Spiritualist Skepticism about Spirit Photographs

As early as the beginning of 1863, doubts were raised about Mumler’s spirit photographs.  Charles Plumb, a New York City spiritualist, disavowed any endorsement of the images of spirits produced in photographs by William Guay or by William Mumler, who was working at the time out of the gallery of Mrs. Helen F. Stuart in Boston.  Mrs. Stuart created mourning jewellery out of the hair of the deceased.  She and Mumler added a photo studio where the bereaved could seek yet another way to make contact with their loved ones.

Charles M. Plumb, “‘Spirit Photographs.’  A Word of Caution.” Herald of Progress (New York), April 11, 1863

Early in the progress of the “spirit photograph” controversy, we published an indorsement of Mr. Wm. Guay, whose testimony with reference to these pictures was positive and important.  At that time, without a long or intimate acquaintance with Mr. G., we felt satisfied of his integrity and reliability as a witness.

We are now fully persuaded that our indorsement was premature, if indeed our confidence was not misplaced.  Without positively affirming Mr. Guay’s deliberate untruthfulness, we do not hesitate to say that he is not strong enough to tell the same story at all times!  His affirmations to different persons do not correspond.  His communications to us, oral and written, viewed in the light of positive statements to other parties, are not so clearly truthful and undisguised as we could wish.

Our published indorsement of Mr. Guay as a reliable witness on this question is therefore hereby retracted and withdrawn.

From the first we have felt—more strongly than we have at any time expressed—a degree of confidence in the pictures as genuine evidences of spirit power.  That confidence is materially shaken by cumulative testimony bearing on the case.

There has as yet been no satisfactory expose of the methods employed by Mr. Mumler in producing these pictures, neither have we seen any entirely successful imitations by other artists.

We have, however, seen at least one photograph by Mr. Mumler in which the alleged spirit form is unmistakably a copy of the picture of a living person, which picture was in the hands of Mrs. Stuart.

As to the agency by which these copies are produced, we wish our opinion to be distinctly understood to this effect, that the only evil spirits—if any—concerned in the work, are those of Mrs. Stuart, Mr. Mumler, and their mortal assistants.

We do not specifically charge them with fraud, though the evidence is strong in some cases, but we would caution the public against investing any more money or credulity in that direction.  They deserve neither confidence nor patronage until they clear their past record and permit the fullest and most searching scrutiny.  If there is the slightest evasion of the most rigorous investigation, let all Spiritualists stay away from Mrs. Stuart’s gallery and advise their friends to do so.  Parties who will either deliberately trifle with the most sacred feelings and interests, or for purposes of gain attempt to secure a monopoly of a genuine “gift,” deserve not only the manifest expression of the popular scorn and contempt, but also to be placed where they can no longer continue their nefarious practices.

It is easy for an honest medium to make a clean record.  Mr. Mumler and Mrs. Stuart, if honest, have the misfortune to act very much as rogues do when pursuing their calling.  A systematic and thorough letting alone is the best remedy for all such cases.  When they cease to have a “good thing” of it, they may be more frank and truthful.

We can afford to wait.  Neither your happiness, reader, nor our own, ought to depend on the issue of this question.  And we shall gain nothing by seeking to crowd it to a solution.

C. M. P.

And another dissatisfied Mumler customer:

“Another Spirit-Photograph Recognized,” Herald of Progress (New York), May 9, 1863

Mr. Editor:  Facts have been, are now, and must continue to be the foundation of the great gospel of Spiritualism.  Again, the separation of fact from fiction has been, is now, and must also continue to be the only way to establish on an eternal basis the truth and ultimate triumph of the fact of inter-communication between the inner and outer life.  The above being conceded, it follows that every truth-loving man or woman who can contribute aught to either establish the fact or prove the fiction (if fiction there be,) is working to one great end, viz., the establishment of truth per se.

To this end, and for this sole object, I have a few facts to present, showing unmistakable fiction in the claim of Mr. Mumler to spirit-photography, in at least one instance which, I will prove, and in others of which I have heard, if the parties would only testify; but it is a good deal like a man going into a mock-auction shop and getting “sold;” he will rather swallow the loss than to be thought such a fool; even in this case nothing could induce the parties for one moment to have their names connected with the subject at all.

But to the facts.  Being an investigator of the spirit-phenomena almost from its first rap, and becoming convinced of its truth very early in its career, I was of course pleased at the new phase of spirit-photography, and hoped to find it proven.  I therefore requested a very intimate friend of mine, when he went East, to try to get a picture.  This gentleman has a number of relations in Boston, and on his arrival there about four weeks ago, mentioned the subject to them, when it was agreed to visit Mrs. Stuart’s rooms, which they did without my friend accompanying them, he being busy that day.  Upon looking at various specimens of spirit-likenesses, they discovered that one was a copy of a photograph of the wife of a gentleman in the party, who sat for a likeness in that room last summer.  The dress, drapery, and a peculiar head-dress, there was no mistaking, it being so muchoutré that the lady had never liked the picture, and had had only one or two copies taken.

They said nothing of all this to my friend, but accompanied him next day to the gallery, when he also recognized the resemblance to his sister-in-law.  He then asked Mr. Mumler if that was the likeness of a spirit, when that gentleman assured him that it was.

My friend said nothing, but not being a Spiritualist, and not caring how many of that class get humbugged, was a good deal amused, and feeling he had a good thing on me, ordered two copies of the picture, and came away.  One he gave to the lady as her spirit-picture, the other he received some days ago, and it is also recognized here by the parents, sisters, and all friends who know the lady in Boston.

Such is a plain statement of facts in the history of this spirit-photograph.  I have heard of others, but having no proofs, do not give them.  Every one can draw his or her own conclusions.  For myself, it cannot change in the least the facts I know, nor the philosophy built upon them; neither does it show the impossibility of spirit-photography.  It proves, however, to me, that, in this case at least, a negative of a living person was used to represent a spirit.  Conclusion, deception; of which species of deception, permit me to say, I know of no language strong enough to express my utter abhorrence.

It is said that one of old wished to purchase the Holy Ghost with money; it may be to sell again; but it is reserved for some modern “Maguses” to palm off a miserable counterfeit, and at a pretty high price, too, thereby outraging the deepest and holiest feelings of humanity.  But they will yet find out that, in the long run, it will not pay.

James Thompson.
Davenport, Iowa, March 22, 1863.


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