Peter Manseau weaves an expert tale about the original spirit photographer William Mumler and his exploits in mid-19th century New York and Boston. The reader follows Mumler from his early occupation as a jewelry engraver to his life as a famous photographer of spirits. An interwoven narrative to say the least, Manseau also ties Mumler’s story to that of other famous photographers throughout history, introducing F.B Morse into the picture and following Civil War photographer Matthew Brady as Brady drives his mobile photography studio “whats-it wagons” into Civil War battlegrounds. America was ravaged by thoughts of the afterlife while family members died for the North and South and, as Manseau points out, in need of another spiritual reawakening. In answer, the Spiritualist movement swept across the country. Mumler’s story offers a glimpse into America’s overwhelming obsession with the afterlife, both during and following the Civil War.
A more provoking take on Mumler’s life could not have been written by someone more qualified than Manseau. The Religion Curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Manseau milks the Spiritualist mindset in America’s 19th century landscape, focusing the lens on why the spirit photographer became so successful at his craft. Though Mumler was a swindler, the reader can’t help but see an empathetic artist. Yes, he was a fraud, but he also made America somewhat comfortable with thoughts of their loved ones in the afterlife. Manseau makes this notion clear. Though Mumler’s story can become a bit convoluted by the author’s endless circulation of historical figures, this book is one for those readers in love with America’s weird history and the history of photography.