William Mumler started his professional life as a jewelry engraver, but he changed careers in the early 1860s and became a photographer. That was a great time to be a photographer in New York; the industry was new and burgeoning, and the American Civil War provided the impetus for many people to photograph their loved ones before they went off to battle. Mumler managed to make a decent living for some time.
In 1872, the war had been over for 7 years. His business had changed from photos of soldiers to family groups and individual portraiture. One day that year, a woman entered his photography studio and requested a sitting. The woman introduced herself as Mrs. Lindall, and she paid in advance.
There was something familiar about her, Mumler thought. The woman, whom Mumler judged to be in her late 50s, wore the black clothing of a widow. Mumler assumed that she had lost her husband during the war. It wouldn’t be the first time he had photographed such a woman. However, it would be far too impolite of him to ask.
The session was not remarkable, Mumler would later recall. The only thing he could remember with certainty was that the woman in black’s thin lips were straight across in almost a grimace. Photographs in those days took several minutes for the image to be transferred to the negative, and, as he always did, he reminded his subject to stay perfectly still so that there would be no shadows or “ghosts” in the image. After the session was over, he thanked the woman and told her to return in a few days for a copy of the print. He turned the glass negative over to his wife for processing.
When the chemicals washed over the glass negative, Mumler’s wife let out a loud gasp of surprise. She yelled for her husband to come see the photograph–quickly. When Mumler came into the room, he, too, exclaimed with a gasp.
There, behind the seated woman in black, was the clear image of a man. The man seemed to have his hands on the shoulders of the woman. The Mumlers looked at each other. “Is that who I think it is?” Mrs. Mumler asked her husband. “Yes,” he said, turning back to the photo. “It’s definitely him.” Mumler’s attention then turned to the image of the woman. “And that means…” he began, pointing to the seated figure in black. “Yes. I think she is,” his wife answered.
When the woman who had called herself Mrs. Lindall returned for the photo a few days later, Mumler handed the photo to her without a word at first. The woman looked at the photo, and, for the first time, she smiled broadly.
“You are her, aren’t you?” he asked. She nodded.
“And that man?” Mumler asked, pointing to the shadowy figure behind her in the photo, a figure that was not in the room when the photo was taken.
“Yes,” she said in a sweet, almost southern accent.
“That’s my husband, Mr. Lincoln.”