In the mid-1800s, with Spiritualism at its height in the US, a photographer named William H. Mumler started creating spirit photographs, duping the people of Boston (and New York) into believing that the ghosts of their loved ones appeared standing next to them in studio portraits. At the height of the Civil War, with many losing family and friends on the battlefield, Mumler’s spirit photographs became a sensation, even at the wholly unreasonable price of $10 per siting (about $300 today). Peter Manseau’s The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost tells Mumler’s story along with the tangental and interconnected tales of a whole cast of characters, each more intriguing than the next — including a smattering of mediums, Mary Todd Lincoln, charlatan extraordinaire P.T. Barnum, Samuel Morse (inventor of Morse code), and fellow photographers and sometimes rivals Jeremiah Gurney, Mathew Brady, and Alexander Gardner.
The book paints a compelling social landscape of what appears to have been a golden age of the swindler. Although the writing is at times self-indulgent — the narrative jumping back and forth in time with each dozen-page chapter and Mumler’s 1869 trial for fraud appearing in the form of a transcript fit for a movie — the extremely well-researched and fascinating stories that come out of it leave the reader wondering how people could have possibly been so easily tricked by what we now know to be double exposures and other very simple methods of photographic manipulation. Of course, photography itself was still in its infancy, and when you add grief and Spiritualism to the equation, there’s no telling just how far the human mind is willing to go to make some sort of sense out of the afterlife. Even 150 years later, we’re still dealing with some of these same issues, which perhaps is why there’s been such a resurgence in interest in spirit photography in the past several years.
Like during the Civil War, we live in an age of new technologies transforming the means of communication, allowing for a malleability of truth at a time when politics are again dividing families into polar opposite factions. A need for a new kind of faith coupled with a skepticism of previously undebated scientific theories (medicine included) has opened up a renewed interest not only in the Spiritualist histories of the past, but in some cases, even created a kind of continuation of its practices.
In an extreme example, when entrepreneur Eugenia Kuyda’s good friend, Roman Mazurenko, died suddenly in 2015, she felt an urge to keep talking to him, so she created a bot she could text with by programming in hundreds of text messages Mazurenko had sent to family and friends over the years. If this trope sounds familiar, it’s because Kudya took inspiration directly from an episode of the British TV show, Black Mirror, in which a widow communicates with a simulacrum of her recently deceased husband, taught to speak like him through uploads of all of his digital interactions (both public and private).
As Kuyda’s endeavor proves, even when we intellectually know that we’re not actually communicating with the dead, there’s still something in us that keeps up the ruse. This may also explain the sudden rise in popularity of occult practices like aura photography, which is always noted with a “For entertainment purposes only” disclaimer. And going back to the 19th-century, when Mumler was acquitted for a lack of evidence in a trial accusing him of manipulating images, Manseau leads the reader to believe the victory was at least in part due to emotional client testimony that the photographer had truly helped people in a time of need. Sometimes, even when we know we’re taking sugar pills, the placebo effect is just enough to keep us going.