Apparitions of the Aperture

In the second half of the 19th Century, at the height of the Victorian Age, the union of photography and the supernatural spawned strange and enthralling results.

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Cased tintype spirit image by an unknown photographer, circa 1868. Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection. (Unless otherwise noted, all images in this article are courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus.)

By Beverly Wilgus and Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Early in the practice of the photography, ghostlike images appeared on daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. The explanation for them was not supernatural: Because of the need for long exposures, in some cases of more than a minute, anything that moved whilst the camera lens was open went either unrecorded or appeared transparent in the final product. In 1856, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), an important figure in photography’s evolution, described in his book The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory, and Construction the method by which amusing extras could be created in photographs. Brewster advised that sitters should be posed and after the majority of the plate exposure was finished, a new person should move into the scene and stay for the final seconds. This would result in a “spirit” presence.

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This English stereoview card from the early 1860s titled “The Ghost in the Stereoscope” noted that it was “kindly suggested by Sir David Brewster.”

Whilst Brewster clearly promoted this method for what it was—a trick—others with an interest in the expanding religion of Spiritualism saw ghost images as proof of life after death. It should be noted that the Victorians were not the only folk taken in by the callow exploitation of technology they did not fully understand.

With the first affordable digital cameras in the 1990s came a veritable epidemic of “ghost orb,” “rod,” “vortex,” “portal,” and “skyfish” photos on the new World Wide Web. The promulgating of them, in some case, led to recognition and profit. These types of images were, and still are, the result of the compact distance between the flash and the lens of digital cameras illuminating dust, water droplets, bugs, camera straps, individual hairs, fingertips, human breath, and more. In 2018, we generally accept this explanation, but in 1995, the debates between believers and skeptics were as inflamed and impassioned as they were a century before, in the age of spirit photography.

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The back of this 1875 carte de visite (CDV) states, “This picture was made December 25th, 1875, in Cincinnati by Jay J. Hartman under the most rigid test conditions, in a gallery he had never visited before … all manipulations of the plate being done by a skeptical photographer … and all the time closely watched by 16 respectable, intelligent gentlemen.”

William Mumler (1832-1884) of Boston is the best known of the many 19th-century American spirit photographers. Mumler claimed to have stumbled upon his miraculous ability by accident, but “as word spread, Mumler’s hobby became a lucrative business, and soon he was taking spirit photographs from dusk till dawn, summoning lost loves beneath his skylight, and dispensing solace to a public addled by the rising death toll of the Civil War,” wrote The New Yorker‘s  Dan Piepenbring in an October 2017 review Peter Manseau’s book, The Apparitionists. “The images retain their intimate, macabre tint even now. His subjects assume stately, almost catatonic poses—the process required them to sit still for a full minute—their expressions pensive and inscrutable, their arms stiff and expectant. As for the spirits, they have the denatured texture of blighted leaves. Translucent smudges against a sooty backdrop, they sometimes coalesce into personhood only under scrutiny, in the same way that faces emerge from clouds. Stare at enough of them in sequence and you’ll fall into a loop of cognitive dissonance: they look so fake that they must be real, and then so real that they must be fake.”

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Mumler’s 1872 CDV of Mary Todd and the ghost of her husband, Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.

Arguably, Mumler’s most famous image is of U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, wearing widow’s mourning, taken some seven years after the president was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Mumler claimed in his autobiography that he hadn’t recognized Mary Lincoln when she came to his studio wreathed in a black veil, yet he duly produced an image showing the president gazing lovingly upon his wife. Whilst 99.9-percent sure today that the image is a fake, we can hope without hypocrisy that it comforted Mary then.

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Two CDVs by William Mumler in the Wilgus Collection. Left: A young spirit girl holds a flower under the nose of Captain R. Montgomery of Hodgsdon Mills, Maine. The child was recognized as his dead daughter. Right: A ghostly cleric presents Henry C. Gordon, an American medium credited with levitation, with a crucifix of which he appears aware.

Another notorious spirit photographer was Frenchman Edouard Isidore Buguet (1840-1901). Also a medium, Buguet rocketed to fame in the early 1870s, but his success was short-lived. Frank Podmore wrote in his 1902 book, Mediums of the 19th Century, Vol. II, that in June 1875, “Buguet was arrested and charged by the French Government with the fraudulent manufacture of spirit photographs. When put on trial Buguet made a full confession. The whole of his ‘spirit’ photographs were, he stated, produced by means of double exposure.”

A plethora of witnesses testified favorably about the photographer and when “these witnesses were confronted with Buguet, and heard him explain how the trick had been done, one after another they left the witness-box, protesting that they could not doubt the evidence of their own eyes. . . . [I]t came out in the evidence that a very clearly defined head … which had been claimed by M. Leymarie as the portrait of his almost lifelong friend, M. Poiret, was recognised by another witness as an excellent likeness of his father-in-law, still living at Dreux, and much annoyed at his premature introduction to the spirit world,” noted Podmore.

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Buguet carbon prints, circa 1874. Left: “The Count de Medina Pomar with the spirit of his father, General the Count de Medina Pomar.” Right: “Sitters: Mons. Leymarie and Mons. C. Spirit: Edouard Poiret.”

In his 1911 book Photographing The Invisible, James Coates devotes two chapters to English spirit photographer Robert Boursnell (1832-1909). The first begins, “It appears that before Mumler got his first picture in 1861, Mr. Boursnell got curious appearances on his plates, not only spoiling them but leading to disagreements with his employer, who accused him of not cleaning the glass properly. These splotches came at intervals. For a long time, there was a lull. Boursnell was a medium; that was the trouble.”

The lull Coates mentions lasted 40 years. When Boursnell again picked up photography as an older man, the same results allegedly manifested, leading to the appearance of spirit faces and figures. As a spirit photographer, “He was strikingly successful and in 1903 the spiritualists of London presented him with a signed testimonial and a purse of gold as a mark of their high esteem. A hundred chosen spirit photographs were put on exhibition in the rooms of the Psychological Society at Portman Square,” stated Nandor Fodor in 1934’s, An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science.

“Like every other spirit-photographer, he also was accused of fraud,” Fodor continued, noting that evidence of the fraudulent production of Boursnell’s images was presented to the London Spiritualist Alliance. “Duplicates, triplicates, and quadruplicates of Boursnell’s spirit pictures were numerous. A tracing could be made from one form in one photograph to the form in another, and not the slightest difference in detail could be discovered.”

Despite this, Boursnell—like Buguet—never lost the faith of his followers and was still considered by Coates to have been a genuine medium. In one example, Coates’ argument against the swipe of Occam’s razor seems particularly tortured. During the first decade of the 20th Century, an Australian man called Barnes sat for Boursnell in London. One of the ghost extras in the resulting image was conclusively proven to be a blurry reprint of a published portrait of assassinated Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Instead of viewing this as evidence of fraud, Coates saw it as proof that mental images from human minds might appear in spirit photos. Barnes, Coates explained, had read a book with the same image as its frontispiece sometime before visiting Boursnell.

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A 1902 cabinet card of Robert Boursnell posed with spirit extras.

Both the Spiritualism and the technology of the 19th Century required faith. In the 20th Century, the late Arthur C. Clark professed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For the average Victorian, the arcane processes of early photography were tantamount to paranormal occurrences. To today’s average folk, the Internet and technology-driven VR realms we inhabit are effectively the same. What is constant is this, as expressed by songwriter Roy Harper:

“That we both may share
The hope in hearing
That we’re not just
Spirits disappearing.” Ω 

 

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There is no photographer’s name or studio on this circa-1895 cabinet card, but “Olivia Sheppard” is handwritten on the reverse. There are references in the literature of the period to a female dress reformer and spiritualist Olivia F. Shepard, and likely this is the same woman. The “spirits” surrounding her include two Caucasians, an Arab, and two American Indians.

The Patriot’s In-Law: Eliza Schuyler Kuypers

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Eliza Schuyler Kuypers, Mrs. Ethan Allen, Unmarked albumen carte de visite (CDV), circa 1864. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

The subject of this CDV is Eliza Schuyler Kuypers, wife of Ethan Alphonso Allen (8 February, 1818-27 November, 1889). Eliza’s husband was the grandson of the American patriot, farmer, philosopher, deist, and writer Ethan Allen (1737-1789) and his second wife Frances Montressor (1770-1834), through their son Ethan Voltaire Allen (1789-1845) and wife Mary Susanna Johnson (26 Sept., 1797-1 Nov., 1818).

Eliza, born in 1820, was the great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Schuyler (1771-1801) and her husband Rev. Gerardus Arentz Kuypers of Curacao, Dutch West Indies, who had been born on the island in December 1766 and later came to Hackensack, New Jersey, then to Rhinebeck, New York, to minister to the Dutch community there. Eliza’s grandfather was their son, also named Gerardus Arentz Kuypers (1787-1833), who was educated at Hackensack, and then studied theology under his father. He was licensed to preach in 1787 and served as a collegiate pastor in Paramus, New Jersey. In 1780, he moved to New York City to preach in the Dutch language. In 1791, he earned a Master of Arts degree from the College of New Jersey, as well as a Doctor of Divinity from Rutgers in 1810. It is noted that he suffered from asthma, but died of “ossification” of the heart 28 June, 1833.

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Eliza’s grandfather, Gerardus A. Kuypers, D.D.

Eliza was daughter of his son, Dr. Samuel S. Kuypers (8 March, 1795-10 January, 1870) and Amelia Ann VanZant (1794-1864). Dr. Kuypers was an alumnus of Rutgers and a member of the Medical Society of the County of New York from 1820 until his death.

In the CDV image above, Eliza is most probably wearing mourning after her mother’s death in the penultimate year of the Civil War. Amelia VanZant Kuyper’s demise was announced in the New York Times of 8 January, 1864, as follows: “On Thursday, Jan. 7…in the 70th year of her age. The relatives and friends of the family are respectfully invited to attend the funeral from her late residence, No. 142 2d-av., on Sunday, Jan. 10, at 3 o’clock p.m. without further invitation.”

Ethan Alphonso came to New York City from Norfolk, Virginia, in 1837 and was a drygoods merchant with Colgate, Abbe & Company at 43 John Street. Eliza Kuypers and Ethan Alphonso wed on 25 January, 1844, at the New York City’s Eighth Street Church—the ceremony presided over by the Reverend Dr. MaCauley. The couple had four children: Ethan Allen (17 June, 1845-28 Dec., 1905); Lieutenant Samuel Kuypers Allen (17 April, 1846-18 February, 1884); Amelia Ann Allen (21 February, 1850-1900), called “Lilly;” and Joanna Allen (12 Dec., 1852-15 March, 1857).

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The interesting reverse of Eliza Allen’s CDV, featuring President Abraham Lincoln, was likely offered to loyal Unionists during the Civil War.

Their son, Samuel Kuypers Allen, married Eleanor Wallace on 20 July, 1875. He lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, served in the Marines during the presidency of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, and died childless. Lilly Allen married Reverend Mathew C. Julien on 6 November, 1872. Her husband graduated in 1869 from the College of the City of New York, and became a pastor of the Trinitarian Congregational Church of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in December 1872. Son Ethan married Harriet Ida Perkins (1847-1900) and was a business executive in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Two years after the death of her mother, on 25 February 1866, Eliza Allen died in Hyères, Var, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, France, “after a long but nobly borne illness,” noted the Times. Her body was returned to the United States for burial in New York City’s Marble Cemetery, where her Kuypers relations are also interred. The Times notice read: “The remains of Mrs. Ethan A. Allen, having arrived from Europe, the funeral will take place from the residence of her father, Dr. Samuel S. Kaypers, No. 142 2d-av., on Sunday next, May 20, at 2 o’clock. The friends of the family are respectfully invited to attend.”

The widowed Ethan Alphonso never remarried and died in New York City 27 November, 1889. He is buried, not with his wife, but in an unmarked grave in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. Ω


Quotes by Ethan Allen

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Ethan Allen is best known for his role in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, 10 May, 1775. Courtesy North Wind Picture Archives.

On patriotism: “Ever since I arrived to a state of manhood, I have felt a sincere passion for liberty. The history of nations doomed to perpetual slavery, in consequence of yielding up to tyrants their natural born liberties, I read with a sort of philosophical horror; so that the first systematical and bloody attempt at Lexington, to enslave America, thoroughly electrified my mind, and fully determined me to take part with my country.”

On alien life: “It is altogether reasonable to conclude that the heavenly bodies, alias worlds, which move or are situate within the circle of our knowledge, as well all others throughout immensity, are each and every one of them possessed or inhabited by some intelligent agents or other, however different their sensations or manners of receiving or communicating their ideas may be from ours, or however different from each other.”

On the nature of God: “The idea of a God we infer from our experimental dependence on something superior to ourselves in wisdom, power and goodness, which we call God; our senses discover to us the works of God which we call nature, and which is a manifest demonstration of his invisible essence. Thus it is from the works of nature that we deduce the knowledge of a God, and not because we have, or can have any immediate knowledge of, or revelation from him.”

On reason: “Those who invalidate reason ought seriously to consider whether they argue against reason with or without reason.”

Quotes about Ethan Allen

“Without the loss of a single life, with a casual and even comic air wholly incommensurate with the importance of the event, Ethan Allen’s expedition reduced three key British strongpoints—Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and St. Johns in the north (for the latter was impotent so long as the Americans controlled the lake)—and obtained for the American cause what was, for its time and place, an immense booty.”—Kenneth S. Davis, 1963

“There is an original something in him that commands admiration; and his long captivity and sufferings have only served to increase if possible, his enthusiastic zeal. He appears very desirous of rendering his services to the States, and of being employed; and at the same time he does not discover any ambition for high rank.”—George Washington, May 1778

“General Ethan Allen of Vermont died and went to Hell this day.”—Reverend Doctor Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College, diary entry, 12 February, 1789