Sherman’s Shade at a Séance: The spirit photos of Dr Theodor Hansmann

Sherman's Shade at a Séance: The spirit photos of Dr Theodor Hansmann Dr Theodor Hansmann and spirit friends on the left and the spirit of his late wife on the right.

Dr Theodor Hansmann and spirit friends on the left and the spirit of his late wife on the right.

It is a cliché of past-life regressions that everybody was royalty. Multiple Marie Antoinettes compete with a myriad of Mary, Queens of Scots.  Nobody remembers a past life as a peasant.

It was this paranormal class-consciousness that I thought of while reading this account of the name-dropping Dr. Theo Hansmann’s “spirit photographs.” Anyone who was Anyone in the Afterlife dropped by to share a portrait or autograph: Noah, John Wilkes Booth, Confucius, Robert E. Lee, and George Washington, who, Dr. Hansmann reported, was getting younger in the spirit world. The doctor even reported likenesses of “Atlanteans,” not unlike the channeler J.Z. Knight who “channeled” Ramtha, a 30,000-year-old warrior or Edgar Cayce, who told of Atlantis’s history and of its people, reincarnated in his clients.

Photos of Departed

Spirits That Are Said to Materialize Before the Camera.

Sherman’s Shade at a Séance.

Dr. Theo Hansmann’s Extensive Collection of Photographs of Spirits Contains Likenesses of World’s Greatest Men

Some of Them Taken in Absolute Darkness. Others Are Obtained by Merely Exposing Plates Without Using Camera.

          Modern science has explained so many things which have hitherto belonged to the realm of the supernatural that we invoke its aid whenever we are confronted with anything savoring of the marvelous. After the lapse of centuries we have had the mysteries of the ancient temples laid bare. When the veil has been torn aside by the ruthless hand of latter day research, the wonders which awed the Egyptians at Thebes and the Greeks at Eleusis become so many tricks which priestcraft foisted upon ignorant votaries. Yet even today, when the calcium rays of science beat with fiercest light, there remain subjects which are as a sealed book. Around them the awful circle, “thus far and no farther,” seems to be drawn. Then we are inclined to cry “fraud,” or apply any other epithet which indicates baffled ingenuity and ruffled feelings.

It is largely thus with spiritualism. Without a doubt there are a great many imposters within their ranks. Many of them are honest investigators, who pursue their researches with all the assiduity of the old-time alchemists or astrologers. They believe most thoroughly in the phenomena of spiritualism and should be given credit at least for their honesty of conviction.

One of the most wonderful branches of this belief is found in spirit photography. Dr. Theodor Hansmann, of this city is one of the greatest investigators along this line in the world. A visit to his residence is productive of enough to make the caller think many times during the next few days. A moment’s conversation will convince one that the doctor is genuine. A talk of an hour makes one think that if any one were to try to impose on him by means of fraud, he would have his hands full. He has a wonderful collection of photographs of materialized spirits. Many of them are taken in such a position as to do away with trickery. The writer, however, will not attempt to state his views in the matter. It is too puzzling for a layman.


“Before I show you any of the photographs, I want to talk to you about the materialization of Mr. Sherman a few weeks ago,” said the doctor, as he settled back in his office chair. [Sherman had been very ill and was reported as dead when he manifested at a séance.] “A great deal of fun has been made of that episode, and without just cause.  I was at that séance, and am confident that Mr. Sherman was there in the spirit form. He was not visible to the eye, but we could hear him speak.  He said: ‘Receive me! Receive me! I am John Sherman.’ That is not at all inconsistent with our beliefs, or many of the demonstrations we had had. I believe that at that moment John Sherman was very near the borderland. He had received a critical point. His spirit was struggling to free itself from the body. No, I do not mean that it was a ‘phantasm of the living.’ Mr. Thomas J. Hudson, of this city, would probably not deny the phenomena. He would call it a ‘phantasm of the living.’ We do not call them that. It was the spirit of John Sherman. I have heard that he has appeared once since that time in the spirit form.

“I will tell you of a similar case. Thomas B. Colter was at one time sixth auditor of the treasury in this city. During a change of administration, which I will say was foretold by the spirit of Garfield, he was thrown out of office and went west. Some time after he came to a séance here in the city fully materialized. He took a tablet, laid upon the shoulder of Samuel Baldwin, and wrote a message. A few months after that he died. I believe he was very ill out west at the time he materialized at the séance.

“Take the same thing in the special line which I am investigating. Here is a spirit photograph of myself, while I am still living. I was called to Rochester on some business, and requested my daughter to pursue the subject while I was away. She went to Dr. William Keeler and sat before the camera. I am shown standing by her, out of proportion to her size. Such a photograph as that could not be obtained by the natural process. Many a photographer who is skeptical will tell you that he can do the same thing or at least produce the same picture. I defy any one to do it by fraud or otherwise.


“For instance, take this picture of  Powhatan, the great Indian chief. I was in Rochester at the time it was taken. I went before the photographer to see what results could be obtained. When I sit down before the object glass I seem to draw the spirits around me. At this time I was not certain that anything would come of the experiment. Presently the photographer said: ‘I cannot see you. There seems to be a screen in front of you.’ Now look at this photograph. Mind now, I was sitting in the chair at the time it was taken. You will see that I do not appear in the photograph. Behind the chair is Powhatan. His face shows through the back of the chair, as if the latter were transparent gauze instead of opaque wood. Is not that even more wonderful than the x-ray? Every lineament of his countenance is there.

“Then there is another feature that I challenge you to produce in ordinary photography. Take this one of Cora Merriam Howes, a singer of whom you may have heard. I got that photograph in absolute darkness. It is a spirit photograph, although the lady was living at the time it was taken. She also has a wreath of flowers on her. Shortly after that time she sang at the McKinley inaugural ball. She then had on the dress she has in the picture. After she finished singing some gentleman, perhaps in jest, handed her a wreath of flowers. A lady standing by his side whisked it from his hand and hung it around her as you see it now, and disappeared in a twinkling. She was a materialized spirit. I know that all that sounds foolish to a practical business man. But spiritualists are not business men. They are not usually men of wealth, but I never saw one of them who would exchange with a Vanderbilt if he had to abandon his beliefs.


“Here is a photo which I obtained of Jefferson Davis in absolute darkness. Four days after Winnie Davis died she gave me her photo. At that time it was imperfect. I got it a little later, and it was absolutely perfect. The empress Elizabeth of Austria gave me her likeness on the camera within twenty-four hours after she died. I had never seen her photograph, or any painting of her, and I could not have even practiced what is known as thought photography. These experiments have nothing whatever to do with thought photography.

“This is the photograph of my guardian angel, Queen Louisa of Prussia. You will see that it is taken in simple attire, not in the court dress which she is so often portrayed as wearing [He’s wrong here: the Queen was usually painted in simple gowns, not court dress.] I got that in 1893. With her I do not even have to use a camera. I can simply expose the plate, when she signifies her intention of helping me. She very frequently comes to talk with me. She told me to get up these twelve books which you see in the bookcase. In them I have the photographs which I have obtained, together with the history of how each one happened to be secured.

“Upon the wall you will see my two friends, Lincoln and Grant. In this picture of Lincoln you will see that I am with him, and our two figures are so blended that one seems to be part of the other. In the background, though dimly, is Benjamin Franklin. Grant has very frequently given me his picture. He once joked with me and told me that my experiments would merely obtain me the title of a fraud, but I know quite well that he does not hold that opinion of me.


“Here is a picture of man who lived 16,000 years ago. He was a native of the island of Atlantis, before it was submerged. Here is another Atlantean, who lived 10,000 years ago. I have talked with him about the state of affairs on the earth at that time. He says that in the early history of Atlantis the earth had a belt around it similar to the rings of Saturn. His features are regular and aquiline. His brow shows a high degree of intelligence, and one would say from his countenance that there was not a very direct resemblance to the simian ancestry which Darwin claimed for man.

“I not only have photographs of people, but here is a landscape from another planet, just which one I do not at this moment remember. Here is a remarkable likeness of Marie Antoinette. I have her in two different costumes, and both of the photographs were given me within three minutes of each other. As the gowns are quite elaborate in each case, one would be led to believe that she is a lightning change artist, at least in her present state.


“I have a number of photographs taken in groups. They are presents from my friends in the spirit world. Sometimes they come in clouds to me to sit in front of the camera. Here are a number of the greatest people who have lived in the history of the world. I don’t even know all their names, and that should relieve me partly from the charge of fraud, for if I had chosen them I would have at least taken those whose names were familiar to me. Great warriors, poets, statesmen, kings and queens are grouped there, and I have held personal conversations with most of them. All the presidents of the United States who have passed to the other side have given me their photographs.

“I am carrying on my experiments all the time and I hope during my lifetime to achieve such results that the whole world will believe. If I can contribute my mite toward confuting the scoffing skepticism of those around me I will gladly endure privations and rebuffs while awaiting my turn to go to join those with whom I now hold converse as they come to me from the spirit land.” Washington Post The Mansfield [OH] News 30 April 1899

Dr. Theodor Hansmann [1821-1912] was a German-born physician based in Washington, D.C., which explains his adulation of Queen Louisa of Prussia.  However, he is probably being disingenuous about not having seen a portrait of Empress Elisabeth, who had been stabbed to the heart by an Italian anarchist in 1898. While she was reluctant to have her photograph taken in her later years, her image was widely circulated in Europe and abroad as one of the famous beauties of the age. John Sherman [1823-1900] was an Ohio Senator and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. He was obviously very much alive at the time he spoke at the séance.

Most of the articles I’ve found about the good doctor stress his sincerity and good faith. Here is one of the few pieces that debunks Dr. Hansmann–and even this seems to let him down gently. In the fall of 1895, a correspondent of the New York Herald interviewed Doctor Hansmann on the subject of spirit photographs, and subsequently visited the United States Bureau of Ethnology, where an interview was had with Mr. Dinwiddie, an expert photographer. Here is the substance of this second interview, published in the Herald, Nov. 9, 1895.

“Dr. Hansmann’s collection of ‘spirit’ photographs is most interesting. There is one with the face of the Empress Josephine, and on the same plate is the head of Professor Darius Lyman, for a long time Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. The head of the Empress Josephine has a diadem around it, and the lights and shadows remind one of the well-known portrait of her. On another plate are Grant and Lincoln. Among his other photographs Dr. Hansmann brought out one of a man who was described to me as an Indian agent. Around his head were eleven smaller ‘spirit’ heads of Indians. In looking at the blue print closely it seemed to me as if I had seen those identical heads— the same as to light, shade and posing—somewhere before.

“I was aided at the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution by Mr. F. Webb Hodge, the acting director, who on looking at the blue print named the Indians directly; several of the pictures were of Indians still alive. This, of course, immediately disposed of the idea of the blue print Indians being spirits.

“Moreover, Mr. Dinwiddie produced the negatives containing the identical portraits of these Indians and made me several proofs, which on a comparison, feature by feature, light for light, and shade for shade, show unquestionably that the faces on the blue print are copies of the portraits made by the photographer of the Bureau of Ethnology. Hours with the Ghosts: Or, Nineteenth Century Witchcraft, Henry Ridgely Evans, 1897

The original New York Herald article ran with the headline FRAUDS IN SPIRIT PICTURES. Dr. Hansmann, of Washington, the Victim of an Unscrupulous Medium. New York Herald 10 November 1895: p. 4 [this includes Dinwiddie’s expose.] 

But Dr. Hansmann refused to play the victim. The doctor wrote to the paper with a spirited defense of the medium Keeler, beginning “The undersigned was amused to find himself represented as a victim of mediums and would have kept silent if the article in question had, among many other inaccuracies, not represented Dr. William M. Keeler as a fraud, as the photographer who made the picture on which so many Indians surround a sitter.” Dr. Hansmann goes on to tell of his experiences with mediums and spirit photographers, ending with an account of a photo given to Hansmann supposedly from the late spirit photographer William H. Mumler.[Reference: New York Herald 1 December 1895: p. 8]

Dr. Hansmann also collected the autographs of the dead and famous. He had albums of photos and albums, as well as short, almost telegraphic messages that had been given him, often through slate-writing. A pamphlet from Dr. Hansmann name-dropped about the many messages he received from notables. Abraham Lincoln contributed several paragraphs, such as the following:

I shall never regret my early transition to the higher life, for the reason that I have had just that much time to develop the resources of my make-up in the spiritual kingdom. I feel as if I were now capable of teaching those who come over something. A president of the United States does not teach a people anything of practical value. I would rather be a humble spirit of true mind experience, than a flaunted head of any nation on the face of the earth and be simply a figurehead. I am truly glad to know you so well, sir, and I regret that I did not know you in the form. I knew all about these things in my mortal day. I had Belle Laurie [Spiritualist medium and piano tipper.] at the White House many times during the stormy rebellion to seek advice, how to proceed, from the higher realmed men, and I got it sir, and followed it out. Emancipation was born in heaven and my order came from that source, and I struck the blow as ordered by the invisibles, and it was mighty, for it was From God. I like to be a subject. I like to be something less than the Master.

(Signed) A. Lincoln.  

Religious figures such as Martin Luther, Pope Pius IX, Henry Ward Beecher, Bishop Gilbert Haven, and John Wesley sent short notes, as did Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, and medium Leah Fox Underhill. Several of the spirits expressed remorse that they had not done more to promote the truth of Spiritualism. William Wilson Corcoran, the art collector who founded Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, writes:

Would to God, I could be back. I would endow an establishment in Washington for Spiritualism. I shall be regretting my remissness until every vestige of the earth is gone, and every mortal that is now and ever is to be, is in the spirit world and saved.

(Signed) W. W. Corcoran. 

President U.S. Grant, who died in 1885, commented:

This is an auspicious occasion indeed and I am gratified that you display such interest in this great cause. I always did believe in this grand truth, but had I openly declared it my standing would have been jeopardized. If I had my life to live over again, I would most assuredly acknowledge my belief to the world—whatever the result.

(Signed)’ U. S. Grant.

The late president also sent a note adding,


The only proper place naturally considered for my body to rest, and where I desire it to be most emphatically is in Arlington cemetery. U. S. Grant. 

One spirit sent a message about seeing his own funeral:

Great God, if I could have known of this, as I now know it, a week or two ago. I see the obsequies with my own eyes over my own useless remains. Oh! Oh! what a remarkable incident.

Samuel J. Randall. [Pennsylvania Democratic politician and 33rd Speaker of the House.]

(On the day after his funeral).

All messages from Religious pamphlets, Volume 70, 1844 [Not actual date, but date of first pamphlet in series of unrelated religious pamphlets bound together.]

 In 1907 The Washington Times ran an article about fake spirit photographs on the same page as a collection of photographs from Dr Hansmann’s collection, with commentary. The photo found at the head of this post is described below. 

Distinguished Spook Friends

“On my recent eightieth birthday,” the doctor continued, “more than a hundred of my spirit friends came and gave me their photographs, among them Queen Victoria, General Grant, and the Indian, Red Cloud. I am very fond of Red Cloud,” he went on,” for he is a good Indian. You see him in the upper left hand corner of this picture, which was taken for me by the famous medium, S.W. Fallis, of Chicago.[Another example of a group spirit photo by Fallis can be seen here.]

“Notice the big halo of light around Red Cloud’s head,” added the doctor, proudly. “That means that he is a bright spirit and that he has many good qualities. Right below Red Cloud is my ‘friend,’ Prince Rudolph of Austria, and overlapping him is the Duchess d’Alencon [sister of Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Rudolph’s aunt.] Then we have my friend, Gladstone, and just under him a little niece of mine.

“The sweet little child between General Grant and President McKinley is my grandchild. She was a lovely flower of childhood. The lady on the right of our martyred President did not believe in spiritualism, but only a few days after she died, she came and gave us her picture. The lady wearing a cap in the center of the picture at the top is an aunt of mine, and a dear old lady she was. Then right beside her is my Italian friend, the poet Dante. Right under him is another poet, from Sweden, I believe. The lady beneath the Swedish poet was, for some reason, unknown to the doctor. But the one of his right shoulder is the Princess Alice, mother of the Czarina of Russia. The woman seated in front of the doctor’s spirit wife, Dr. Hansmann says, is Mrs. Charles Thomson, 3445 Mt. Pleasant street. Her husband is with the firm of O.L. Wolfsteiner Co., of this city. The Washington [DC] Times 17 February 1907: p. 39 

Tellingly, after this story and the beginning of another about the inventor Marconi attending several séances [see this post for details.], we find this rather extraordinary statement:

“While the story of the spooks photographed in Washington is combined with the following copyrighted story of how mediums in England manufacture ‘ghosts,’ there is no attempt made to throw discredit upon Dr. Hansmann, his spooks, or his photographs, or to explain how he made his ‘ghosts’ appear.” 

Normally the credulous were ridiculed by the newspapers, no matter what their status, but Dr. Hansmann is, for the most part, treated with kid gloves. It is rather baffling. However, there were less respectful articles, such as this headline from the Enquirer, which was a paper with an anti-Spiritualist bent 


Spirits Swamp Dr. Hansmann

He Slept in the Cabinet, and Good Gracious How The Lovely Forms From the Other World Crowded Around Him.

They Jabbered All Languages and Talked By Occult Telegraphy.

The Indian Red Cloud introduced himself on this occasion.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 10 June 1893: p. 10 

According to this obituary, he had advance warning of his earthly dissolution: 


Noted Spiritualist 91 Years Old and Long Ill.


Before Demise Former Physician of President Lincoln and Carl Schurz, Quoted Messages He Said He Had Received From Gen. Grant, Schurz, and Frederick of Germany.

Dr. Theodore Hansmann, 91 years old, who gained world-wide distinction a few years ago when he gave out letters and notes which he declared had been transmitted to him by the spirits of Empress Josephine, Joan of Arc, Gen. Francis J. Lippitt, Carl Schurz, Socrates, and other great personages of all the ages, died yesterday at his home, 1722 Willard street, after a long illness.

Dr. Hansmann first came into notice in 1907, shortly after he had retired from the practice of medicine and became a spiritualist. Calling in prominent Washington people, he took them to a room in his house, where he was developing pictures of what he called his “spirit friends.”

“The clear portraits are those of strong spirits capable of manifesting themselves in fleshy forms with perfection,” he said. “They are the kind of spirits that studied to perfect themselves here. The blurred ones are those who died without understanding spiritualism.”

Messages From Great Men.

He explained his method of getting the photographs, and said that he made them as they visited his room. Among the ones shown were Balzac, Napoleon, Presidents Lincoln and Grant, and Queen Louise of Prussia.

Up to the time of his death Dr. Hansmann declared that spiritualism was destined to revolutionize the world, do away with strife, abolish armies and modify legal and clerical methods.

“Only a few days ago,” he said recently,’ the spirit of Gen. Grant wrote me: ‘Hurry up, doctor. Prepare for spirit life; remember that earth is only a resting place.’”

Among Dr. Hansmann’s patients while he was in the practice of medicine in Washington were President Lincoln and Carl Schurz. During the illness of Emperor William Frederick of Germany he wrote to the royal family offering his services, but received no answer.

Three His Best Friends

“These three men are my best spirits,” Dr. Hansmann said. “Carl Schurz thought I was going crazy when I mentioned spiritualism to him. He knows better now and often writes me from the other world. After the emperor died, he wrote to me saying that he had wished me to come to Europe and treat him, but he had been overruled by others.”

Dr. Hansmann predicted the destruction of Pittsburgh, Pa., Petersburg, Va., and Charleston, S.C., by fire or earthquake. [What? Does anyone have any more information on this?]

He came to Washington in 1853, and at the time of the outbreak of the war was considered one of the leading physicians here. No funeral arrangements have been announced further than that it will be private. He is survived by four children. The Washington Post 13 August 1912: p. 2

Dr Hansmann is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, Washington DC with his wife.  

Some of the many articles on Dr Hansmann say that he actually took spirit photographs himself; others that he worked with mediums who specialized in that kind of work. Perhaps he did both.

But what is puzzling me is that I cannot find any trace of him in Lincoln biographies, not even in the books written to prove that Lincoln was himself a spiritualist, nor in several books about White House doctors. He was apparently well-known as a doctor and Spiritualist in Washington. Did mere proximity give rise to this purported relationship with Lincoln? Or did Dr. Hansmann’s memory improve upon his patient list? Spiritualist Doctor in DC + President with Spiritualist interests = Lincoln’s Doctor?  

Answers in a sealed slate, please to Chriswoodyard8 AT

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.




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