According to P.T. Barnum, "There's a sucker born every minute." It's not hard to figure out why people fall for seemingly obvious scams, and nearly impossible to prevent: The bad guys are almost always ahead of the curve, and even the softest swindle carries solid odds for working at least the first time. New technologies in particular—especially in combination with the right cultural dynamics—open the door for some peculiar or unexpected results; that Trojan Horse was pretty sweet, and who among us didn't trust social networks to feed us accurate news and information?
William Mumler found one such conjunction. A Boston photographer who exposed his first picture during the Civil War, Mumler became a sensation for his portraits that captured not only his subjects, but also the ghostly images of their deceased relatives and loved ones—and after the war, there was no shortage of either. Nor did he lack for credulous customers, all eager for the "spirit photographer" to assuage their grief with physical proof of everlasting existence. Even Mary Todd Lincoln summoned Mumler in hopes of reconnecting with her fallen husband. Guess what? He came through. Not for free, of course.
Peter Manseau's The Apparationists tells the whole weird tale of Mumler, his believers, and those who cried "Fraud!" but could never definitively pin it on him, despite a trial featuring Barnum himself as a star witness for the prosecution. Manseau's book is a snapshot of a nation in transition, caught between catastrophic conflict and the dawn of an age of revolutionary industry and technology.
Enjoy these ghostly images from the book, along with a few words from Manseau. In the age of Photoshop, it's hard to imagine these photographs fooling anyone. Then again, there's no evidence P.T. Barnum ever said "There's a sucker born every minute."
A Note from the Author of The Apparitionists
In these days when an unprecedented number of amateur image makers carry cameras everywhere they go, it is my hope that the story in The Apparitionists of photography’s infancy will provide a fresh view of a time shaped by war, belief, new technology, and a longing for connection across ever greater distances — a time not unlike our own. The entwined narratives told here — concerning photography’s coming of age and the ghostly visions peddled by a photographer of dubious repute — together form an account of how captured images, and the possibility of manipulating them, overtook all other means of recording memories, documenting history, and understanding the past. —Peter Manseau
Self-taught chemist and metal engraver William Mumler took up photography through the influence of the spiritual medium Hannah Stuart, who likely is the woman pictured here, along with a spirit she claimed as a mentor.
Though many in the Spiritualist community were skeptical of Mumler's images, Boston's most famous medium Fannie Conant had sufficient belief in his abilities to sit for his camera on more than one occasion. She is pictured here with a spirit image she recognized as her brother.
Spiritualists were not the only practitioners of the photography accused of manipulating images. Celebrated Civil War chronicler Alexander Gardner carried props with him on the battlefield in order to make more compelling images of the dead, including the famous "Home of the Rebel Sharpshooter," taken at Gettysburg in July 1863.
Mrs. Tinkham with a spirit she recognized as her child. William Mumler, 1862-1875.
Bronson Murray with the spirit image of Ella Bonner. William Mumler, 1872.
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