The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer

Louis Kaplan,
The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008
ISBN: 978 0 8166 5156 6
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer uses primary source documents – including prints of original photographs – to tell the fascinating story of a Boston jewel engraver who switched careers in order to become what was termed a spirit photographer. An amateur photographer in his spare time, Mumler’s big break came in March 1861 when he developed a self-portrait that appeared to feature the spirit of his long-dead cousin. Coat-tailing on the extremely spiritualist religious movement, Mumler made a small fortune photographing various living subjects – each of whom would be accompanied by the vague apparition of a deceased relative, a spirit guide, or a historically significant person acting as a mentor or guide. As author Louis Kaplan explains in his 2003 article “Where the Paranoid Meets the Paranormal: Speculations on Spirit Photography” (Art Journal, 62.3 [Autumn, 2003]: pp. 19-29], “with its origins set against the background of life (and death) during the Civil War, spirit photography would help many mourners cope with the tragic losses around them. . . . spirit photographs reinforced the familial function of photography by purporting to expose the ghosts of dead friends and relatives to their survivors. In this manner, spiritualism’s belief in the afterlife and the possibility of communication with the dead manifested itself in the realm of the visible by means of these spirit photographic proofs imprinted upon glass-plate negatives” (p. 19). The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer details how the father of spirit photography first moved to New York to maximize his spirit photography business, and finding himself constantly tested by photographers, scientists, and ultimately the law, was ultimately brought to trial for fraud in 1869. Fortunately for Mumler, no one was ever able to determine exactly how he managed to create his spirit photographs. Though acquitted, however, he was ruined and died in poverty in 1884.

Basically a summary of the ordeal which lead to the trial, the opening chapter of Kaplan’s book-length study explains how spiritualism actually helped feed the call for spirit photography. The author notes the role of philosophers like spiritualist leader Andrew Jackson Davis, who was coincidentally the writer and editor of The Herald of Progress, one of the first serials to offer a mass media account of what Kaplan cleverly calls Mumler’s “ghostly development” (p. 7). In essence, the chapter examines spirit photography as part of larger phenomena, such as the women’s movement which informed spiritualism and the photographic testing of the physical boundaries of reality, such as the time-motion studies of E. J. Marey or Eadweard Muybridge. Kaplan points out that in Mumler’s autobiography, The Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit-Photography(Colby and Rich, 1875), the maligned photographer speaks of spirit photography in scientific terms, relating it to a branch of physics called florescence. Finally, Kaplan explains the role that tabloid journalism and trade magazines had in popularizing both Mumler’s questionable photographs and his subsequent 1869 trial for fraud, noting that it was the intervention of science columnist P. V. Hickey of the New York World which led to the sting investigation by Marshal Joseph Tooker – an investigation which resulted in Mumler’s being taken to trial in front of Judge John Dowling, who ultimately found the photographer not guilty due to a lack of evidence.

In his second chapter, Kaplan chronicles early accounts of Mumler in the press, beginning with an entry from the October 1862 Herald of Progress article called “Spirit Photographs: A New and Interesting Development.” He also includes brief editorials from the Banner of Light during the latter months of 1862, and these attest to the ongoing debate on the veracity of both spiritualism and spirit photography. In these excerpts, academics, professionals, and intellectuals debate supernatural phenomena and give serious consideration to spirit photography, approaching the phenomenon logically, philosophically, and scientifically. Other periodicals noted by Kaplan include The Spiritual Magazine and The British Journal of Photography, the latter being a satirical elaboration on how Mumler (referred to as Mumbler in one sentence) is likely hood-winking unsuspecting Americans by simply using what photographers at the time called “sweaty glass,” a particular type of photographic plate which retains faint images no matter how often it has been cleaned.

The third chapter excerpts P.T Barnum’s “Spiritual Photographing” from Humbugs of the World: An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits, and Deceivers Generally, in All Ages (Carleton Publishers, 1866). Here Barnum (who testified against Mumler in his 1869 trial) uses thinly veiled sarcasm to all but accuse Mumler and Davis of being accomplices, with the photographer giving the spiritualist a $5.00 kick back from every widow and widower who had a spiritual photography sitting. Barnum relates the story of William Cornell (“Colorado”) Jewett, the publicist and peace advocate who travelled to Europe to plead for universal peace in 1864 and attempted to negotiate an end to the U. S. Civil War at Niagara Falls in July 1864.

In Barnum’s account, Jewett is made into somewhat of a buffoon by Mumler, who strings the activist along with promises of messages from great American statesmen like Washington and Lincoln, raising his fees each sitting. The next chapter reprints much of the text of Mumler’s autobiography, wherein the photographer himself tells the tale of how he innocently stumbled onto spirit photography by developing a self-portrait in which his deceased cousin appeared. He goes on to tell how he himself originally believed that the “spirit” image was nothing more than the product of a dirty photographic plate. He writes that he showed the self-portrait with the “ghost image” on it to a spiritualist as a joke, and was surprised to find himself in the pages of the Herald of Progress the next week. According to Mumler, afterwards he was approached by various spiritualists who wanted his services, to which he reluctantly agreed – soon discovering that he indeed had a gift for calling up spirits in his studio. The chapter reveals that Mumler went through great pains in his writing to counter arguments that he was a charlatan, for he includes various stories of being visited by “men of science” and other photographers, each of whom attempted, unsuccessfully, to prove that the photos were fraudulently produced by some form of trickery. Here Kaplan allows Mumler, in his own words, to recount various historically important sittings, including the famous encounter with Mary Todd Lincoln. In the same fashion readers also get to hear the photographer’s first-hand account of his trial, and of his being found innocent on all charges. The chapter attests that Mumler spent much of his life trying to live down his reputation as a fraud, as it shows him vehemently asserting his innocence.

In the next chapter, Kaplan balances the story by reproducing the entire argument of prosecutor Elbridge T. Gerry, as presented before Justice Dowling on May 3rd and recorded by Andrew Devine of Baker, Voorhis and Co. Law Publishers. Here, Gerry begins by acknowledging the wiliness of Mumler’s defense attorney, John D. Townsend, who with “legal acuteness and professional ability alone, would suffice to extricate this client from the consequences of his crimes. . . .” (p. 141). Gerry’s argument accuses Mumler of two felonies and one misdemeanor, one count of fraudulently acquiring ten dollars from Tooker; one count of defrauding the public; and one count of breaking and entering in order to steal photographs which could then be used in his spirit photography. By allowing Gerry to speak for himself, Kaplan makes accessible to readers the difficulty under which the prosecution labored in proving that Mumler used fraudulent practices to swindle people. Because Gerry could find no expert who could prove that Mumler used trickery (he hinted at it by having Barnum, as a witness, produce a “spirit photo” of his own with the help of photographer Abraham Bogardus), he found himself attacking the very idea of spiritualism, at some points calling it repackaged pantheism and claiming that its beliefs ran counter to the Christian bible. Gerry’s argument attacks each and every witness presented in Mumler’s defense, as being either disingenuous or an accomplice, or lacking the ability to discern Mumler’s dupe, due to excessive grief or a wrongheaded belief in spiritualism.

In his final chapter, Kaplan chronicles the Mumler trial in the press, beginning with an April 13, 1869 entry in the New York Daily Tribune, and ending with a May 8, 1869 entry from Banner of LightThe Daily Tribune entry all but condemns Mumler, announcing the trial by noting that “by a process well known to professional photographers and scientific men,” Mumler (called Mumbler) and his accomplice (William W. Silver, alias Gray or Guay) duped various sitters (which the author of the article slips up and calls “victims”) with spirit photography. Later entries from The Daily Tribune and the New York Times attest to the circus atmosphere which informed the trial, as they tell of people crowding the Tombs Police Court hours before testimony began on any given day. The Daily Tribune, in fact, would reprint verbatim certain testimony, such as the Barnum/Bogardus explanation of how the spirit effect could be achieved through photographic trickery. A May 4, 1869 entry from the New York World details the acquittal, citing Judge Dowling as stating that although he was “morally convinced that there may be fraud” (p. 206), the prosecution had failed to make its case. The remainder of the articles included by Kaplan show the reaction to the acquittal, including The Photographic Section of the American Institute’s announcement in the Philadelphia Photographer that it formally condemns the practice of spirit photography. In the same resolution, it applauded Hickey for his role in bringing about Mumler’s downfall.

Kaplan’s conclusion, “Spooked Theories: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and the Specters of Mumler,” albeit somewhat of a revision (or more accurately a re-visitation) of his 2003 article, does manage to bring this entire text full of diverse primary documents to a fulfilling close. Now that he has allowed the principles in Mumler’s trial to speak for themselves, giving the reader many subjective perspectives from which to glean the truth, the author returns to the practice of tying together loose ends by summarizing the mindset of spiritualism. Here, he presents theories by various scholars which place studies such as hauntology, the theory of the uncanny, theories of mourning, and theories of paranoia into perspective. Though not as comprehensive as Clément Chéroux’s 2005 study of spirit photography, The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press), Kaplan’s collection of narratives (bookended by his authorial exposition, which allows readers to piece together this puzzle of primary sources) is, generally speaking, a more scholarly endeavor. Granted, Kaplan covers only a small part of the life of Mumler, and his emphasis is solely on the trial, but by offering just this one snapshot of the spirit photography movement, Kaplan sheds light on the social milieu that made the practice possible and profitable – as well as the changing landscape that ultimately doomed it. This text is a must for any academic collection that supports psychology, sociology, history, or art programs.

Tony Fonseca,
Nicholls State University, USA.

Created on: Saturday, 18 April 2009