Photographing Lincoln’s Ghost
In BackStory episode “The Camera Never Lies?,” Joanne and Brian looked at the history of photography in America – how the medium and its different forms changed the lives of everyday Americans
One form taken was spiritual photography. First popular during the Civil War-era, spiritual photography was a way for people to connect with lost loved ones. A patron could visit a specialized studio to get their photograph taken with the hopes that the “ghost” of a loved one would appear with them.
Peter Manseau, an award-winning author and curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, specializes in spiritualism. He told us the story of William Mumler in the episode’s “That’s the Spirit” segment. In 1861 Mumler, an amateur photographer, found what looked to be a ghost in one of his photographs. Mumler soon became one of the first spiritual photographers.
Mumler experienced great success in the Boston-area until residents started to recognize the spirits from his photographs around town and very much alive. Mumler then relocated to New York City briefly where he was actually arrested and tried. Although he was prosecuted for fraud, he was found not guilty and continued to attract customers seeking solace – especially those who’d lost family in the Civil War. Among his many clients was First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
To learn more about the significance of spiritual photography, BackStory talked with scholar Peter Manseau.
Peter, what is your favorite image?
My favorite image that Mumler took is probably his best known, and this would be the spirit photograph that Mumler took of Mary Todd Lincoln in 1872.
Mary Lincoln was, as many people know, a spiritualist, in part because of the losses she suffered throughout the 1860’s. First, her son Willie died while the Lincolns still lived in the White House, then, of course, the assassination of the president. Mary Todd Lincoln turned to spiritualists as a way of connecting with loved ones she had lost. So in 1872 when she was visiting Boston, Mumler’s reputation continued amongst spiritualists, and she visited him.
What happened during her visit?
According to the story, she visited him in disguise, wearing a black veil, using a fake name. But when she walked into the Mumler’s studio, the Mumlers claimed to see the spirit of Abraham Lincoln follow her in. So when she posed for this photograph and they took the picture and gave her the image, they were not surprised to see the very recognizable form of Abraham Lincoln standing behind her, seeming to console her.
When Mary Todd Lincoln visited Mumler, she had full knowledge of his prosecution in 1869. However, she still firmly believed in the validity of his photographs. She believed in this image throughout the rest of her days, and it’s a fascinating image because, on one level it’s the image of a woman who is struggling with her sanity. Because she believes in this image she believes that she was able to communicate with her dead son, and with her dead husband, throughout the rest of her life.
How else might we see this image?
So, seen one way it is simply that – a photograph with her deceased husband. Seen another way it is the image of a portrait of the entire nation’s struggle with the grief of the Civil War and struggle with the haunting loss of [President Lincoln]. But the most meaningful and poignant way to see this image is simply as an image of solace. As something that this woman, in her moment of mourning and grief, desperately needed; something that Mumler was able to give her as solace.
For more information about the history of photography in America, check out our episode “The Camera Never Lies”