January 22, 2018

The Man Who Photographed Ghosts

The Man Who Photographed Ghosts

“The Apparitionists” is a primer on cultural crosscurrents in mid-19th-century America, focusing on the religious movement of spiritualism and on “spirit photography.” In today’s literature and discourse, there has been a focus on death as it figured in this historical period — from Drew Gilpin Faust’s nonfiction book “This Republic of Suffering” to George Saunders’s novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.” But rarely has the focus turned on the role of the dead in 19th-century photography, from the scores of Civil War casualties captured at Antietam and Gettysburg by photographers like Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, James Gibson and Mathew Brady, to the world of spirit photography immortalized, metaphorically at least, by William H. Mumler.


A picture of Mary Lincoln with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, around 1869.

Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana

Mumler, Manseau’s protagonist, is one of my favorite characters in the literature of the era. He took some of the most compelling spirit photographs of the 1860s that subjects swore contained images of their late beloved. The photos are compelling because of their weirdness; compelling because we, too, are almost seduced by the spirit images in them. We know that he was a fraud, but we don’t know what kind of fraud. Self-deceived true believer, confidence man or a blend of both? And the persistent mystery is, of course, how Mumler created these photographs. Do I believe in spirit photography? I blushingly confess I do not. I do not believe that spirits are recorded on photographic plates. But if we grant that this phenomenon does not result from some paranormal process, then how do we explain it? And how did Mumler keep his method hidden from the many witnesses and onlookers who hoped to expose him?

The trial of William Mumler, liberally excerpted in Part III of the book, is a landmark in the histories of photography and of America. It all started when the Irish immigrant and ardent Catholic Patrick V. Hickey encountered Mumler and his photographs at a meeting of the Photographic Section of the American Institute, held at New York’s Cooper Union. Suspicious of Mumler’s heretical trade, he visited him at his studio the following day. Hickey remained unconvinced about the verity of Mumler’s art, and went to the city marshal’s office to file a grievance. Marshal Joseph Tooker, Mayor A. Oakley Hall’s “confidant and crony,” took the case, visiting Mumler’s studio under the alias William Wallace and arresting Mumler after Tooker failed to recognize the apparition who appeared with him in Mumler’s photograph. A battle between science and spirituality, the case reads as a forerunner of the Scopes trial. On one hand, we could simply call it a foregone conclusion: There are no spirits, hence there are no spirit photographs. If, however, you refrain from that assumption, the debate becomes much stickier. What do you do when a desire to believe overwhelms common sense and a preponderance of evidence? Experts presented seven techniques Mumler might have used in faking his photographs, then other experts attested that they had seen Mumler using none of them.

The trial featured an array of extraordinary characters like Elbridge T. Gerry, Abraham Bogardus and Jeremiah Gurney. But in the end, it was P.T. Barnum whose testimony about “humbugs” may have saved Mumler from further incarceration and obloquy (not that he didn’t suffer his fair share of the latter anyway). Barnum’s equivocation about which came first, seeing or believing, cinched the deal for Mumler’s acquittal. Manseau takes us inside the judge’s head immediately after Barnum’s testimony. “‘However I might believe that trick and deception has been practiced by the prisoner, as I sit here in my capacity of magistrate, I am compelled to decide,’ he added with a note of resignation, ‘that the prosecution has failed to prove the case.’”


Manseau has created an exceptional story of how photography intersects with the hope that some heretofore unexplored scientific process will reveal something about the nature of man and our limitations. It is one of the persistent myths of mankind that death isn’t final — that photography, which transcends time and space, can show a way around death.

Several great moments in American history are mentioned casually, but we still feel their importance. There’s the account of then-senator Abraham Lincoln selecting Brady to be his portraitist for the 1860 election. “Lincoln did not look much like a statesman as he stood in Brady’s posing room. The photographer drew up Lincoln’s collar to shorten the appearance of his neck, and determined that he could put his artists to work taming Lincoln’s hair after the image had been developed. They also might smooth the crags in his face — whatever might be done to make him appear more presidential. As a final touch, Brady placed Lincoln’s hand on a book, as if the senator were already taking the oath of office.” Thereafter, Brady persuaded Mary Todd Lincoln to be photographed in March 1861. “Mrs. Lincoln thought she looked too stern and matronly, and that her hands were too big. As he had with her husband, Brady posed his nervous subject, finding the best possible angle with which to display her profile. He then carefully arranged her hands to seem more dainty.” The result of all these artistic adjustments was immensely pleasing to the future first lady. “Half fantasy, half reality, it was one of her favorite photographs of herself.” Perhaps most photography fits this description.

I tracked down the source of Manseau’s Kafka epigraph, that line characterizing photography as a tool of misrepresentation and tergiversation. It’s in Gustav Janouch’s “Conversations With Kafka,” and the full exchange tells a different story. “The drawing is wonderful. It is full of truth,” Kafka repeats again and again. Janouch, his interlocutor, asks: “Do you mean that it is true to life as a photograph is?” Kafka replies: “What are you thinking of? Nothing can be so deceiving as a photograph. Truth, after all, is an affair of the heart. One can get at it only through art.” Needless to say, I prefer Manseau’s abbreviated version. It more accurately expresses my own sympathies with respect to photography.

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