Thursday, October 7, 2010

Souvenir Spirit Photograph from the Johnstown Flood

I discovered this photograph in an old album we rescued from an abandoned house a few years ago. (That's a long story in itself, for another day...) I was thrilled to realize I had found my first "spirit photo." These images of "ghosts" created through various tricky means were all the rage during the heyday of Spiritualism in the Victorian period, and again in the 1920s.

In the photo, the young woman with the upraised arm and the old man on the left are real, while the two large, transparent figures are the "ghosts." One of the most remarkable things about this photo is that it accidentally reveals the process of making the "spirit" effect. The old man on the left simply stepped to the side before the lengthy exposure process was complete, which left his ghostly imprint in the center. The "real" old man shouldn't be in the finished photograph at all, but the photographer didn't crop the picture properly. This was a pretty sloppy spirit photo, clearly churned out at a fast clip for the tourist trade.

Original, antique spirit photos are highly collectible, and several books have been written about them.  This one is extra-special, in that it is also a souvenir photo. The back of the picture bears a stamp which reads:

"Steven Studio 318 Broad St. Johnstown PA." Pencilled on the back is the caption, "Anna and Spirit pechirt (picture?) April 1924".

This photo proves there is no event too terrible for a shameless huckster to profit from. Johnstown, Pennsylvania is famous as the site of a horrific flood that killed 2, 209 of its citizens on May 31, 1889. A dam broke during a tremendous storm, and the resulting torrent all but swept Johnstown away. The disaster was so heart-wrenching, it was commemorated country-wide in lithographs, poetry, sheet music, books, and stereograph cards all the way into the 1920s, when Hollywood released a major motion picture based on the event.

You can learn more about the Johnstown flood at the Johnstown Flood Museum, and see more spirit photographs at the American Museum of Photography.


  1. What an amazing photo and a great story. Did people really believe this? That is truly a great photo. Oh, I already said that. Wow. I am in awe.

  2. Thanks Christine! I had a feeling you would like this one!