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An 1870 Ghost Story (Utah history)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 20, 2008

Charles William Carter was Salt Lake’s most experienced photographer in 1870, so it was business as usual when a young mother chose his Main Street studio to make a portrait of her little daughter. Carter posed the child, stepped behind his big camera, and exposed the glass plate from which the photograph would be printed. He told his customer the portrait would be ready the next day, and she left his studio with no idea that overnight her daughter’s picture would become the center of Salt Lake’s attention.

When Carter processed the photograph, he found the likeness of a little girl, as expected. But behind her, a little to her left, appeared the faint image of a man whom visitors to his studio recognized as a recently deceased military man, Captain W.R. Storey.

News of the ghostly appearance spread rapidly, and soon people were streaming into Carter’s studio to look at the mysterious photograph. Editors of the Salt Lake Tribune, then in its infancy and still only a weekly newspaper, took a special interest in the image: Many of their supporters had recently abandoned Mormonism for spiritualism and were openly discussing communication with the dead. The cautious Tribune made no otherworldly claims for the photograph, but questioned Carter closely as to the sources of his photographic material and the technical processes of photography. Satisfied that the image was no trick, the Tribune expressed confidence that an explanation would soon be found; “we mention it as a peculiar occurrence which has attracted considerable attention in this city.”

The public at large – not burdened as the Tribune’s editors were by a printed record that might later make them look foolish – freely speculated on the image’s origin. Carter “had succeeded in photographing a spirit from the other world,” ran popular rumor, and his “gallery is haunted by spirits from the other world.”

Others, more skeptical, were convinced that another kind of spirit was involved. Comic newspaper The Keepapitchinin – the original, not me – published its own “spirit pictures”: A later issue of The Keepapitchinin contained a letter from a soul in Purgatory who had neglected to have his picture taken while on earth; he pleaded with his readers to have their own portraits made so that his lost soul could appear in the background.

Photographer Carter, who had learned his craft before emigrating from England and who understood the technical process of photography as well as anyone, surely recognized a case of double exposure when he saw one. But he was also a canny businessman – his customer’s portrait was ruined anyway, so why not play along with the public’s craving for mystery? The sensation made his studio one of the most popular spots in Salt Lake for a few days. Carter carefully refrained from claiming an otherworldly origin for his photograph, but he also neglected to describe the nature of double exposures.

Charles R. Savage and George M. Ottinger, partners in their own photographic studio, soon stole the thunder from their rival, however. They had their own copy of the Storey portrait. Ottinger sat for a portrait, which was printed with the same ghostly image of Storey peering from behind. The Tribune made no mention of the duplicated apparition, but their own newest rival, the Salt Lake Herald, gleefully proclaimed “The Sensation Spoiled.” The Herald explained in layman’s terms how the feat had been accomplished, and piously stated that to perpetuate any other claim “would be cruel to the parents” of the little girl in the first photograph, “and wrong to the public.”

Halloween night sees the annual reappearance of ghosts on our streets, as real – and as unreal – as the one photographed in Salt Lake in 1870. Be careful out there …



11 Comments »

  1. Ardis,

    What a great story!

    At the time, most photographic images were captured on glass plates that took quite a bit of advance preparation. A double-exposure, whether accidental or deliberate, would probably have been routine for the photographer.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — October 20, 2008 @ 8:51 am

  2. Jim, you and the Herald are in agreement — a glass plate, insufficiently cleaned before reuse, is the obvious answer, and I have no doubt that Carter knew it. What fun to pull the collective leg of the public, though!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 20, 2008 @ 8:59 am

  3. I heard there’s a cool Ghost Tour in Salt Lake around Halloween. I always wanted to go but never made it while I was living there. :(

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — October 20, 2008 @ 9:11 am

  4. I once took a tour of the Salt Lake Masonic Temple with a husband and wife couple who were searching for departed spirits in the form of ‘energy orbs’. They both had digital cameras and took a number of photos while in various rooms of the temple and captured the likeness of one or more of these orbs which appeared in the photos as gray translucent globes of various sizes. I have seen the same results with traditional cameras using film but don’t have an explanation for them. I believe that on occasion the caretaker will give you a tour for a nominal fee and he is in residence in the caretaker’s apartment on the south side of the Masonic Temple. The only other ‘haunted’ site that I am aware of in Salt Lake City is the McCune Mansion on Main Street just north of the Conference Center. Allegedly, the night watchman has reported slamming doors, lights being turned on, and other minor annoyances that go bump in the night.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — October 20, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

  5. slamming doors, lights being turned on, and other minor annoyances that go bump in the night.

    This easily describes my place. I’ve always just assumed it was my upstairs neighbor Jennifer, and her yappy little dog. Maybe I’m missing an opportunity, though. I’ll start watching for energy orbs. Maybe my place will be on the tour by the time Michelle is back to take it. :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 20, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

  6. It is an annoyance to rent to the dearly departed. They keep such odd hours, they have an aversion to peace and quiet, and worst of all their checks never clear! Now Ardis, wouldn’t it be fascinating if some 50 years from now the successor owners of your domicile complain that they see at odd hours of the night a woman with her arms filled with books and papers with a ballpoint in her teeth endlessly looking around for a place to lay her burden down. Upon inquiry they find out, yes, indeed, this house was once owned by a Mormon historian whose greatest love was to delve deeply into the myriad stories found in the records of the Church Archives!

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — October 20, 2008 @ 8:18 pm

  7. with a ballpoint in her teeth endlessly looking around for a place to lay her burden down

    Surely this wouldn’t be Ardis. I have never seen her with a ballpoint in her teeth. However, I do believe that her computer is an extension of her arms.

    Comment by Maurine — October 20, 2008 @ 8:34 pm

  8. Ah, Maurine, you have the advantage of me!
    I have never met Sister Ardis face to face and you are undoubtably correct about the computer. I am certain that Ardis is as much a virtuoso on it as Schreiner or Longhurst were on the Tabernacle organ. I have dated myself once again with the ball point pen comment. There once was a time when such accoutrements were de rigeur for historians, scholars and academicians. Ardis is aware, I feel sure, that in amongst the history of the Saints in our dear Deseret, there are numerous stories of visits from departed personages. Some family, a few not, and some even Nephites. If the New Archives are truly thrown open, the day shall yet come when an inveterate folklorist researcher may gather these for publication as an intriguing facet of the folkways of our desert Zion. Who is to say whether or not these are all myth and imagination? Sometime, somewhere we will know the truth about all of these mortal ‘unknowns’.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — October 21, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

  9. What a great story! This sounds like an episode of The Great Brain.

    Comment by Tatiana — October 21, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

  10. When Ardis’ ghost comes back, she will haunt the corridors of Southtowne Center, looking for a table for her laptop.

    Comment by Jacob Marley — October 21, 2008 @ 10:07 pm

  11. Puh-leeze, Mr. Marley, let my poor ghost wander through a library or Victorian mansion — don’t condemn me to eternity in a suburban shopping mall!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 22, 2008 @ 8:34 am

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