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In the early 1960s, a man in Boston named William Mumbler started getting interested in photography. One Sunday afternoon, he decided to take a self-portrait. He was alone in the photography studio, so he set up the camera himself and went to stand in front of it. He waited almost a full minute for his image to fix itself on the cameras. Prepared glass plate. And when it was done, he took the plate to the darkroom. As the photograph developed, he saw something very strange.
It was the image of someone else, a young girl sitting in a chair beside him, she was almost transparent. He later wrote, this photograph was taken of myself by myself on Sunday when there was not a living soul in the room beside me, so to speak.
At first, Mumbler gave a very conventional opinion in the sense that he thought that he made a mistake.
Author and art history professor Lewis Kaplan. He was an amateur still. You know, he wasn't that adept. And what he must have done was used a plate, a glass plate that had a previously developed image, and that therefore that second image was developed with the image that he took of himself. So, you know, that's the conventional explanation at first that he thought what was going on.
He later wrote that he then decided to have a little fun. He started showing the photograph to friends as a prank with, quote, as mysterious and er as possible. One friend, Mumbler, showed the photograph to was Dr. H.F. Gardner, a well-known spiritualist in Boston. Spiritualism was a growing movement of people who believed that it was possible to communicate with the dead. Dr. Gardner looked at mumblers photograph with a lot of interest. He wrote the form is that of a young girl.
The outline of the upper portion of the body is clearly defined, the dim and shadowy.
The chair is distinctly seen through the body and arms, also the table upon which one arm rests below the waist, the form which apparently is closed in a dress with low neck in short sleeves, fades away into a dim mist, which simply clouds the lower part of the picture.
Mumbler said he was not a spiritualist, but the more he talked to Dr Gardner about the strange photograph, the more open minded he became.
He started to come around to the idea. Right. It's almost as if Gardner prodded him into thinking beyond the box and outside of the box that, oh, well, maybe this isn't just a mistake in the development process or a double exposure, but rather maybe as the spiritualists out there are saying that this is a new phase of spiritual development and somehow I am.
The medium spiritualism is generally considered to have originated almost 15 years before mumblers photograph in a farmhouse in upstate New York. Two sisters, 11 and 14 years old, claimed to hear strange knocking sounds in their house every night at bedtime. Neighbors came to listen for themselves to the unmistakable knocks on the walls and furniture that seemed to reply to requests and questions. Some said it was the spirit of a man who'd been murdered in the farmhouse years before. The sisters, Margareta and Kate Fox, seem to be able to summon spirits in other people's houses, too, and eventually became so well-known that they started demonstrating their abilities in theaters.
By the early 1960s, around the time Mumbler took his photograph, the idea of spiritualism was taking the United States by storm, in part because of what was going on in the country at the time.
Families were sending their sons and brothers and husbands to fight in the civil war and they weren't coming home.
So we have, you might say, even a higher degree of a culture of mourning and bereavement than usual. In usual times.
Attempts to communicate with people who died were becoming so common that even First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln attended seances in Washington, D.C., to try to communicate with her late son, Willie, who had died of typhoid fever in 1862. He was 11 years old. It was said that the first lady found the science so comforting, she began to host them in the White House and that President Lincoln but occasionally attend.
So if you understand this idea from spiritualism that people believe that the dead were coming through and that it was possible to communicate with the dead in this way through these seances and these oral means, you could say that what mumbler enabled through his practice was to move this communication with the dead to visual means and to be able to therefore have a glimpse of the dead through the camera.
Mumblers photograph was written up in spiritualised newspapers. He said he was embarrassed by the publicity, he wasn't a professional photographer and he wasn't a spiritualist. So he said seeing his name in papers made him feel, quote, considerably mortified. But he said when people started asking him to take their portraits in the hope that a spirit would appear, he reluctantly agreed.
Mumbler wrote that he took a number of other photographs in which no spirits appeared, and then he did see what he called a spirit form.
He wrote, I hardly knew what to say or how to act. The result of the last sitting was so entirely different from what I was expecting that I was fairly bewildered. I therefore concluded to take pictures two hours a day. The fact that there is this first sense of him thinking that it was an accident leads you to believe that, you know, you wonder like, OK, well, why did why and how did he change his convictions? So from the side of the believer, you would say, oh, well, after thinking it through and it happening more than once and talking it over with spiritualists, convert's, he himself became converted.
But from the side of the skeptic, you would say something very different. You would probably say that what happened there was he talked to the spiritualist. The spiritualist showed him that there was this supernatural way of explaining what he had done and he saw the possibilities of spirit photography. I'm Phoebe Judge. This is criminal. We'll be right back. Support for criminal comes from Squarespace, Squarespace gives you all the tools you need to make functional and beautiful websites with a dynamic all on one platform.
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Were the people that were going to Mumbler Studio, did word spread quickly? Wait a second. This man is taking photographs where there could be pictures of your dead loved ones.
Did that spread fast?
And is that why people started coming to a studio in good numbers? Yeah, I mean, he definitely got good publicity, particularly in the spiritualised press, and again, it was either belief that this man had was somehow in touch with the afterlife and the world beyond, or it was more keeping the mind open. Right. That some reports in Boston in 1862 when 63, when first things were getting going, were what? We don't know exactly how he does it, but we need to keep an open mind.
And therefore, people were curious and if they could afford it, wanted to go there and to see and try their luck to see if they could get into contact with loved ones who had passed away, whether they be sons that had been killed in war and the civil war, or whether it be a child of who was a victim of infant mortality before their time or whether it be a mother or father who had passed away. Everyone had some grief and mourning in their lives that they were still somehow working through and wanted to see if mumbler could help them.
And this this was still new technology. It's not like it had been around that long.
Yeah, I think, Phoebe, that's a very important point to consider as well. The official red letter date that we talk about for the invention of photography is eighteen, thirty nine. So we're talking now 20 years out from the invention. So it's still a relatively new technology.
In its earliest days, photographs were popular primarily as a source of comfort to help families remember their loved ones who would be photographed after they died. The post-mortem portrait was often the first and the only photograph of someone. Writing about these images at the time, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it is not merely the likeness which is precious, but the sense of nearness involved in the thing. The person lying there fixed forever, even its inventors called photography natural magic.
A little bit of magic realised through, of course, technological means, very explainable combination of optics and chemistry. But for the layman, for the general public, there was in that first generation of photographic production, something magical, the ability to have one's image to be retained via the chemistry onto a glass plate negative and then to be developed onto a film.
And if something so magical was going on, that would capture the way someone looked to his living, maybe it wasn't so wild a leap to think that it could capture someone who was dead. Absolutely. Absolutely. That was definitely what was in the air, this idea that photography could capture the living. But there was also this idea that photography could capture the invisible, that perhaps the photographic camera could reach into areas, for instance, of fluorescence or areas of ultraviolet light that were hidden from the naked eye, but that were able to be captured by the camera.
If you just had the right medium, not only the technological medium, but the photographic medium, who was able to somehow bring down these extra visible light rays. So that was the thinking, we might call it now magical thinking of those who ascribed to spiritualism and who try to construct what we might call and I'm putting this in quotation marks, scientific arguments in order to explain these phenomena.
All of this new technology made it easier for people to believe in things they couldn't see or understand. Around the same time photography was invented. Samuel Morse introduced the Telegraph. And by the time Mumbler took his first photograph, people were being told that it was possible to communicate with someone all the way across the ocean, if that was possible, why wouldn't they be able to somehow reach someone they lost? William Mumbler only offered three or four sitting's a day, he said doing too many drained his energy, making it less likely a spirit would appear.
He charged a lot more than the going rate for a portrait session. He joked that, well, you know, we have to keep the rabble out. The spirits don't like to associate so much with the rabble, but it makes us see that it was very much a classist proposition, right. That you really needed to be more of an upper middle class or a celebrity to go and sit in mumblers studios.
Mumblers wife Hannah would greet his customers as they came into the studio.
She said she was a medium and he wrote that his wife had wonderful magnetic powers and called her a battery because she supplied the power to his work. Hannah Mumbler was said to be present during many of the sessions and in one case has her husband closed the camera aperture, she told the sitter, now you will have a picture and a good one. Mumbler never made any promises. He said that he and his wife would create a favorable environment, but spirits only showed up when they wanted to, he was vague, right?
He would try to say things like the person who you are most in sympathetic contact with at the time of my photograph will be the one that will appear to you as a spirit form in the development of the image.
Mumbler had this uncanny ability to conjure images where a lot of time there's interaction between the deceased and the living.
So a lot of times you see the ghost behind the sitter and sometimes there is a quality, a kind of even a movement call, a haptic quality where the hands of the spirit are reaching out to console the mourners and touching them sort of on the back or laying a wreath over their heads. Right.
A kind of almost like semi transparent wreath or holding out flowers, invisible flowers for the sitter in order to comfort them. So that's what's really fascinating about mumblers photographs.
And this is also, I think, one of the reasons why people were so stunned and amazed and wanted desired these photographs because he literally and figuratively would put people back in touch with their dearly departed in an interactive way.
And there was almost this kind of contact that was being visualized between the living and the dead.
In one, a woman has her arms extended and her head bowed and a translucent man is standing behind her, putting a baby in her arms.
In another, a woman is holding a guitar with a faint image of a figure leaning over her and plucking the guitar strings.
Monola later wrote about a man who visited his studio who requested mentally at the time his picture was being taken that his little son would appear sitting on his knee and on developing the negative.
There was the spirit son in the position mentally desired.
Mr. Miller, on receiving his pictures, stated that it was an unmistakable likeness of his boy and there was not enough money in this world to displace it.
But a lot of times, you know, people believe what they want to believe, and particularly when people are grieving, particularly when people are in a state of mourning, and that what Mumbler tried to do was he always or Hannah always got information on the one in which they were seeking. Right. How old what they looked like. And the idea here is that he had a stock of a variety of different portraits that he could that he could slip in.
Right. To do the trick such that they would be classified according to category. Right. So if you said, well, the person that I'm mourning and the person I'm looking for is my dead daughter of age five, who, you know, who passed away, blah, blah, blah, then that would set him off on that category of stock, you might say, spirit imagery to place in. And then once the people are thinking along those lines, they kind of filled in the blanks because a lot of times.
Right, these images as as you've you've seen spirit photographs are quite misty and vague and and faint.
Writing an essay about photography, the famous doctor and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes senior said the faces and spirit photography looked like, quote, foggy dumplings. When you look at mumblers photographs, some of the figures faces are blurry, but others are distinct and clear. How do you think that he would get images of people that his sitter's actually recognized? Yeah, well, there's a that's also a very contentious issue in terms of of what he did. I mean, the historian Robert Hirsch actually believes that Mumbler was not only a con man, he was also a thief, and that somehow he must have figured out a way of rifling through people's photographs and stealing images that he then got into his studio in order to be an exact complete match of the deceased.
Now, I don't know that that's pretty extreme, you know.
Photographers visited Mumbler Studio to observe his process, to try and figure out how he was doing it. A famous photographer named James Wallace, Black Bet, Mumbler, 50 dollars that if he sat for a portrait and observed the process, no spirit would appear. Mumbler took the bet. Momma wrote that James Black examined his equipment and studio before the portrait was taken and afterwards accompanied him to the darkroom where he watched the entire development process.
According to Mumbler, Black first saw his own image and then slowly the outline of a man leaning on his shoulder, he said he couldn't figure out how mumbler did it. But then what happens is that a couple of cases occur where people are able to identify the spirit extras that are appearing in his photographs as people who are still alive. Mumbler reportedly took a photograph of a woman who had just found out that her brother had been killed in the civil war.
He showed up in the photograph standing right behind her, and then shortly after he showed up at home alive. So that's a problem for my mother. But the woman didn't accuse mumbler of fraud. Instead, she blamed the whole thing on an evil spirit that had embodied her brother. Another time, someone who was visiting the studio recognized one of the spirits in the photographs on display. The spirit was his wife, who was alive. She'd had her portrait taken at Mumbler Studio and remembered the day well because she said she had worn a hat she didn't like.
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William and Hannah Mumbler decided to move to New York. They set up a gallery space at 630 Broadway and customers started flowing in. Mothers work caught the attention of journalists and one a science journalist who is interested in photography, took particular offense at what Mumbler was doing and submitted a complaint to the mayor's office.
The complaint was interesting enough that an investigator was assigned to the case, a man named Joseph Tucker. Joseph Tooker decided to visit Mumbler Studio, pretending to be interested in spiritualism, and when Tooker arrived, he basically said, Oh, I understand that you have the special powers to be in touch with the dead. And I have had a recently deceased father in law.
It would be really wonderful if you could get me back into contact with him through your mediumship. So that's the setup. Right. And then Mumbler does his magic. And when Tooker returns, he sees the photograph. And of course, he says, I do not recognize this person. This person is not my father in law. You are making false claims and therefore you are defrauding me. And it is on that account that they bring up these charges of fraud and larceny and they basically throw mumbler in the slammer in the Tombs prison in the early spring of eighteen sixty nine.
His trial began that April and it became a celebrated case not only because it involved this one claiming Spirit photographer William Mumbler, but people really saw it as a case where spiritualism was on trial. When you read the accounts, you always see a lot of you see a lot of times the headline Spiritualism in court or spiritualism on trial. So it's this idea where one individual case becomes almost a metonymy, right? It stands in for the whole belief system of spiritualism.
So it's as if Mummer was defending the cause of of spiritualism in general.
The New York world reported that the courtroom was crowded with people all deeply interested in a question which they believed could only be answered by one of two alternatives a fraud or a miracle.
The New York Herald called the trial an unsubstantial pageant and ran the headline The Science of the World Against Spiritualised Theory. A New York Times headline simply read a stupendous fraud. Papers printed transcripts of the testimonies. The first witness that mumblers lawyers called was a photographer named William Clé, who had visited mumblers New York studio and observed his process. He had his portrait taken several times and he testified spirits had appeared, mumbler had even gone to sleep studio and produced the effect away from home.
He said that in his expert opinion, there was no evidence of fraud.
And then, of course, there were satisfied customers, there were a number of witnesses called that testified to having received true, valid photographic proofs of their beloved deceased, a former New York state judge testified that Monola had taken his photograph and spirits had appeared.
A Wall Street banker named Charles Livermore testified that he'd received three portraits from Mumbler, where he could clearly identify the spirit of his late wife, Estelle. He said she was unmistakable and that the experience had provided immense consolation and solace.
And he was there to defend mumbler as hard as he could in this trial. And then from the prosecution side, it was dominated mostly by professional photographers who really were very outraged by mumbler and felt that they his antics were giving the profession a very bad name. But we also saw on the prosecution side some celebrity witnesses as well. And in particular, the star celebrity witness was P.T. Barnum.
P.T. Barnum is best known for founding the Barnum and Bailey Circus. But before that, he had opened a museum on Broadway where he displayed taxidermy animals, fake artifacts like the so-called Fiji Mermaid, which was a preserved monkey's head sewn onto a fishtail wax figures, live whales and a number of mumblers spirit photographs.
When he heard that Mumbler was going to trial for fraud, he agreed to testify for the prosecution and I guess it must be that what really upset him was the way in which Mumbler defended spirit photography from this supernatural perspective, which really bothered the way in which Barnham saw entertainment to be. Barnham never invoked God or the supernatural in terms of showing people a good time. And I think that that was something that actually outraged him.
The day before Barnham testified, he went to a photography studio and asked the owner to figure out how to make it look like there was someone else in the photograph.
And he said, hey, this is what we're going to do. You're going to take a photograph of me and let's set it up so that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln is watching over behind me and appearing surveying the scene. And we're going to do it in a way whereby it's going to look just like a spiritual, quote unquote, photograph. And we're going to show people what a hoax and what a humbug this mumbler really is. Barnum presented the photograph in court, he said The spirit on my photograph was that of the departed Abraham Lincoln.
I didn't feel any spiritual presence. He said he'd watch the photographer closely but couldn't detect any fraud, even though he knew in this instance that it was fake. The photographer testified to how he had created the image, but no one could prove his technique was the same as mumblers.
Barnum's photograph doesn't look very much like mumblers work in Barnum's, it's like two different photographs are presented next to each other without any overlap, where mumblers seem to be interactive with the spirit figures often touching or holding the shoulders of the living subjects. The prosecution presented many different theories about how Mumbler could have done it, a figure dressed in white could have briefly, silently stood in the background while he took the photographs. Mumbler could have used trick lenses. He could have printed the spirit image onto paper and then use that same paper to print the new image with the sitar on top of it.
Some people who accused Mumbler believe that he had different methods and that depending on the sophistication of of the sitter or how much he was being observed, he would resort to a variety of different tricks up his sleeve.
No one could prove anything. Before the judge delivered the verdict, Mumbler read a statement, he said, I positively assert that in taking the pictures, I have never used any trick or device or availed myself of any deception or fraud. He said that when he took that first self-portrait where Spirit appeared, quote, I was a complete novice in the art of photography. In their closing remarks, the prosecution said, man is naturally superstitious and in all ages of the world, impostors and cheats have taken advantage of fellows less sharp than themselves.
In their closing, the defense said men like these would have hung Galileo on May 3rd.
The judge delivered the verdict. Mumbler was acquitted.
The judge felt remorse in the fact that he had to acquit mumbler because he said that even though we have the sense that you are defrauding the public, the prosecution could not show the exact means by which you performed the trick.
And because there is no one to one correspondence between how you did it and what you produced, the prosecution does not really have a case and I have to acquit you.
So basically, you have the judge saying, I wish I didn't have to do this, but they had to acquit him because they couldn't figure out how he was doing this. Right. It was the so-called what was sometimes called the anti evidentiary argument that won the day. Right.
Just because the photograph showed a spirit didn't mean it was evidence of anything because you needed to show the process.
You needed to show exactly how the trick was executed in order to charge the defendant with the crime. After the trial, Mumbler decided to return to Boston and resume his work there and the thing that people don't sometimes realize is mumblers most famous photograph comes from this second period of production in Boston.
And that takes us to 1872, when Mumbler was visited by Mary Todd Lincoln in his studio shortly after her son Tad had passed away.
And when she was seeking solace and going to spirit mediums and going to the spirit photographer in search of a spiritual photograph that could reunite her with her loved ones. And what's interesting about this visit is Monola claims that she came dressed in black, complete in mourning garb. She was wearing a veil. He claims that he didn't know that he had such an illustrious guest and that it was if she was, quote unquote, incognito and that it was only when he was ready to take the portrait that she lifted her veil.
She announced herself as a Mrs. Lyndel, so a pseudonym. And then the account talks about how enthralled she was and enabled to see not only her recently deceased son, but, of course, again, the ghost of Honest Abe Lincoln appearing behind her and with his hands on her, comforting her.
William Mumbler died on May 16th, 1884. His obituary in the Photographic Times contained just one line about spirit photography. The deceased at one time gained considerable notoriety in connection with spirit photographs. The obituary mostly emphasized his technical skills, his inventive genius and taste for experiment. He developed something called the Mumbler Process, which eventually allowed photographs to be more easily and cheaply reprinted in newspapers. Over the years, people have pointed out the irony of a man widely accused of manipulating images, playing a key role in the development of photojournalism.
This is also really interesting because it shows us that Mumbler did have a lot of technical skill and was an ingenious photographer in relationship to the mechanism. And here he was for the trial and at many points in his life saying, I don't really know how this is done. Right. This is I am in the hands of a higher being and a higher power that is somehow guiding me through and guiding my wife Hannah, through these spiritual developments. But yet then when we see the later part of his life and we read and learn about the inventions that he contributed to photography, particularly this mumbler process, then we start to think, hmm, was he so naive and so innocent as he claimed to be during the trial?
What happened to spirit photography? Well, spirit photography did not die with William Mumbler, spirit photography had a number of further lives and throughout a number of further generations, all the way, I would say, until right after World War One.
And again, I think it's interesting to note that it was another great catastrophe on the world stage of a war that where there was a lot of death and destruction that brought people again back to these keepsakes, these images that would console them. One customer of mumblers who saw the spirit of his wife beside him in his portrait once wrote the picture assures me that we have our friends about us watching over us at all times. We still don't know exactly how mumbler did it.
Criminalist created by Lauren Spore and me, Lydia Wilson is our senior producer, Susanna Robertson is our producer, audio mix by Rob Byers, special thanks to Madeleine.
Judge Julian Alexander makes original illustrations for each episode of Criminal. You can see them at this is criminal dotcom. You can follow us on Twitter at Criminal Show and Instagram at Criminal Underscore podcast to see mumblers photographs.
Lewis Kaplan's book is The Strange Case of William Mumbler, Spirit photographer, criminalist recorded in the studios of North Carolina Public Radio WNYC, where a proud member of Radio Topia from PUREX, a collection of the best podcasts around.
I'm Phoebe Judge. This is criminal.
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