After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln visited a famous spirit photographer to ask for his services.
When we lose someone important to us, the pain of grief can impair our ability to think rationally. Joan Didion describes an example of this in her incredible book about grief, The Year of Magical Thinking. After her husband’s death, she refused to give away his clothes and shoes because she believed he could return, and she didn’t like the idea of receiving him without his belongings. Just like it happened to her, any person could start believing or searching for anything that offers the necessary comfort during such a difficult time. What else can grief make us think or do?
In the nineteenth century, William Mumler became famous by taking advantage of people’s chaotic thoughts and feelings during times of grief. After he took a self-portrait where he noticed a bright figure that looked like his dead cousin, he started showing it to everyone. The picture caught the attention of a number of people who believed in spirits and wanted to take a picture with a dead loved one too. Just like that, he became a spirit photographer. His ghostly business thrived until his success also brought the attention of skeptics who wanted to uncover his tricks. Suspicions about fraud came and went as investigators tried to expose him but were unable to explain his methods. He was temporarily arrested for larceny in 1868, but he was released due to lack of evidence.
Mumler took his most famous picture after all of that turmoil. Some time after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln visited him to ask for his services. Of course, he couldn’t refuse. Over a century later, we can still see the photograph he took of Mary, which includes a pale and barely visible silhouette holding her shoulders. The unexplained picture is only one element in a long list of anecdotes that involve Lincoln and the occult. The photograph contributed to the myth that was already taking shape around Lincoln’s figure, starting with stories about the dreams he had before his assassination. In the first dream, he supposedly saw a crowd mourning his death, and in the one he had the night before he was killed, he sailed towards the darkness on a mysterious boat.
Years after his death, a bunch of famous figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands have reported sightings of eerie specters that look like him at Ford’s Theater, at his tomb in Illinois, and especially at the White House. The most famous anecdote was told by Winston Churchill, who said that he met his ghost while being naked after taking a bath at his residence in the 1940s. Apparently, he saw him standing by the fireplace, and his reaction was to actually speak to the ghost, saying, “Good evening Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
A lot of things remain unexplained, but just as Mary Todd's photograph, their actual explanation isn't supernatural. For instance, Lincoln’s premonitory dreams about his death make perfect sense of you think about the fact that he was hated by a lot of people, and paranoia can manifest in dreams. What about the sightings of his ghost? People, including famous people, can be very impressionable and, well, they can always lie. As for Mumler's photographs, he might have used some clever technique. Is that disappointing? I don’t think it is, because the stories, even if they’re fake, are still quite entertaining.
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