Peter Manseau is the author of the new book The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln's Ghost. It focuses on William Mumler, a "spirit photographer" in the 19th century. Manseau's other books include Rag and Bone and One Nation, Under Gods. He is the first curator of religion at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and he lives in Annapolis, Maryland.
Q: How did you first learn about William Mumler, and what intrigued you about his story?
A: Each of my books has grown out of a lingering question from the one before. In this case, after my 2015 history One Nation Under Gods was published, I realized that though I had told the stories of many minority religious groups in America, I had somehow missed spiritualism.
The massive popularity of ideas concerning communication with the dead in the 19th century struck me as full of narrative potential, so it was just a matter of finding an individual in that world who had a story that cried out for telling. With that in mind I read spiritualist newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s and soon Mumler crossed my path.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: Having learned of Mumler in the 19th century press, I continued in that vein for my research. Mumler's career in Boston, and his arrest and trial in New York, were exhaustively covered in both spiritualist and secular newspapers.
It was possible reading through those accounts, and through the news of the world that was happening while Mumler was becoming known, it was possible to recreate the story in a dramatic way down to the smallest details.
One great surprise of my research came when I realized I needed to get some hands-on experience in order to write about early photography with authority.
I found an expert in wet plate photography -- taking pictures on small rectangles of glass, as was done at the time -- and convinced him to give me intensive lessons on the materials, chemicals, and methods involved. If I'm ever transported back to 1865, I might be able to find work as a photographer's assistant.
Q: You also focus on other photographers of the era, including Mathew Brady. How does Mumler's work compare with Brady's?
A: The tension between the famous Brady and the infamous Mumler remains to me the most interesting thing about the book. Brady was the most esteemed photographer of his era, respected by all his peers, and lauded by history as the man most responsible for capturing a visual record of the Civil War.
Yet he was also a relentless self-promoter, as Mumler was in his own way, and both men recognized that there was something important to be discovered about the relationship between photography and death.
Brady and his collaborators brought images of the war's dead home to Americans as never before; Mumler's spirit photographs offered images of death in another way. Both photographers exploited a hunger to hold on to those who had been lost, while demonstrating the potential for photography to make permanent changes to human memory.
Q: Do you see a modern-day equivalent to spirit photography?
A: Spirit photography has now managed to outlived Mumler by more than a century. It continues online in the form of widespread digital photographs that claim to capture ghosts and auras.
Seen more broadly, the digital sphere generally is a place where technology allows us to feel we are accessing a world of invisible entities. Facebook has an estimated dead population of 50 million -- when we interact with the social media pages of the dead, we participate in some ways in the kind of communication that 19th century spiritualists pursued through seances.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: In addition to writing books, I am the curator of American religious history at the National Museum of American History in Washington, which keeps me quite busy! I hope at some point in the future to be able to present spirit photography within a physical space -- basically a walk-through version of The Apparitionists.
Meanwhile, my next book project is a collection of essays on religion, language, and travel called Revelation Road.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Though The Apparitionists may seem to tell a strange story of a different time, it is also very much a story that resonates with our own image-obsessed age.
I began my research looking for a quirky story that would bring the era of spiritualism to life, yet the story that soon emerged was eerily relevant to our own world. Collectively, we take a billion photographs every day; we do so often in order to hold on to people and moments we fear we might lose -- just as the clients of Mumler and other photographers did before us.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Peter Manseau.