In January 2021, a photograph of former first lady Mary Todd Lincoln garnered newfound attention. The picture appeared to show Abraham Lincoln’s ghost situated behind her.
The old glass-plate photograph was featured in a slideshow article that spanned 40 pages. The headline read: “When This Photo of Lincoln’s Wife Was Developed, An Eerie Figure Could be Seen Looming Behind Her.” The story was advertised: “We Got Chills When We Realized Who Was in the Background.”
The story was about a picture captured by 19th-century photographer William Mumler. In February 1872, Mary Todd Lincoln visited his photography studio in Boston, Massachusetts.
Mumler had previously developed glass plate photographs in New York. It had been around seven years since Mary Lincoln’s husband was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth. The finished studio portrait appeared to show Abraham Lincoln’s ghost standing behind his wife with his hands placed on her shoulders.
However, Mumler did not magically capture a picture of Lincoln’s ghost. The photographer made a living producing manipulated studio photographs with faded figures visible behind his subjects. This was not digital manipulation like we see in modern photography. The idea of doctoring photographs in the 19th century meant trickery in the exposure and development process of glass plate images.
Still in question around a century and a half later was not whether Mumler captured photographs of ghosts. Rather, the question posed to this day was about which specific method he employed in the creation of such pictures.
Christian McWhirter is a Lincoln historian with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. We asked him about the 40-page slideshow article, which looked to contain misleading information.
One part of the long story made a specific claim about Mary Todd Lincoln. It said she “was actually a firm believer in the paranormal by the time she tied the knot with Abraham in 1842.” McWhirter told us this claim lacked evidence:
No, I do not believe that statement is true. The “spiritualist” movement was certainly beginning to spread by the time Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln, but all evidence shows Mary spent most of her married life as a Presbyterian.
Following Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House on February 20, 1862, Mary went into a deep, grief-driven depression from which she never really emerged. For solace, she began to reach out to “mediums” and other representatives of the “spiritualist” movement to “commune” with Willie’s ghost. Her husband’s assassination only deepened this depression and enhanced her belief in spiritualism, including her interest in Mumler’s work.
In 1842, all of that trauma was still ahead of her and, while she may have been aware of the spiritualist movement, there is no evidence I’m aware of that she engaged with it at that time.
McWhirter also told us that “there isn’t a consensus” regarding how Mumler produced his mysterious photographs. That included the picture that purportedly showed Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. However, he directed us to someone whose research delved deeply into the matter: author Peter Manseau.
Manseau authored the book titled: “The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost.” We asked him about the reality of Mumler’s work.
“The Apparitionists” is a narrative history rather than a debunking project so I try to leave some of this open-ended to give the reader the experience, wonder, and enjoyment of thinking about what Mumler’s image might mean—but, yes, his photographs are very obviously fake, if by real or authentic we would mean they include the captured images of ghosts.
In our correspondence with Manseau, he told us that there was perhaps more at play than just manipulated pictures.
Mumler’s efforts came in the pioneering days of photography. Manseau said that there was perhaps “‘something more’ happening with the pictures on a couple levels”:
First, [the “spirit photographs”] were created at a time when photography was still relatively new. Many who viewed them were not as image-immersed as we are, nor as savvy about the possibility that photos could be manipulated. So when we look at them and have a hard time understanding how anyone could fall for something so clumsy and unconvincing, which to my mind they are, we need to take into account that people in the 1860s were basically learning a new visual language—how to “read” a photograph—and so we can’t really know what it was like to see Mumler’s images as they did at the time.
The other thing to consider is that Mumler’s images did speak to sincerely held religious beliefs, mainly of the Spiritualist community, about the nearness of the souls of the dead. There was a lot of fraud and showmanship in that community but it also offered solace at a time when grief and loss were widespread. So even if Mumler knew he was making fake images, they felt real to many of his customers, including Mary Todd Lincoln.
We were curious as to how the “ghost picture” with Mrs. Lincoln made it into the hands of the public. It was Mumler who publicized the picture.
“Mumler printed copies and sold them so it was known immediately, but then it seems it was forgotten,” Manseau said. “With everything related to Mumler it must be remembered it was a commercial venture. He wrote letters to newspapers about it and would’ve wanted to sell as many as he could.”
He provided a newspaper clipping with a letter Mumler wrote to The Boston Herald. At the end of the story, the newspaper referred to the likeness of the “shadowy” ghost figure to Lincoln as being “unmistakable.” We have transcribed the clipping below:
Mrs. Abraham Lincoln Sits for a Spirit Picture and Gets It.
From the Boston Herald.
We have received from Mr. W. H. Mumler, “spiritual photographer” of this city, a carte de visite likeness, which is quite accurately described in the letter accompanying the photograph, from which we make the following extract:
“You will see the ‘ghost-like image’ standing behind the lady sitter has both arms in front, one arm being caressingly around the neck, in a perfectly natural manner. To the right is another ‘ghost-like image’ of a boy, while in the rear is yet another undeveloped form. The lady sitter called on the artist for the purpose of having this picture taken some two weeks since closely veiled, so much so that it was impossible to tell if she was black or white. The veil was not removed until the plate was prepared, and not then until the artist asked her if she intended to have her picture taken with her veil down. She excused herself, removed the veil, and the picture was taken with the result before you. The lady gave the name as Mrs. Tyndall, which was recorded on the engagement book. Subsequent events have proved the lady to be Mrs. Lincoln, widow of our lamented president, who the ‘ghost-like image’ looks like I leave you to judge and draw your own inferences. Suffice it to say, the lady fully recognized the picture.
W. H. Mumler.”
The resemblance of the principal shadowy image upon the plate to the martyr president is certainly unmistakable. The other developed shadowy figure is less distinct, but that of a tall, handsome boy who might be “Tad.”
“Tad” referred to Thomas “Tad” Lincoln III. He was one of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s sons. He died at the age of 18 in 1871, months before Mumler captured his photograph.
Three years prior to the picture that was said to show Lincoln’s ghost, Mumler appeared before a judge in New York. He had been charged with fraud and larceny in relation to his “spirit photographs.” Years later, in 1888, the Waterbury Evening Democrat reported the history of Mumler’s time in court:
It is now twenty-six years ago since a photographer, William H. Mumler, created a remarkable excitement in this town by taking photographs of people in which, behind the sitter, there appeared the more or less distinct outline of some other person, supposed to be a relative or affinity of the one whose picture was the principal figure.
Oakey Hall, at that time mayor [of New York], sent Marshal John Tooker to have his picture taken, and upon Tooker’s complaint, Mumler was arrested on the charge of conspiracy to defraud and arraigned before Justice Dowling at the Tombs on April 21, 1869. At the instance of that ardent Spiritualist, ex-Judge Edmunds, John D. Townsend appeared for Mumler.
The prosecution was represented by Elbridge T. Gerry, and many prominent New Yorkers were summoned as witnesses. Elmer Terry testified, and his evidence was corroborated by that of Jacob Kingsland, that Mumler had taken a photograph of him, in which the spirit likeness of a dead son appeared, whose photograph had never been taken during life.
No case against Mumler was made, and he was discharged. He still pursues, it is said, the same avocation of spooky picture-taking in Boston.
Manseau told us that “many expert photographers spoke against Mumler.” He said that “they all were credible and proposed ways they could make spirit photographs but none proved conclusively how Mumler had made his.”
One expert photographer who spoke against Mumler was Oscar Mason. On April 26, 1869, he spoke of methods Mumler might have used to produce his “spirit photographs.” Mason was the secretary to the photographic section of the American Institute. He was questioned by the prosecution after creating his own “spirit photography” experiments just days prior.
The New York Herald documented the court proceedings in New York. William W. Silver had also been arrested with Mumler. Silver was the original owner of the photography studio Mumler had used, located at 630 Broadway.
According to Mason, one possible way that Mumler created the “spirit photographs” was by manipulating the positive image. Mason explained one of his own experiments to the court:
This was done by first taking the negative of the lady and then the positive from the negative; this positive was slightly manipulated and then used in producing the subsequent picture of Mr. Reiss; if in this case the camera was used only in making the negative, the ghost picture of the lady was produced by the process known in technical phrase as “stopped out,” or intercepting the rays of light, on the first negative the ghost pictures showed full, as no light passes through the opaque surface; that was left free for the subsequent picture and both figures appeared on one negative; it was not done by double printing, but by erasing a portion and then exposing it to a ray of light for an instant before developing; for the light I used a common flame of a lamp in this case.
Mason also described another method involving a positive glass plate. A third possibility involved “half an inch of a lucifer match and a small piece of mica.” A fourth method used a microscopic lens.
The newspaper also said that while Mason answered questions, Mumler “blushed occasionally and at some answers.” The Herald reported: “The blush would hurriedly beam his face as if the statements were deeply affecting him.”
As for what ended up happening to Mumler, Manseau told us that he’s seen misleading accounts:
[Some] claim he died penniless and in disgrace after his trial. This does not seem to be true at all. He had a long varied career after 1869 and by the time he died [in 1884] spirit photography was only a single line in his obituary. As I note in the book, he also should be considered among other photographers of his day, many of whom were blurring the line between fact and fiction in their own images, such as Civil War photographers like Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, who staged battlefield photos.
“We want to think of photographs as objective truth, but manipulation has been part of photography from the beginning,” Manseau said.
In sum, photographer William Mumler did not capture a picture of Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. More than a century and a half later, we still don’t know which specific method he used to create his “spirit photography.” We likely never will.
For further reading, we previously reported on Abraham Lincoln’s last words.
Additional credits for Mumler’s photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln are extended to The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, Indiana State Museum, and the Allen County Public Library.
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