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.

“There Lived an Old Man in Our Little Place”

Every village has its quirky characters. My own, Myersville, Maryland, was once home to a cantankerous teacher, reverend, and still-breaker nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.”

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Main Street and Wolfsville Road, Myersville, Maryland, circa 1905. Courtesy Myersville and Wolfsville Area Historical Society.

Myersville—Emphasizing the need for lights in the streets of Myersville, there was a stoning encounter on Saturday night, when Robert J. Ridgely, a school teacher at Burkittsville and a resident of Myersville, was stoned by four or five young men of the town. Reports have it that Mr. Ridgely stoned back, but as the teacher could not be located this morning, this could not be verified.

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Frederick News, 6 October, 1915

Mr. Ridgley has an ugly cut over one eye, which bled profusely, and Wilber Shepley, one of those in the in the party stoning Mr. Ridgley, also has a cut, probably inflicted by a stone, although one report has it that Mr. Shepley sustained the cut by striking a telephone pole, while running.

“The stoning incident has aroused a number of people in the town, and it is stated that there is a stronger sentiment for electric lights, many residents claiming the affair would not have happened had the town been well lighted.”

The victim in this article, Robert Johnson Ridgley was born in Myersville in January 1867 to William Worth Ridgley (1822-1901) and his wife Martha Matilda Johnson (1834-1920). (Note: The family name is spelled variously as Ridgely, Ridgeley, and Ridgley. For consistency only, I am using the latter.) William Ridgley was well-known in the area for his success as a farmer although he was blind. His tenacity and determination were certainly inherited by his son.

As an adult, Robert Ridgley received a scholarship from the Maryland State Normal School in Baltimore, which later became Towson University, starting his studies there in September 1895. Before that, he was a teacher at Loys Public School. After his father’s death, he lived with his mother and a servant, Susan Shank, the latter of whom worked for Ridgley until at least until 1940. Keeping a long-term, live-in servant of this type is a positive testimony to Ridgely’s character, which was often maligned by his fellow Myersvillians.

Ridgley faced the town boys’ ire on that unlit October night because he was Myersville’s weirdo, thus honey to the local bully bees. These same miscreants gave Ridgley the nickname “Buffalo Bill”—after wild-maned, Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody—because he wore his hair over his shoulders, potentially as an expression of sexual ambiguity. Ridgley never married; he may have been homosexual, transsexual, or asexual. Myervillian Clara Grossnickle Metzer expressed this in doggerel, “He shunned the ladies/Marrying was not a sin/But he much preferred/ To fight with the men.” John Grossnickle, also a bad poet, wrote of Ridgley, “You could neither call him a lad nor a lass/He was neither Balaam nor Balaam’s ass.”

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Robert J. Ridgley in front of his Main Street home, circa 1920.

Even before the 1913 stoning incident, the local lads responded with glee when Ridgley, who was then an elected town burgess, was arrested for allegedly assaulting fellow citizens Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Wolfe. The Frederick News of 11 October, 1908, reported that the boys had hooted, cheered, and loudly banged pots and pans in celebration as the prisoner and the deputy sheriff waited at the trolley stop for the next car into Frederick so that Ridgley could come before a judge. Wolfe sued Ridgley for $500 because of the incident.

At some point during the same year, “Guy Shank called [Ridgely] ‘Buffalo’ at Melvin Shepley’s Post Office. Mr. Ridgley promptly threw him to the ground and sat on him, hoping someone would call the sheriff. Charles Poffenberger ran to his home and told his mother Mrs. John Poffinberger what was happening. Mrs. Poffenberger, a very determined woman, grabbed a tea kettle of hot water from the stove, and walked up the street, freeing Guy from his captor,” states The History of Myersville, 1971 edition. Whether Mrs. Poffinberger actually had to scald Ridgley to achieve her goal is not reported.

As well as teaching at a succession of local schools, including Burkittsville, Harmony, and Mt. Tabor, Ridgley was an avid agriculturalist and owned a farm near Harmony, which was a settlement near Myersville, whereon he grew both crops and fruit. “Some of the finest apples in the county have been raised by Mr. Ridgley,” the News lauded in May 1911. On 12 November, 1921, vandals destroyed 30 of Ridgley’s apple trees. A News item stated, “The trees were beginning to bear fruit and were chopped off close to the ground.” This destruction was attributed to Ridgley’s unwillingness to allow hunting in the orchard and was one of a number of revengeful acts that regularly occurred in the community.

Ridgley was a member of the religious sect called the Brethren (also known as the Dunkards), was against the use of music during religious services, and was teetotal. According to The History of Myersville, he thoroughly “disapproved of strong drink,” loved to debate, and frequently took on alcohol proponents. The History states, “He often talked about the horrors of liquor, the need for Prohibition and how all the contents of the stills must be thrown into the rivers. Inevitably, someone in the audience would stand up and say, ‘Shall we gather at the river?'”

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Frederick News, 11 October 1908

In 1913, after the local lads cheered his arrest, Ridgley made an extended trip to Europe, during which he visited Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. He told the News that he was much impressed with the cleanliness of Germany and delighted by the excellent crops produced there, however, Italy was dirty and unimpressive. Whilst in Germany, he traveled specifically to the town of Swartzanau, a borough of Bad Berleburg in today’s North Rhine-Westphalia, and purchased a granite block as a cornerstone for the Myersville Church of the Brethren, which was under construction. The Brethren originated in Swartzanau so the cornerstone carried great significance to the congregation at home.

Ridgley’s good side is further glimpsed through a News article of 24 May, 1911, that reported four students from Harmony School were treated to a trip to Washington, D.C., at Ridgley’s personal expense, for their exemplary attendance and academic performance. Ridgley hired a car to drive them—some had never been in an automobile before—and made sure they had a memorable time. “Since he has been teaching at Harmony School, Prof. Ridgley has done much to make the several courses attractive to the pupils. Progressive in every way, this is not the first premium awarded by him for good work at the school, as a result, his pupils idolize him,” the News noted.

Earlier that year, Ridgley offered a total of $15 in prizes to Harmony School students who made winning entries in an agricultural display contest. A later News article of 11 March, 1912, reported that Ridgley put up prize money at another agricultural display at the Mt. Tabor School.

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The Harmony School near Myersville where Robert Ridgley was a teacher, circa 1905.

For some years, probably beginning in the late 1920s, Ridgley served as reverend of the Myersville Church of the Brethren. He was described thusly in the Frederick Post of 11 March, 1935, which noted that the body of Mrs. Mary Snyder of Harmony was discovered in her home by Rev. Ridgley who had called in on his way to church. (She died of a heart attack.) In May, however, Ridgely was ousted from his position, he claimed, because he had turned to still-breaking, targeting local moonshiners who paid no income taxes on their product.

When prohibition was overturned by the 21st Amendment in December 1933, Ridgely must have felt great anger and despair. His hatred of alcohol—born from powerful religious beliefs and probably also from negative personal experiences—required a new focus. Clara Metzer’s poem states, “His stature was straight/And lots of brawn/Was sure in his mind/He never did wrong … His hair was long/and in this his strength/To carry out his convictions/He would go to all lengths.”

According to the History of Myersville, Ridgley “was an informer for the Internal Revenue Service. Every time the ‘revenuers’ broke up a still, Ridgely would put a white flint stone between the sidewalk and the curb in front of his house. Pretty soon, the whole space in front of his house was covered with white flints.”

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An Appalachian moonshiner, circa 1930.

The Daily Times of Salisbury, Maryland, reported on 12 October, 1934, that during a raid instigated by Ridgley, Wilber Horine was arrested and arraigned for operating a still on his Myersville farm. (Charges against him were later dismissed.) On 4 January, 1935, the News ran a story titled “Again Leads Agents.” It detailed how Rev. Ridgley took federal agents “to the site of an illicit still in the mountains near Wolfsville, six miles north of Myersville. Three men, the small still, which had ceased operation only a few hours previously, and 225 gallons of mash and other equipment were seized… It is said that Rev. Mr. Ridgley received information … that the plant was in operation and rode about 10 miles on horseback to investigate the matter personally.”

Just a few weeks later, the Hagerstown Daily Mail reported that Lloyd Leatherman, a farmer near Wolfsville, was raided by agents who discovered 50 gallons of hard cider in his home. Ridgley had provided the tip and went with agents to Leatherman’s farm. “Rev. Ridgley assisted in destroying a still and other equipment, which … appeared to have been recently set up for the purpose of manufacturing applejack…. The residents of Myersville say the Rev. Ridgley has openly served notice that he intends to continue his personal activities until the section is free of moonshiners. It is claimed that shiners have been operating boldly in the mountains of the section for several years during which time several barns were destroyed by fire and one murder committed, all being blamed on drunken brawls.”

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Robert Ridgely, center front, poses with attendees of the 1926 Harp family reunion, Myersville. His infamous hair appears to have been cropped by this date.

In August 1936, two local boys—Willis Brunner and Murphy Beall—tried to steal some of Ridgley’s white stones, as well as damaged his gatepost and taunted the old man with calls of “Buffalo Bill!” Ridgley shot Beall, aged 19, in the legs with buckshot. Whilst in hospital, the 3 August Daily Mail reported that Beall told investigators, “‘I do not care to have anything done about the shooting.'” This position can be read either as a result of Beall’s remorse or that Beall saw Ridgley as a wacko, but he was Myersville‘s wacko, so hands off—a weird, but well-observed, protective response amongst community members.

Ridgley was busting stills as late as October 1949, when the Morning Herald reported, “Sleuthing by the Rev. Robert J. Ridgley of the Church of the Brethren, Myersville, resulted in the discovery of an illegal still in that area.”

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Frederick News, 21 October, 1952

In early 1950, 83-year-old Ridgley’s robust constitution failed him. “Mr. Robert J. Ridgley, retired school teacher and dealer in antiques, who has been ill at the Emergency Hospital for several months, returned home [to] Myersville following his recovery,” announced the News of 7 April, 1950. The cause of his prolonged hospital stay was not made public. The following year, in September, he was well enough to travel by bus to Rockwell City, Iowa, to visit his brother Champ, who lived there with his family. It was Ridgley’s swan-song adventure. His curtain call was near.

The irascible Ridgley died at Guilford Nursing Home, Boonsboro, Maryland, 15 October, 1952. A few days later, the content of his Will, written in long-hand in February 1910, was discussed by the News. “A lot in Myersville is bequeathed to the Church of the Brethren to be used for the site of a meeting house with the provision that no musical instrument be used in any part of the religious service…. The bequest is one of several involving churches made by Mr. Ridgley, who left an estate in excess of $10,000,” noted the newspaper on 24 October. The Grossnickle Church of the Brethren, located some miles outside of town, was bequeathed 17 acres upon which to build a children’s home, if possible, otherwise to dispose of it to the church’s profit.

“The testator directs that his books, furniture, farming equipment, horses, and cattle be sold at public sale and the proceeds be equally divided … to keep in repair the cemetery at Grossnickle’s Meeting House and the cemetery near Haw Bottom where his father is buried.” The rest of his property and real estate was to be sold and money given to his brother’s children “after careful inquiry by my executors [concludes they are] industrious, honest, and temperate people individually,” the News quoted.

In his Will, Ridgley asked to be buried at the Grossnickle Church Cemetery, as near as possible to the grave of Elder George Leatherman (1827-1907). “I feel that I owe practically all from a spiritual standpoint to this Grand Good Man,” he wrote only three years after Elder Leatherman’s death. It is possible that Leatherman served as a grandfatherly influence in young Robert’s life, as well as a religious mentor.

Ridgley’s obituary states that he was buried at Myersville United Brethren Cemetery, which refers to what is today Mount Zion United Methodist Church Cemetery. Ridgley was a member of this congregation before joining the Myersville Church of the Brethren. His grave is unmarked.

Town poet John Grossnickle wrote the lines that could serve as Robert Ridgley’s epitaph, should the town choose to honor Ridgley with a long-overdue headstone: “There lived an old man in our little town/ Who had many friends, but on some he did frown/Sure he was peculiar, but all at his will/ So the boys, they called him Buffalo Bill.” Ω

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Ridgley’s possessions are detailed in this November 1952 estate sale advert.

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