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Spirit photography and the occult: Making the invisible visible

Published: 10 February 2022

Belief in fairies, ghosts and other supernatural phenomena may seem to have little to do with science and its technologies. But such beliefs—often called ‘occult’—have a long shared history with science.

This story looks at the role played by imaging technologies, such as photography and X-rays, in the history of the supernatural, and how photographers and scientists like William Hope and William Crookes tried to use images to reveal a hidden world.

Spirit photography and William Hope

Can cameras capture ‘spirits’ invisible to the naked eye? From the mid-19th century onwards, many have believed so. The photographs below were taken by the British medium and photographer William Hope around 1920. After his photographic plates were developed, ghostly faces which had not been visible in the room itself mysteriously appeared. Hope and others claimed that they belonged to spirits of the dead.

Hope photographs

The earliest known spirit photographs were taken in America in 1861, some years after the spiritualist craze began sweeping the world. Spiritualists believe that the spirit continues to exist and act in the world after death, including interacting with the living. Spectacular displays of ‘spirit’ phenomena during séances were central to spiritualist belief, from mysterious rappings to full-on spirit materialisations. Spirit photography seemed to empirically capture these often elusive phenomena, serving to confirm spiritualist understandings of reality.

This 1906 Instantograph Bellows Camera, made by J Lancaster & Son, is illustrative of the type used by Hope.
Science Museum Group More information about This 1906 Instantograph Bellows Camera, made by J Lancaster & Son, is illustrative of the type used by Hope.

Hope’s use of an old-fashioned camera, and his insistence that sitters bring their own, sealed photographic plates to reduce chances of his interference, made him seem especially genuine. To reassure themselves of the authenticity of his spirit photographs, visitors were allowed to physically inspect his old Lancaster quarter-plate camera, including its lens and carrier.

But these technologies were also used in attempts to expose Hope as a fraud. In 1922, Hope was accused of cheating by Harry Price, an investigator of supernatural phenomena, who claimed to have proved that Hope was secretly exchanging blank plates brought by sitters for altered ones with pre-added ‘spirits’.

The packet of sealed Imperial plates used, which Price had secretly had marked with an invisible X-ray insignia of the company’s logo, was central to the ensuing debate. The integrity of both Hope and his would-be exposer were called into question: both were variously accused of deception and tampering.

Harry Price images

X-rays: An occult history

For many decades, spirit photographs like Hope’s were popularly called ‘the new photography’ or ‘the photography of the invisible’. In the 1890s, these terms began also to be used to describe another sort of ghostly image: the X-ray.

In 1895, the German chemist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen made a discovery that took the world by storm: a new form of invisible light, which enabled one to see ‘through’ human flesh. The effects of these new ‘X-rays’ could even be captured on photographic plates, exposing the hidden skeleton within.

X-ray photograph showing the bones of a hand Science Museum Group Collection
This spectral radiograph, taken by Röntgen of his wife’s hand on 22 December 1895, is the oldest surviving X-ray image

X-rays became an international media sensation virtually overnight. From the start, these skeletal images and the penetrating powers of the X-ray were associated with death, spirits, and other occult phenomena. X-rays were popularly satirised as souvenirs of the dead, likened to spirit photography, and linked to the practices of occult mediums.

To many spiritualists in the 1890s, radiography—and its embrace by the scientific mainstream—seemed confirmation that the visible world was simply a veil, hiding a deeper and invisible spiritual reality which scientific technologies might someday reveal. If science now accepted that invisible X-rays could make the hidden reality beneath flesh visible, would it finally accept that other invisible entities like ghosts also existed latent all around us, occasionally made visible by the likes of spirit photography?

A number of mainstream, practicing scientists themselves held such convictions—including the inventor of the technology which made radiography possible.

William Crookes: Psychical scientist

Röntgen discovered X-rays using a Crookes tube, an object invented in 1875 by chemist-physicist William Crookes and used to study the strange effects of cathode rays.

A conical glass tube held horizontally on a black stand Science Museum Group Collection
Crookes’s Maltese cross tube, made 1878–88 by Charles H Gimingham

Crookes believed he was observing material particles behaving more like light than matter. He theorised that he’d discovered a new form of ‘radiant’ matter, which he believed had brought science to a startling new ‘border land where Matter and Force seem to merge into one another’—the site of a more ‘wonderful’, ultimate reality.

Crookes’s research was influenced by his interest in spiritualism. Like many of his scientific contemporaries, he was seriously involved in psychical research: the 19th-century term for the experimental field of scientific study devoted to the investigation of ‘spiritualistic’, ‘psychical’ or otherwise ‘occult’ phenomena. This included more overtly supernatural pursuits than his cathode ray experimentation.

Crookes was famously involved in the testing of medium Florence Cook, who seemed able to materialise the full body of a spirit known as ‘Katie King’ under trance conditions. Years later he would also give the photographer William Hope his seal of approval.

Older man kneels to take the pulse of a woman in white dress Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London
Photograph by Crookes, c.1874, of physician James M. Gully taking the pulse of ‘Katie King’ in one of Crookes’s many tests

Testing mediums with X-rays

In the years following Röntgen’s discovery, X-rays would also be used by investigators like Harry Price in the study and testing of mediums.

In 1931, Price conducted a series of tests on the spiritualist medium Helen Duncan in his National Laboratory of Psychical Research. Like Florence Cook, Duncan seemingly produced physical materialisations in a trance state—in her case, a mysterious, whitish substance called ‘ectoplasm’, which seemed to emanate from her body.

A woman bound to a chair by her wrists, with a white material appearing from her nose Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London
Photograph of Helen Duncan producing ‘ectoplasm’ from her nose, taken in the séance room of Harry Price’s laboratory, May 1931.

Photographs and X-ray images were both important to the investigation. Ectoplasm photographs could be closely studied after Duncan’s performances. To Price, the ‘ectoplasm’ looked suspiciously like cheesecloth—using photographs, he identified the warp, weft and selvedge of the fabric.

Price theorised that Duncan swallowed this cheesecloth before performances—perhaps holding it in a secondary stomach—which she then regurgitated as ‘ectoplasm’.

X-ray of a human skull in profile Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London
A radiograph of Helen Duncan’s skull, c.1933

To test this theory, he X-rayed her abdomen, chest and thorax, but detected no abnormalities. Price claimed that this failure did not disprove his thesis, since Duncan had had time to remove the cheesecloth.

Nevertheless, he referred frequently to these photographs and X-rays when discussing the case, showing the importance ascribed to these imaging technologies in validating the scientific, empirical nature of his investigation, if not the authenticity of the phenomena themselves.

Further reading

This story was created by The Media of Mediumship, an AHRC-funded project exploring the relationship between science, technology and unorthodox forms of spiritual belief in modern Britain.

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