father informed me it was my mother’s aunt of many years ago, giving her name and conversation with him.

Mr. Evans is now with the Eddy Brothers [in Chittenden, Vermont], taking pictures of the materialized friends as they emerge into matter,—a fine opportunity for the pilgrims to that shrine.  On his return to New York I expect further personal success and hope to give you further particulars all in time.  Meanwhile those interested can test my statements personally, or by photographic card.

New York City, P. O. Box 4998

—Joseph Franklin Snipes.  “Spirit Photography.  Personal Experience—Remarkable Facts,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, August 21, 1875.

Most, if not all, of the people listed above who tried sitting for photos were already devoted spiritualists.  John Ballou Newbrough, for example, was a dentist who had a long interest in spiritualist phenomena.  He would soon gain some renown by publishing a scripture named Oahspe that he said had been given by spirits through his fingers as they rested on the newly-invented machine, the typewriter.  Another one listed above was Alice E. Taylor, the (second) wife of spiritualist investigator and writer, Reverend Timothy B. Taylor.

Timothy Taylor Feels the Angels’ Power through a Spirit Photo

Henry Newton’s efforts to develop and disseminate the dry-plate process—a revolutionary process for which Newton would become known as the “father of dry-plate photography in America,” were taking place at precisely the same time that he was working with Henry Slade, looking for ways to register spirits on his photographic plates.  Slade was already familiar with Thomas Evan’s methods of working, as is clear from the selection above.  The dry-plate process obviously needed no special pleading from Newton in order for him to demonstrate its benefits to the photographic community at large, but in a case where the photographic plate could not be prepared immediately before it was exposed—because the photographer was the medium who had to be present in the spirit circle rather than preparing chemicals (as with Thomas Evans and his tintype spirit television)—and where the time spent in waiting for the exposure and the development was extraordinarily long and uncertain, a dry plate would meet the need perfectly.

In the fall of 1875, Henry Newton became one of the founders of the Theosophical Society.  The “precipitation of pictures” continued—but without photographic equipment—among the members of the Theosophical Society, and the pursuit of images of invisible realities that transcended the mundane, continued—partly through the Occult influence on Modernism—to carry on the spiritualist project of using the machine of the camera as an instrument for the artist to see spiritual realities that were otherwise invisible and to reveal them to others.


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