“No subject since the days of the Rochester Knockings has stirred New York into so much discussion on the subject of Spiritualism as the late arrest of Mr. Mumler for pretending to take spirit-photographs.” – Banner of Light, May 8, 1869
“Yes, about photographic ghost stories! And why not? Pray, are there any reasons why we photographers should not have our own peculiar ghost stories to chat about while sitting around our cozy hearths during these long winter evenings?” – British Journal of Photography, January 1, 1863
Photographing the spirits of the dead made William Mumler famous from 1862 until 1869. It also got him in trouble with the law. Louis Kaplan tells this sensational story in The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer.
|The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer by Louis Kaplan. Published by the University of Minnesota Press (2008). $75.00 (hardcover), $24.95 (paperback).|
The book’s subject is highly intriguing, but this is unambiguously an academic publication. Newspaper excerpts, Mumler’s diary, the proceedings of his trial, and other documents make this anthology a heavy read. Kaplan does a good job of presenting both sides of the story and letting the reader decide about Mumler’s methods and motives—be they spiritual or earthly. Unfortunately, the concluding section doesn’t seem to fit; in fact, a portion of the conclusion was published separately in 2003 as “Where Paranoid Meets the Paranormal: Speculations on Spirit Photography.”
The book’s introduction would actually be better suited as a conclusion. It is comprehensive, well-organized and refreshingly readable, since the body of the book is original source material, and it can be tedious to wade through the thick 19th century prose. The material is exhaustively descriptive and full of period vernacular like the word “humbug,” which is thrown about quite a bit. That said, Kaplan’s book is a great reference for anyone studying photography, the Civil War era, trial law, ghosts, or spiritualism.
In the end, no one could figure out how Mumler produced his spirit photography. Some argued that his wife was in on it, or that other spiritualists of that time helped him, but the fact is that several prominent photographers sat in for his pictures, watched every step of the process, and still could not spot any tricks. When Mumler went on trial for defrauding the public with his spirit photos, the prosecution claimed there were nine different ways a photographer could produce such images—but they couldn’t pin any of them conclusively on Mumler. The case was finally dismissed, and Mumler’s mysterious spirits haunt us still.
Melissa Slachetka (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Minneapolis and contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.