When ghosts first appeared on theater stages in the 1790s, many wondered if it was all 'smoke and mirrors'. Phantasmagoria showman manipulated magic lantern projection in such a way to "cheat the eye of man and make him believe he sees spirits of the dead".
Physicist Étienne-Gaspard Robertson was among the first to host theatrical ghost shows and staged performances from an abandoned crypt in Paris. Using a mobile magic lantern called the fantascope, horrific images were reflected through a concave mirror and onto clouds of smoke to produce life-like materializations. At the beginning of each show Robertson promised to conjure "every species of phantom as they appeared throughout history". By the end of the illusion, spectators were left "raising their hands out of fear of ghosts dashing towards them".
Phantasmagoria shows were so authentic that newspapers questioned whether magic lantern operators were great magicians or had "burned drugs in the smoke filled séance room to further befuddle those present". Performers like Robertson often had to defend themselves against allegations of satanic worship by demonstrating their techniques to audiences and exposing trade secrets to the press.
The engravings included in this post from the Crookes & Mumler collection provide a visual demonstration of phantasmagoria practices for skeptics.
Davies, Owen. The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts. (2007)
Evans, Henry Ridgely. The Old and the New Magic. (1906)
Ouija is a brand of talking board first introduced in 1891. The original patent filed by Kennard Novelty Company described Ouija as a "game in which two or more persons can amuse themselves by asking questions...and having them answered".
Early Ouija boards were predominantly used to communicate with deceased spirits. The effects of widespread famine and the Civil War led many grieving Americans to "seek answers convincing enough to move on with their lives". By 1920 Ouija sales topped an estimated $3 million and the brand has since continued to outsell other popular games like Monopoly.
The board featured above from the Crookes & Mumler collection represents an early example from Ouija's factory at 1306 North Central Avenue in Baltimore, MD.
McRobbie, Linda Rodriguez. The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board. (2013)
Von Crush, Calvin. Artist and Macabre Collector. (2016)
Arthur Conan Doyle strongly believed ghosts could be captured on film. In his 1922 book The Case for Spirit Photography, the author presents compelling arguments for "the independent life of the spirit" and an "overwhelming mass of reliable evidence" in favor of supernormal imagery.
After visiting the Crewe Circle in September of 1919, Doyle was convinced that the paranormal group possessed "a remarkable power of producing extra faces, figures, and objects upon photographic plates". On one occasion an image featuring an ectoplasm bag was developed, and in another instance automatic writing from the group's deceased founder Archdeacon Thomas Colley appeared. When Crewe Circle were publicly accused of fraud in 1922, Doyle presented these pictures along with "a tremendous mass of accumulated evidence" as proof their work was "incompatible with any form of [deception]".
Despite its best efforts, the book failed to silence perception that Crewe Circle were nothing more than "common cheats who obtain money under false pretenses". Questions surrounding their spirit photography persist to this day as all that remains are images featured in this post from the Crookes & Mumler collection.
Black, James. "The Spirit Photograph Fraud". (1922)
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Case for Spirit Photography. (1922)
The first ghosts to appear in photographs were entirely accidental. As Sir David Brewster discovered in 1856, if a person moved out of camera range during a long exposure, they would appear as a translucent image.
In his book The Stereoscope: It’s History, Theory, and Construction, the Scottish inventor describes how he was developing a daguerreotype when the subject moved and created a blurry image. The revelation led Brewster to conclude that if a white-clothed person is introduced to the photographic process and quickly withdrawn, the picture “will exhibit them as ‘thin air’ amid the solid realities of the stereoscopic image.”
Brewster's text goes on to suggest that a “photographer might carry us into regions of the supernatural” by properly staging terrifying reactions to the apparent spirits. These instructions spawned the commercialization of spirit photography in the late 19th century and resulted in mass production of ghost images like the above stereoscopic card from the Crookes & Mumler collection.
Brewster, Sir David. The Stereoscope: It's History, Theory, and Construction. (1856)
Minneapolis City Hall is among the most haunted locations in Minnesota. Constructed from 1889 to 1906, the building is reportedly occupied by the spirit of deceased convict Josh Moshik.
Initially convicted of murder and sentenced to death in City Hall's 5th floor gallows, Moshik gained notoriety as the first person executed under influence of hypnotism. Many physicians had wondered if "hypnotic suggestion might take the place of medical stimulants" by stiffening muscles and preventing "the [noose] from wrenching apart the spinal column". At the very least, it was believed a hypnotized death would be "spiritually serene".
Unfortunately for Moshik the hanging was botched and took several agonizing minutes to complete. He would go on to become "the last man hanged in Minnesota" and has reportedly remained at City Hall in the afterlife.
Staff and visitors to the building have witnessed a disheveled spirit roaming the 5th floor wearing nothing but boxer shorts. Inmates have also described ice-cold breezes, prowling shadows, and strange poltergeist activity near the site the former gallows. Although these reports are yet to be verified by scientific fact, one has to wonder if the strange manifestations are Moshik exacting revenge on City officials?
Morris, Jeff. Twin Cities Haunted Handbook. (2012)
"New Test of Hypnotism," Kansas City Journal. (1898)
Abraham Lincoln relied on more than his Cabinet Members for advice. During times of particular stress and national uncertainty, the President was known to consult the spirit world and "did not hesitate to receive any suggestions" from Spiritualist mediums.
On the evening of February 5, 1863, Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd visited a home at 3226 N Street in Georgetown to "see what [the spirits] have to tell". Channeling through trance medium Nettie Colburn Maynard, a ghost named 'Old Dr. Bamford' manifested and advised the President on military strategy. "Go in person to the front...and show yourself to be the Father of Your People," Bamford demanded while adding "it will unite the soldiers as one man". Several weeks later Lincoln made an inspirational trip to Union Army camps in Northern Virginia.
During the same séance it was also reported that a grand piano levitated across the room. The President investigated the floating instrument and "expressed himself perfectly satisfied that the motion was caused by some invisible power".
Lincoln would continue to attend Spiritualist circles and even held several séances at the White House before his untimely death in 1865.
Maynard, Nettie Colburn. Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist? (1891)
The Fox Sisters' Cottage is best known as the "Birthplace of Modern Spiritualism". Located at 1510 Hydesville Road in Newark, NY, the tiny home became famous after its residents developed a communication system with deceased spirits.
In March of 1848, almost 3 months after moving into the Cottage, the Fox family began to experience knocking sounds "so vibrant that the beds thrilled and shook". On the night of March 31st, "one of the great points of psychic evolution was reached" when daughter Kate Fox challenged the unseen force to repeat the snaps of her fingers.
When the snaps were instantly answered with a rapping sound, the concept of Spiritualism was born. The phenomena of spirit communication quickly spread throughout the United States and the Fox Sisters became instant celebrities. The home developed into a shrine for Spiritualists and in 1915 was moved to a psychic community in nearby Lily Dale, NY.
On September 21, 1955 the Fox Cottage burned to ground under mysterious circumstances. The above postcards from the Crookes & Mumler collection are among the very few remaining images of the home.
Conan Doyle, Arthur. The History of Spiritualism: Volume 1. (1926)
William H. Mumler is widely recognized as the first commercial spirit photographer. With studios located at 258 Washington Street in Boston and 630 Broadway in Manhattan, the businessman offered patrons an opportunity to obtain portraits with "departed spirits recognized as that of some relative or friend".
When visitors first arrived they were seated in a Chippendale chair and told to remain still until Mumler's wife Hannah, a clairvoyant medium, had summoned the spirits. Although it often took several attempts before a ghost image was developed, customers always left "fully satisfied that the pictures were what they claimed to be--real photographs of real spirits".
The above engraving from the Haunted Historian collection is a rare look inside Mumler's studio.
Kaplan, Louis. The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer. (2008)