The Grand Hoax


Throughout human history, the ability to use technology as a tool for good is always at odds with those who would wield it to prey on people. The early days of photography were no different. At the time, the art form was taking America by storm and the country was emerging from the American Civil War that left over 6,00,000 casualties. This had led to the rise of neo-religious ideologies like Spiritualism which suggested that spirits lived on after death, and that living beings could communicate with them. The climate at the time became the perfect storm for hucksters, charlatans and fraudsters, who preyed on the grief of people who had lost loved ones in the war or otherwise.

Photographs by: William H Mumler Image Source: The J Paul getty Museum

Photographs by: William H Mumler Image Source: The J Paul Getty Museum

It was around this time that William H Mumler started gaining prominence for his spirit photography. This was nothing more than creating double exposures meant to dupe the grieving family. In 1869, Mumbler was brought up on charges of fraud by the police, after a complaint made by the Photographic Section of the American Institute of the City of New York (PSAI), who wanted to keep the medium of photography truthful. Although he was acquitted, his career, for the most part, was ruined. But not enough to prevent him from taking his most famous photograph, that of Mary Todd Lincoln, right after the assassination of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln. Over the years, as her mental health declined, her belief in spiritualism grew rapidly. Mary had also lost two of her sons in the war. She found the photograph comforting, as it gave her a peek behind the veil of death. It is also widely considered that this is the last photograph of her.

Tags: Featuer, May 2017, natasha desai, The story behind