by Sarah Czarnecki
You're not alone if you look at this photo and wonder, what on earth (or beyond) is going on here? Are those ghosts in the background? Who is that woman? What sort of spooky nonsense is happening here?
To answer these questions, we welcome you to the world of spirit photography.
A Brief History of Spirit Photography
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the new spiritualist movement swept across the United States. The war claimed over 600,000 lives, leaving the country in a deep state of mourning. People who had lost loved ones in the war were desperately searching for any way that they could have a connection with those they lost too soon. Spiritualism promised that very thing.
Spirit photography began in the 1860s, at the height of the popularity of Spiritualism, with a man named William H. Mumler. While developing a self-portrait, he noticed what appeared to be another person, a young woman, in the background of the image. Noting the popularity of seances at the time, and looking to turn a profit, Mumler began acting as a spiritualist, doctoring people’s photographs with double exposure images of their loved ones or other, possibly unknown "spirits" to make it seem as though they were present at the side of the living subject of the image. Mumler gained huge acclaim for this, and soon his work was being copied throughout the country.
Spirit photography became massively popular between 1860 and the early 1920s, despite many prominent so-called “spiritualists” being exposed as frauds peddling parlor tricks. Even sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a devoted believer in spirit photography, writing an entire book on the subject titled The Case for Spirit Photography.
The Rust Photo
The family to whom this photo originally belonged was the Rust Family, who moved to Gig Harbor from New York in 1892. The woman in the lower portion of the photo is Estella Dunham Sheldon Rust. It was donated to the museum by Arveida Livingston, Estella's great granddaughter.
We are lucky to house the diaries of both Estella and Dr. Hiram Rust in our collection, along with photographs of family members and newspaper clippings related to Dr. Rust and his wife; all of which give us a rich picture of this family's life.
Before marrying Hiram Rust, Estella had wed a prominent farmer named Lyman Sheldon, with whom she had 5 children. Three of their children unfortunately died in infancy, with only Fred and Ettie Sheldon surviving to adulthood. As if the loss of her children wasn’t enough grief to bear, Lyman Sheldon died suddenly on January 20, 1872, leaving Estella widowed with two children to care for.
Later that year, Estella married Dr. Hiram Rust from New York. Twenty years after their marriage, Estella, Dr. Rust, their son, and Fred and Ettie Sheldon all ventured West to settle in Gig Harbor, Washington.
Of the four children Estella had with Dr. Rust, Benjamin, born in 1876, was the only one who survived infancy. With a yearn for adventure, Benjamin followed call of the Klondike, venturing North in 1897. During his time there, he fell ill with typhoid. Despite his parents' attempts to nurse him back to health, Benjamin passed away on December 2, 1899 at the age of 23. (Image of his grave site at Artondale Cemetery is shown below, along with his likeness.)
Despite her frequent and fraught encounters with grief, Estella seemed to lead a happy enough life. In her diary she writes about going on walks with various friends and family, aiding Ettie with various projects, visits with her ailing but seemingly good-spirited sister Charlotte, and corresponding frequently with those she held dear, such as Fred, who lived in Tacoma.
Estella passed away in 1921, with Dr. Hiram Rust passing one year later in 1922. They are both buried in Artondale cemetery, the same cemetery in which Benjamin was laid to rest.
Estella Rust was clearly no stranger to grief and the loss of loved ones. With the fervor of the spiritualist movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is understandable that she would want to seize the opportunity to reach out to the “beyond” and contact those she had lost. We know from our available records regarding the photo that she became particularly interested in the occult after the passing of Benjamin.
While our collection of primary sources provides us with rich clues and insights into the lives of Estella and Hiram, very little mention of this fascinating photo is to be found. As we know, Estella is the woman sitting in the chair, but who are the other three faces? Benjamin? Lyman? Charlotte? We did a little digging to find images to compare.
Pictured here with Estella's "spirits" are (left to right) Fred Sheldon (son), Lyman Sheldon (late husband), and Benjamin Rust (son). Do you see any likeness?
As it turns out, even Estella herself didn't recognize any of these faces, writing in her diary that she was unaware of the names of the “spirits” depicted.
So, there you have it, from charlatans and a tick of the light in Boston, Massachusetts, all the way to a woman’s quest to be reunited with her lost son in Washington, the enigmatic Rust spirit photo remains a tender yet slightly jarring piece of Gig Harbor history. Despite its unknown faces, Estella's spirit photograph perpetuates a mystery that connects us both to "the beyond" and a nationwide phenomena. Who might appear in your spirit photograph?
Find Out More About Mumler's Spirit Photography
Nartonis, David K. “The Rise of 19th-century American Spiritualism, 1854-1873”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 49, No. 2, June 20120, pp. 361-373.
Estella Rust, Personal Journals. 1888-1921, Harbor History Museum Collection
Benjamin Rust's Grave Site and Portrait, 1899, Harbor History Museum Collection
Obituary, Estella Rust. Feb 20, 1921
Lyman Sheldon Biography and Portrait, Ancestry.com.