We recently looked at the hilarious lengths 19th century photographers went through to keep infants from jumping out of portraits. Incidentally, the long exposure times that would've ruined those baby pictures allowed camera fiends of the 1800s to stage supernatural snapshots.
Behold a sampling of some sillier spirit photographs, such as Mary Todd Lincoln (above and left) receiving a back massage from her dead husband. The Library of Congress provides a description of this spirit-summoning technique:
Sir David Brewster, in his 1856 book on the stereoscope, gave step-by-step instructions for creating a spirit photo, beginning with:
"For the purpose of amusement, the photographer might carry us even into the regions of the supernatural. His art, as I have elsewhere shewn, enables him to give a spiritual appearance to one or more of his figures, and to exhibit them as ‘thin air' amid the solid realities of the stereoscopic picture."
He went on to explain how this was easily done. Simply pose your main subjects. Then, when the exposure time is nearly up, have the ‘spirit' figure enter the scene, holding still for only seconds before moving out of the picture. The ‘spirit' then appeared as a semi-transparent figure [...]
Some of these scenes were shot for sheer novelty, whereas other spirit portraits were touted as evidence of ghosts by frauds. Hucksters like William Mumler in the 1860s and William Hope in the 1920s (whose admirers included Arthur Conan Doyle) claimed their subjects hailed from the supernatural realms.
In any case, spirit photography resulted in a ton of unintentionally (and occasionally intentionally) comic scenes. Here are some of our favorites. At worst, they look like collages made by grade schoolers hopped up on cough syrup.
A child in ectoplasm by the Falconer Brothers (1920s)
And via the Spirit Photography Flickr group, here are some wonderful vintage photos of people in the 1920s firing "ectoplasm" out of their orifices.
Top photos: Mary Todd Lincoln by William Mumler (circa 1870-1875). The latter two are by spirit photographer William Hope, circa the 1920s. You can find many more of Hope's photographs at the National Media Museum. More photos available through The Museum of the Macabre and this Flickr group.