The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost
by Peter Manseau
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27)
The best that can be said about photographer William Mumler is that he remains one of the great characters of the Civil War era, said Errol Morris in The New York Times. “We know that he was a fraud, but we don’t know what kind of fraud.” When he started creating and selling photos that ostensibly captured images of the dead, he may have been simply perpetuating a scam. But it’s also possible that the former Boston engraver was a true believer in so-called spirit photography and as susceptible as his clients were to a galloping hope that the living could communicate with the dead. In Peter Manseau’s smart new book, Mumler’s story crystallizes a moment when photography was so unsettling, it reshaped ideas about mortality.
“Maybe it was inevitable,” said Dan Piepenbring in NewYorker.com. Photography was, after all, a dark art dependent on an interplay of light and chemicals and resulting in images that appeared realer than real: “Cameras gazed into our lives—wasn’t it possible that they could see a little further, too?” Mumler created the first spirit photograph apparently by accident when an 1861 self-portrait emerged from the darkroom bearing a blurry image of a girl who looked like a deceased cousin. The news wowed members of Boston’s spiritualist movement, and soon Mumler was a national figure doing a thriving trade in spirit photos. Shortly after moving to New York, however, he was arrested on fraud charges.
That wasn’t the end for Mumler, said Karen Abbott in The Wall Street Journal. Though even P.T. Barnum testified against him, no expert was found who could explain how the defendant had performed his alleged trickery, and the acquittal was “as much a victory for the zeitgeist as for the photographer.” Mumler was thus free a few years later to produce his most famous spirit photograph: an 1871 portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln in which her late husband appears as a ghostly figure behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders. In the wake of a deadly war, it was a comforting image.