Segment from Haunted Histories

That’s The Spirit

Peter Manseau tells Brian the story of William Mumler, who claimed to capture ghosts in his Civil War-era photographs. But as Mumler’s fame for his so-called spirit photographs grew, so did the doubt that he could commune with the dead at all. 


Conscious Drifting by Ketsa

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

Joanne Freeman: One day in 1861 amateur photographer William Mumler sat down to take a self portrait in his Boston studio. Mumler later claimed that when he went to develop the image, he found quite the surprise.

Brian: Because he discovered that though he had been alone in the room where the picture was taken, he was not alone in the photograph. Standing next to him was a picture of a ghost.

Joanne Freeman: Brian spoke do Peter Manseau last year. He says that Mumler had miraculously captured a hazy image of a young woman hovering above his shoulders.

Brian: He first thought it was something of a joke and he showed it to people saying, look at this strange mistake I have made, but then he became convinced that he had in fact captured the image of a lingering spirit in his photo studio.

Joanne Freeman: The photographer believed that the phantasmic figure was a cousin who had died 12 years earlier. The picture and the story it told soon found a ready audience. As we’ve just heard, spiritualism was sweeping the nation during the Civil War era, and spiritualists were hungry for evidence of their beliefs.

Brian: They thought that this new technology of photography was leading to a new revelation, a new moment in the interaction between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Joanne Freeman: Mumler and his wife, Hannah, saw a lucrative opportunity and began selling spirit photographs. Their most famous customer was Mary Todd Lincoln, who emerged from their studio with a portrait of her murdered husband, protectively resting his hands on her shoulders.

Peter Manseau: So you could visit the Mumler studio the same way you would visit any portrait studio at the time. You would sit in a well-appointed room, and when you had your photograph given to you, you might see, if you were lucky, the image of a deceased loved one lingering behind you, a ghost floating in the air very often. So the Mumlers became the toast of spiritualist Boston and for a time they were selling people the solace that they needed, this connection to loved ones who were gone.

Brian: I don’t want to bad mouth another New England industry, but was this a little like whale watching? Where you know you’re kind of pay your money, you go out to see the whales and you know, sometimes they show up and sometimes they don’t. I mean, could people be asked to come back again and again and again in the hope that the spirit would show up?

Peter Manseau: It was precisely like whale watching in the sense that Mumler would never guarantee that ghosts would appear in the photographs. He would say that he had no control over the spirit world. He did not know why some spirits chose to appear before his camera and some did not. He could not determine in advance which spirits would arrive to be in your photograph. And so certainly people who were dissatisfied but still believed in the possibility of spirit photography, they would come back.

Peter Manseau: But very often people did receive what they wanted to. They received images of their late spouses or very often of their children who had too young. So Mumler again was filling this real need and he was giving those who believed in him exactly what they paid for.

Brian: Do you have any specific cases of believers and can you give us a sense of what they thought they had found?

Peter Manseau: The Mumler story unfolds during the civil war, and many of the people who visited Mumler were haunted by their own particular feelings of personal loss, but often by their role that they played within the war. So in Boston there was a man named Alvin Adams. He was the founder of a company called Adams Express. And he began is just a courier service, but he soon became the leading shipper of bodies in both the North and the South. Shipping the casualties of war, they would be shipped in special Adam’s Express caskets. And Adams felt the weight of all these young men whose deaths he was profiting from. And when he visited Mumler he wanted to be relieved of that feeling of guilt. And he was given a spirit photograph showing a young man who he believed to be one of these casualties. And in receiving this image, he did seem to receive some kind of relief.

Brian: I gather that most of the people who went to the Mumlers were satisfied customers or at least believing customers.

Peter Manseau: Initially, they were believers in spiritual wisdom, but they were also skeptics who wanted to see if it was what people were claiming it would be. And soon the skeptics began to out crowd the believers in the Mumler’s studio. So many people came hoping to be the ones to reveal the fraud that Mumler felt endlessly investigated by these photographers who thought that this was someone abusing their pure art. And it also became popular among spiritualists as a spiritualist in Boston actually believed that spirit photography was possible. But something about the Mumlers eventually just didn’t smell right. And they decided that those spirit photography may be possible in the future this fellow, William Mumler was not in fact doing it.

Brian: What were they smelling?

Peter Manseau: Well as it happens in Boston, it began to be come known that there were many ghosts depicted in William Mumler’s photographs who were in fact alive and well and walking the streets of Boston. So when you began to recognize…

Brian: Rumors of their death were premature.

Peter Manseau: Exactly right. That you would find the same faces of spirits on multiple people’s spirit photographs. People who have no relation and they would be looking at the same supposedly dead aunt. And when it began to be known that there were living people being used as ghosts in Mumler’s images, that did put an end to one part of their career in Boston. They had fewer people coming to sit in their studio. But they at that point expanded such that they offered to coast photographs by mail. You could send them an image of yourself and a lost loved one and they would use their mediumistic powers to recreate an image of both the living and the dead and send it back to you.

Brian: Did the Mumlers ever get in trouble for this?

Peter Manseau: The Mumlers eventually needed to pick up stakes in Boston and they needed to find a new field in which to sell their wares. So they moved down to New York city in 1868 and Mumler set up shop again. Set up a shop on Broadway where there were more than 200 portrait photographers working at the time. So in some ways he fit right in, but he was the only one offering spirit photographs. So he immediately made a name for himself in New York City. But that unfortunately also drew the attention of the law.

Peter Manseau: So the mayor of the city at the time, A. Oakley Hall made it a personal mission of his to crack down on small time swindlers. And he saw Mumler…

Brian: He must’ve been a busy man.

Peter Manseau: He was at the time and he the city Marshall, his personal investigator. A man named Marshal Tooker, he put Tooker on the case investigating Mumler. The marshal of the City of New York goes Mumler’s studio in disguise using a fake name and demands to have spirit photographs taken. When he is given the photographs he decides that now he has caught Mumler red handed. He arrests Mumler and sends him to the wonderfully named City Court of New York, called the Tombs at the time.

Brian: Oh I know the Tombs.

Peter Manseau: And Mumler is made to face trial in New York City. And it becomes the trial of the century at the time, because not only was one petty swindler being put on trial, but all of spiritualism, this idea that you could communicate with the dead, that you could see the dead to really settle this matter once and for all.

Brian: And what was the evidence?

Peter Manseau: Well, the evidence as far as the prosecution was concerned was that it was it was apparent that every photograph Mumler took was evidence against him because this simply was not possible. Their star witness ended up being PT Barnum. They decided to bring in Barnum because they thought, here is the world’s preeminent expert on humbug. And we’ll bring in Barnum to show that Mumler is just one example of humbug.

Peter Manseau: And in fact, Barnum had in his American museum in New York City, he, for several years, had shown Mumler images in his gallery of humbug. The great humbugs of the world. He considered spirit photography to be one of them. So Barnum testified against William Mumler to great fanfare. The newspapers of course loved it at a time because the trial had already been a circus. And then here comes the ring master to make it official. But Mumlers defense attorneys response to this was, “We’ll prove it. Prove that it is not possible for photography to do this.” We have seen throughout the 19th century, they would claim all the many marvels of technology. People scoffed at the telegraph, people scoffed at electricity. And now look at what these things are able to do. Who is to say Mumlers attorneys argued that photography, this marvel of technology could not see the dead, could not have sight beyond human sight. And it ended up being a very persuasive argument.

Brian: Well, how did things end?

Peter Manseau: The prosecution a mounted strong case against William Mumler. But ultimately the judge had to admit that there was not the evidence to show how William Mumler had done this. The prosecution brought in a parade of expert photographers who said, if I was to create spirit photographs, this is the way I would do it. And they would give a number of theories, a number of techniques they would use. But then each one of them had to admit, “I did not see Mumler do any of these things.” And so we can not know. We cannot know how these spirits appeared in his photographs.

Brian: So Mumler was acquitted.

Peter Manseau: Mumler was acquitted and he soon left New York and went back to Boston where he continued to take spirit photographs off and on for the rest of his life.

Brian: Okay, so all our listeners now want to know because we have you, Peter, not PT Barnum. How’d he do it?

Peter Manseau: It remains something of a mystery. There are certainly experts in photography, experts in 19th century photographic techniques who can show how they would have done it just as those experts and who testified at the trial suggested how they would do it. But no one knows precisely how Mumler did it, in fact. He was able to through some some kind of slight of hand, he was able to perform some kind of double exposure on his glass plates without being detected in doing so. So he certainly was perhaps not spiritually gifted, but technically adept with the photographic arts. Enough so that he was able to fool the experts of the day and to create this ongoing mystery.

Brian: What does this tell us about this particular moment in the history of photography?

Peter Manseau: Well, when I began writing Mumler story, it seemed just this quaint moment in 19th century history, but the more I began to investigate the story, the more it seemed to have some resonance with the world we are in now. This world in which radical changes in technology produce these challenges to human perception such that we are unable to know if we are looking at fact or fiction.

Peter Manseau: What was happening at this moment of the intersection of the technology of photography and spiritualism seems to have some resonance to me with where we are now in our digital age where we are encountering constantly upgraded and remade technologies. And we too are an able to look at an image and really know what we’re looking at. And to me this reminds me that it’s not simply the case, that those who believed in William Mumler were more gullible or they were less savvy interrogators of images than we are. In fact, they were at precisely the same moment we are in where technology promises so much and yet the questions that we have about human existence, about what comes next, they remain. And we inevitably use those stupid new technologies toes ask those questions and to find new answers.

Joanne Freeman: That was Brian and conversation with Peter Manseau. He’s the author of The Apparitionist: a Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost.