If you ever peruse Victorian photographs on Pinterest or the web, you probably have stumbled across one of the most famous pictures of ghost photography- Mary Todd Lincoln being consoled by the ghost of her husband, Abraham Lincoln. The picture is creepy, yet somehow draws you in. It is a photo of mourning, yet comfort at the same time. The photo has a universal quality to it. Don’t we all want to know that our passed loved ones are still near and watching over us, even to this day?
The ghost photograph of the Lincolns was taken by William H. Mumler around 1869. Mumler was an early dabbler in the art and science of photography just as the invention arrived in the United States from Europe. The new book, The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost by Peter Manseau takes us on a fascinating journey through the 1850s to just after the Civil War when photography becomes all the rage in the United States.
For the first time, people could capture and preserve- in the moment- images of their loved ones and hold them close even after that person passed away. Until that time, people of means maybe had a painted portrait or two created during their lifetime. For most people, images of their loved ones simply faded away with memories.
Photography, especially in the early years, was certainly a grand science experiment. First, the desired image needed to be captured on plates, then developed with a series of chemicals, followed by the printing of the image. The process was often dangerous, depending on the chemicals used, and time-consuming. In the early days, people had to sit without moving for several minutes so that there was enough time for the exposure to take place. Preparation of the camera plates and development of the photos also left lots of room for human error.
Whether he meant to be or not, William H. Mumler became one of the most famous and sought-after photographers of his time. Mumler appeared to have a gift- he caught spirit images in his photographs. How he did it, he never revealed. But most likely, he manipulated his camera plates and chemicals to expose such images into his portraits.
With such massive loss of life during the Civil War, coupled with the affordability of photography during the 1860s – almost every soldier had a photo taken of himself in uniform before heading off to war to leave with loved ones- people turned to photography to help them grieve. And Mumler one-upped this by capturing the spirits of those loved ones they were grieving.
In The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, Manseau explores the role of the Spiritualism Movement in America, which also helps explain people’s obsession with ghost photography. As we recently explored in the post about the Erie Canal, Spiritualism started in Upstate New York. People wanted to know their passed loved ones were still close and helping to guide their lives. Contacting the dead through mediums and séances became all the rage. Many of these activities were acts of showmanship and sleight of hand, but people didn’t care. They desperately wanted beliefs to hold onto. Spirit photography easily found its place among such believers.
Yet many people set out to prove Spiritualism practices such as Mumler’s ghost photography as fraud. Numerous people, including competitor photographers, came to Mumler’s studio to try and spot his manipulations. Articles for and against ghost photography were written about in popular magazines of the day.
All of this activity came to a head in 1869, when William Mumler gets charged with fraud and finds himself in the center of a lengthy and expensive court case. Most of the case was dramatically published in Harper’s Weekly. Manseau walks the reader through many of the transcripts of the trial. The trial takes numerous turns as witnesses argue not just whether William Mumler is guilty of fraud but whether ghosts are real and Spiritualism, in general, is reputable. Even P.T. Barnum, the ultimate showman of the time, steps in as a witness.
While a trial like William Mumler’s would certainly be thrown out of today’s courts, in 1869, the case received national attention. It is a curious look at how the court was conducted in Victorian America and leaves a lot to be desired.
I will leave the rest of the whodunnit and how, plus the outcome of the trial for you to find out when you read the book. The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost is an incredibly interesting read well worth your time.