We take a closer look at the Science Museum Group’s collection of 20th century “spirit photographs”, taken by William Hope, the fraudulent spiritualist who claimed he could capture the image of ghosts on camera
Showing ghostly bodies looming from swirling white clouds and the translucent faces of departed souls so tantalisingly and terrifyingly close to our own, yet only visible by the camera’s lens, William Hope’s spirit photographs of the early 20th century are fascinating to behold – and, of course, completely fake.
The process of producing a double exposure to create the effect of a ghostly apparition was first discovered by accident by American engraver and amateur photographer William H. Mumler in the 1860s when he mistakenly took two pictures of himself using the same photographic plate. Mumler’s most famous “spirit” photograph was a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, being consoled by the ghost of her husband, the assassinated US president Abraham Lincoln.
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Prior to this the link between photography and death was even more macabre. Memento mori photography, the practice of photographing deceased loved ones, seems strange and unsettling to us now but during the Victorian period these expensive keepsakes would have given solace to mourning families; giving them a final chance to create a permanent image of a loved one while also offering a solemn reminder of their own mortality.
William Hope created his first spirit photograph in 1905, a portrait of a friend which when developed appeared to contain an additional presence bearing a striking resemblance to the sitter’s sister who had recently died. Using his newfound talents in the paranormal Hope set up and lead the spiritualist group the Crewe Circle in his home town in Cheshire.
The group gained notoriety with the addition of member Archdeacon Thomas Colley, an eccentric who verified Hope’s “powers”, championed Hope’s work to the public and gifted him his first stand camera. Another prominent figure in Hope’s success was Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; also an avid spiritualist and strong believer in spirit photography, Doyle was a member of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures. As a fervent supporter of Hope, Doyle would go on to spend his life defending Hope’s work and reputation.
dedicated fans and believers insisted that Hope’s photographs really did show the ghosts of the deceased
But Hope’s pictures were of course complete fabrications. He would procure an existing photograph of the deceased and expose the apparition onto a photographic plate prior to the sitting with his client. By using this method and creating a double or triple exposure image he would was able to produce the translucent effects consistent with expectations of how a spirit might manifest in our world.
Despite the obvious signs that the images were fake he kept a strong following of dedicated fans and believers, who insisted that Hope’s photographs really did show the ghost of a deceased friend or family member.
While claims of capturing a spirit or paranormal occurrence on camera today are so quickly met with cynicism and scrutiny – and swiftly debunked – the viewers of William Hope’s photographs were more readily seduced by the possibility of capturing a fleeting otherworldly visit from a departed loved one.
It was Hope’s timing which undoubtedly led to his success. The images were produced in the early 20th century and embraced by a grieving population decimated by the devastation of the First World War, perhaps hoping for proof that even after death their loved ones still had a presence in our world and that there was life, of sorts, on the other side.
Hope met a fierce critic in Harry Price, a leading paranormal investigator and one of history’s most famous ghost hunters, who was well known for outing fraudsters and hoaxers. Price suspected the spiritualist’s photographs were a hoax and set an elaborate trap in the hopes of firmly disproving the legitimacy of his photography, and outing him as a scammer and a charlatan. By marking the plates he provided to Hope during a photography session, Price was able to conclude that Hope had switched them with his own, already-exposed, plates.
Despite his photographs being proved to be fakes his reputation remained strong among spiritualists, who refused to accept the unwelcome truth behind the man whose work they so admired. Following the report of Price’s exposé Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his own report The Case for Spirit Photography in which he commended Hope’s character, offered evidence for the photographs’ validity and presented numerous testimonies by some of Hope’s many satisfied customers.
In one testimony a former client of Hope, Mr. W. Whitefield, stated: “My good wife and myself have not the slightest doubt that it is a photograph of one of our daughters. I do pray that this knowledge may bring joy and comfort to some sorrowing heart.”
Whether his intentions were to offer solace to mourning families, or profiteer from their grief, Hope continued to practice his photography for the rest of his life; his photographs were not conclusively accepted as fakes until more than a decade after his death.
Photography could so convincingly manipulate real world scenes. The inherent plausibility of a photographic image rather than an illustration or painting rendered the medium a target for innovating fraudsters and pranksters. Produced in the same era as Hope’s spirit photography, the Cottingley Fairies photographs were taken by two mischievous young cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who used cardboard illustrations of fairies supported by hatpins to give the illusion that they were being visited by the mythical flying beings.
Though their images were far less sophisticated than Hope’s elaborate frauds, they still captured the public’s imagination, and had us believing that fairies were living among us and could be found in our own back gardens. The cousins finally admitted to their prank in 1983 and recently, some 101 years after they were created, two of these infamous photographs were sold at auction for more than £20,000.
Today, manipulated images are abundant and so simple to create we know that our own eyes are better trusted than the camera’s lens, but for a grieving nation still reeling from the First World War the allure of contacting the dead was perhaps worth forgetting your scepticism for.
Explore the Science Museum Group Collection at collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/search