The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, by Louis Kaplan


Louis Kaplan’s 2008 book is a valuable contribution to the literature on spirit photography.  It focuses on William Mumler, an engraver-turned-photographer who began producing spirit photographs in the United States in the 1860s and is most famous for the photograph of presidential widow Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirits of her deceased husband and son.  Initially operating in Boston, Mumler claimed to be able to capture images of otherwise invisible departed spirits in studio photographs, and he sold these to the sitters for a substantial premium.  Having become a controversial figure in Boston he removed to New York where in 1869 he found himself on trial when, as the result of a complaint received, the mayor assigned a marshal, Joseph H. Tooker, to investigate a possible scam and Tooker had his photograph taken in Mumler’s studio.  Following this sting, Mumler was accused of two felonies and a misdemeanour: fraudulently obtaining $10 from Tooker, and defrauding the public by taking money by false pretences.

The book consists of a compilation of primary documents, accompanied by two scholarly essays by Kaplan and illustrated by a generous number of Mumler’s spirit photographs.  A selection of newspaper articles is divided into two chapters, the first dealing with the beginning of Mumler’s spirit photography career, the second his trial.  Those in the first are drawn from the Spiritualist papers, with the exception of one from The British Journal of Photography; the second is devoted to the trial and articles are drawn mostly from  general New York newspapers.  Why this set has been chosen out of the extensive coverage Mumler’s activities and trial attracted is not clear, but what has been included gives a sufficient flavour.

The coverage begins in September 1862 with Andrew Jackson Davis’s Herald of Progress describing this ‘new and interesting development’ and the articles included give an indication of the disagreements Mumler stimulated.  Mumler was enormously assisted by such periodicals as the Herald of Progress, the Banner of Light and the Spiritual Magazine, a literature that was helping to form the Spiritualist identity.  The mainstream articles in the second of the chapters provide a valuable resource for their detailed coverage of the trial, airing the issues raised by defence and prosecution.  It was one of the papers which was responsible for the trial – the New York World instigated the investigation of Mumler when its science correspondent alerted the authorities.

In addition to press articles the chapter on ‘Spiritual Photographing’ in P. T. Barnum’s 1866 The Humbugs of the World is included (no prizes then for guessing Barnum’s view of spirit photography).  Barnum appeared at the trial, enjoying himself hugely, even though he admitted he had never met Mumler.  He said they had corresponded but thought the letters destroyed, though Mumler denied any communication between them.

There is also Mumler’s own 1875 self-justification Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit-Photography, in which he recounts how hard done by he was, and retails an extensive number of testimonials.  Not all Spiritualists were convinced of the genuineness of the photographs and Mumler’s son was not allowed to display samples at a New York Spiritualist meeting, reporting to his father that the person in charge had told him ‘to clear out with those humbug spirit-pictures’  (it is surprising Mumler should have included this incident when it would have been to his advantage to give the impression the Spiritualist community backed him wholeheartedly and he was persecuted solely by wicked materialists).

Elbridge T Gerry’s long-winded case for the prosecution in the trial is included, an astonishingly lengthy dissection of what was on the face of it a minor offence, but for Gerry there was more at stake than the accusation of a $10 fraud because his speech highlights the threat Christians considered Spiritualism to be.  He indicates a range of methods by which Mumler might have cheated, but the bedrock of his lengthy dissection is a view that Spiritualism runs counter to Christianity and cannot therefore be true.  For someone like Gerry it would have been yet one more strand of attack, the other coming from scientific debates about evolution generated by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 (not mentioned by Kaplan).  The case is therefore located at the intersection of science, theology and the law.

Very usefully Gerry lists nine methods photographic experts had suggested to him for Mumler’s effects, and he argues this menu could be tailored to the circumstances according to how much leeway Mumler had from his sitters; repeated sittings leading to a loss of concentration could be employed with particularly awkward customers.  For Kaplan’s readers not familiar with cameras of the period and the way the collodion wet plate process worked this section will not be terribly enlightening, and an explanatory gloss by Kaplan would have been helpful in assessing the various possible methods put forward by Gerry by which Mumler might have faked the images.

On the other side of the camera, Gerry analyses the sitters and notes that in their will to believe they would have been prepared to acknowledge faces as those of deceased relatives even when the image was faint.  The assertion by supporters that Mumler achieved results where no photograph of the deceased while alive was extant could be countered by claiming that as long as Mumler had some idea of the deceased’s appearance and could supply a generic likeness, imagination by the sitter would fill in the rest (as indicated when different sitters thought the same extra to be their own kin).  Those instances where extras were identified as still-living individuals did not help his credibility.

Despite the elaborate nature and ingenuity of his arguments, the close analysis of 20 specific images and hypothetical methods for their production, Gerry was unable to prove conclusively how Mumler did it and was reduced to characterising those individuals called by Mumler’s defence as foolish dupes, too desirous to accept the extras to be able to assess the process dispassionately.  Meanwhile Mumler’s defence was careful to claim he had no knowledge of how the extras arrived on the plates, thereby side-stepping the charge he was a conscious cheat.  Judge Dowling, while ‘morally convinced that there may be fraud and deception practised by the prisoner’, stated that in his opinion the prosecution had failed to make its case, and Mumler was acquitted on all charges.  The Banner of Light was jubilant that whatever Mumler had or had not done, the trial had afforded Spiritualism a great deal of coverage in the daily press, allowing the views of the movement’s leaders to be promoted widely, and with the bonus that the outcome would discourage similar prosecutions in future.  This was scant consolation to Mumler who found himself in financial difficulties, as a result of which he returned to Boston.

The primary material is bookended by a pair of Kaplan’s own essays: ‘Ghostly Developments’ and ‘Spooked Theories: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and the Specters of Mumler’.  The first is the more grounded, looking at how spirit photography fitted into the development of Spiritualism, scientific and religious debates, how Mumler’s operation and his trial were utilised by the growing popular and specialist press as a way to boost circulation, the legal ramifications of his trial, the development of visual entertainment, and how spirit photographs were part of the culture of therapeutic memorialisation.  A single essay cannot do justice to all these points, and Kaplan can only touch on them lightly.  The second essay is more theoretical, with the usual suspects: Sigmund Freud’s uncanny, Jacques Derrida’s hauntology, Jacques Lacan and the gaze.  This concluding essay will be as useful to the reader as he or she finds such concepts as psychoanalysis and deconstruction to be valid.

By bringing together Mumler’s own writing on his work, critical views and newspaper coverage, and not least Mumler’s own photographs, Kaplan allows the reader to see the issues in the round.  He adopts a neutral pose on the reality of the images while charting what he refers to as the ‘iconoclash’ between sceptics and believers.  It is a fair assumption that nowadays more readers will consider Mumler’s spirit photographs fraudulent than genuine, but the situation was not clear-cut in the mid-nineteenth century.  A realisation that there was not necessarily an indexical relationship between what was in front of the camera and what was captured on the plate was already growing.  It was increasingly clear that photography was capable of going beyond what was visible to the eye, not least the use of photography in the spectral analysis of light, big news in 1861.  Spirit photography was similarly advanced in scientific terms by its proponents: if photography could be utilised to render the invisible visible in one sphere, why not in another?    Conversely, the use of darkroom manipulation to make composite prints and humorous stereoscopic ghostly forms using double exposures was becoming well known, and if an obviously fake ghost could be produced as an entertainment, why should spirit photographs be taken seriously on the word of the photographer?  A commentator asked despondently after the trial how anybody could now trust the accuracy of a photograph; the answer was nobody ever could.

This is not a comprehensive biography of Mumler, about whom there is a lot more to say than that he was a spirit photographer.  The final paragraph of Kaplan’s introduction quotes from Mumler’s obituary in the Photographic Times in 1884, noting various accomplishments as a photographic experimenter.  He deserves a comprehensive biography, however, as far as his involvement in spirit photography is concerned, Kaplan’s compilation is an excellent resource.


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