The Strange Case of William H. Mumler, Spirit Photographer

By Kilmer, Paulette D. | Journalism History, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Strange Case of William H. Mumler, Spirit Photographer


Kilmer, Paulette D., Journalism History


Kaplan, Louis. The Strange Case of William H. Mumler, Spirit Photographer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 264 pp. $24.95.

The curious links between the new faith and the old tradition of inquiry are fascinating. Kaplan notes, "Spiritualism shared with its opponents the language of investigation, evidence, exhibition, and exposure, and the séance was seen by spiritualists themselves as a kind of laboratory for the investigation of the spirit world, a stage on which to unveil or bring to light hitherto concealed mysteries."

Both the strengths and weaknesses of the book arise from Kaplan's choice to devote most of it to newspaper and magazine articles, a transcript from the court case, RT. Barnum's assessment of spirit photography, and Mumler's memoir about his encounters with spooks. These sources provide historians with a treasure trove of primary material. The detailed endnotes contain lively documentation. Nevertheless, the testimony of Mumler's customers and the press coverage often grow repetitious and preclude in-depth analysis of cultural implications, such as high infant mortality, seemingly impossible discoveries, and other cases involving Spiritualism. Kaplan notes that Spiritualists claimed Mumler's invention of spirit photography resembled Samuel Morse's telegraph. While Morse had collapsed time and space, believers concluded that Mumler had transcended the gulf separating the living from the dead.

Indeed, in 1854, the Fox sisters called themselves a "spiritual telegraph" parallel to Morse's contraption. These Upstate New York originators of Spiritualism appealed to those seeking communication beyond the grave. Debunkers accused them of secretly cracking their knuckles and knocking their knees together to produce the rapping sounds, but the allure of tangible proof of sacred tenets caused the faithful to eschew logical explanations.

The book offers an intriguing glimpse into the battle between science and religion during the last half of the nineteenth century. Kaplan points out that while critics denounced Spiritualism as fraudulent and even blasphemous, adherents believed in Mumler's "ghostly developments. …

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