Review: Peter Manseau’s “The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost”

It’s not easy to forget Steve Szilagyi’s 1992 weird novel, Photographing Fairies, the account of an American photographer in England who encounters two young girls who insist they have seen fairies and possess photographs as their proof. The complex story also involves Arthur Conan Doyle—who claims to possess different “fairy” photographs—and plenty of intrigue and violence. The novel is based on a real incident in 1917 when a number of famous people who should have known better believed that a camera could render visible what the eye could not see, that communication between the living and the spirit world was possible. Looking up information about the novel, I learned that the Photographing Fairies was made into a British film, with the same title, which I have not seen.

Equally intriguing—but this time on American soil—is Peter Manseau’s account of still photographs of real people (sometimes famous) with spirits of the dead hovering over them or, in some cases, embracing them: The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, though the time in much earlier (soon after the birth of photography and after the Civil War). The book is filled with the reproductions of the spirit photographs, each one introducing one of the book’s many chapters. The most impressive aspect of Manseau’s work is the way he orchestrates aspects of spiritualism, photography, and the Civil War—especially the needs of families after the war who sought comfort in their beliefs that their dead sons, husbands, or brothers where still hovering around them. The emotional loss was so enormous because of the staggering number of men killed in the war, but also a source of huge profit for William Mumler, the Bostonian photographer, who perpetrated the entire fraud on grieving survivors.

Spirit photography was ancillary to the rise of spiritualism in the United States before the Civil War. Sometimes the two worked hand in hand. Mumler married one of the most famous spiritualists of the time, Hannah Stuart, though the movement had begun with the Fox sisters, somewhat earlier. “Though often remembered as a fringe pursuit run by séance-holding huskers, Spiritualism was a major cultural force. For a time, it seemed it would become one of the most widely held religious practices in America.” Adherents retorted that if people doubted contact with the deceased, there should be equal concern about Samuel Morse’s recent invention, the telegraph. P. T. Barnum was at the height of his fame, with one dubious attraction after another. Even phrenology (also on the ascent) claimed that the shape of one’s head could reveal one’s inner character, i.e., the unseen could be analyzed by what was visible. The most famous photographer of the time, Matthew Brady, began his career as a photographer at Blackwell’s Island: collaborating “with prison matron Eliza Farnham, [on] the pseudoscience of head measurement—‘bumpology,’ as phrenology was sometimes derided in the press….”

After the Civil War, there were numerous exhibits of dead bodies from the battles, including Barnum’s The American Museum in New York City, which exhibited Brady’s photos (often taken by one of his assistants). Some of the photos were staged and/or faked. The public appeared to be obsessed with the recent carnage and—for the first time ever—photographic accounts of what had occurred. Spiritualists acquired increased popularity as did William Mumler, who charged $10.00 (a whopping amount of money for the time) for a spirit setting, though he did not guarantee that a spirit’s image would be visible in the finished photo. Still, his profits were enormous, that needy were family survivors to make “contact” with the deceased. Manseau refers to these as “life after death” photos.

Mumler himself observed, “What joy to the troubled heart! What balm to the aching breast! What peace and comfort to the weary soul! To know that our friends who have passed away can return and give us unmistakable evidence of a life hereafter—that they are with us, and seize with avidity every opportunity to make themselves known; but alas, in many instances, that old door of sectarianism has closed against them, and prevents their entering once more the portals of their loved ones and be identified.” It didn’t matter to Mumler that it was all a fraud. One customer observed, “Many persons would gladly give a thousand dollars to obtain the likeness of a deceased friend or relative….” The gullible were convinced that the vague shadow of a “spirit” in the background was a family member or someone they knew.

Mumler’s work should have ended with a prison sentence because the skeptics were watching him carefully, but when he was finally arrested and tried, in 1869, many of the witnesses were his satisfied customers who did not question his practice. His most convincing witness was a respected judge (of New York’s supreme court) who remarked, “There is in Spiritualism that which comforts the mourner, and binds up the broken-hearted…that which smoothes the passage to the grave, and robs death of its terrors.” No surprise that the judge had lost his wife and been involved with spiritualists. And because no one had ever been able to identify the process that the accused had used to print photos with spirit images in them, Mumler won his trial, though his reputation was tarnished.

Mumler returned the Boston where his career as a photographer had begun years earlier. Not surprisingly, his life took an upturn. “Mumler had found new ways to control the chemical reactions on which all photography at the time depended. The ultimate fruit of his mastery of manipulation was a method of printing images directly from photographs to newsprint. The ‘Mumler process,’ as it was known, allowed printers to forgo the usual step of having a photographic plate copied by hand by an illustrator or wood engraver, revolutionizing the ability to reproduce images by the thousands.” His success was assured; his obituary in 1884 was devoted almost exclusively to his photo-electrotype discoveries, with only a final sentence about his more notorious activities: “The deceased at one time gained considerable notoriety in connection with spirit photographs.”

Peter Manseau’s The Apparitionists tells us much more about the climate of gullibility and grief in the United States leading up to the Civil War and its aftermath than it does about the charlatans who fed on human emotions. It’s a masterful work of human deception.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.