From the 1840s to 1920s, the belief that the spirits of the dead could reach out and communicate with our earthly plane through human agents reached its peak. A preoccupation of the middle and upper classes in Britain and the US, spiritualists attended séances in homes, theatres and lecture halls conducted by “mesmerists” and mediums who they hoped would put them in touch with their long-departed loved ones… for a fee.
William Hope, born 1863 in Crewe, Cheshire, was a pioneer of ‘spirit photography’ and in the aftermath of World War I he exploited the newly grieving men and women of England by producing photographs which ‘captured’ spectral figures looming over the vulnerable mourners.
Comprehensively outed as a charlatan in 1922 by a Society for Psychical Research team led by paranormal investigator Harry Price, which proved that Hope was using double exposure and swapping out the photography plates for a pre-existing one with a suitably spooky image. However with the likes of Sherlock Holmes creator and spiritualist devotee Arthur Conan Doyle fighting his corner, Hope continued his fraudulent practice until his death in 1933.
An album of Hope’s macabre photographs were found in an antiquarian bookshop by a curator of the National Media Museum and these are 10 of our favourites from the set, accompanied by colourful quotes from an American account of spiritualist chicanery, Revelations of a Spirit Medium, a tell-all that impressed Price so much that he edited a new version and released it in 1923.
1. Elderly couple with a young female spirit
Approaching the old gentleman, he raises his hand to his ear and says : “I hear beautiful music about you. It is made on a piano, and I hear the name Clara S. She says she is your daughter and was killed by being thrown from a horse. She appears to be about twenty-two years of age. Do you recognize the spirit?”
“I do, and you are entirely correct,” he answers.
2. A séance
What is meant is that some gentleman who is either wealthy or earning a large salary will become interested, and, finally convinced that “spirits” do return and materialize, and will be a constant attendant at the “seances”‘ of this particular “medium.”
When such a man is caught by the “medium,” plans are laid to relieve him of his wealth, of a goodly portion of it.
3. Family group with two spirits
“Little Mary is also here to see her papa. She is progressing nicely on this side of life and although she loves her parents she has no desire to return to earth life again.”
4. Woman with two boys and a female spirit
Her face and arms were as alabaster, and altogether she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever beheld. She was recognized by a lady and gentleman present as their daughter. They had met her here before. They were from the East and were wealthy. The spirit requested that they come to her, which they did, and were each kissed and embraced by it.
5. Couple with a spirit in their car
“Yes, but she comes to you and smiles. Now she lays her hand on your head and says – what is it she says, my son? Is that it? The lady must be your mother. Have you a mother in spirit life?”
“No, madame, my mother is still living.'”
6. Mourning scene
“There is a gentleman comes to you ”
“Me?” interrupts the lady addressed, showing the feeler was a true shot, and she was probably seeking word from her husband
“Yes,” answers the medium, “and he appears to be a very near relative or friend he comes so close I should say, your husband,” declares the seeress.
“Oh my husband, have you come?” wails the grief-stricken widow.
7. Will Thomas with an unidentified spirit
“He brings with him a young lady who might, from appearances, be your sister.”
My face brightened so perceptibly and my manner became so attentive that she was sure she had struck it right, hence she went on: “She now says she your sister.”
8. Man with the spirit of his deceased second wife
The adult spirit was recognized and rapturously greeted by a gentleman who sat near me on my left, as his “darling angel guardian.” They had quite a long conversation in which they made use of very endearing language, each to the other.
I supposed it was the gentleman’s wife.
9. Couple with a female spirit
“I see by you, sir,” if it happened to be a gentleman, old enough, apparently, to have a mother in the spirit world, “a lady. She has blue eyes and gray hair. I should say she had been a blonde in younger days, with light brown or golden hair. As I see her she is of medium height, and looks to be about fifty or fifty-five years of age she may be older or younger.
“Do you recognize the spirit by the description?”
10. Man with a spirit face appearing
He purchased one of those wire gauze masks, which would permit a light to shine through it. This he trimmed down until it could be put into the breast pocket, and yet enough remained to make quite a good spirit face. By putting this mask in front of the luminous handkerchief a luminous face and head was presented.