Black and white glass slide of a person with a sheet over their head pretending to be a ghost

19th century ghost photos

Spirit slides of the living and the dead
 Adam Blackshaw

'If there's something strange in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call?' In the late 19th century, you might have contacted a spirit photographer to see if they could take a photograph of your 'freaky ghost'.

Spirit in the slide

The NFSA holds 65 images of the living and the 'dead' from the AJ Abbott collection of glass slides and you can see a selection of these in our Spirit Slides curated collection.

Black and white glass slide showing a man sitting sideways on a chair, elbow resting over side of chair, with a spirit hovering at his left.
Seated man with hovering spirit, 1870. NFSA title: 1004000

These images purport to show living people with ghostly apparitions, either next to them or behind them, and were taken by prominent spiritual photographers in the USA, France and England in the second half of the 19th century.

Abbott was from Melbourne and collected the images at a time when spirit photography, which attempted to capture images of ghosts, was very popular. He gave lectures in 1910 and would have projected these glass slides on to a white screen, to a captivated audience wanting to see and hear stories about seances and spirit communications from the ‘other’ world.

He used commercially available slides in his lectures or slides copied from books. Some of the Abbott images are direct reproductions from lithographic plates of photographs first published by Georgina Houghton in London.

Houghton was a renowned spiritualist photographer who documented spiritual gatherings held at the photographic studios of fellow spirit photographer Frederick Hudson.

Pioneering spirit

Spiritualism is the belief that the living can communicate with the spirits of the dead. Communication is usually through a medium - someone gifted with contacting spirits. 

Spirit photography was discovered virtually by accident in the 1860s when William Mumler made an error and created a double exposed photographic plate. Seeing the ghostly image he had made, the entrepreneurial Mumler immediately recognised an opportunity and declared himself a spiritualist medium.

Mumler set about taking photographs of his clients using doctored plates that included ghosts and spirits. This was around the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865) and he would no doubt have attracted people who had lost loved ones in the conflict.

Mumler's most famous spirit photograph was of Mary Todd Lincoln, purportedly with the ghost of her late husband, Abraham Lincoln (d.1865).

While Mumler was eventually exposed as a fraud this didn't stop others from trying their hand at the same game.

You can see a selection of their work in our Spirit Slides curated collection.