Lincoln’s Ghost

In 1872, Mary Todd Lincoln went to a ‘spiritualist’ photographer who could show in a picture what she had always believed: that her late husband, President Lincoln never left her side. She liked the picture, and refused to believe that it was a fake. Three years she was committed to an insane asylum.

The spiritualist photographer was one Boston engraver named William Mumler who in 1861 took his own photograph and ‘discovered’ the image of a dead cousin in the photograph. What Mumler discovered perhaps was double-exposure, but he nonetheless became the go-to man when it comes to ghost photos. Lincoln photo made him very popular, and Mumler is now credited with launching the popularity of spirit photography. Mumler said Mary Todd Lincoln used an assumed name and a veil and he didn’t recognize her until he was developing the print.

Over the next few decades, many people who flock to spiritual photographers to have their pictures taken in the hope of seeing some long lost relative. Frederick Hudson in London and E. Buguet in Paris followed Mumler’s footsteps. In 1891, when the famous Combermere photo was taken, Alfred Russell Wallace, one of the fathers of the theory of evolution) reflected that spirit photography should be taken seriously. In 1911, James Coates published Photographing the Invisible, a treatise on spirit photography.