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May 20, 2024

The Amazing Story Behind the Picture of Mary Lincoln With the “Ghost” of Her Husband Abraham Lincoln Behind Her

Perhaps the most famous photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln was taken in Boston in 1872—seven years after her time as First Lady and a decade before her death. Mary, age 54, sits with hands folded, dressed in a loose black gown or cape, a black bonnet on her head secured by wide black ribbons tied loosely under her chin in a large bow. Her face appears puffy, and her expression is solemn, if not grim. It is not a flattering photograph—and Mary had always demanded that her photographs be flattering—but to Mary and others who saw the photograph, her image was not the real point of interest because behind her stands the “spirit” of her husband, gazing down protectively at her, his hands on her shoulders.

This is the Lincoln “spirit” photograph. Its creation is the story of Mary Todd Lincoln, Spiritualism, and a man named William Mumler. Mary’s story is well known. She had become interested in Spiritualism following the death of the Lincolns’ son Willie in 1862. By the time the “spirit” photograph was taken a decade later, she had lost her husband to assassination and her youngest son, Tad, to a pulmonary disease. 

In her bereavement, Mary sought comfort in the Spiritualist idea of “lifting a very slight veil” to contact her husband and sons. In 1872 she traveled first to Moravia, New York, where she visited spiritualists and saw Tad’s face during a séance. She then went to Boston for a two-week stay during which she visited a well-known medium and saw Lincoln’s spirit and felt his hands on her shoulders during a séance. And she went to be photographed by the famous spirit photographer William Mumler.

William Mumler had begun his career as a spirit photographer in Boston around 1862. Spirit photography, through which “departed spirits” appeared with the living in photographs, had great appeal during the Civil War when so many families sought tangible connection with lost loved ones. Mumler soon took his successful business to New York City. And there he ran into trouble when a journalist named P.V. Hickey lodged a complaint  directly to City Hall  against Mumler and his “fraudulent” photographs. City Marshall Joseph H. Tooker soon launched an investigation that resulted in Mumler being arrested and brought to trial for fraud. The sensational case made the front page of Harper’s Weekly on May 8, 1869.

Ultimately Mumler was acquitted because the prosecution could not prove how the photographer created his spirit images or that he acted with intent to defraud. In the words of the presiding judge, the Hon. John Dowling, “However I might believe that trick and deception has been practiced by the prisoner, as I sit here in my capacity of magistrate, I am compelled to decide that the prosecution has failed to prove the case.” Mumler was free to go, but his New York business was ruined. 

So he returned to Boston, where Mary Lincoln walked into his studio in early 1872. She went using an assumed name—though Mumler certainly knew who she was. She paid her $10 for 12 photographs—five times the going rate for cartes-de-visite—in advance. And she had her picture taken. The next day, she returned and picked up her photographs. 

It’s unlikely that either Mary or Mumler realized that the image would be “historic”—a famous last photograph of Mary and “Abraham” Lincoln and the most famous Mumler image. Mumler made additional prints and sold them—it was good business. Mary took her photograph and showed it off to other guests at a health spa in Waukesha, Wisconsin, during the summer of 1872 as proof that her husband continued to watch over and care for her—it was much needed comfort.

The photograph is one of the most famous hoaxes of the 19th century, although it is still unclear how exactly it was created. The photograph is currently the property of the Ian Rolland Center for Lincoln Research. It’s part of the Friends of the Lincoln at Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

(This original story was published on Lincoln Collection)


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