How a Spirit Sat For Its Photograph: 1894

An example of a "spirit photograph."

An example of a “spirit photograph.”


Once, upon a time, a gentleman who lived in St. Louis was happy enough to have a good and beautiful wife, whom he loved fondly.

However, while she was yet a young woman, she died, and he was left desolate.

After his first grief was a little softened, he began to regret very bitterly that he had no portrait of her. The fine picture by some famous artist, which they had decided to have painted in Paris, would now never exist, and his lost wife had always refused to sit for her photograph.

The poorest representation of her features would have been valuable to him now, and he blamed himself for not having urged her to have one taken.

One night, when he had fallen asleep thinking of this matter, he dreamed that a hand touched his, that he opened his eyes and saw his wife sitting beside him, dressed in a very beautiful white lace dress, which he greatly admired. She smiled and leaned across the pillow to kiss him:

“I should have done what you asked, my dear,” she said. “I am sorry now, because you fret over it; but I have done what I could to please you. You will find my photograph in New Orleans; I sat for it to-day—I wore this dress.”

She kissed him again and he awoke.

He was much agitated and moved to the point of shedding tears; but as he knew that his wife had not visited New Orleans since her childhood, though she was born there, merely supposed that the dream was the natural result of his thoughts. However, a few weeks later, he dreamed the same thing again, and this time heard his wife mention the street in which he would find her portrait.

“I have been trying in vain to make you dream of me, for nights,” she said. And he thought he answered: “But I do dream of you very often.” “Yes, in the dreams of sleep,” she replied. “But this is a vision, a dream of the soul. It is I, myself, who tell you to go and get my picture, which you will find in ___ street, in the city of New Orleans.”

Again he awoke, this time much impressed; but as he believed that he knew that there was no portrait of his wife in existence, had no thought of going to New Orleans, or anywhere else, to find one.

Time passed on—his wife had been dead more than two years—when again he dreamed the same dream. This time he was awake, or believed himself to be so, and he took his wife’s hands and held them.

“Dearest, I shall not come again,” she whispered. “You will come to me one day, but never shall I return to you. If you want my portrait, you will find it where I have told you that it is.” This time the hands seemed to melt in his; he saw the figure fade and believed that his wife’s spirit had visited him. The next day he was on his way to New Orleans, and, on arriving, turned his steps toward the street mentioned. As he walked slowly along, a photographer’s show-case caught his eye, and from it his wife smiled upon him in all the beauty of her prime. There could be no mistaking the fact. Besides, she wore the white evening-dress he knew so well, trimmed with lace of a peculiar pattern, and on her throat a necklace which he had had made to order for her.

He stood gazing upon it for a long while; then hastened up-stairs and questioned the photographer. The result was that in a little while they were exchanging confidences.

The widower had told his dream; the photographer had narrated his experience—it was this:

Some time before, he had fallen asleep in his studio, and had awakened to find that a lady had posed herself for a sitting. She was dressed in white, and as if for the evening; but he fancied that she had left her wraps in the dressing-room.

Starting to his feet, he apologized, and felt that a conversation must have ensued; for, afterward, he remembered the size desired, and that the lady had said that her husband would come for the pictures; but he was sure that he must have been curiously confused, for he never could think just how all this was said, and sometimes fancied that not a word was spoken.

Also, he was unable to say when the lady left the studio. He waited for some time for her to return from the dressing-room, and was surprised when the young woman in attendance declared that no lady dressed in white had been there that day.

However, he finished the pictures, had a crayon head made and framed, and, coming to the conclusion that the lady who posed so well was an actress, took special pains that the work should be perfect. At last, however, he decided that all this had been in vain; that no one would ever come for the pictures, and placed the large crayon portrait in his show-case.

The picture had been taken about a year before. The lady had been dead more than two years, and had never been in New Orleans since she was five years old; but the husband not only paid for the photographs and the crayon head, but subsequently sent the photographer a check for a large amount.

Not half the value, he declared, of his inestimable treasure. People have tried to explain this story in several ways, but those most interested have always believed that, for once, at least, a spirit returned to earth to sit for its portrait.

Another photographer, having taken a portrait of a baby, whose mother died at its birth, found behind the little bald head the face of a young woman, which was declared by those who had known her to be a perfect likeness of the child’s mother.

He was greatly excited and deeply interested at the time, for he was sure that the plate was entirely clean and new. But, though he made many experiments afterward, he never had any other experience of the same sort.

The Freed Spirit: or Glimpses Beyond the Border, Mary Kyle Dallas, 1894

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Spirit photography began in the 1860s with Boston jeweller William H. Mumler, who found the “ghost” of his dead cousin in a self-portrait. Mumler was quite successful with his photographs, but was eventually  accused of fraud by P.T. Barnum in a breathtaking example of the pot calling the kettle black. It was said that Mumler sometimes broke into the houses of the bereaved to steal photographs which he could use in his work. He also used living models who were then recognized as actresses or other non-ghostly persons. He was acquitted of fraud, but was effectively put out of business as a spirit photographer.  Many others followed in his train, some sincere and some rank charlatans.

In spite of this exposure, spirit photography flourished, even up into the 1920s, fueled by the casualties of the Great War. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a great believer in spirit photography, used to show his audiences a photograph of the Cenotaph on Armistice Day with the following commentary:


[By The Associated Press]

drew gasps of astonishment from a large audience in Carnegie Hall last night when he gave a lecture on Spiritism.

“Do you see the dead creeping through?” Sir Arthur asked, pointing to the spectral faces on the screen. “You can see them everywhere.”

There were two photographs, described as taken by Mrs. Dean, an English medium. The first, a snapshot, showed the great crowd standing bareheaded before the cenotaph. A faint luminous patch appeared over the throng.

The second picture showed countless heads of sad visaged soldiers floating above the memorial. The spectators were blotted out.

Sandusky [OH] Register 8 April 1923: p. 2

Unhappily for Sir Arthur, the faces were recognized as those of living football players and boxers by investigators of The Daily Sketch.



One thought on “How a Spirit Sat For Its Photograph: 1894

  1. Pingback: Tintype Girls: 1890 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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