Spirit Photographs

My wife asked me if I knew some of my ancestors were spiritualists. She’d seen an odd picture of my Campbell forebears while putting together a family photo album. This was in September, 2011.

I had, and even knew a little about the photo. It’s a studio portrait, with something extra.

A child’s ghostly image is near my great-to-some-power grandmother. The couple’s daughter had died when she was three years old.

My father told me about the trick, probably more common in the ‘good old days’ than now. Another family member had been given a similarly-doctored photo. In that case, she insisted that the studio fix it. Without the extra image. Which they did.

Maybe the bereaved couple thought they had a ‘spirit photograph’ of their daughter. Or maybe they had no other picture of their child, knew the photo was fake, and didn’t mind.

Spirit Photographs

The photo my wife showed me looks a bit like this one, taken in 1868 or thereabouts. It shows someone called “Mrs. French.” I don’t know who the ghost is supposed to be.

The “Mrs. French” photo is by William H. Mumler, who’s given credit for starting spirit photography in the early 1860s.1

I’ve read that Mumler, an amateur photographer, accidentally took a double exposure. The resulting photo included a ghostly image of what looked like Mumler’s dead cousin.

Mumler quite his job, set up shop as a spirit photographer and married a “healing medium.” The two weren’t business partners, though.

Mumler’s troubles started in 1869, when he was accused of fraud. He won the trial, but lost his credibility. Spirit photography’s reputation didn’t seem affected, though.

Quite a few folks had lost relatives in America’s Civil War. Their grief and spiritualism’s popularity arguably helped Mumler attract customers.

So did assorted diseases like cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, and tuberculosis. Many parents saw their children survive measles and scarlet fever. Many didn’t.2

Christian parents might see “crossing the Jordan” or “taking the last train to glory” as a potentially good thing. But grief happens anyway. (October 9, 2016)

So does death, for everyone. Sooner or later.

Make that almost everyone. I figure Elijah’s spectacular departure in 2 Kings 2:814 was a one-time event. Mostly for Elisha’s benefit. And that’s another topic.

I don’t look forward to death, not like I look forward to reading a good book. But I’ve thought about it. So have a great many other folks. That’s led to advice like memento mori and carpe diem, remember your death and seize the day, more or less.

I think both make sense, within reason. (January 21, 2018; November 11, 2016)

Death Happens

Death seems to have been as popular in Victorian literature as unlikely roommates were in sitcoms.

Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot” may be one of the better-known examples.

In Tennyson’s tale, the Lady of Shallot weaves night and day to keep some kind of curse from happening.

Then she sees Lancelot going by. He’s on his way to Camelot.

She stops weaving, writes her name on a boat and gets in. By the time the boat drifts downstream to Camelot, she’s dead.

Lancelot, seeing a woman’s corpse in the boat, says “she has a lovely face.”

That might seem weird today. Let’s remember that English Victorian society wasn’t like postmodern America. Folks apparently thought, talked, and read about death a lot more than we do. Differently, at any rate.

Americans don’t think about death much. Or don’t seem to. Certainly not the way Victorians did. But death happens. And I’m pretty sure not all Americans shun thoughts of death, any more than all Victorians were repressed Babbitts.

America’s apparent attitude may come from how we live. And die.

Many Americans die in hospitals these days, often after enjoying retirement someplace other than where they grew up and lived.

Some folks pick a ‘retirement state’ based on climate. Others look for favorable investment opportunities, insurance, whatever.

I’m not overly fond of winter’s cold and the spring thaw. But Minnesota’s weather is not boring. I like that. A lot. Isolation from friends and family ‘back home’ would make moving a poor choice for me. Even if it was an option. And that’s yet another topic.

Hand-wringing over society’s decline and all that is something I’ll skip. The point is that having most of the family around when we die isn’t typical today. Not in America.

Options for housing and medical treatment were different in the ‘good old days.’

Victorian Sentimentality and Nietzsche

I don’t see Victorian families as ideal role models. But dying at home happened a lot. Being around a dying family member was nearly unavoidable.

That up-close-and-personal encounter with death and dying may help explain the Victorian era’s over-the-top sentimentality.

So, I think, did seeing results from the Age of Enlightenment’s love affair with reason. Quite a few folks felt reason hadn’t worked, so they tried relying on emotion.

Romanticism isn’t that simple, of course. I’m pretty folks throughout history weren’t all on the same page, even in the most conformist eras.

I think reason and emotion are both part of being human. They’re basically good, when used properly. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1730, 17621770, 1778)

Romanticism peaked in the early 19th century, followed by Realism, Gothic novels and Edgar Allan Poe. But not in that order. I see the 1960s as Romanticism’s reboot, sort of.3

But not exactly. The Swinging Sixties didn’t last nearly as long, for starters. I see the Romantic era’s fascination with exotic lands replayed in early 1960s psychedelic art.4 Not that Caspar David Friedrich and Thomas Cole were painting hallucinatory terrain.

I think some of us overdid valuing emotion and bucking authority. But I also remember the preceding era’s lockstep conformity and attitudes. America, at least, was due for a change. Overdue, in some ways.


Back in the Sixties, “conservative” politics ranged from intense nationalism to unthinking jingoism. That’s how it looked to me at the time, as a teen.

“Liberal” politics weren’t always reasonable either. But I thought the goals made more sense: freedom, peace and cooperation.

Conservatives defended freedom, too. For those who agreed with them. I see McCarthyism and political correctness as the same attitude, held by folks with different views.

I’ve learned a lot since the sixties, including an appreciation for nuance. But my basic attitudes haven’t changed. And living as if I believe them still isn’t easy.

Folks with what we still call “conservative” attitudes were the establishment in my ‘good old days.’

I’m pretty sure conservatives thought they were right. And that liberals did, too.

Thinking I’m right shouldn’t mean feeling that anyone who disagrees must be a fool, hypocrite, or worse.

I was more or less at odds with ‘the establishment’ and many conventionally-unconventional ‘outsiders’ in my teens. It helped me keep re-thinking my opinions and attitudes.

Having like-minded folks on top in media, politics, and academia probably feels good. So would being part of a ‘movement.’ I’ve never quite experienced the feeling, which isn’t a bad thing. I suspect noticing wacky behavior is harder when the nut case is ‘one of us.’

I was going somewhere with this. Let’s see. Family photos, spiritualists, cholera, Victorian attitudes. Right.

Today’s conservative positions aren’t quite what they were in my youth, and quite different from the Concert of Europe’s peacekeeping efforts. The further we get from ‘now,’ the less useful today’s labels are.

That’s partly because we don’t know much about folks like Ajita Kesakambali and Diagoras of Melos. Stories and lore retold generations later suggest that they didn’t think gods existed. We call that sort of thing atheism today.

Thomas Huxley was more of an agnostic than an atheist, but shared Friedrich Nietzsche’s lack of conventional Christian beliefs. Considering what was conventional then, I can see how their views might make sense.

Which doesn’t mean I share them. (February 9, 2018; January 21, 2018; May 12, 2017)

Nifty Photos

(From MrX, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Diagram: Kirlian photography cross-section.)

Kirlian photography was getting attention from the late 1960s to 1970s. It’s a contact print photo technique using high voltage.

Some folks thought it was an interesting natural phenomenon. Others thought they were recording life force auras.

I’ll talk about life force and vitalism in another post. Alchemy too, probably.

The aura folks had evidence on their side, along with replicable experiments.

Folks at UCLA made several Kirlian photos of a pickled leaf, at set intervals. Sure enough, the leaf’s ‘energy field,’ recorded in the Kirlian photograph, faded as the leaf withered. They figured they’d recorded the leaf’s dwindling life force.

In another experiment, they made Kirlian photos of leaves, tore part of each leaf off, and then took another photo. Sometimes a faint ‘memory’ of the missing part was in the second image. It looked as if the leaf ‘remembered’ its natural form.

Scientists thought the experiments and conclusions were worth testing.

Maybe some didn’t ‘believe in’ energy fields. I’ll give them credit for being scientists, and doing their job.

Scientists are as human as anyone else. Belief or lack of it may be personally important. Facts and testable predictions are what make research ‘scientific.’

They paid closer attention to laboratory technique, removing all traces of moisture from the glass plate after taking Kirlian photographs of the whole leaf. ‘Ghost’ images didn’t materialize with clean plates.

What the first researchers had done was document otherwise-imperceptible traces of water left by the whole leaf. The glass plates were ‘remembering’ where the leaf had been, in a metaphoric sense. Not the leaf.

I don’t think that proves that the original researchers were charlatans.

America’s zeitgeist, ambience, or whatever, being what it was — I figure they thought they’d found something real, and weren’t consummate experiment designers.

I’ve got more to say about the UCLA experiments, science and assumptions. But not today.

I see Kirlian photography as laboratory curiosity. Scientists haven’t found practical applications. Not yet, anyway. The photos are nifty, though.5

I’m almost certain that Kirlian photos don’t record auras: not in the ‘life energy’ sense.

That’s partly because Kirlian phtos of non-living things show ‘auras.’

I’m not sure what the non-dime in that photo is. It looks like a Jefferson nickel.

Whatever it is, I don’t think it is or ever was alive. Neither was the dime.

I’m quite sure that we’re looking at electrical effects at the edges and angles of the coins. Possibly enhanced by residual moisture and oils from folks who handed them.

I’ve got a pretty good imagination, so I could say that we’re looking at life force auras left by folks who handled them. Or of the artists who designed them. Or of Jefferson, an oak and an olive tree.

That could be a ‘good enough for a story’ explanation. Maybe something along the lines of Lovecraft and Poe, with a dash of Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson. There’s an idea.

But ‘good enough for a story’ doesn’t mean ‘real.’ Or ‘replicable.’

Telling or reading an imaginary tale can be fun, and harmless. If folks can see differences between make-believe and reality.

That’s my opinion, but it’s one I’m pretty sure of. (“Address of John Paul II to the International Cinema Conference” (December 2, 1999))

Tricking folks into believing something I know isn’t true is another story. And trouble that I don’t need. (Catechism, 150, 2125, 2464, 24752487)

How I see life, death, and making sense:

1 Darkroom ghosts:

2 Death and disease:

3 Eras and attitudes:

4 Making sense, and learning:

5 Energy, life and weather:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Spirit Photographs

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Missing article: “It’s studio portrait, with”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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