Louis Kaplan


On his book The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer

Cover Interview of February 26, 2009

In a nutshell

The story of William Mumler and the birth of spirit photography offer one of the most fascinating and haunting chapters in the history of the medium.  In the 1860s, this Boston engraver turned photographer claimed that he was capable of capturing the ghosts of the dearly departed for bereaved friends and relatives on glass plate negatives.  In The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, I have brought together Mumler’s haunting images, his revealing memoir, and rich primary sources, including newspaper articles and P. T. Barnum’s famous indictment of Mumler in his book Humbugs of the World.  I also have contributed two extended essays, “Ghostly Developments” and “Spooked Theories.”  The first one offers in-depth historical perspective of the Mumler phenomena as it delves into the socio-cultural issues surrounding this vivid ghost story.  The second essay is a theoretical intervention in which I explore how concepts derived from psychoanalysis and deconstruction provide us with ways to understand the meaning and significance of Mumler’s spirit photography.

All in all, I have played the part of the medium in channeling Mumler’s voice for a contemporary audience.  The result is this photographic ghost story.  The Strange Case also contains numerous reproductions of Mumler’s photographs and many of these images are published here for the first time.  In this context, I want to acknowledge the late art collector Samuel Wagstaff.  Wagstaff had the foresight to buy spirit photographs well before they became fashionable, and he sold an album of thirty-nine Mumler images to the Getty Museum.  That album forms the basis of the amazing images in my book.

The photographic phenomena of Mumler and the controversy surrounding him reached its climax in a dramatic trial in New York City in the spring of 1869.  This was when Mumler was arrested on charges of larceny and swindling the public in a sting operation set up by the Mayor’s office.  With testimony from such notables as P.T. Barnum (who claimed that he knew a “humbug” when he saw one) and the Wall Street banker Charles Livermore (a satisfied customer who was convinced that Mumler had summoned his dead wife), this sensational trial received extensive coverage in the newspapers and popular journals of the day.  The book contains two chapters on “Mumler in the Press” – one covering the period of the birth of spirit photography and the other related to the year of the trial that includes many excerpts of witnesses’ testimony.