The supernatural segment of today’s episode of The Witching Hour explores the Spiritualist movement that swept America in the nineteenth century. Members of Spiritualism circulated the belief that the spirits of the dead exist and could contact the living through photographs, seances, psychic mediums, and even automatic writing. Capitalizing off the movement, photographers began to manipulate photographs to depict paranormal beings or phenomena in otherwise normal photographs. One pioneer of spirit photography was William H. Mumler, who took and manipuated the infamous photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the supposed ghost of her husband.

Other photographs in Mumler’s gallery tell a similar tale of grief and bereavement: the ghost of a deceased daughter stretching out a hand to touch her mother’s lap, a mourning widower comforted by his dead wife. Mumler, an amateur chemist and opportunistic businessman, evaded the wrath of skeptics for some time. Eventually, his clients began to lose his faith in him after a man recognized a supposed ghost in a photograph as his happily living wife, who had her portrait previously taken by Mumler. It appeared that the ghosts in Mumler’s studio were nothing more than recycled negatives.

Though he was arrested and tried for fraud, Mumler avoided prison on the grounds that although chemical and physical manipulation could explain the apparitions, no one had been able to prove that Mumler had actually manipulated any photographs. Peter Manseau, a curator at the Smithsonian museum and one of Mumler’s critics, remarked on the incident, stating, “The defense argued that human ingenuity can do all these things that a generation ago would have seemed like sheer magic. How can we say that photography cannot do this, too?”

Scientific advances of today allow us to know when a photograph has been altered, helping us to distinguish fact from fiction. However, some who value emotion and intuition over hard data still believe in the paranormal due in part to manipulated evidence. For a quick scavenger hunt, try googling “real ghost photo” and see if you can spot any obvious manipulation in the search results!

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