A story of faith and fraud in post–Civil War America, told through the lens of a photographer who claimed he could capture images of the dead.
In the early days of photography, in the death-strewn wake of the Civil War, one man seized America’s imagination. A “spirit photographer,” William Mumler took portrait photographs that featured the ghostly presence of a lost loved one alongside the living subject. Mumler was a sensation: The affluent and influential came calling, including Mary Todd Lincoln, who arrived at his studio in disguise amidst rumors of séances in the White House.
Peter Manseau brilliantly captures a nation wracked with grief and hungry for proof of the existence of ghosts and for contact with their dead husbands and sons. It took a circus-like trial of Mumler on fraud charges, starring P. T. Barnum for the prosecution, to expose a fault line of doubt and manipulation. And even then, the judge sided with the defense, suggesting no one would ever solve the mystery of his spirit photography. This forgotten puzzle offers a vivid snapshot of America at a crossroads in its history, a nation in thrall to new technology while clinging desperately to belief.
An NPR Best Book of 2017
“A rare work of historical nonfiction that is both studious and just plain entertaining.”—Publishers Weekly, Top Ten Books of 2017
“An exceptional story.”—Errol Morris, New York Times Book Review
“Manseau has become the foremost chronicler of the deep American desire to believe in the weird, the strange, and the oddly wonderful.”—Jeff Sharlet, New York Times–bestselling author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
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