William H. Mumler: One of Photography’s First Forgers

Ever heard of Spirit Photography? The occupation entails exactly what it implies: the attempt to capture paranormal entities on film. The field has been disregarded completely now, and all of the photographs have pretty much been disproven, but it’s regarded as one of the biggest hoaxes in the early days of photography and one of the first instances of photography forgery. So in honor of the holiday that revels in bamboozlement, let’s take a look at these incredibly fake, but still uncanny, photographs.John_J_Glover

While it is common knowledge now, the idea of double exposing photos was a foreign concept when Spirit Photography came to public’s attention. After taking a self-portrait of himself in the early 1860’s, William H. Mumler (pictured below) discovered the outline of a figure standing behind him.

gm_10226501Mumler thought nothing of it, but the people he showed the photograph thought it resembled the likeness of his deceased cousin. Seeing the opportunity to make a profit, Mumler started his very own Spirit Photography business, operating as a medium for families that lost family members in the Civil War. His charade didn’t last long however; Mumler was brought to trial in 1869 on accounts of fraud. He was dumb enough to get caught by putting the ghostly apparitions of still living residents of Boston in his photographs. Not surprisingly, people started to recognize the “spirits” in their portraits walking down the streets. Mumler’s trial garnered so much attention that the famous P.T. Barnum testified against him, unsuccessfully though. Mumler failed to be found guilty, but his photography business was ruined, leaving him penniless until his death in 1884.   Mumler_(Herrod)

The most famous picture Mumler ever took was of Mary Todd Lincoln actually. Mumler didn’t know it was actually her at the time of photo, as she used the pseudonym at the time of the session. The photograph was widely circulated and is now known to be fake, but it one of the first examples of photography forgery.

Mumler_(Lincoln)Learn about more hoaxes, historical and mythical, from some of our books here.


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The University Press of Kentucky has a dual mission—the publication of books of high scholarly merit in a variety of fields for a largely academic audience and the publication of books about the history and culture of Kentucky, the Ohio Valley region, the Upper South, and Appalachia. The Press is the statewide mandated nonprofit scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, operated as an agency of the University of Kentucky and serving all state institutions of higher learning, plus five private colleges and Kentucky's two major historical societies.

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