The Aussie Spiritualist A.J Abbott and his Spirit Slides

19th February 2021. Reading Time: 4 minutes Famous Paranormal Cases, General. 1212 page views. 0 comments.

Spiritualist A.J Abbott would provide lectures here in Melbourne where he displayed his famous 'spirit slides' showcasing the spiritualist movement to fascinated audiences. One of the more popular topics he covered, was that of spirit photography.

A.J Abbott (Albert James) was a self-proclaimed spiritualist from Melbourne Australia.  He was also the pastor of the Free Christian Assembly in Melbourne.  As many were in the early 19th century, Abbott became fascinated with spirit photography.  In 1910, he gave lectures to an intrigued audience about seances, spiritualism with a presentation projecting images of spirit photography onto a white screen using glass slides.   The images were copied from a book by famous spiritualist medium and artist Georgiana Houghton in 1882, which included photographs by many spirit photographers that were later exposed as frauds.  One of the most famous was the leader and founder of the spirit photography movement, William H Mumler.

The process of fake 'spirit' photos

Like many discoveries in the paranormal, the process of producing a ghostly image was accidentally stumbled upon by accident. In the 1860s, photographer William H Mumler developed a self-portrait he had taken himself. He was surprised to see a second person in the photo that wasn't really there. It was found to actually be a case of double exposure where he had accidentally reused one of the glass plates which already had an image on it (remember cameras operated differently back then as nothing was digital). He found it was easy to create your very own ghost. When developing the photos, he would use a pre-prepared glass plate that already had the image of a person on it. This would be the 'ghost'. It would then be inserted into the camera in front of an unused plate that was used to shoot the photo. When developed it would capture both the image that was on the pre-prepared plate and of the person sitting in the photo.

Robert Bonner by William H Mumler (Public Domain)

William H Mumler

Image Source: Public domain

After discovering the concept of double exposure, someone convinced him that the figure looked ghostly. He in his mind knew that it was not a ghost, but saw that there would be a big market for this kind of thing. He promptly started working as a 'medium' with a talent of being able to photograph the deceased alongside a living person. In particular, he worked with a lot of families who lost members in the Civil War. In the late 60's he produced one of the more famous ghost photos, Mary Todd Lincoln came in under the fake name of Mrs. Lyndall wanting to make contact with her deceased famous husband - Abraham.

Mary Todd Lincoln and the 'ghost' of her husband Abraham (Public Domain)

In 1869 after a lot of growing speculation that the ‘ghosts’ that appeared in the images looked a lot like people who had sat for a photograph with him recently and were very much living people, the Police Department charged him with fraud after sending an undercover officer to sit with him. His biggest critic was famous showman PT Barnum (The Greatest Showman) who felt Mumlar was preying upon vulnerable families in grief. Other allegations against Mumlar were that he had broken into the house of families to obtain photos of the deceased for his sittings. Barnum himself replicated fake photographs and produced his own photograph with Abraham Lincoln to show how easily it could be faked. Although the police department was able to prove that it was a case of double exposure, William Mumlar had such a strong loyal following of satisfied customers that he was acquitted, but his career as a photography medium promptly finished.  This exposure, however, did not stop a wave of spirit photographers from all over the World, cashing in on the phenomena.

Examples of spirit photography

A black-and-white glass slide showing a man sitting on a chair with arms folded over his knees. He is looking to his left at a spirit, partially superimposed over his left arm and chest.

This is a good example of the sitter being directed where to look so the spirit could be superimposed carefully into the photo. The pot plant completes the composition.

A black-and-white glass slide showing two spirits - one behind and one to the left of a woman sitting on a chair.

In many of these glass slides the photographer has left a convenient space in which the spirit can be superimposed. Less common are images where the spirit, or in this case, spirits, are crowded into the image and partially cut across the photo of the living subject.

The full collection of AJ Abbott's slides is on display at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia in Canberra, a building that many claim is haunted itself due to its previous life as a morgue and the Australian Institute of Anatomy where it held human remains.  The collection covers many areas of spiritualism and is not just limited to spirit photography.


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