RSS Feed Enlist Correspond PTD on Tumblr Links & Resources Divertissements Engagements News & Press Authors Adele on Facebook Adele on Twitter Adele Griffin: Website Lisa on Facebook Lisa Brown: Website Lisa on Twitter Adele Griffin: Website Lisa Brown: Website Home Letters Buy Picture the Dead on Amazon



Photographic Amusements

Photographic Amusements

I CAN’T REMEMBER HOW I heard of this book. Probably it came up during my research into the history of photography, and it sounded so excellent that I had to track it down. It is really quite incredible. My copy is the 10th edition, “Revised and Enlarged” and published by the American Photographic Publishing Co. of Boston in 1931. The first edition was from 1896.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

It’s basically a how-to book for amateur photographers itching for a little photographic experimentation. Just look at that Table of Contents. Not only does this book have lessons in “Spirit Photography” and “Doubles” but also “Freak Pictures by Successive Exposures,” “Photographs on Apples and Eggs,” (that’s on apples and eggs, not of apples and eggs), and “Pictures with Eyes which Open and Close.” And don’t let me forget the always essential “A Man in a Bottle.” What did I do with myself before I owned this book?

Figures 6 and 7

So, let’s look at how one takes a spirit photo. The first method, say authors Frank R. Fraprie and Walter E. Woodbury, is to engineer a simple double exposure.

“Suppose we want to make a picture something like Fig. 6. We must first prepare our ‘ghost’ by dressing someone in the orthodox ghost style, by draping a figure in a white sheet…Then we pose the sitter and the ghost in appropriate attitudes and give part of the required exposure. Then, leaving everything else just as it is, we remove the ghost and complete the exposure. On developing the film, we find the sitter and the background properly exposed and only a rather faint image of the ghost, with objects behind it showing through on account of the double exposure.”

Another way to make ghost pictures, Fraprie and Woodbury tell me, is to take an underexposed picture of a spirit against a black background and then use the same film or plate another time for another photo. In this way, the sitter is not aware of the ghost picture while they are posing. I have also read that people dressed up as ghosts would sneak into the back of a picture without the sitter noticing. Kinda like when someone does “bunny ears” to some unaware person in a snapshot. But it seems unlikely that someone wouldn’t notice a person in a big ole sheet.

“Of course it is not necessary to dress up the ghost in a white sheet and we believe that far more convincing effects can be obtained by having the ghost dressed in the ordinary way.”

See figures 8 and 9, below, as lovely examples of dressing in the “ordinary way.”

Figures 8 and 9

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Tumblr
  • email

The Little Foxes

Below please enjoy a guest post about the origins of Spiritualism by Dianne Salerni, author of the novel We Hear the Dead.

Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox

Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox, lithograph by Currier & Ives. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

SPIRITUALISM, THE BELIEF that the dead dwell in another realm where they can communicate with the living, began as a small movement in the mid-19th century and attracted vast numbers of believers by the end of that century. The idea of “speaking to the dead” still has its place today in popular media, but most people don’t realize that spirit mediums and séances were invented by a pair of adolescent sisters with a clever prank.

On the night before April Fool’s Day in 1848, residents of Hydesville, a small town in upstate New York, were roused from bed by the persistent knocking of their neighbor, John Fox. Mr. Fox frantically bid his neighbors to accompany him back to his house and witness what was happening there: his daughters were communicating with a ghost.

The events of that night were documented in a pamphlet later published by novice journalist, E. E. Lewis. A strange rapping sound emanated from the Fox house—a sound that could not be explained by earthly means, no matter how thoroughly Mr. Fox and his neighbors searched for the cause. When questions were asked, first by the Fox daughters and later by neighbors, the raps appeared to provide answers, knocking once or twice for yes and no. By this spiritual telegraph, as it was later called, the entity identified itself as the spirit of a murdered man buried in the cellar of the house.

Attempts to dig up the cellar resulted in ambiguous evidence, but it was enough to convince the residents of Hydesville. Within a few weeks, word had spread that the two Fox girls—Maggie, age 14, and Kate, age 11—had the ability to call spirits back from the afterlife. The girls were mediums through which the dead could pass messages to their loved ones on earth.

Was it a hoax? Forty years later, Maggie Fox confessed that it was and revealed that she and her sister had, at first, created the rapping noises by snapping the joints in their toes and ankles. Later, they employed other tricks—encouraged and coerced by their older sister, Leah Fish, who realized the potential of their little game and whisked the girls away from Hydesville to set them up as spirit mediums in Rochester, New York.

In Rochester, Leah Fish made a profitable business conducting spirit circles at a dollar a head. Furthermore, she took steps to ensure her success by calling upon her acquaintance with radical Quaker and social reformer Amy Post, who introduced her to Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. An arrangement of mutual promotion quickly developed. The reform leaders endorsed the spiritualists, and the Fox sisters made certain that the spirits devoted some of their messages to political causes. What started as an evening’s entertainment became a thriving social movement which advocated the abolition of slavery and the rights of women. Soon, new spirit mediums began to crop up all over the country as the movement became more popular and evolved into a religion.

Meanwhile, Maggie and Kate Fox blossomed into America’s first teenage celebrities. Hobnobbing with the rich and famous brought the girls into the social circle of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, a Philadelphia war hero and explorer. Young Dr. Kane immediately saw through their pretense and, developing a romantic interest in Maggie, sought to remove her from the influence of her avaricious older sister. However, not even Maggie’s defection in the cause of love could halt the momentum of her creation. Political and religious forces had shaped spiritualism into a tool for social reform, a means of feminine expression, and a solace to those who found little comfort in more traditional forms of worship.

What began as an innocent prank would shape the history of America and eventually overshadow the two high-spirited girls who began it.

Here is E. E. Lewis’s original pamphlet about the Hydesville Haunting.

And here is Maggie Fox’s signed confession.

Check out Dianne’s blog, follow her on twitter and buy her wonderful book!

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Tumblr
  • email

The Medium Had the Message

Eva Carriere

The medium Eva Carrière with a light manifestation between her hands and a materialization on her head. Photograph taken in 1912 by Albert von Schrenck-Notzing.

MEMBERS OF THE Spiritualist movement believed that people lived on in spirit form after they died. These ghostly presences could be contacted through “mediums:” people who were uniquely gifted with the ability to communicate with the spirit world.

Now, by “communicate” I don’t necessarily mean talking. Mediums had all sorts of communication methods at their disposal.

This communication would take place at an event called a “séance.” Here’s an invitation to a séance that our heroine, Jennie, has in her scrapbook; it is based on an actual séance invitation that I saw online from the 1870s.

Seance Invitation

A séance was usually arranged like this: a group of people would gather, often holding hands around a table, preferably in a dark, dark room, presumably to create a welcoming environment for spirits but more likely creating a welcoming environment in which the medium could manipulate his or her various means of speaking with the dead. Which included:

A séance in progress, ca. 1920.

Trances: where the medium fell into a faint or a trance and then spoke as if a spirit was talking through him or her, often in an altered voice. Sometimes there would be one spirit guide who spoke through the medium every time, interpreting what the other spirits in the area were saying. Other times each spirit in turn would get their chance to use the medium’s voice as their own.

Spirit writing: where the medium sat with a pencil or pen, fell into a trance, and began to write as if the dead person were guiding his or her hand. Another spirit writing method involved two slates tied together (that’s old-fashioned little chalkboards used for school lessons way back when). Upon untying them: behold! writing on the boards by unseen hands!

Spirit trumpets: this was exactly what it sounds like. A trumpet hung in the air, and out of it came the eerie whisperings of the dead.

Spirit cabinets: I love this one. The medium got into a special cabinet (I imagine it like a wardrobe or the space that a magician’s assistant gets into only to disappear) and was tied to a chair so that they couldn’t move around. The door was closed, and noises would emanate… rattles, raps, bells….sometimes ghostly hands would be seen floating around the structure.

Rapping: this is ye olde favorite. Where a medium would ask the spirits questions, and then merely ask for a series of knocks as responses to yes or no questions. One rap for yes, for example, two for no. Easily done with cracking knuckles or knocking on something hidden in your skirts. It was often accompanied by table tilting: meaning that the table that the invitees were sitting around would start tipping under their hands, as if moved by ghostly means.

Some of these were so clearly hoaxes it’s hard to believe that anyone could actually fall for it. But they did.

Seance Circle

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Tumblr
  • email


ouija board

Ouija board with wooden planchette

DON’T HAVE A MEDIUM on speed dial? No problem: get yourself a planchette, place your fingers lightly upon it, and wait for spiritual contact.

A planchette is that thing that comes with your standard ouija board. Literally translated as a “little plank,” a planchette was originally a small piece of wood on legs which moves around, presumably through ghostly intervention. The first models had a pencil attached, so that when it moved, the ghost in question could use it to write messages to the living. Later versions were shaped like a pointer that could point towards letters on a board to spell out words, or to the words “yes” or “no” for quick and easy answers. My own planchette is made of plastic and is made by Parker Brothers. Creepy.

my ouija board

My childhood ouija board. Much used at summer camp.

my planchette

My planchette says:


  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Tumblr
  • email

Photographing Spirits

spirit photo

Woman with Daisies and Spirit, ca. 1875. By an unidentified Photographer. Copyright © 2000 The American Photography Museum, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

IMAGINE IT’S THE YEAR 1864, and you are living in the United States during a bloody, brutal civil war. You feel helpless in the face of all this death. Remember, it’s the middle of the 19th century. That’s before the discovery of penicillin. Before doctors realized that they needed to wash their hands. So death would have been a frequent visitor in your home, anyway. The war just increased the number of the deceased.

So how did you deal with all this psychological anguish? All this loss? Well, some people pointed a camera at it.

During the 1860s, some photographers claimed that they could photograph the spirits of the dead. Photographing the dead was just another in a long list of 19th century options for ghostly communication. Folks who believed that one could make contact with dead and gone loved ones were members of the Spiritualist Movement.

Spiritualism was a religious ideology popular from the mid-19th through the beginning of the 20th century. Its followers believed not only that people lived on after death, but could be contacted with the help of “mediums:” people who were unusually sensitive to communication with the spirit world.

To our jaded modern eyes, these photos look like simple double exposures or a bad photoshop cut and paste job. But photography was still a fairly newborn technology in the middle of the 1800s, kind of like what 3-d computer animation is to us. Many people were completely, utterly convinced that it was real.

What did these spirits look like? Well, sometimes they looked like semi-transparent versions of a dead and gone loved one, who appeared, oddly enough, in the same exact position as in some other photograph of them taken when they were alive. At other times, they seemed to be figures draped in ghostly sheets, also semi-transparent. Occasionally, a spirit would appear who wasn’t related to you at all; instead, it would be an image of a Native American (sort of a spirit “guide”) or simply some eerie looking lights and vapors. They didn’t always appear right away, either. It would often take several sittings (and several payments) to convince those spirits to manifest themselves. You can’t force a spirit to do anything that it doesn’t want to do.

At the beginning of my entry, I posted a photo of a woman from 1875 sitting across from a figure clad in appropriately creepy drapery. The sitter looks like she is in mourning, which is not a surprise.

And below, a photo of a man with what looks like a painting of a woman gesturing to him. And a later example, said to have been taken during a séance. Can you even imagine looking at that and thinking that those were real ghosts? It’s not even a realistic painting. It goes to show you the lengths that people will go to suspend their disbelief when faced with the death of a loved one.

Spirit Photo

Portrait of a man with a spirit form, 1872-75. By F.M. Parkes & Mr. Reeves. © 2008 The College of Psychic Studies, London.

Seance spirits

Spirit photograph by John K. Hallowell. S.W. Fallis, photographer. 1901. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Tumblr
  • email

Ghosts in the White House

Carte de visite of "Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln," by William Mumler, 1870-75. ©2008 The College of Psychic Studies, London.

“Spiritualism, the accompaniment of long and wasting wars, was rampant in the capital in the third winter of conflict. People sat hand in hand around tables in the dark, to hear bells rung and drums thumped and banjos twanged.”

Reveille in Washington 1860-1865 by Margaret Leech

CAN YOU IMAGINE our First Lady of the United States hostessing a White House event that was held specifically for the purpose of communing with spirits? Pretty farfetched, right? But that is exactly what an inconsolable Mary Todd Lincoln did after her twelve-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever in 1862.

Mrs. Lincoln, who had been fascinated by and in contact with Spiritualists during Lincoln’s tenure in Chicago, now used her power as first Lady to enlist the help of several famous mediums, including a young woman named Nettie Colburn, for whom Mrs. Lincoln went so far as to secure a job in the Department of the Interior so that Colburn could relocate permanently to Washington, D.C.

According to Colburn’s autobiography, Was Abraham Lincoln A Spiritualist? Lincoln himself was present at a number of her own séances, and the medium recalled an early meeting with the President where:

“…laying his hand upon my head, [he] uttered these words in a manner that I shall never forget: “My child, you possess a very singular gift; but that it is of God, I have no doubt. I thank you for coming here to-night. It is more important than perhaps any one present can understand. I must leave you all now; but I hope I shall see you again. He shook me kindly by the hand, bowed to the rest of the company, and was gone. We remained an hour longer, talking with Mrs. Lincoln and her friends, and then returned to Georgetown, Such was my first interview with Abraham Lincoln, and the memory of it is as clear and vivid as the evening on which it occurred.”

At home and abroad, however, Lincoln was criticized for his purported interest in Spiritualism, mediums, and séances, as it fostered rumors that he was using the occult to attempt to foretell the outcome of political and war-related events.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Tumblr
  • email