Lost and Found: The Spirit Photography of William Hope

Spirit photography, which was the visual representation of America’s nineteenth-century Spiritualist Movement, captured the minds of a country fixated on communicating with the dead.

Spirit photography, which was the visual representation of America’s nineteenth-century Spiritualist Movement, captured the minds of a country fixated on communicating with the dead. Its popularity coincided with the end of the Civil War, so it’s no surprise why so many people were intrigued by the possibility of contacting the recently departed. With more than 625,000 dead (most due to illness, not losses on the battlefield, as diseases like smallpox and typhoid fever wrecked havoc in close quarters) families were desperate to communicate with their beloved on the “other side”.

One of the earliest spiritualist events to take hold of the American imagination was the performance of mediums Kate and Margaret Fox, daughters of a New York farmer. The sisters’ act—producing a series of odd rapping noises loud enough to fill a large theater—gave credence to the fledgling movement and rise to the popular song, “Spirit Rappings” in 1853. Despite eventually confessing the act as a fraud (the sounds were made from the sisters’ uncanny ability to crack joints in their toes without moving them), peoples’ belief in the afterlife never budged.

Americans continued their quest to sate their desire of the unknown, attending séances, consulting psychics and mediums, and enjoying magicians like Harry Houdini, who would later debunk the movement that had helped make him so popular. (Despite his outspoken disbelief, Houdini did make many attempts to communicate with his mother after she died in 1913 and offered the staggering sum of $10,000 to any medium who could reconnect them.)

Among the first Americans known for spiritual photography was William H. Mumler, who in 1869 became famous for his portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln and what was perceived to be the ghost of the late president Abraham Lincoln hovering above her. Like all others, the image was the result of a double exposure (and two separate negatives), but it was so believable that those who had no knowledge of photography, and how its images were created, were easy targets. (Mary Todd Lincoln was especially susceptible, having lost two children to early deaths. She was often seen organizing séances in the White House in the hopes of communicating with them.)

To help them gain authenticity, many mediums utilized spirit photographers as a means of legitimizing their profession. They set up cameras where séances were taking place in the hopes of photographing the ghost spirits who were contacted. Of course those elaborate productions were well-staged hoaxes, but thousands of people engaged in such activities nonetheless. What remains are the eerie images. We see mysterious hands levitating tables, shrouded beings hovering above sitting portraits, and chillingly ethereal mists often believed to be ectoplasm or “spiritual energy”.

At the same time, interest in the afterlife infiltrated popular culture. Songs and plays were written about the topic, the Ouija board made its first appearance in 1890, and Don Marquis’ column in the New York Sun (illustrated by George Harriman and started in 1916) had as its main characters two reincarnated beings: a cat named Mehitabel (who was, in a past life, Cleopatra) and a cockroach named Archy (who was once a famous poet).

As Spiritualism gained credibility in the United States, it became equally popular in England, especially among the upper classes. A group of paranormal investigators known as the Ghost Club formed in 1862 and had among its members both the writers Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the famous Sherlock Holmes series and who had lost a son in World War I. The group remained strong for more than 50 years.

Doyle defended one of England’s most famous spirit photographers, William Hope, in the book The Case for Spirit Photography after Hope was exposed as a fraud. Many of the images seen here are the result of Hope’s work, a lifetime devoted to encouraging people that their loved ones remained close after death and could be captured, at least for an instant, on film. Hope founded Crewe Circle, a group of six spirit photographers. Despite their efforts, it was Hope’s work that is today considered the most accomplished. This unusual gallery of spirit photographs, all of them collected in an album, were lost for decades before being unearthed years after Hope’s death in 1933 at a second-hand bookshop in Lancashire, England. Today Hope’s work is revered for its beauty as some of the best examples of spirit photography from the height of the Victorian period.