Secret of Old Spirit Photographs Discovered—but Mysteries Remain

By Tara MacIsaac
Tara MacIsaac
Tara MacIsaac
​​Tara MacIsaac is an Epoch Times reporter based in Toronto.
May 11, 2015Updated: February 15, 2023

Though spirit-photo hoaxes have been exposed, some photo-related coincidences and other phenomena are so spooky they could make one wonder whether something supernormal is really at work.

Hoaxes and debunkers are ubiquitous today, thanks to the Internet and technologies that allow for photo and video manipulation. But debunkers had their place more than a century ago as well, at the height of interest in séances and spirit photos.

Walter E. Woodbury was one such debunker. He uncovered what was behind a semi-frequent occurrence that produced—sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentional—hoaxes. Imagine the surprise of a photographer who would develop his shots and find something like this:

A "spirit photograph," from
A “spirit photograph,” from “Photographic Amusements,” 1896, by Walter E. Woodbury. (Public domain)

In 1896, in “Photographic Amusements,” Woodbury explained that unwitting photographers were sometimes left with an image from a previous session on the glass negatives. Glass was expensive in those days, and the photo negatives made of glass were cleaned and reused. But sometimes a portion of a previous picture would be left on the negative, producing a startling result when overlapped with another subject. Some photographers realized this and capitalized on it, convincing sitters that they were surrounded by their dead relatives while being photographed.

Woodbury recounts a humorous tale: “An elderly gentleman had come for a séance, and, after some mysterious maneuvers, the gentleman was informed that the spirit of his mother was there. ‘Indeed!’ replied the gentleman, somewhat astonished. ‘What does she say?’ ‘She says she will see you soon,’ informed the medium. ‘You are getting old now and must soon join her.’ ‘Quite right,’ replied the old gentleman; ‘I’m going round to her house to tea tonight.'”

A Double-Exposure of a Truly Strange Nature

In his book, “Synchronicity,” famed psychologist Carl Jung recounts a strange coincidence. A woman in Strasbourg, Germany, took a photo of her young son and took it to a shop to be developed. WWI began, and the woman moved away from the city without having retrieved the photo from the shop. Years later, she took a photo of her daughter and brought it to a shop in Frankfurt to be developed. The result was a double exposure, but to her surprise it was the photo she had taken of her son years before overlapped with the current photo of her daughter in Frankfurt.

Photo said to the be the one Jung's story relates to—unverified by Epoch Times. (Public domain)
Photo said to be the one Jung’s story relates to—unverified by Epoch Times. (Public domain)

The same film plate had found its way from Strasbourg to Frankfurt, had mistakenly been marked as unused, and had found its way into the same woman’s hands.

Another Very Strange Photo Coincidence

The following photo coincidence was shared by a Reddit user last year:

“I asked [my friends] … to show me some photos from their wedding. It was before digital photography and they told me they had done some photos during their wedding but sadly they had spent all their money on the ceremony and the party and hadn’t … money left to buy the pictures from the photographer shop—well, I am Romanian, it was during Ceausescu’s dictatorship and money used to be a great issue back then. So they had not one picture from their wedding, they were frustrated by this but had no money … to go retrieve them from the shop.

“Several years passed, times changed, the city went under construction, lots of demolitions and construction going on. I was walking one day across a great demolished area with rubble, garbage, big holes in the ground, some blocks going to be erected over an ex-slummy place. Then, I saw something at a bottom of a 3-4-meter deep hole in the ground, a small spot, like a torn tiny piece of colored paper, nothing to discern from that distance.

“Against all my normal behavior, I stepped down into that muddy hole and picked up that thing. It was a torn piece of photograph from my friend’s wedding. Only them, their figures, in their wedding suits, smiling at [the] camera.

“I gave them that little colored patch of picture, it has been their only graphic memory from their wedding. … I can’t stop asking myself: what were the odds? I simply don’t go down into muddy holes without serious reasons.”

A number of other purportedly paranormal photography-related phenomena remain widely discussed today, including:

Also see: “Would You Believe in the Cottingley Fairies If You Saw Them Today?”

The first of the five photographs, taken by Elsie Wright in 1917, shows Frances Griffiths with the alleged fairies. (Wikimedia Commons)
The first of the five photographs, taken by Elsie Wright in 1917, shows Frances Griffiths with the alleged fairies. (Wikimedia Commons)

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*Image of film strip via Shutterstock