Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A Psychic Photographer on Trial

Consciousness unbound is an idea I’ve been fomenting, step by step, trying to unfold the story of the outer limits of consciousness.  So now a story about a curious phenomenon—psychic photography, also called thoughtography—direct mental influence on photographic film.

There are thoughtographic mediums, people with a rare talent, to be sure.  One gifted thoughtographer was Ted Serios, studied by the psychoanalyst Jule Eisenbud. The World of Ted Serios is a remarkable book by Eisenbud. The evidence for the reality of the phenomenon is compelling. In this post, I want to go back to the first psychic photographer, William Mumler, a strangely talented psychic, who ran afoul of the state and was persecuted by ignoramuses. But in this story, the attempted persecution was nipped in the bud.

Mumler began to find unexplained images of people turn up on photographs he took—his first in 1861. Some were recognized as faces of departed persons and Mumler became known for his “spirit photography,” despite not being a Spiritualist.  People concerned with the fate of loved ones after death came to him. 

One woman approached Mumler who photographed her.  An unexplained image showed up on the print, and Mumler asked, “Do you know this man?”  “I do,” the woman said.  Then another lady nearby jumped in and said, “Why it looks like President Lincoln!” “Yes,” confirmed the first woman, “and I am his widow.”  Mumler had photographed Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, not knowing who she was. This would become his most famous spirit photograph.   

News of this spread and other photographers came on the scene and tried to determine how the trick was done but never found evidence of deception on Mumler’s part.  One photographer, a Mr. Guay, submitted a detailed report on Mumler’s procedure.  Guay observed how Mumler worked—without once touching the photographic plate.  “The result was that there came upon the glass a picture of myself, and, to my utter astonishment—having previously examined and scrutinized every crack and corner, plate holder, camera, box, tube, the inside of the bath, etc.—another portrait.” Guay goes on to say that he returned several times and got even more striking results, and was thus “obliged to endorse its legitimacy.”

Despite this and many other testimonials to his talents, Mumler found himself on trial before a Justice Dowling, a place in New York City, grimly called the Tombs Police Court.  Mumler was falsely charged with having “swindled many credulous persons” by means of his “spirit photographs.”  Reporters from the World in cahoots with some crooked authorities fabricated the charges. The trial went on for four days, and created for its time a media sensation.  The situation at the Tombs was known to be corrupt, and Mumler was facing a long time in jail if the charges were upheld. Reporters from the World were salivating at the prospect of Mumler’s crucifixion by the law.

But the thrill of taking down the accused “imposter” and “swindler” was not to be had.  Numerous expert witnesses (mainly photographers) who were acquainted with Mumler’s work testified to his honesty and the reality of his effects.  The witnesses also reported that they had seen photographic images of their dead loved ones, inexplicable “extras” appearing on the portraits that Mumler made of them.

A distinguished witness for Mumler at his trial was Judge Edmonds, Justice, N.Y. Supreme Court, 1847-51, and the U.S. Court of Appeals; he was also a Senator for New York State for years. Edmonds was also the erudite author of a 741 page study of Spiritualism, but was skeptical about the ultimate question of survival. 

His statement at the trial begins: “I know a great many persons who have visited Mumler, some of whom have met with astonishing success in procuring spirit pictures of friends.”  Edmonds notes that Spiritualists assume these are photographs of real spirits, but he thinks that was yet to be proven.  “The art is yet in its infancy,” he observes.

Other distinguished witnesses added to the case in favor of Mumler’s authenticity, vouching for the reality of his photos of their departed ones,.  So it’s not surprising that Judge Dowling decided that “the Prosecution had not made out a case to go before a jury, and discharged the defendant.”[1] The case has a happy ending, thanks to the impressive witnesses that came to Mumler’s defense.

Even so, mainline science has yet to catch up with Mumler; it still refuses to confront the wide range of facts of nature that tell us that there are more powers in the great world than prevailing worldviews allow us to imagine.


[1] The quotes are from James Coates (1911/1973) Photographing the Invisible.  New York: Arno Press. Ps.1-21.


Neil Rushton said...

This is so interesting. Thanks again for turning up a subject I knew nothing about. It would be interesting to hear if any modern analyses have been done on the photographs. But the concept of thought-forms being transferred to photographic images (analogue or digital) is fascinating. It in some ways plugs into the alchemical idea of non-material forms interacting with physical forms. The point of interaction is what interests me most. Thanks for another insightful post.

Ol' Bab said...

I read a book about Ted Serios many years ago. It was very convincing. Included a variety of images; landscapes, objects, well-known buildings.

His images were not IIRC shared with actual photo images on the same plate, but were on otherwise unexposed film (polaroid?), in a camera. Many were quite indistinct, smudgy, but the best were quite something.

Michael Grosso said...

Thank you gentlemen for your comments. I wonder what the limits of this strange phenomenon are. Mind directly creating physical reality. I agree we need more contemporary research into strange phenomena like these--so much at odds with common sense.

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