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The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer

2008
Author:

Louis Kaplan

The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer

The story of the birth of spirit photography and the controversy surrounding its discovery

In the 1860s, William Mumler photographed ghosts—or so he claimed. The practice came to be known as spirit photography, and Mumler’s insistence that his work brought back the dead led to a sensational trial in 1869 that was the talk of the nation. The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer is the definitive resource for this fascinating moment in American history and provides insights into today’s ghosts in the machine.

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This book is an important contribution to the growing literature on spirit photography and gives the reader an intimate insight into the world of the Spiritualists and the occult power of the photograph in the 1860s. An extremely valuable resource.
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Martyn Jolly, author of Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography

In the 1860s, William Mumler photographed ghosts—or so he claimed. Faint images of the dearly departed lurked in the background with the living, like his well-known photo of the recently assassinated Abraham Lincoln comforting Mary Todd. The practice came to be known as spirit photography, and some believed Mumler was channeling the dead. Skeptics, however, called it a fraudulent trick on the gullible, taking advantage of the grieving at a time of suffering and loss. Mumler’s insistence that his work brought back the dead led to a sensational trial in 1869 that was the talk of the nation.

In The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, Louis Kaplan brings together, for the first time, Mumler’s haunting images, his revealing memoir, and rich primary sources, including newspaper articles and P. T. Barnum’s famous indictment of Mumler in Humbugs of the World. Kaplan also contributes two extended essays, which offer a historical perspective of the Mumler phenomena and delve into the sociocultural and theoretical issues surrounding this vivid ghost story.

Mumler’s case was an early example of investigative journalism intersecting with a criminal trial that, at its essence, set science against religion. The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer is the definitive resource for this unique and fascinating moment in American history and provides insights into today’s ghosts in the machine.

The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer

Louis Kaplan is director of the Institute of Communication and Culture at the University of Toronto at Mississauga and associate professor of history and theory of photography and new media in the Graduate Department of Art at the University of Toronto. He is the author of American Exposures: Photography and Community in the Twentieth Century (Minnesota, 2005).

The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer
<p>
This book is an important contribution to the growing literature on spirit photography and gives the reader an intimate insight into the world of the Spiritualists and the occult power of the photograph in the 1860s. An extremely valuable resource.
</p>

Martyn Jolly, author of Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography

No other book brings together in one source the testimonies of William Mumler and his critics, critical and historical analysis, and selections from the rich collections of extant Mumler photographs. An intriguing and valuable work.

Jennifer Tucker, author of Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science

Kaplan does a great job of presenting both sides of the story and letting the reader decide about Mumler’s methods and motives—be they spiritual or earthly. The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer is a great reference for anyone studying photography, the Civil War era, trial law, ghosts, or spiritualism.

Twin Cities Daily Planet

Professor Louis Kaplan allows history to speak in its own words for most of The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer. He couldn’t have made a more enlightening or entertaining choice. No modern telling could adequately capture the vibrancy and strangeness of the United States’ 19th-century infatuation with communication between the living and the dead.

Globe and Mail

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.

Ghost Village

Historians interested in cultural, intellectual, and religious life during the Civil War Era and the Gilded Age will enjoy Kaplan’s ‘spirited’ look at the curious nexus of the legal system, the tabloid press, science, and the ‘ghostly church.’

Journalism History

Kaplan’s sources provide a rich archive for photographic historians and for scholars interested in the intersection of photography with law, print culture, and the growing professionalization of the art in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The Journal of American History

The complex culture of nineteenth-century realism that fostered photography’s authority . . .lends a peculiar logic to spirit photography that is well explored in this text.

American Historical Review

Kaplan’s book is particularly relevant because he asserts that spirit photographs bring to the surface our deep connection with photography itself. Thus, as digital photography continues to call into question faith in the truth of photographic evidence, and religious fundamentalism continues to play a central role in contemporary politics, spirit photographs have just as much to tell us about our contemporary experience as they do about one ‘strange case’ from the nineteenth century.

Photography & Culture

At once the most succinct and expansive essays yet written about spirit photography.

Visual Resources

With the inclusion of rare primary materials, plentiful illustrations, and essays, the book is a useful and handy companion for those interested in the strange case of spirit photography.

American Studies

A rich resource of primary documents and a wonderful assemblage of the actual spirit photographs.

Journal of Historical Biography