Barnum's Spirit Photograph with Lincoln
The spirit of Abraham Lincoln floats behind P.T. Barnum

William Mumler's Spirit Photography

Spirit photography, popular during the nineteenth century, got its start in 1862 when William Mumler made the first spirit photograph. The premise of spirit photography was that departed spirits could imprint their images on pictures. The spirits appeared as faint, ghostly images floating besides the living subjects.

Spirit photography had enormous appeal during and after the Civil War as bereaved families sought some form of tangible proof that their loved ones lost during the war still continued their existence in some fashion.

But spirit photography also attracted many critics, prominent among them P.T. Barnum, the famous showman. Barnum felt that the spirit photographers were taking advantage of those whose judgement was clouded by grief.

In April 1869 William Mumler was brought to trial for fraud. Barnum volunteered to testify against him, and to prepare to do so he asked Abraham Bogardus, a respectable photographer, to prepare the image shown to the left. In it, the spirit image of Abraham Lincoln can be seen floating behind Barnum's right shoulder. Barnum wanted to demonstrate that spirit photographs can be easily manufactured by any competent photographer.

At the trial Barnum made a point to differentiate between his own 'humbugs' and those of the spirit photographers. He argued that despite his reputation for misleading the public, "I have never been in any humbug business where I did not give value for the money."