Invisible Women: A History of Haunted Photographs

Photographs courtesy of the National Media Museum.

After the bugler blurted out Taps, the only thing left to do was to clean out my grandfather’s house. It wasn’t the kind of house that one would expect to be haunted: a squat ranch house with a stucco exterior, the kind of unremarkable house that clutters the working class neighborhoods of suburban Fort Lauderdale.

My grandfather had spent the last five years of his life in that unremarkable house, sitting in a burnt orange faux velvet chair, reading supermarket paperbacks, and waiting to die. Five years prior, my grandmother had refused to linger in a hospital and insisted on coming home; she died on the matching burnt orange sofa. With the house empty, the rest of the family began the familiar mourning ritual of cleaning out closets and garages, of sorting mementos from dross so the house could be sold.

My grandparents were memory hoarders. Their house was neat and orderly, but every meaningful life event had been documented with photographs and inexpensive artifacts. Those treasures were archived in overstuffed closets, filled with scribbled pictures gifted to them by grandchildren, with foreign guns my grandfather had picked up on battlefields in North Africa and Korea, and cheap tokens of the Virginia mountains where they both had been raised. Buried underneath their memories was an old Kodak Land camera; underneath that, a stack of yellowed, postcard paper made for the instant camera. Both ancient relics irresistible to a sad and sullen 12-year-old.

“Set Shutter. Focus. Snap picture,” the yellow instructions printed inside the camera said. And so I did. Push the paper in. Snap. Wait a minute. Pull the paper tab until a photograph emerged. A photograph of the fancy walnut dining table, the one no one ever sat at; a photograph of the Miniature Schnauzer left behind; a photograph of my mother standing in the pea-green kitchen. I turned the camera to my brother, who had taken refuge with his Discman on the burnt orange chair.

Snap. Count: one Mississippi, two Mississippi.

I pulled out a photograph of my brother and the ghost. The photograph was a perfect tableau: My brother sits on the chair, standing next to him a dim outline of a woman, full-length in profile, her face directed towards my brother while he studies his Discman. The ghost was no stranger. I recognized the curve of her shoulders, a kind of cultivated hunch developed from a lifetime of trying to shrink her six-foot frame to a more appropriate size. I recognized her profile, that long nose and sharp chin, the same nose and chin I saw when I looked in the mirror; that I still see when I look in the mirror.


I burst into tears. My brother called me a dummy but changed his mind when he saw the photograph. “Don’t tell mom,” he said. My mother, a firm believer in the Calvinist doctrine of the afterlife, would not have seen who we saw, she would not have seen our grandmother. My mother did not (and does not) believe in ghosts; she only believed in heaven and hell and their respective inhabitants. My brother and I, lacking confidence in the Apostle Paul, believed in our grandmother.

I stuffed the photograph in my backpack and didn’t say a word.

Photographs are haunted.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes that every photograph is a ghost, an “ectoplasm of what has been.” All photographs are inscribed with “flat death,” subjects haunted by an inevitable end that will come or has already come. Camera Lucida is a manifesto of mourning, a reflection on the inextricable link between melancholy, death, and photography. Barthes, looking for his recently departed mother, can only find her—the real her, the her that “pricks” or “bruises” him—haunting him in a single photograph. As he holds this picture of his mother, Barthes writes, “In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die...I shudder...over a catastrophe that has already occurred.”


The photograph tells us little, but it does tell us that its subject is always death; it warns of catastrophe. Perhaps that’s why, even in its earliest days, photography went looking for the dead. In the early 1860s, the American photographer William Mumler stumbled on spirit photography, or rather he realized that two simple tricks—underexposure and combination printing—could be used to exploit the grieving. In an early self-portrait, Mumler claimed that his cousin, dead for some 12 years, haunted the background, a claim that he much later admitted was fraudulent.

William Mumler, Mary Todd Lincoln, c. 1870.

Nearly a decade later, Mumler photographed Mary Todd Lincoln with her assassinated husband standing behind her, ghostly hands gripping her shoulders. Mumler, a conveniently converted Spiritualist, told believers that the photograph was proof that spirits were real and could be captured by the camera. Those who needed to trust in the alliance between modern technology and ancient beliefs insisted that Mumler had no idea who Mary Todd Lincoln was; when she appeared in his studio, she told the photographer that her name was Mrs. Linall. This was no sham, believers argued, Abraham Lincoln was truly present, not a darkroom trick, done for cheap gain. Here he was, summoned up the mystical click of the camera’s shutter.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that mothers and widows flocked to Mumler and to the other spirit photographers who took up residence in America and Europe. Women who wanted little more than to be haunted sat down in front of cameras, taking a spectral outline as proof that a child or husband still had something to say to them. The spirit photograph claimed to return the dead to life—the dead lived not in memory, but with and in the photograph. The continuity of life, beyond the body, could be momentarily captured, reassuring the grieving that life extended beyond the bounds of exposure and emulsion.


Yet the ghostly family portrait was part of a larger photographic subgenre of the dead. It’s conceivable that the widows and melancholy mothers who sought out the spirit photographers were already owners of the spirit photograph’s counterpart: the postmortem photograph. The photographs of the dead, modernity’s iteration of the memento mori, like the spirit photograph, contains the contradictory promise of everlasting life. Placing a lifeless body in front if the camera is, Dan Meinwald argues, “like embalming, a preservation of the body for the gaze of the observer.”

In the postmortem photograph, Barthes’s equation of catastrophe is even further jumbled; living mothers cradle an infant’s body or siblings lineup alongside a brother or sister who did not live to see adulthood. The temporal catastrophe (they are dead; they will die) is magnified; everyone is a ghost.

Postmortem Photograph, c. 1860s. Image via Wellcome Collection.

One of the great ironies of postmortem photography is how the camera renders the dead more clearly. Every feature and every limb is captured in sharp focus, giving them the waxy look of sleep. It’s an accident of long exposure time—the dead lay perfectly still for the camera, never moving a single finger or foot, while the living involuntarily resist such stillness. In the postmortem pietà, the warm bodies of mothers often have the blurry look of a spirit; they often look more like ghosts than their dead children.


At the same time, mothers are meant to be ghostly—or at least invisible. They are to guide without being seen; to work without revealing labor. Between the late 1850s and the 1870s, photographers accidentally gave the impossible metaphor photographic form. In hundreds of cheap photographs, women sit covered by drapes or blankets or wrapped in fabric, like ghosts, their children perched on their laps.

Screenshots of “Hidden Mother” photographs via YouTube/Ohio Historical Society.

It was a haunting born of necessity. Babies, unable to sit still for the 30-second exposure time required by the wet collodion process, needed a willing and pliable support, and mothers had familiar laps. The mothers were supposed to be invisible, to recede into the background or be cropped from the final photograph. And yet, despite attempts to shroud a mother’s corporeal form, she often resisted, appearing as a disembodied hand or foot. Sometimes her whole body refused and despite layers of fabric and carefully tucked pleats, her outline emerges. “The mother appears,” Laura Larson wrote in Hidden Mothers, “as an uncanny presence.”

I wonder if, decades later, the children in these photographs held them and shuddered as Barthes did or if, instead, they were transformed into a quiet body of a postmortem photograph. Maybe, one of these mothers ended up in the studio of a photographer like Mumler, desperate to reestablish that ghostly link.


Maybe it’s not just photographs that are haunted, maybe women are haunted, too. In the seventeenth century, the French physician Barthelemy Pardoux wrote that demonic possession was more natural for women and children because of their “fragile and infirm” condition. Women, hundreds of years of religion and science said, were more primitive and more irrational than men. Those states made them closer to the spirit realm, their bodies and minds more susceptible to ghostly impressions.


It’s why poltergeists are generally believed to prefer the company of adolescent and teenage girls; an ideal mixture of childhood and womanhood. Take the Enfield Poltergeist, a ghost that haunted the home of Peggy Hodgson in 1977. Though Peggy had four children, the poltergeist, supposedly the spirit of a foul-mouthed old man who had died in the rented home, preferred the company of 11-year-old Janet. The Hodgsons intrigued the United Kingdom, this little girl who spoke with the low growl of a dead man, bent spoons, and levitated. Some believed that Janet and her 12-year-old sister Margaret were haunted, subject to the control of a spirit who inhabited their bodies.

“It didn’t want to hurt us,” Janet later said. “It had died there and wanted to be at rest. The only way it could communicate was through me and my sister.” The girls were an easy entry into believing since they existed in closer proximity to the unseen. The Hodgson’s moved out of the Enfield house and left the ghost behind them. The girls were accused of faking the poltergeist and appeared to have admitted the hoax in a BBC Scotland investigation that aired in November 1977. And yet, many still believe in the poltergeist and the girls.

That belief was grounded in history. Nearly a century prior, Spiritualists too placed stock in the unusual relationship girls and women have with spirits. They readily accepted women as powerful mediums, directing the spectacle of séances, conjuring up the dead and capturing elusive ectoplasmic faces. But that religious power was paradoxical, it relied on a uniquely Victorian understanding of gender and the power that flowed from it. Spiritualists assumed that what was uniquely feminine was also what made women particularly adept mediums. “Passivity, or the lack of masculine will-power,” Alex Owen wrote in The Darkened Room, “was, for spiritualist, the very quality which facilitated spirit communication.”


The mix of familiar feminine passivity and power must have been irresistible, particularly for an impoverished young woman looking to find some material comfort. It’s no surprise that so many of the female mediums that emerged in the late-nineteenth-century were from families who could offer little. Take the young Florence Cook, a 15-year-old girl who claimed mediumistic abilities in the 1870s.

William Crookes, Photograph of Katie King, 1870-73. Via Wikipedia.

In a series of séances, Cook summoned up the full body of Katie King, a teenage spirit who bore a striking resemblance to Cook. According to Conan Arthur Doyle, Katie King was the daughter of John King, a powerful spirit who visited Spiritualist’s séances throughout the 1860s. Early detractors were skeptical of Cook, claiming that Katie King was no spirit, just a handful of smart tricks that made Cook appear as Katie King. But Cook found an unlikely ally in William Crookes, a highly regarded scientist best known for identifying helium.

In his History of Spiritualism, Doyle writes that when Cook summoned up Katie King in the Crookes’s home, the spirit girl appeared—not simply as an outline, but in flesh. In a letter to Doyle, Crookes’s wife wrote:

At a seance with Miss Cook in our own house when one of our sons was an infant of three weeks old, Katie King, a materialized spirit, expressed the liveliest interest in him and asked to be allowed to see the baby. The infant was accordingly brought into the seance room and placed in the arms of Katie, who, after holding him in the most natural way for a short time, smilingly gave him back again.


Crookes’s would later write a journal article confirming that Cook’s power was real and that Katie King was a true spirit, not simply the cunning trick of a teenage girl. According to Doyle, “Crookes has left it on record that her beauty and charm were unique in his experience.” It’s unclear whether or not Crookes was speaking of Katie King or Florence Cook. No one believed the professor, not even Harry Houdini. Cook had been revealed as a fraud too many times.

Passive and powerful, beautiful and charming, it’s not surprising that Crookes was moved to believe in Cook’s apparition. The mix has long been the recipe of a mystical sexuality summoned up in novels and poetry. Possession is a double agent, it works in and on both actor and object, yet it demands invisibility: mothers hidden under layers of fabric, a sad girl in Enfield hidden behind a poltergeist, or Florence Cook hidden behind Katie King.


But maybe women aren’t haunted, maybe they are simply ghosts—the space between the two is slippery, yet catastrophic. Some of the best ghosts are women: the international White Lady, the Iroquois Queen Esther, the Bell Witch, and Bloody Mary. They are women most regarded for their ability to be generally invisible, some angry at their poor treatment in life, they appear at will or are summoned to ward off or warn of impending death.


Like all ghosts, their value is in their invisibility; particularly, their ability to will themselves invisible, to go bump in the night without appearing too tangibly close. There is a significant difference between being a ghost and becoming a ghost. One is passive, the other an active decision.

In 1875, a 15-year-old girl best known as Augustine arrived at Salpêtrière, a gloomy Parisian asylum that housed unwanted women. Prostitutes, the insane, women with a range of muscular and neurological disorders and, most notoriously, hysterics were all stored in what Georges Didi-Huberman called, “a kind of feminine inferno, a citta dolorosa confining four thousand incurable or mad women.” Augustine was a hysteric, her seizures and fits so debilitating that she was of little use to her family, so they shipped her off to the Salpêtrière, where she came under the care of Jean-Martin Charcot, the neurologist who governed the city of hysterics.


At Salpêtrière, Augustine became one of Charcot’s favorite hysterics. Her seizures—or hystero-epilepsy or la grande hystérie, as Charcot called the disorder—were dramatic spectacles. Augustine had terrifying visions and, in turn, her body enacted her hallucinatory narrative (eplipetic seizures were poses of supplication, ecstasy, and delirium) before Augustine passed out. Charcot brought her to his weekly lectures where some of Europe and America’s most influential physicians (Tourette, Freud, and William James) watched Charcot hypnotize Augustine and perform her show for their clinical gaze. “[Augustine] has developed a rare pathological condition that as such is worthy of being placed before your eyes. It is by nature essentially unstable and mobile, as is the sex it prefers to afflict,” Charcot told his audience.

Augustine in Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière, 1879. Image via Wikipedia.

Augustine was a specimen, she was a series of symptoms to be studied and photographed. Augustine herself was invisible to Charcot and to the camera that endlessly documented her la grande hystérie. Invisible too was Augustine’s pain. She had entered Salpêtrière likely against her will, admitted by a mother who had sold her into sexual slavery. In many of her visions, Augustine relieved sexual trauma, a particularly violent rape at the hands of the man her mother had sold her to. During her hallucinations and epileptic fits, Augustine would shout out “Leave me alone!” and “Please, you’re hurting me!” But Charcot continued to coax her into the trauma, to mold her body into unnatural shapes and photograph her. Dozens of photographs of Augustine appeared in his 1879 publication Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière.

Augustine in a hypnotic trance, 1879. Image via Wellcome Collection.

The same year that Charcot and his assistants published Iconographie, Augustine went missing. She had tried to escape before but had always been caught. On September 9th, she put on men’s clothes and disappeared from Salpêtrière, from Charcot’s hypnosis, and from his camera’s watchful eye. No one knows what happened to Augustine. What remains of her are the photographs, images of her body as a specimen, sculpted into a form created by Charcot. Maybe Augustine didn’t ghost Charcot, maybe she was never a haunted girl in an equally haunted photograph. She was always invisible, always a ghost never allowed to materialize.

The photograph of my grandmother lives in a fabric box with other ghosts: photographs of lives that I once lived, of people I once loved and ancestors I will never know. I believe this is good company; ghosts should stick together.


In Camera Lucida, Barthes writes that he will never share the photograph of his mother, the one that makes him shudder. “For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations the ‘ordinary’” he writes. Where he sees catastrophe, others, he argues, would only see an old photograph that has little of interest other than period details like clothing or hairstyle. Such photographs, that kind that wound, are deeply personal, they were never made for public consumption. That’s why hidden mothers and postmortem babies are curiosities, they are evidence of out-of-date practices that read as strange and foreign. It is hard to conjure up their original catastrophe. The same is true for the photograph of my grandmother, for you, it would be an oddity, so it best remains in its box.

In lieu of the photograph, here are some thoughts I’ve had about it in the two decades that it’s been in my possession: Maybe the paper I inserted into the Kodak Land Camera was already exposed, but not developed, and I unknowingly made a spirit photograph. Maybe it really is the ghost of my grandmother. Ghosts are not real. They are real enough. It doesn’t matter. I still miss her.

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