Spirit photography was all the rage in the late 1860's. The Spritualist movement was a new and powerful force for people who were terrified and unsettled by their times. It wasn't just in America, where the national heartache following the Civil War over the unheard of loss of life, where Spritualism took root. It became a very real presence in England, where it remains an active religion today. Here in the US, American Spritualism is also a current religion, although much smaller in force and often considered a "fringe" religion by the mainstream.
The American Museum of Photography has a wonderful collection of spirit photography of the era, Do You Believe?, The preeminent spirit photographer of the day was William Mumler.
He understood how to combine the mysteries of technology with mysteries of the sprit, and his photographs are the result. The wonderful old home entertainment stereoscope even had it's fair share of 3D spirit photos.
Today, we look at them and see the intentional double exposure, the rough manipulations and shake our heads at anyone who could have been duped by these crude photos.
We have difficulty understanding how learned men such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed they were real enough to write a book supporting the phenomena as recent as 1923. Of course, he was also taken in by the Cottingley Fairies, so maybe it's not so surprising!
I invite you to take a break from today's reality and wander through this wonderful gallery, set your 21st century logic aside and enjoy these photos for what they were. They remain a curosity of a distant time.
If you get as captured by them as I have, you'll be pleased to know there are many, many examples of old spirit photography on the web. There is a nice private collection of photos at Flickr. Also at Flickr is a Vintage Spirit Photography group with a nice collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an interesting small exhibit. Beyond the Grave, is an exhaustive exhibit on Mumler, spirit photography and an introduction to Spiritualism of the era. An excellent bibliography of Spirit Photography has been put together at this collector's site, Brightbytes.com.