Spirit Fingers

Tags: ghost cameras, necrophones, the no man’s land between faith and reason, a pirate’s daughter.

(Part One of Two. Read Part Two.)

I was in New York last week, and I got a chance to see The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, an exhibit of spiritualist photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I enjoyed it, as I knew I would, but there was something disquieting about the exhibit too. It’s taken me a couple of days to put my finger on what that might have been.

The angel of death comes for Martin Sheen.
The angel of death comes for Martin Sheen.

That title, “The Perfect Medium,” puns on the close ties between spiritualism and early photography, ties that the exhibit makes beautifully clear. A thick aura of the uncanny clung to photography in the 19th century, and spiritualists and others had high hopes that the camera would improve upon the human eye in documenting things unseen. Certainly the camera could be used to trick the eye. The most entertaining pictures in the exhibit were the out-and-out fakes: double exposures like the one above, and ghosts and fairies that look like nothing so much as paper cutouts from a Monty Python animation. The Met’s curators, amusingly, bend over backwards not to take a stand on the authenticity of the photographs. Sometimes you feel they must be putting you on–when, for instance, a spectral figure bearing a remarkable resemblance to the medium in the very next photograph is identified, “possibly erroneously,” it says on the display card, as the ghost of a 17th-century pirate’s daughter.

But there was also sincere belief in the days of the spiritualists that new technologies like photography, telegraphy, X-rays, and others might open up the invisible world to human understanding. Several prominent technologists were also spiritualists, or at least sympathetic to the project. I’ve mentioned before the persistent legend that Thomas Edison spent his final days working on a “necro-phone” to talk with the dead. I’ve never actually seen any reliable evidence for the necrophone, but Edison did believe in life after death, and imagined a kind of particle physics of tiny soul molecules that would reconcile Newtonian mechanics with the spirit realm. “I am working on the theory that our personality exists after what we call life leaves our present material bodies,” Edison told American Magazine in 1920:

Take our own bodies. I believe they are composed of myriads and myriads of infinitesimally small individuals, each in itself a unit of life, and that these units work in squads–or swarms, as I prefer to call them–and that these infinitesimally small units live forever.

I’d love to see somebody in the history of technology–possibly me–write seriously about spiritualism as a technology. Not as a response to technology or a dialogue with technology, but as a genuine, if failed, technology in its own right. I don’t think that’s been done. There has been a push among historians of technology in recent years to study failed technologies as carefully as we study successful ones. (Ken Lipartito’s great article on the TV-phone is my favorite in this genre.) And if we’re committed to the idea of studying technological failures? Well, there aren’t many failures more complete than the ghost camera or the necrophone.

Spiritualism is a prime example of the 19th century impulse to reconcile science and religion. The Victorian spiritualists flatly refused to be satisfied with any kind of half-way détente between Faith and Reason. They wanted complete consistency between the two, a unified field theory that explained everything in their lives. Yet in their eagerness to unite science and religion, the spiritualists did such violence to the orthodoxies of both that they ultimately helped achieve the opposite. This is one argument of Corinna Treitel’s A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern. When spiritualists and other occult practitioners tried to bridge the gap between religion and science, established religions and newly professionalizing scientists recoiled–in particular, those in the emerging science of psychology, eager to escape their early association with mysticism and the paranormal. In walling themselves off from the spiritualists and their ilk, orthodox scientists and religious leaders cordoned off the no man’s land between science and religion that is characteristic of 20th century modernity.

That’s all very nice, Rob, but what did you find disturbing about the exhibit at the Met? Well, I’m getting to that.

To Be Continued...


  1. Excellent post – it may just inspire me to
    finish writing a post on a surprising
    connection between spiritualism and aviation
    that I came across a while back …

    Regarding books on technology and spiritualism,
    have you read John Durham Peters’ Speaking
    into the Air: A History of the Idea of
    (University of Chicago Press,

  2. Hi Brett:

    Thanks for visiting my blog, and thanks for your kind comment. I for one would love to hear what you’ve learned about spiritualism and aviation. I’ve just added you to my blogroll and link sidebar (though it’s a little buggy at the moment so it might not show up right away). I really enjoyed looking over your site and particularly the Phantom Airship section. I was aware of some of the American phantom airship sightings in the 1890s and after but never knew about the British
    spate of them. Neat stuff. I love to see thoughtful historical work on seemingly oddball topics like these.

    (Oh, and yes, I do know the Peters book, even though I neglected to consult it while writing these two posts. Thanks for the reminder.)


  3. Very nice blog, Rob. I love the first picture you posted, I almost think the older photos look spookier with that effect than newer special affects to achieve the same thing. Too bad I’m not in the area or this sort of exhibit would be where I’d be headed…

    I hope to hear more about spiritualists sometime…

  4. Hi Rob,
    sadly the second part is no longer on the web, it seems, and I wonder whether you’ll get this, five years later. I found “part 1” interesting, and let me tell you that there is perhaps a possible link between aviation and spiritualism in the writings of English aviator and esoteric John W. Dunne who published items such as “An Experiment with Time”, “The Serial Universe” and “The New Immortality” in the 1920-40s. Apparently he was read by Irish novelist Flann O’Brien whose “The Third Policeman” (written in 1940, but published only in 1967) is a combination of pseudo-scientific pomp dressing a religious and mythological satire.
    An interesting read anyway, and hilarious, but if you come across its description of the “Atomic Theory” you will be stunned to see how closely it resembles the rather anthropomorphic phrases in your quote from Edison in your article. I’ll certainly retrieve it, and I wouldn’t be astonished to find more correspondences. It is my firm conviction that Flann O’Brien, defiant not only of such spiritualist bogus but also of the (then) most recent physics (quantum theory and all that), made fun of these ideas in his novel…
    So much for now – have fun with O’Brien!

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