Skip to main content

When Did the First 'Ghost Photos' Appear?

Photographs said to be of ghosts are all over the Internet and cable television, and published in countless books and magazines. Amateur ghost hunters offer thousands of photographs of what they claim are ghosts. Some are shadowy, human-like figures; others are flash reflections of light appearing as round white spots dubbed "orbs."

But the whole genre of spooky pics started as a hoax, perpetuated by a clever photographer.

While the widespread phenomenon of people claiming to photograph the spirits of the dead is relatively new, we know precisely who first claimed to photograph a ghost. His name was William H. Mumler, and he was a Boston photographer who first produced "spirit photographs" in 1861. He created dozens more over the next decade.

These ghosts were not the orbs or shadowy figures often photographed today. Instead they were clearly images of real people, appearing faint and ghostly. John Harvey, author of "Photography and Spirit" (2007, Reaktion Books), noted that "in Mumler's photographs, the disincarnate spirits look pallid, like a watermark on the backcloth, dressed in either a bleached version of their customary attire or in a white smock reminiscent of an angel's dress."

Mumler was the first person to find such ghostly images (though there were soon many imitators), and he convinced many people that he and his camera had some sort of special connection to "the other side." Mumler's most famous subject was Mary Todd Lincoln, the president's widow, whom Mumler portrayed with a faded image of her husband standing behind her.

In fact, Mumler was eventually revealed as a hoaxer. The "ghosts" he captured were merely double exposures of previous clients. Thus the first ghost photographs were an outright hoax, as are many nowadays. Despite ever-increasing technology, real photographic proof of ghosts remains as elusive as ever.