The Strange History of Spirit Photography

If you’ve seen the cover of my upcoming novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, you’ve probably noticed a ghostly figure lingering behind my protagonist.

The novel does indeed include a ghost: Stephen Embers, my main character’s first love, who was killed in World War I. However, the ghost on the cover is something else entirely…an homage to a strange photography trend that began in the mid-1800s and continued into the twentieth century.

Starting in the 1860s when photography was new and the Civil War was tearing the United States apart, heartbroken people went to the studios of photographers such as Boston’s William H. Mumler, sat for portraits in their best clothing, and fully expected to see the spirits of their departed loved ones standing behind them in the resulting pictures.

You can see an online gallery of such images at PhotographyMuseum.com, including the historical spirit photographs that served as inspiration for the cloaked figure on the In the Shadow of Blackbirds cover. When you look at the photos with a modern eye, it’s clear the spirits are the results of double exposures or other photography trickery. Yet people honestly believed the photographs were genuine. They paid hard-earned money for these portraits.

I think the most frightening aspect of the historical spirit photography craze was the predatory nature of the business. Many of the archival photos are from the U.S. Civil War and the World War I time periods, so clearly these photographers, like the hundreds to thousands of Spiritualist mediums who emerged, took advantage of the widespread grief of the eras. Such unscrupulousness is far more terrifying than ghosts.

You’ll learn much more about the WWI-era séance and spirit photography crazes—and see actual early-twentieth-century spirit photos—when In the Shadow of Blackbirds debuts April 1, 2013. If you’re dying to read about the subject before then, check out Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown’s take on Civil War spirit photos in their illustrated YA novel, Picture the Dead.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

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Cat Winters is the author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a WWI-era ghost tale coming April 1, 2013, from Amulet Books/ABRAMS. Visit her online at www.catwinters.com, Twitter, and Facebook.

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About Cat Winters

Cat Winters’s critically acclaimed debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, was named a 2014 Morris Award Finalist, a 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, a 2013 Bram Stoker Award Nominee, and a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013. Her second novel, THE CURE FOR DREAMING, is a 2015 Amelia Bloomer Project Nominee and a 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults Nominee. Her upcoming books include THE UNINVITED (William Morrow/2015) and THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY (Amulet Books/2016), and she’s a contributor to the 2015 YA horror anthology SLASHER GIRLS & MONSTER BOYS. Cat lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids. Visit her online at http://www.catwinters.com.

7 thoughts on “The Strange History of Spirit Photography

  1. hannahkarena says:

    So interesting, I never knew that it was a photographic trend/common industry scam! And so great that it got featured on your cover–it makes it so much more dynamic and historically fascinating. Now that I understand the cover, I’m much more interesting in reading your book! Looking forward to it :]

    • catwinters says:

      Spirit photography is truly a bizarre, sad, and little-known footnote in history, and I was thrilled to have stumbled across it. I’m happy to hear your understanding of the cover has made you more interested in the book. Thanks for stopping by! Happy Halloween!

  2. catwinters says:

    Psst… a little secret for Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks readers: If you click on the name of my book’s ghost in this post, you’ll be taken to a giveaway for a signed IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS poster. But remember his name! You’ll need it for the giveaway.

  3. jennmcgowan says:

    This is so intriguing… and sad… and amazing. I would totally be the person who believed the photograph was actually showing a lost loved one!

  4. So funny you should mention the fairies–I just asked my husband (a bit of a history-of-photog. nut) about spirit photography and he also mentioned fairy photography! Great post.

    • catwinters says:

      I’m happy to hear he knows about the Cottingley fairies! That odd bit of history was the reason I first became intrigued by the WWI era and the seances and Spiritualist photos of the time period. All of that history is interconnected. There’s a big mention of the fairy photos in my BLACKBIRDS author’s note, and my character brings them up at one point.

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