The tale of a provocative controversy and court trial from the formative era of photography.
Written like a novel but researched with academic rigor, this account of a photographer whose work seemed to incorporate images from the spirit realm stops short of either endorsing the veracity of the photographer’s claim or debunking his work as a scam. What Manseau (One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, 2015), the curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian, demonstrates is that William Mumler (1832-1884) was perhaps as mystified as his skeptics in his emergence as a “spirit photographer” whose photographs of a living subject might show a deceased relation hovering somewhere in the print. Court transcripts show that Mumler’s subjects mostly believed in the legitimacy of the apparitions in his work and that none of the photographers who attempted to expose his trickery were able to do so. Yet the narrative is less an argument in favor of a miracle than an evocation of an era “shaped by war, belief, new technology, and a longing for connections across ever greater distances—a time not unlike our own.” It was a time when the telegraph offered instantaneous communication across oceans and “transformed nearly every aspect of American life, and perhaps none more so than the press.” It was also a time when electricity demonstrated the very real power of things unseen. If communication could become instantaneous across thousands of miles, why couldn’t the emerging field of photography close the distance between the living and the dead? For this was also an era, even before the Civil War, when the country “was suffering a spiritual hangover,” in which spiritualism and mediums who claimed to communicate with the dead were perceived as a threat to conventional Christianity. Thus the trial not only focused on the possibilities and limits of the emerging photographic technology, but on whether it was possible to reconcile such apparitions with the Bible.
A well-paced nonfiction work that reads more like a historical novel than an academic study.