Louis Kaplan


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

Cover Interview of February 26, 2009

A close-up

For a quick zoom, I refer the reader to Mumler’s most famous spirit photograph and to the passages where he recounts this strange visitation in his memoirs, The Personal Experiences of William Mumler in Spirit Photography (1875).  This is the amazing image where the ghost of the assassinated president Abraham Lincoln comes back to give comfort to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, who was an ardent Spiritualist throughout her life.  One notices that the ghost of Honest Abe stands behind Mary Todd and that he even has his hands around her shoulders in a show of support and in a pose typical for many of Mumler’s ghostly images.  The loving gesture and its haptic quality illustrates the affective power of these images to put people in touch with the dearly departed and to help them with the mourning process.  One also notices that the ghost of their son Thaddeus appears on the left hand side of the image—Mary Todd received two spirits for the price of one.

rorotoko.com W.H. Mumler in Harpers Weekly, May 4, 1869

As Mumler recounts and as the image shows, the former First Lady appeared to him as a “black widow” dressed in the garb of mourning and wearing a veil which she only removed for the photograph.  Mumler also tells us that Mary Todd took the assumed name of Mrs. Lindall when she visited his Boston studio in 1872.  Obviously, Mumler would like his readers to believe that here was a situation of strict anonymity and that there was no way that he could have known the identity of his sitter or her beloved ghost.  Interestingly enough, the New York photographer Abraham Bogardus also took a photograph of P.T. Barnum with the ghost of Lincoln hovering over him and this was presented as evidence for the prosecution at the trial in 1869 to show that such spirit photographs could be produced by mechanical means.  From the perspective of the skeptic, one is struck by Mumler’s audacity in taking advantage of the poor widow with his photographic magic tricks.  From the perspective of the believer, one is struck by Mary Todd’s conviction that she was in the presence of a photographic miracle.

By the way, I find it uncanny that Barack Obama made a joke in the first press conference after his election as President of the United States that bears upon this close-up.  When asked whether he would be consulting with former Presidents, Obama answered that he would seek out only those who are still living.  The implication being that there are not going to be any seances in his White House as was the case with the Reagans and the Clintons.  However, if Obama would like to style himself as a true Lincolnian in his presidency, he ought to think again.  Mary Todd was known to have Spiritualist seances in the White House and these would lead to her association with our photographic hero, William Mumler.