15 Incredible Examples of Early Spirit Photography

  • Spirit photography has been around since the 1860s, when William H. Mumler began to practice it. It is the art of capturing ‘spirits’ in images and is often used in ghost hunting. One of the best-known spirit photographers was William Hope, a member of the Crewe Circle Spirtualists group which existed during the early part of the 20th century.

  • Two spirits appear to emerge on the left-hand side, one above the other, in this photograph of a family group.

    The images shown here were unearthed from an album found in a secondhand bookstore. The Crewe Spiritualists society was made up of six photographers and, indicating how many believed in the authenticity of spirit photography, a seventh also joined them, Archbishop Thomas Colley no less.

  • When World War I broke out, the popularity of the Crew Circle grew even stronger as loved ones wanted to be assured that their deceased were alright and to communicate with them.

    Here, two women, perhaps sisters, sit while a female spirit appears above the woman on the right.

  • This ghostly image might send shivers down the spines of believers: a man sitting alone with the spirit of another man emerging from the ectoplasm to his right, looking right at him.

  • Hope moved to London to become a professional medium in 1922, where his work was investigated by a number of ‘ghost busters’ – paranormal investigators who hoped to prove he was a charlatan.

    The couple here are said to be the mother and father of the person who put the spirit album together, while the face of the ghost is apparently the sister of a man well-known to the Spiritualist Church movement. For some reason, the seated male looks angry, but it was the norm at that time for people to have very serious expressions in photographs.

  • Next we see the eerie appearance of an ethereal woman’s face to the right of the man, a ghost said to be the man’s deceased first wife. Many believe Hope either already had a picture of the woman or asked the man for a picture to help him contact her in the ‘ether-world’ of the spirits.

  • One of the most well-known attempts to prove Hope a fraud was made by Harry Price, of the Society of Psychical Research, who gave Hope glass plates embossed with a special mark that could not be seen except when exposed in a photo. Hope substituted these for regular glass plates in his images (like the one here in which two spirits appear to three family members) such that the marks did not show up – suggesting that he had used materials to fake the photographs.

  • According to the National News Museum: “The image of a young man’s face appears prominently over the man, draped in a cloak. The signature at the base of the image belongs to the sitter. The man had links with the person who compiled the spirit album, and he gave the photograph to her as a keepsake. He apparently recognised the young man’s face.”

  • When Price published what he found later the same year – apparent evidence of the spirit photographer’s skullduggery – Hope’s supporters spoke out, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who published a book in response, The Case for Spirit Photography. This image is one of the odder ones: it looks as if the man is leaning into his spirit love, yet if there was a double exposure during the photo’s processing, how could he have known she was there? Eerie? Maybe not.

  • According to the National Media Museum: “The face of a young woman appears over the woman on the right of the photograph. The reverse of the photograph reads: ‘Why is the child always pushing to the front?’ and ‘Do we get messages from the higher spirits?’; perhaps questions the women wanted answering. One of the sitters, at Hope’s request, has signed the plate for authentication.”

  • This image shows two Welsh mediums sitting for a photo in 1920 with the image of their deceased grandmother above them – or supposedly so. The mediums claimed that it is the only image of their grandmother there was. Hope is likely to have just superimposed a photograph of the woman over theirs to create the illusion.

  • Here we have a group in the middle of a seance, taken in about 1920. The remarks in the spirit album says the table is levitating, though the most likely scenario is that the image of a mystical arm has been double exposed onto the picture.

  • Shiver me timbers! Out of all the images shown here, this is easily the most ghostly, with shades of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past as well. A woman mourns her husband, and a man his father, in a Chapel of Rest, with the deceased wrapped in sheets and flowers. The family were Roman Catholics and are said to have believed in the afterlife. The image of the ghost with his black shroud was extremely well done.

  • In this image, a family of three sits for the photo with a spirit floating across them. Some believe that this was made by placing a doll’s head on a stick and then superimposing it. The background in the top left corner rather looks like it is outside, with vines on a fence, while the family background is dark.

  • And in this photo, Mrs Bentley, once the President of the British Spiritualists Lyceum Union, has the image of her sister appear in the lower right – surely superimposed.

  • Not just lay people believed in Hope and his spirit photographs. A clergyman and his wife had given birth to a stillborn daughter, and at a seance the spirits who allegedly spoke said they named her Rose and asked them to sit for a spirit photo. It is hard to find Rose, unless she is the bright light on the chest of the man, but the male spirit was said to be the deceased father of the clergyman.

  • William Hope continued his work all his life but had another major denunciation in 1932 when Fred Barlow, a former supporter, and Major W. Rampling-Rose, gave a speech to the Society for Psychical Research, concluding that he was fraudulently placing other images over the people seated in his photographs.

    Hope died in 1933, so it is hard to say if this had any effect on his reputation at the time. And who knows? Perhaps he really did find that there is more to life than we can see with the naked eye! Not likely, but he did a good job in the days before digital photography to conjure up his ‘ghosts’.

    Sources: 1, 2

Michele Collet
Michele Collet
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History