During his lifetime William Hope was hailed as a pioneer of “spirit photography.” He was also exposed as a cynical fraudster who conned people out of money with his pictures of ghosts apparently photo-bombing loved ones’ portraits.
William Hope was born in 1863. He was a carpenter from Cheshire, England. His hobby was photography. In 1905, he chanced upon the potential of the double exposure. He quickly realised he could pass off double-exposed images as “genuine” photographs of ghosts. His pictures achieved considerable acclaim with some notable fans—including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned The Case for Spirit Photography in support of Hope’s work. The creator of Sherlock Holmes also believed in fairies at the bottom of the garden.
After the slaughter of the First World War, Hope was able to use his “ghost portraits” to exploit the genuine need of many bereaved families to be reassured in life after death. To give his ghost portraits credence, Hope established the Crewe Circle—a group of like-minded spirit photographers, which included Archbishop Thomas Colley..
In 1922, Hope was eventually exposed as a fraud by Harry Price—a famous psychic investigator. Price marked Hope’s photographic plates, which when printed proved the spirit photographer was merely double exposing negatives to achieve his famed paranormal portraits. At the time, Price wrote in his report:
William Hope has been found guilty of deliberately substituting his own plates for those of a sitter… It implies that the medium brings to the sitting a duplicate slide and faked plates for fraudulent purposes.
In our digital world of endless streaming images, it may be difficult to imagine how these ghostly portraits were ever taken seriously. But it was the very human need to believe that was the determining factor in why William Hope succeeded in conning so many people for so long.