Now Apparitioning in a Photo Near You!

The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost was one of those books that was on my list for so long that I forgot what it was about until I checked it out and started reading.

I love it when that happens. It’s basically just getting a personalized book recommendation from someone who knows you better than anyone. And you know what? It was a great recommendation. I’m so good at recommending books to myself.

The Apparitionists, by Peter Manseau, details the mid-19th-century phenomenon of spirit photography, a practice in which some photographers could purportedly capture ghostly images of the dead in early photographs. A living person would sit down and have their picture taken, and would not know until after it was developed and printed whether or not a ghost had visited them during their sitting. Sometimes these images would come in the form of a silhouette; sometimes there would simply be a set of ghostly hands floating near the subject; sometimes there would be a creepy little kid running around. Mary Todd Lincoln was a firm believer in spirit photography and sat for several pictures that, upon development, showed the ghostly visage of President Lincoln. 

In addition to waging war against itself during this time, the U.S., along with other parts of the world, was swept up in the allure of contacting the undead. This was also early in the era of mediums (which I talk about more when writing about The Witch of Lime Street), and skeptics applied the same skepticism for the apparitions in these photographs as they would for séance magic. The leading spirit photographers were lambasted by rivals, had their work scrutinized, and faced other opposition in their field. At the same time, the public flocked to these photographers with the hopes of seeing their deceased loved ones once more. And as more and more soldiers died in the course of the Civil War, the public desire for re-connection between the veil only increased.

Intertwined in the story of spirit photography is a brief but gripping overview about war photography. Cameras were becoming small enough, mobile enough, for photographers to take them out onto the battlefield. From pictures showing rows of dead soldiers, to survivors digging graves, to fighters huddled behind cover, this allowed the horror of the far-off front lines of war to hit home for the first time in history. Photographers also vied to photograph President Lincoln’s body when it was laid to rest–and sometimes went to significant lengths to do it. The book includes some of these photos, as well as examples of spirit photography, making the inset photo sections one of the most macabre and delightful I’ve ever seen. (I read a physical copy but I’m sure an ebook would include them, too.)

Spirit photography faded into the recesses of history—I’ve never noticed a shadowy figure in the background of any of my selfies, anyway—and it would be easy to point to this movement that to modern sensibilities seems, well, quaint. Silly, even. Not only people think disinfecting hospitals was a stupid fad, but they thought they could capture ghosts on camera! But Manseau’s tone is never incredulous, never patronizing. He talks about the historical figures’ beliefs in terms of how fervently they held them, contrasting them only with how other contemporaries felt about the same issues. He describes the process these photographers used to capture the images and the reactions of their customers and critics, but doesn’t editorialize. When he talks about who history remembered and who history forgot, he never ties it back to which side of the debate they were on—merely the conditions that allowed their names to endure rather than others also in their fields. That subsequently allowed me to feel more immersed in the story and not get caught up in comparisons of the present (like in the as-far-as-I-remember criminally underrated 1980 film Somewhere In Time).

I won’t say this reads like a novel, because that phrase tends to be used to try to convince the nonfiction-reluctant to crack open a book that hasn’t been turned into a movie, and I don’t think that’s necessary. This is an interesting nonfiction book that moved quickly and steadily about a topic I had never known existed, let alone thought about before. I’m glad Past Me wrote it down before I forgot about it. Good recommendation, Past Me.

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