An Excellent Likeness of Miss Mavis Martincourt: A Supernatural Tale: 1906


Wife of "spirit photographer" William Mumler and her spirit guide "Benjamin Rush."

Wife of “spirit photographer” William Mumler and her spirit guide “Benjamin Rush.”

Another supernatural tale to tell at Christmas-tide.

Is the Soul a Substance?

Surpassing in its miraculous qualities all the astounding things ever before predicated of so-called physico-psychic phenomena is the story of what happened to Miss Mavis Martincourt through the devilish magic of a London photographer’s camera lens. The facts of the story—a story which is now agitating all scientific England—are briefly these: A certain young woman (Miss Mavis Martincourt, as she will henceforth be known in the public discussion and investigation of her strange case, it being desirable for obvious reasons to conceal her real identity to all save the scientists immediately concerned in her examination), who lives with her mother in one of the fashionable residential districts adjacent to the English metropolis, made an appointment with a certain well-known London photographer.

On the day specified—which happens to have been only some four or five weeks ago —Miss Martincourt appeared at the appointed hour. The photographic exposure was made and the young lady departed, after receiving the customary assurance from the photographer that proofs would be sent her in due time. A week elapsed and a letter came to Miss Martincourt saying the photographs were not a success and asked for another sitting.

She responded at once and a second photograph was taken. A short time elapsed, and as no proofs were sent she wrote making inquiries. In reply came a most apologetic letter, saying that once again the photographs had been failures and asking for a third sitting. Miss Martincourt is a good-natured, merry girl, and without the slightest display of annoyance she came up to London a third time, though she was seriously inconvenienced by it, being at the time in the midst of trousseau preparation for her wedding to an English officer in India, which had been set for the coming June.

During this third sitting the photographer inquired as delicately as he could regarding the condition of her health, whether she suffered from headaches, sleeplessness, etc. —inquiries which at the time puzzled and amused her, for she had never felt better or been happier before in all her life.

The photographer, apparently somewhat chagrined that he should have failed twice-hand running, took extraordinary precautions to have everything right on this occasion. Miss Martincourt went away assuring herself that this time her patience should be rewarded.

Imagine, then, her consternation when two days later she received instead of the proofs, an urgent letter asking her to come up to London immediately and to bring a friend with her to the studio. As a result of this letter Miss Martincourt, her good nature now quite put to the test, was obliged to leave her modiste and milliners a fourth time and journey up to London. She took with her her mother, the widow of a well-known Kentish country gentleman. Arriving at the studio, the photographer attempted to explain—or apologize for what they at first assumed to be a third failure to take the young lady’s picture, and then he exhibited the amazing results of the three sittings.

What the astonished mother and daughter saw on all three negatives was an excellent likeness of Miss Mavis Martincourt, but in each plate there was to be seen standing behind her the figure of a man holding a dagger in his uplifted hand. The features, though faint, were clearly discernible, and to her horror Miss Martincourt recognized them as those of her fiancé, an officer in the Indian army.

The young lady went back to the quiet old seventeenth century house in Kent, orders were given to the modistes and the milliners to suspend operations and a brief and formal letter, accompanied by a ring, dispatched to a far-away military station in the hill region of Northern Burmah.

The incident, vouched for by the photographer and by the family of Miss Martincourt and proved by the unmistakable evidence of the negative plates themselves, has set all England by the ears. Clerical no less than scientific circles see in the phenomenon indications of vast import. The scientist sees in it but one more of the strange possibilities to be looked for from the development of the principle involved in the violet rays and the all too little known science of optics, while the clerical clement sees in its almost incontrovertible evidence not only that there is such a thing as a human soul, but that that same soul is a substance. The Mountain Pine, Volume 1 1906

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has no opinion about the nature of the soul, but she has grave doubts about the nature of so-called “spirit photographs.” Often sitters went to photographic mediums hoping to obtain an image of a lost loved one. Less often a “spirit” simply appeared on the plate to the astonishment of all. One can only speculate about how much grief and longing had to do with a sitter’s recognition of a blurry and frankly unsatisfying likeness.

However, the story above does not fall into any of the usual “spirit photograph” categories, and is the more puzzling. A Spiritualist might say that a guardian spirit, knowing of the young lady’s approaching nuptials, projected the image or impersonated the fiancé in order to warn her. It is as good an explanation as any, one fears.

That photogenic person over at Haunted Ohio has written about spirit photography here, here, and here.  And here is a previous post about a man whose wife sent him to find her spirit photograph.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.


2 thoughts on “An Excellent Likeness of Miss Mavis Martincourt: A Supernatural Tale: 1906

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

  2. Pingback: A Wreath of Orange Blossoms Bathed in Blood: 1860s | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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