In the world of spirit photography there is one name that comes up ad nauseum: William Mumler of Boston, Massachusetts. For those up on the history of photography or the Spiritualist movement, the name means ghostly images in old daguerreotype photos, it means seeing an Abraham Lincoln-looking figure standing over the shoulder of the Widow Mary Todd Lincoln, and more often than not, the name means fraud.
Mumler took the notion of spirit photography to a new level in the 1860s. He offered to take the portrait of the living, and claimed the dead would come through when the images were developed. Claims of fraud ran rampant from the earliest days of Mumler’s work, and eventually he was run out of Boston to New York, where he set up shop again. This time files were charged, and Mumler had his day in court. A sensational trial ensued drawing nationwide attention.
In his new book, The Strange Case of William Mumler Spirit Photographer, Louis Kaplan explores the world of Mumler through court documents, through Mumler’s own memoir and letters, and through the media accounts of the day to paint a complete picture of what Mumler claimed, and what the public perceived. Some of Mumler’s photographs are included as well as some images submitted by skeptics of the day who could reproduce Mumler’s effect with simple double-exposures.
Public sentiment on the subject of spirit contact in Mumler’s time is surprisingly similar to our views today. The technology may have changed, but many ideas on what is real and what is not, have evolved very little. Kaplan’s book is a must-have for researchers who want to know how we arrived at the notion that a ghost might be photographed, and that no matter if something is real or proved fake, when it comes to spirituality, sometimes belief is stronger than facts.
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