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Ghostly Apparitions 1886

Published by: Kevin Bacon

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It is the 27th October, 1886. Alone in her room, Mary Burchett takes a photograph of herself using a remote device to operate the camera. When she develops the image on paper, she finds that her face is obscured by a shrouded and disembodied arm. As Burchett notes on the reverse of the photograph, ‘of course the spirit hand which appears in front of me was not visible to me’.

'Spirit' photograph by Mary Burchett, 1886

‘Spirit’ photograph by Mary Burchett, 1886

Annotated reverse of 'spirit' photograph, 1886

Annotated reverse of ‘spirit’ photograph, 1886

Is this proof of an afterlife? For many in the nineteenth century and beyond, spirit photographs have been regarded as scientific proof of the existence of ghosts. But what is most striking about this photograph is that it is an obvious fake. If one looks at the top right of the image, the neck and shoulder of a figure wearing black can be made out. Follow the line of the arm down, and the shrouded arm is clearly attached to an earthly being. This is not so much proof of an afterlife, as it is an example of the fraudulent methods used by spirit photographers.

The technique used here is double exposure. A glass plate negative would be used to take a photograph using a short exposure. The exposed plate would then be used for a second photograph. The original translucent image would appear overlaid onto the new image. If the photographer was unaware that the plate had been previously exposed, he or she could be entirely mystified by the sudden appearance of a spirit form.

This photograph is one of a series we hold which feature Burchett and a variety of ghostly phenomena. Most of these photographs were produced in collaboration with William Eglinton, one of the most famous mediums of the day. Eglinton is not generally associated with spirit photography, and was more renowned for psychic feats such as levitation and the ability to materialise spirits at séances. But Eglinton almost certainly had a hand in the production of this photograph; perhaps even the hand depicted in this example. The unconvincing appearance of these images may be one of the reasons he retired as a medium the following year.

Eglinton later moved to South Africa and became a successful journalist and newspaper proprietor. By the time he died in 1933, his psychic past was largely forgotten. But one who remembered his days as a medium was the escapologist and illusionist Harry Houdini. Houdini devoted much of his later life to denouncing false mediums, and regularly used examples of Eglinton’s tricks in lectures he gave in the 1920s. Had Houdini known of this photograph, it would have provided very persuasive evidence.

Kevin Bacon, Curator of Photographs