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Looking Askance Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp

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Chapter 1

Mumler's Fraudulent Photographs

The Sting

On March 16, 1869, William H. Bowditch entered a photography studio at 630 Broadway in New York City. It bore the name William W. Silver on its door. Inside the gallery Bowditch asked for Mr. Silver, and when the man answering to that name appeared, Bowditch introduced himself as a skeptic in the matter of spirit photographs. He doubted, he said, "that the likeness of deceased persons could be produced by photographic process on cards with living subjects," and he asked Silver whether he claimed the power to make such pictures. Silver responded that although he himself was not capable of it, there was in the upstairs rooms a spiritual medium and photographer named William Mumler who had the power to produce likenesses of supernaturals . Silver quoted a price of ten dollars per dozen cards for that work, justifying the high price (about five times the usual rate for portrait cartes de visite) as calculated to keep away the "vulgar multitude." Moreover, he said, "persons who had lost their relatives and others dear to them ... sometimes would not part with [their spirit photographs] for thousands of dollars."

His skepticism evidently waning, Bowditch told Silver he would like to have a photograph of his deceased brother-in-law and asked whether he could simply specify the identity of the spirit he wished photographed. No, Silver told him, the spirits that appeared as "extras" in portrait photographs of living subjects were those "nearest in sympathy" with the sitter at the time the exposure was taken. Success could not be guaranteed, but Silver confided that Bowditch looked like someone whose prospects were good. Agreeing finally to try the experiment, Bowditch was asked to provide a five-dollar deposit, but he easily negotiated the figure down to two.

As soon as the deposit was paid, a woman who had been occupied in the gallery during the negotiation silently proceeded up the stairs. Silver identified her to Bowditch as Mrs. Mumler, wife of the spirit photographer and herself a medium. Silver subsequently engaged Bowditch in idle conversation for about ten minutes, until a bell rang, prompting him to escort Bowditch upstairs, where Mumler was waiting for them . Mumler told Bowditch that "no other person could take such wonderful pictures" as his own, and he "challenged the sceptical world" to try. When Bowditch expressed his doubts, Mumler became eager to convince him that "the pictures were not the result of trick or deception." He took Bowditch into his darkroom and explained the photographic process, volunteering that his own strong feelings indicated this particular sitting would be successful.

Bowditch sat in the appointed chair and posed as if for an ordinary portrait. The procedure seemed entirely routine to him, except that while the exposure was being made, Mumler placed his hand on the camera. A short time later Bowditch was shown a negative plate containing a portrait of himself and, behind it, a faint outline of a man's face. Asked if he recognized the face, Bowditch said he did not. Mumler told him that in a few days, if he concentrated, he would recognize the shadow as that of a relative or friend. He was instructed to return the next day to collect the twelve cards upon payment of the outstanding balance to Silver.

The cards were not ready the next day, but on the second day Bowditch found them waiting for him. He noticed that on the receipt given to him by Silver, the latter had signed his name as William Guay. Bowditch carried his photographs up Broadway to Rockwood's photographic gallery, where he showed them to Charles Boyle, a well-known photography specialist. Boyle said he could simulate the effect of Mumler's photograph without the assistance of any supernatural or spiritual agents. Bowditch commissioned him to do so. He also showed the photographs to Oscar Mason, an authority on photography and a microscopist at the Bellvue Hospital. Mason judged them "an imposition on the credulity of the living and an outrage on the sacred respect due to the memory of the dead." He asserted that such photographs could be produced readily by technical means without spiritual agency.

With an affidavit from Mason and Boyle's simulated photograph, Bowditch brought charges against Mumler and Silver. Within a month both were summoned to appear before Judge Joseph Dowling in the Manhattan police court and prison known as the Tombs (A more aptly named site for a trial concerning spiritualism would be hard to invent.) The William Silver who appeared at the arraignment was not the person Bowditch had met at the gallery, so he was promptly released. Mumler was charged with two felonies and one misdemeanor, all having to do with fraud, larceny, and "obtaining money by trick and device." Having had no prior warning of the charges, Mumler was unprepared to post immediately the unusually high bail, set at five hundred dollars. Consequently, he was taken to a cell in the Tombs.

The legal action was expedited by Bowditch's identity: he was, in fact, Joseph H. Tooker, agent of the License Bureau at City Hall and chief marshal to New York City Mayor A. Oakey Hall. Tooker was regularly assigned to investigate charges of fraud, and in this case Hall had instructed him to prepare a case against Mumler in response to information supplied by P.V. Hickey, an editor of scientific news at the World, a New York newspaper . On March 2 Hickey had attended a meeting of the Photographic Section of the American Institute of the City of New York (PSAI)—an organization of amateur and professional scientists and photographers to which he belonged—where Mason, secretary of the PSAI as well as microscopist at Bellvue, had made a presentation on Mumler's spirit photographs. Mason's ire had been roused by recent newspaper reports publicizing Mumler's photographs, especially an extensive article by a marveling reporter in the New York Sun. He went to Mumler's studio to conduct his own investigation into Mumler's procedures, but his request for a spirit portrait was refused. He did manage to acquire three examples of Mumler's work: three carte de visite photographs showing live portrait subjects with ghostly figures visible in the background. He exhibited these at the meeting, pointing out to the audience that the sitter in one of the photographs appeared as a ghost in the other two. Mumler's claims that his photographs were entirely the product of supernatural causes came in for considerable ridicule at the meeting. Some of those in attendance "expressed the opinion that the matter called for the intervention of the police," as Hickey recounted in his report on the meeting for the World.

Hickey took one of the advertisements Mason had brought to the meeting, a card that read "William H. Mumler, Spirit Photographic Medium, No. 630 Broadway, N.Y.N.B.—All are respectfully invited to call and see specimens, and get a pamphlet giving full information." The next day Hickey visited the gallery and conversed with some of its patrons. He also conducted some research into Mumler's past, learning that the photographer "had practiced similar deception in Boston until he could no longer remain there, and that some of the leading spiritualists having denounced his pretended art as humbug, and others, respectable artists, having demonstrated that similar cards could be produced by scientific and chemical means, and without any supernatural agency, that said Mumler had thus been induced to come to New York, where his pretensions and himself were alike unknown in order to have a new and wide field for his practices and deceits."

Hickey belonged to two powerful institutions with different motivations for prosecuting Mumler. The PSAI desired to establish photography as a legitimate scientific technology and as a truthful form of representation. It sought to protect the medium from fraudulent practitioners and con artists such as Mumler. To the editors of the World, exposing Mumler's fraud carried multiple benefits. The newspaper would perform a public service and generate sensational news as the charlatan was unmasked in daily installments. Moreover, the paper would outflank its market rivals, the New York City dailies that had seized opportunistically on the gothic sensationalism of Mumler's photographs. The Sun would be particularly embarrassed for having publicized and promoted Mumler's work. A promise, patently hollow, to arm its readership against the city's ubiquitous frauds and deceptions was a standard feature of newspaper advertising at the time, although most of the papers were firmly in the grip of the Tweed ring. The World's editors were delighted to reprint the words of the Worcester Evening Gazette, which obligingly described the efforts against Mumler as evidence that the World was "the vigilant and vigorous custodian of New York morals." Mumler, in other words, became entangled in the competitive posturing of New York's daily newspapers.

So on behalf of the World and with extensive assistance from the PSAI, Hickey brought a complaint directly to Mayor Hall, who responded immediately by assigning Tooker to the case. Hall, too, had reasons for wanting to see Mumler tried. As one of the most corrupt mayors in the history of New York City, a leading figure in the Tweed Ring and Tammany Hall, he undoubtedly relished prosecuting a cheat whose crimes would not lead back to any of his own.

Mumler's side of the courtroom was no less densely populated with interested and sometimes duplicitous supporters. Eminent among them was Mumler's partner, William Guay, the man who identified himself to Bowditch/Tooker as William Silver. That Tooker and Guay presented false identities to each other in the opening scene of this story suits the drama of deceit they enacted. On March 10 Silver had sold the contents of his photography studio and the lease on the two floors of 630 Broadway to Guay and Mumler, who were equal partners in the venture. Later Mumler claimed to have been "sole owner and proprietor." Guay had known Mumler since at least 1862, when a leading figure in the American spiritualist movement, Andrew Jackson Davis, had commissioned him to investigate Mumler's work in Boston, where the first spirit photographs had been made and sold. In subsequent years Guay had played a prominent part in publicizing and defending Mumler's controversial photography. He wrote often to newspapers and magazines, claiming to have thoroughly examined Mumler's process and found it absolutely legitimate. Guay, in answering Bowditch's call for Silver, was probably trying to conceal the recent transfer of ownership and preserve for the business an illusion of credibility; after all, Silver's name had not yet been replaced on the door. Guay was never formally charged in the case.

The affidavits filed by Tooker, Hickey, and Mason provide most of the details for the story I have narrated here. They give an extraordinarily vivid and plausible account of acquiring a spirit photograph from the best-known practitioner of the genre in New York in 1869. Similarly, the newspaper accounts and published records of the trial offer unusual insight into the development and diffusion of skeptical viewing of photographs. Earlier in the decade many Americans had learned to discern truths in the Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner; now photography was being revealed to that same public as yet another field for the practice of humbug.

The Trial

The preliminary hearing to determine whether Mumler's case should be sent to a grand jury lasted about three weeks. It had all the weight of a full criminal trial, commanding extensive press coverage in New York, across the country, and internationally . It remained a focus of commentary and a point of reference—often humorous—in mass circulation publications for months afterward, and for much longer in journals of photography and spiritualism. The trial was attended, according to the World, by "persons of all classes, professions, and shades of opinion." The paper went on to boast that "the number of journalists present—a sure index of the popular interest in the case—was remarkable." Women were unusually numerous in the audience, as they were in the ranks of the spiritualist movement. Of course the World made the most of its role in provoking the trial. Its front-page coverage transcribed or summarized much of the testimony, and its editorial pages offered a steady stream of critical commentary. Its reporting, however, was heavily weighted toward the prosecution; to learn the full arguments of the defense, one would have to turn to the pages of the Tribune, Times, Sun, or Herald.

Another indication of the importance of the trial was the postponement of its opening. Mayor Hall seems to have considered prosecuting the case personally, but his schedule prevented his attendance on the date assigned for the opening session. Judge Dowling delayed the proceedings but, for whatever reason, Hall did not join the prosecution. It was entrusted to the prominent lawyer Elbridge T. Gerry and an assistant from the district attorney's office, George Blunt. Mumler was represented by an up-and-coming young lawyer named John D. Townsend, assisted by Albert Day and A.E. Baker.

At his arraignment Mumler responded to the charges by denying that he had ever claimed spirits were involved in producing his photographs. This weak defense, combined with the pathetic spectacle of his being led to a prison cell, must have made his prospects look dim at the outset. They brightened dramatically, however, when the trial opened four days later, so much so that after the first day of testimony the World's editorial admitted that Mumler did "seem likely to obtain a legal triumph."

One factor in this shift of momentum was the large contingent of Mumler's supporters that appeared in the courtroom. Many witnesses and onlookers had traveled from northeastern centers of spiritualism, such as Albany, Boston, Buffalo, Poughkeepsie, and Waterville, to defend the legitimacy of spiritualism and to witness events at the Tombs firsthand. Furthermore, Mumler had procured the services of several energetic young lawyers, who were assisted by the Honorable John W. Edmonds, a retired judge whose distinguished legal career included service on the New York Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals. Edmonds was also an ardent spiritualist and the co-author of a well-known study of spiritualism. His presence in the courtroom was a constant reminder that many individuals of exceptional intelligence and achievement supported Mumler and spiritualism, although Edmonds's astonishing testimony during the trial would compromise his reputation.

At the trial the defense lawyers immediately took an aggressive position: rather than deny the involvement of spirits, they asserted the legitimacy of Mumler's supernatural images. Their opening statement threw down the gauntlet: "There is no trick, fraud, or deception in what are called spirit pictures by the accused." Mumler, they argued, did not know how the spirits appeared in his photographs; he knew only that they did not result from any manipulations on his part. His first spirit photographs had appeared nearly a decade earlier, and in the intervening time they had been investigated thoroughly and repeatedly. No one had been able to discover any deceptions on Mumler's part.

The case was predicated on the existence of spirits, and Mumler's lawyers presented evidence for this claim. Did not the Bible narrate countless episodes in which supernatural beings had appeared to mortals? A long list of biblical passages was entered as evidence of the reality and visibility of spirits. Would we have a portrait of the spririt of Samuel if Mumler and his camera had been been present when Saul spoke with that spirit? Would not the spirits involved in the Transfiguration on the mount have been available to photography? Such questions were presented to skeptical prosecution witnesses, primarily photographic specialists, in the effort to get them to admit that they believed in the existence of things they could not see. At the very least they had to admit that invisible things sometimes did become visible in photographs.

During his testimony former Judge Edmonds supported this line of argument by acknowledging that he had sometimes seen spirits in the courtroom. On one occasion—a trial concerning an insurance policy and a claim of accidental death—Edmonds saw, standing behind the jury, the spirit of the accident victim, who told Edmonds that his death had not been accidental. He had committed suicide, so the insurance claim should not be paid. The spirit also gave Edmonds some questions to ask the witnesses. Under cross-examination prosecuting attorney Gerry took the opportunity provided by Edmonds's intimate familiarity with spirits to inquire about the clothing they ordinarily wore, whether they bore signs of the manner of their death, whether they were opaque or translucent, whether they looked like Mumler's photographs. (They did.) Spirits, Edmonds said, are material things similar to gas and air, "but with a refined degree of materiality far beyond the gross existence which we occupy; ... the camera can bring forth substances invisible to the naked eye." At this point Gerry discreetly asked Edmonds whether he believed in hallucinations. Newspapers everywhere recounted this sensational testimony, sometimes confiding that "for our part we should prefer a judge without the very remarkable and peculiar power possessed by Judge Edmonds."

The defense called before the court a long line of witnesses whose testimony fell into two principal categories. Several were photographers who had worked with Mumler and claimed to have intimate knowledge of his studio procedures. They had studied him closely, observed him working in studios other than his own, and could attest that no tricks or manipulations of any sort were involved in his spirit photographs. Other witnesses were drawn from Mumler's patrons: they had posed for portraits, and however skeptical they might have been at the start, they were persuaded of the legitimacy of the spirit images by an unmistakable resemblance to a dear departed friend or relative.

One surprising feature of the defense testimony is that so many of Mumler's supporters claimed to have been highly skeptical initially. They took advantage of Mumler's services while suspecting that he was a fraud. David Hopkins, a manufacturer of railway cars, testified, "I thought Mumler, before I went there, was a cheat; ... I watched Mr. Mumler just as carefully as I could, but could find nothing." Hopkins told the court that as an overseer of many workers he was in the habit of watching people suspiciously, "to see that they did not cheat me or steal from me. [I] have been sometimes deceived, but not often." The banker Charles Livermore was part of the team of investigators who had prepared a report on Mumler for the New York Sun. He told the court, "I went there with my eyes open, as a skeptic." Livermore sought to throw Mumler off balance. He made an appointment for a sitting on a Tuesday, but went on Monday, "to disconcert him." When Mumler was ready to make one exposure, Livermore "suddenly changed my position so as to defeat any arrangement he might have made; in another I made him suddenly bring the camera three feet nearer to me and then instantly proceed to take my picture. I was on the look-out all the while." Several witnesses testified that they had used false names in their initial dealings with Mumler, deliberately withholding information about the spirits they hoped to see. Portraying their support of Mumler as a conversion from skepticism was a good rhetorical strategy in the courtroom, and no doubt it was emphasized for that purpose. More than a legal strategy, however, skepticism was a fundamental virtue essential to any individual's dignity and self-respect. To be labeled credulous was an insult that impugned one's intelligence and discounted one's testimony.

Implicitly the defense challenged the prosecution both to provide direct evidence of Mumler's involvement in studio machinations and to discredit the patrons' definitive identification of the vague forms hovering around their portraits.

Chief prosecutor Gerry recognized the traps set in these challenges. It was difficult and insensitive to question the testimony of a mother who swore that a vague and ghostly form unmistakably resembled her dead son. Gerry pressed: how could she be certain? By the curvature of the spine, the cause of early death, he was told. One witness claimed to recognize her dead brother by the length of his ear. Gerry argued forcefully for the role of imagination in such processes of recognition. He described one witness for the defense as "showing the credulity of a mind prepared to believe....Polonius-like, he sees in the cloud either a whale, or any other shape that the adroit operator claims that it assumes." One witness for the prosecution, Abraham Bogardus, a photographer and representative of the National Photographic Association (an organization like the PSAI, committed to protecting photographers from false patents and humbugs), stated that recognition of a portrait "depends upon the quantity of imagination of the sitter." He recounted occasions when visitors to his gallery recognized Henry Clay's portrait as that of General Jackson, and others when persons had failed to recognize perfect likenesses of their close friends.

One witness for the defense, a portrait painter, claimed that the resemblance of a spirit to his dead mother was unquestionable. He acknowledged that he had once painted a portrait of her, and Gerry offered to have the painting brought the considerable distance from the man's home to the courtroom to confirm the likeness in the spirit photograph. The witness declined, saying the effort would be inconclusive, since the portrait was done with the sitter in a different position and contained much more detail. On other occasions witnesses refused to provide corroborating photographic evidence of the features of individuals identified as spirits, saying the resemblance would not be evident. Their reluctance to match other likenesses to those of the spirits may suggest unacknowledged awareness of the flimsy identification, or it may reveal an intuition that perceiving likeness was a fragile and contingent process, requiring a certain knowledge and disposition not susceptible to public demonstration. In their uncertainty they implicitly recognized that no picture could represent a complex being definitively. The witnesses countered Gerry's efforts to expose their identifications as imaginative projections—on at least three occasions he asserted that a figure identified as a boy was actually a girl—with assurances that many friends and relatives of the person in question agreed with the identification. The prosecution was unable to undermine such testimony effectively.

The delicacy of the problem was revealed in Gerry's attempt to call to the stand a Dr. Parsons, physician at the lunatic asylum on Blackwell's Island and an expert in hallucinations and spiritual delusions. He was to testify that seeing spirits was a symptom of a malfunctioning imagination. Gerry was persuaded by the objections of the defense lawyer and by the advice of the presiding judge that the prosecution's case would be ill served by arguing that religion was insanity and distinguished figures like Judge Edmonds were lunatics. Gerry conceded the point and did not call the witness, but in his concluding summary he proposed that Edmonds had been hallucinating, producing "a false creation, proceeding from the heat of an oppressed brain." He quickly noted that Edmonds was not insane, and that many intelligent and accomplished men had been afflicted by mental delusions, including Ben Jonson, Lord Byron, Goethe, Cowper, and Cellini.

The other trap set by the defense concerned the mechanisms of Mumler's deceptions. No one ever claimed to have observed Mumler in the act of manipulating his photographs. Gerry pointed out that the demand for such evidence constituted an impractical and unreasonable standard of proof. By the logic of the defense's argument, those who emerged from a transaction realizing they had been cheated could seek justice only if they had observed the mechanism of the trick in action.

Circumstantial evidence was all Gerry had, and he built his case around it. He called several experts in photography—principally members of the PSAI, specifically Mason, Boyle, and Charles W. Hull—who enumerated nine different techniques for mechanically producing the ghostly effects Mumler claimed resulted from supernatural forces. These same witnesses composed photographs demonstrating each technique, which constituted the prosecution's visual evidence. The simplest involved a collaborator dressed in white slipping briefly into the background scene, out of the view of the sitter—a technique known in the profession as "Sir David Brewster's ghost." Alternatively, a second glass plate containing a positive image of a figure could be inserted into the camera in front of the sensitized plate. One witness (Hull) illustrated how this was done, using a real camera during his testimony. This second plate could also be impressed on the sensitive plate outside the camera, in the darkroom, using a dim light. A plate incompletely cleaned after its last use would allow a latent image to appear. A second printing could be made in the darkroom. And so on. Gerry and his witnesses provided the court with basic lessons in photographic technology and processes, which were dutifully reported in the newspapers. Having described an impressive arsenal of technological tricks, the prosecution systematically examined each of the Mumler photographs introduced into evidence and explained which of the nine mechanical processes could have produced each image.

One unintended effect of that strategy was to suggest just how clever and elaborate Mumler's techniques were. There was not one trick but many, sometimes used in combination, to produce the different effects presented in his photographs. The complex arsenal also permitted Mumler to escape detection. With so many skeptical patrons, some announcing at the first meeting their skepticism and their determination to watch for trickery, Mumler would have had to vary his process to take advantage of the particular opportunities available in each case. As the prosecution presented him, Mumler was no ordinary charlatan but an exceptionally deft, clever, and industrious one.

The prosecution tried to temper that impression by arguing that any competent photographer could execute such manipulations unobserved. Gerry enlisted two apothecaries to pose for spirit photographs taken by Mason. They were informed beforehand that Mason would be employing some technical trickery to produce the spirits. Both testified that they were unable to discern Mason's departures from ordinary procedure. The photographer Charles Hull backed up their testimony with a boast: "I could humbug anybody unless he held my hands."

The prosecution's legal strategy was summed up by the World: "ingenious explanations of how 'spiritual' photographs might be taken by purely mechanical means without a probability of detection by ordinary experts." But Mumler's lawyers undercut much of the prosecution's case by acknowledging from the start that spirit photographs certainly could be simulated by mechanical means. However, they also insisted that those simulations did not disprove the existence of true originals on which they were based. A deceptively realistic portrait did not throw into question the existence of the sitter.

One of the claims registered by Mumler's lawyers at the very beginning of the trial was that "in the various attempts to imitate these pictures, and which some photographers claim are the same thing, there are essential points of difference, plainly to be discovered by the practical or the discerning eye and which distinguish the genuine from the false, and which cannot be produced by the imitator." The lawyers for the defense demanded a strict separation between testimony related to spirit photographs and testimony related to forgeries. They insisted that the prosecution's expert witnesses be designated experts in imitations. One of the challenges facing the defense, then, was to help the court develop the practical and discerning eye that would enable recognition of the subtle details that distinguished authentic examples from forgeries. The defense, in other words, set itself the task of making those following the case connoisseurs of spirit photographs.

Connoisseurship and Spirit Art

It would have been risky for the defense lawyers to improve very much the powers of observation or the connoisseurship skills of the judge. Their maneuver would only have made glaringly apparent the false distinction between authentic and forged spirit photographs. Perhaps for this reason the defense was largely content to let witnesses' affirmations that they recognized the ghosts in their pictures carry the weight of argument. The prosecution, however, insisted on critical scrutiny of photographic evidence close enough to justify a claim that the Mumler case made those who followed it more sophisticated, discriminating, and skeptical viewers of photographs, even if they could not see the photographs under discussion.

Pictures were shown and discussed in the courtroom throughout the trial. (Note that the man seated at right in holds a photo.) The defense lawyers and their witnesses entered twenty-four photographs as evidence; the prosecution supplied roughly the same number of imitations produced by its photographic experts. Parodies of spirit photographs may have been circulating before the Mumler trial gave them legal purpose. One defense witness testified that prior to Mumler's arrest he had gone to Rockwood's studio and inquired about spirit photographs, only to be told by the proprietor that he made "bogus ones." Such testimony suggests that a market existed for spirit photographs based on their appreciation as technological curiosities, tricks, or creative visualizations of spirit life.

Gerry frequently pressured defense witnesses to compare their "real" images with the prosecution's simulations and judge the resemblance. Luthera Reeves showed the court her photographs containing a ghostly image of her son, who died at age four. Under cross-examination, Gerry showed her several of the prosecution's photographs and asked if she noticed any resemblance between the shadowy figures on them and those of her son. She did note a resemblance in one, although she was undisturbed by it. As she left the stand, Judge Dowling handed her a magnifying glass and asked if she positively recognized the shadowy form in her photograph as that of her dead son. She responded that she did. The judge's question shifted the focus away from the prosecution's emphasis on formal and technical similarities and toward the unarguable issue of resemblance. During the trial vision was clearly under pressure, but the direction in which it was exerted was often unclear or disputed.

The prosecutor's questioning often elicited detailed discussion of photographic processes. What are the elements contained in collodion? How are plates cleaned? What are the properties of the silver bath? Once a whole array of possible devices for producing shadowy forms had been introduced in testimony, defense witnesses were asked under cross-examination whether any of the mechanical means could have produced the effects seen in their spirit photographs.

Technical discussions often led to distinctions in staging and style. Were the ghosts positioned before or behind the sitter? were they transparent or opaque? did their shadows fall in the same direction as those of the sitter? how blurred were the ghost's features? Technical limitations kept most of the newspapers from reproducing the images in question, so they relied on parenthetical descriptions of the imagery. Photographs drew special interest when the ghost interacted with the sitter in some way, for example, when the spirit's arm passed in front of the sitter while the rest of the spirit stood behind. Newspaper readers learned from the prosecution that the sharpness of the ghost's features was determined by the distance between the two plates used to make the image and that a ghost projecting over the sitter probably resulted from a second printing. Those following the compelling courtroom drama learned to make such discriminations and understood the technical procedures that produced subtle differences, even when the source of information was a newspaper account without illustrations. That very common occurence must have drawn on capacities for imaginative visualization that were stronger before the turn of the century, when mass-produced images circulated widely.

Four days after the trial closed in early May, Harper's Weekly devoted its cover to the case and reproduced nine woodcut illustrations after photographs . One was a self-portrait by Mumler (see ); six were spirit photographs by Mumler, chiefly reproductions of images entered as evidence in the trial; and two were simulated spirit photographs taken by Rockwood with Boyle's assistance (see ). Mumler's photograph of his wife with a spirit was not involved in the trial, but the Harper's Weekly selection of illustrations featured several images that had been central to the case and to prior press reports on Mumler. The photographs themselves are apparently lost; consequently, I am reproducing the wood engravings and supplementing them with similar surviving photographs. Three of the Harper's illustrations showed a ghost whose hand or arm passed in front of the sitter from behind. ( is a photograph showing such a ghost.) This effect, which gave the impression of the ghost enfolding the sitter, was the crux of the defense's claim that true spirit photographs could be distinguished from imitations. It could not be duplicated by mechanical means, the defense insisted. The prosecution disputed that assertion and backed up its challenge with technical explanations and comparable images provided by its photographic experts . By the end of the trial Gerry felt justified observing that in one photograph "the ghost projects over the sitter, and must, therefore, have been done by a subsequent printing."

While they were always criticized by professional photographers as crude and clumsy at best, Mumler's photographs sometimes displayed features perplexing even to experts. One of the Harper's images showed a medium sitting at a table and writing, his hand guided by the hand and arm of a spirit cut off at the left side of the image . Another, smaller, spirit stood in the background. One expert witness for the prosecution (Charles Hull) speculated that the rear ghost was produced with a second plate in the camera, and the ghost at left resulted from a second printing. The prosecution entered in evidence an image taken by Rockwood showing Boyle in the position of the medium, accompanied by a single ghost fully present in the frame (see ). The prosecution's simulations did not always match Mumler's originals in technical complexity. Mumler's long experience with the processes for achieving his trademark effects gave him an advantage lost in the woodcut reproductions published by Harper's.

Harper's commissioned engravings of two portraits of Charles Livermore with the spirit of his wife. One, in the description of the World, showed her "standing behind him, bearing a bunch of flowers in her right hand, which was resting upon his right breast". The other showed her standing behind him, her hand pointing upward. The prosecution had challenged the latter on the grounds that the spirit and sitter could not have been photographed in a single exposure. Mason asserted that "the shadow of the ghost is on one side while the shadow of the sitter is on the opposite side, and the shadow in the picture could not be produced by anything in front of the camera." This was true of many of the spirit photographs, Gerry said, to which the defense responded that different laws govern the behavior of light in the supernatural realm. But if spirits glowed by their own light, as some defense testimony proposed, how could they be subject to any shadows at all?

Spirit photography faced the challenge of representing body and spirit occupying utterly distinct realms. They were distinguished from each other by the density of figures and the contrasting effects of light that set unmistakable boundaries between them; yet they had to intersect. Spirit photography needed to picture crossovers—to secure the credibility of its images, to explain the mysterious phenomena spiritualists recounted, and to justify the claims of mediums to bridge the two worlds. Otherwise, the portrayals of distinct but superimposed worlds could be dismissed as mere double exposures. This requirement helps to explain why Mumler persisted in his efforts to find technically inventive and complex ways to portray crossovers and intersections. Advertisements for his photographs highlighted the emphasis on contact across realms. Some of his pictures were selected for mass distribution because of their exceptional interest—because of the sitter's fame or some unusual visual effect. Mumler's advertising copy drew attention to a spirit child raising the dress of a sitter, "showing the power of spirits to move tangible objects"; or another spirit resting a bouquet of flowers on a sitter's lap or breast; or a spirit baby nestling in the outstretched arms of its parent. Emma Hardinge Britten marveled at the Mumler photograph that showed the spirit of Beethoven giving her a lyre-shaped bouquet, "so placed as to present the shadow between my dress and the watch-chain which falls across it." In devising technically complex photographic representations of crossovers between the faded realm of spirits and the vivid world of bodies, Mumler made photography itself a tool for envisioning relations between these spheres. Photographic technology, in other words, helped recast and refine spiritualist ideas about the spatial relationships governing the bodily and spiritual worlds.

Even before the trial Mumler's photographs had been singled out from other spirit photographs for certain striking forms and effects. At least two commentators had noted that Mumler's spirits were usually partial figures that faded into invisibility somewhere below the bust or waist . "The spirit is never a full-length figure; always a bust or three-quarter length, and yet it was impossible to tell where the figure disappears." Andrew Jackson Davis wrote in his journal Herald of Progress that in Mumler's photographs "the upper portion of the form (spiritual) is quite distinct, but the lower fades out." The appearance of only part of the spirit's body in the photographs seems to have made them more plausible as supernatural phenomena. Other commentaries noted that the spirits often seemed especially out of focus in the face. The specific measure of blurriness in Mumler's spirits was another element the prosecution's authorities had difficulty duplicating. Even though the spirits provided the lightest areas in the photographs, "there was none of that clearness of definition usual in under-exposed figures in [other] ghost pictures." Mumler's photographs carefully balanced clarity and ambiguity in the spirit image; as the Sun put it, they were "indistinct and shadowy, but still in many cases clearly enough defined for a likeness to be recognized." Several commentators noted that the scale of Mumler's spirits sometimes differed from that of the sitters.

Mumler significantly varied his formulas. One of his unlocated portraits, far more elaborate than anything discussed at the trial, was advertised for general sale in 1872. The sitter, Master Herrod of North Bridgewater, Massachusetts, was described as a medium. ( shows a different spirit photo of Master Herrod.) "Before sitting for this picture three spirits offered to show themselves, representing Europe, Africa, and America. As will be seen by the picture, the promise was fulfilled." The significance of the figures to the boy was not explained. Mumler's audience would have been familiar with the artistic convention of representing the Earth's continents (usually shown as four) allegorically in the racial type considered native to each. The photograph of the Herrod boy suggests that Mumler sometimes maneuvered his unnatural images into familiar forms and traditional subjects. A spirit photograph that also represented the Earth's diversity and totality must have disarmed viewers with a mix of the familiar and the strange, the old and the new. Mumler, who had used the formula of a victory figure crowning a hero in some of his earliest works, used it again in one of his portraits of Livermore.

Even Mumler's most scathing critics noted improvements in his style over time. On one occasion Boyle claimed credit for some of them, surmising that Mumler had responded to criticisms Boyle had published six years earlier.

I perceive by the reports of the wonders which again fill the air, that the criticisms of six years ago have not been lost on our friend, Mumler. Four-four size spirit babies, for instance, no longer appear in the arms of affectionate parents who fit very comfortably on a 'carte de visite.' Ladies of fifty years ago are not so particular about donning the costume of today, but appear as discrete spirits should always do, in the modes of their time; nor do those ancient inhabitants commit the mistake of bringing with them spirit columns singularly resembling the terrestrial one in Mr. Mumler's gallery; neither do the spirits of Daniel Webster and such men persist in dressing and posing themselves in exact imitation of their card photographs, which are for sale in the book stores; and, above all, the spirits have entirely stopped assuming an exact likeness of well known living people, who have had their photographs taken at Mumler's gallery, all of which, I think you will agree with me, is a very great improvement.

Boyle seems utterly aloof here in his disdain. More commonly the PSAI photographers responded anxiously to Mumler's work because it threatened directly their efforts to shape and promote photography as scientific, objective, truthful, and modern. Earlier, when Mumler's photographs were first coming to attention, the Photographic News articulated this anxiety: "Our own art is prostituted to purposes of imposture....[W]e feel very indignant that our art should be brought into disrepute by being made subservient to such an impudent trick."

We can measure the magnitude of the threat Mumler's work was perceived to pose by the responses it elicited from members of the PSAI and the National Photographic Association. Some of these photographers, feeling they had not done enough by putting Hickey onto Mumler, serving as expert witnesses for the prosecution, and writing essays and letters condemning Mumler and his work, also tried to extract damning evidence from Mumler. Near the midpoint of the trial, Mason, Bogardus, Hull, and two other members of the PSAI paid a nighttime visit to Mumler's establishment. They intended to bring Mumler by force to another photography studio and demand that he produce a spirit photograph on the spot, using equipment other than his own under their watchful eye. Mumler was out when they arrived, but Guay responded initially by betting five hundred dollars that Mumler could make a spirit photograph at any studio. When the intruders accepted the bet, Guay retracted it. He became agitated and according to Hull, "declared he 'was on the make,' and 'he didn't care a {---} who knew it.'" In testifying for the prosecution, Hull cited Guay's bet and its retraction, and Mumler's closing statement made bitter reference to the event. A headline in the World misattributed the retraction to Mumler: "Mumler Not a Betting Man; He Refuses to Photograph Ghosts in Another Man's Gallery."

The PSAI photographers generated controversy in the photographic community with their aggressive actions. They had defended the integrity of photography by producing fraudulent images for use as evidence in the trial. They had energetically publicized Mumler's fraudulent work to keep photography free of such humbugs. But press coverage of the trial only increased public awareness that photography could be used fraudulently, and Mumler and his ilk became famous. One photographer, in a letter to the editor of a photography journal, disputed the tactics and impugned the motivations of the PSAI photographers: "It must be admitted by all candid minded people that the photographic art has been damaged by this shameful transaction. In my judgement those photographers who took part in this matter, and through their influence rendered Mumler and his silly farce popular, should be held responsible for these soft-shell doings." The writer of the letter went on to address those photographers: "You will probably enter the plea that you were summoned to attend the Mumler trial, and give your testimony. If you had staid away from that scene of disgrace, you would not have been summoned, but your morbid aspirations for notoriety, and your greediness to steal a portion of Mumler's thunder, blinded your eyes to all shame."

In the era of a mass-market press, celebrity, and humbugs as entertaining public spectacles, policing photography to keep it a reputable and truthful medium presented conundrums. When a similar case came to the attention of the PSAI exactly six years later, the group acted more cautiously. A photographer named Evans was purporting to take spirit photographs in New York, and the PSAI wished to rebut his claims. H.J. Newton, then president of the PSAI, applied the lesson he had learned from the Mumler case: "It was very difficult to prove a fraud." Mason, still secretary of the organization, argued against a proposal to challenge Evans to demonstrate his technique. Mason stated clearly that as far as spirit photographers were concerned, he "did not propose to spend his time advertising these gentlemen." Mumler had been unable to take advantage of his fame in New York; he had lost everything to the expense of his trial and had left New York immediately afterward. But the public had learned to look askance at photographs, and the medium could never again stand for purely truthful representation. The newspaper descriptions and the woodcut reproductions in Harper's Weekly brought spirit photography into the purview of a large segment of the population. Naive acceptance of photography's truthfulness was now recognized as credulity. Photography in the future would have to develop stylistic means for laying claim to documentary truth.

Barnum's Testimony

Mumler's opponents may have underestimated both the cultural strength of spiritualism and Mumler's own shrewdness, but they foresaw perfectly that the case would compel public attention. The World conceded, "If this photographic Prospero is no more, he is a very clever performer in his specialty." It noted that Mumler's critics found themselves in the same position as those of another master of humbug, P.T. Barnum. Mumler's attorneys probably had not drawn their strategies of defense from Barnum's example, but they very well could have.

The difficulty is in proving the imposture. Six or seven experts testify that they can produce precisely the same phenomena, which are claimed to be supernatural, by ordinary scientific and mechanical means; and Mumler and his believers reply: "No doubt; so can we; but our pictures are not so produced." Which places the non-believers in precisely the position of the man who doubted if Barnum's monkey was a gorilla: "Sir," said he, "that's no gorilla, for the gorilla has no tail." To which the great showman is reported to have blandly replied: "But that does not prove that this is not a gorilla, for the tail, you see, is sewed on." Of course, that ends the argument.

Barnum's testing of the limits of plausibility and legality in showmanship made him an obvious point of reference for commentaries on the trial. Nonetheless, followers of the trial were no doubt surprised and delighted to learn that Barnum had been called to testify. Although both the defense and the prosecution would have had good reason to be interested in his testimony, the prosecution enlisted his cooperation. His appearance at the trial was unquestionably the high point of the event.

Barnum's testimony brings some of the crucial complexities of the case into focus. The World provided detailed transcripts of his exchanges with the lawyers; I draw from them the excerpts that follow. The revealing responses of the courtroom audience, described in parentheses, are reproduced as published.

Gerry: Have you, at any period during your life, devoted yourself to the detection of humbugs, so called?

Barnum: Yes, sir. (Great laughter)

Barnum, could have been called to testify as an expert witness on the matter of humbugs, but he soon revealed that he was also an authority on spirit photographs. He had been interested in spiritualism since its beginnings with the infamous "Rochester rappings" and the Fox sisters in 1848: "I think it is seven years since I have known Mumler as the original taker, so far as I know, of spiritual photographs; I published a book upon the subject seven years ago."

Barnum claimed to have corresponded with Mumler in connection with his planned book but said the letters he had received from Mumler were burned in the fire that destroyed his museum in 1865.

I wrote to Mumler that I was publishing a book exposing humbugs of the world (great laughter), and that I wished to expose the humbugs of the spiritual photographs; that he had originated the thing, and I wished to purchase from him anything he had got left, inasmuch as he had left that part of the business, and I wished to purchase some of the pictures to exhibit them, and also to give a description of them in my book upon humbugs (laughter); he sent them to me, and I paid $2 or $3 a piece for them; one represented "Colorado Jewett" and "Napoleon Bonaparte"; they were burned; they were exposed for a long time upon the museum walls, and they were labelled to express the pretended appearance of Napoleon Bonaparte and the real Colorado Jewett; also of "Henry Clay" and "Colorado Jewett"; the photographs were taken from pictures of Napoleon and Clay; they present precisely the appearance and positions which these photographs showed.

Gerry's next questions revealed a third basis for Barnum's testimony, beyond his expertise in humbugs and his enlistment of Mumler in enterprises that acknowledged spirit photography as humbug. Barnum had agreed to participate in an experiment for the prosecution.

Gerry: Do you believe in "spooks"? (Great laughter.)

Barnum: Yes, I do. (Renewed laughter.) I saw many when I was a boy. (Continued laughter.) It is only necessary to believe in them to see them. (Laughter.)

Barnum went on to recount events of the preceding day, when he had gone to Bogardus's gallery to have a spirit photograph taken, "but I told him I did not want to have any humbugging in the matter. (Great laughter.)" Bogardus agreed to do it and to allow Barnum to investigate the entire process while the photograph was being made.

Barnum: I investigated the plate glass, went into the dark-rooms and saw the process of pouring over the first liquid; after it was placed in the nitrate of silver bath, then it was put in the camera; there was a little break upon the glass so that I could distinguish it all the time; went through the operation; had my shadow taken, and that of the departed Abraham Lincoln came also upon the glass. (Great laughter.)

Gerry: Is that it (showing the picture [])?

Barnum: Yes, that's the critter. (Renewed merriment.)


Gerry: Were you conscious of a spiritual presence?

Barnum: I did not feel anything of that sort. (Great laughter.)

If Barnum's shrewd eye could not discover the mechanism of the trick, what chance did any ordinary patron have? Under cross-examination, Townsend addressed Barnum not as an authority on humbugs but as a perpetrator of them.

Townsend: How long have you been in the humbug business?

Barnum: I was never in it; I never took money from a man without giving him the worth of it four times over. (Laughter.) These pictures that I exhibited I did so as a humbug, and not as a reality, not like this man who takes $10 from people.

Townsend: Did you state it to be a humbug?

Barnum: It was so labelled.

Townsend: All these humbugs that you have taken money for, did you tell the people at the time that they were humbugs?

Barnum: I never showed anything that did not give the people their money's worth four times over.

Townsend: Take the wolly horse? (Great laughter.)

Barnum: That was a remarkable curiosity and a reality, without the slightest preparation or disguise or humbug or deception about it in the world; it was exhibited as a curiosity at fifty cents a head in Pittsburg and Cincinnati, and there I bought it.

Townsend: Was it what you represented it to be?

Barnum: It was a peculiar kind of creature (laughter), but I say that it was what I represented it to be.

Townsend: Was it actually a wolly horse?

Barnum: It was actually a wolly horse. (Bursts of laughter, which were at once checked by the court.)

Townsend: Was it not a horse wooled over?

Barnum: Not the slightest, and I am very happy to enlighten the public upon that point. (Merriment.) The horse was born just as he was, and there was no deception about him in the world; there was nothing artificial about it, and I was happy to get it to draw the people, but there was no deception about it, I take my oath. (Loud laughter.)

Townsend: Was it intended by you to humbug the community?

Barnum: No, sir, by no means.

Townsend: Do you mean to say that the horse was in its natural state?

Barnum: Exactly; just as it was born.

Townsend: Was it naturally a wolly horse?

Barnum: It was. (Laughter.)

Townsend: In the condition you represented it?

Barnum: Yes, sir.

Townsend: The mermaid, sir? (Great laughter.)

Barnum: The mermaid, at the time it was exhibited, was represented to be as I represented it, and I have not seen anything to the contrary.

The Feejee Mermaid was one of the most notorious of Barnum's humbugs: a dried, shrunken, and blackened corpse presented as proof that mermaids exist . In fact, this mermaid had been manufactured by attaching the upper torso of a monkey to the body of a fish. Barnum advertised it as a sensation that patrons would have to see not necessarily to believe but to judge for themselves.

Townsend: Did you find it subsequently to be otherwise?

Barnum: I never did.

Townsend: Did you represent it as you bought it?

Barnum: I represented it as I bought it, and I found it as I bought it. I have grown older since, and there was something which made me doubt it, but at the time—

Townsend: You never presented it to the public in any other way than it was?

Barnum: I had no reason, from an examination of the animal, to doubt what it was represented to me at the time; I never owned it, I hired it.


Townsend: I will ask you generally one question. Have you as a public entertainer presented to the mass anything which you knew to be untrue, and took money for it; have you falsified the facts and taken money for it?

Barnum: Well, I think I have given it a little drapery sometimes founded on fact. (Great laughter—which was not checked for some moments.)

Townsend: Now this question of Mumler—oh! the nurse of George Washington. (Peals of laughter.)

Barnum: I shall be delighted. (Renewed laughter.)

Townsend: Was that the nurse of George Washington? (Great laughter.)

Barnum: I have seen no reason to doubt it. [See .] I bought it as such. (Renewed merriment.) I never investigated it very closely. (Shouts of laughter, which the court for some minutes vainly endeavored to check.) As far as I knew she was so.

Townsend: Do you believe that she was?

Barnum: It is a matter of belief. (Great laughter.)

Townsend: Do you believe that she was?

Barnum: I bought it upon a bill of sale which represented her as belonging to George Washington's father. The bill of sale never has been disputed, and I never knew who wrote the bill of sale.

Townsend: Do you believe that the person was Washington's nurse?

Barnum: I never had a profound belief in regard to things. (Laughter.)

Townsend: Now I ask the court—

Judge Dowling: He has given the reasons.

Barnum: I do not know that she was not.

Townsend: Did you believe all the time?

Barnum: I did; my teeth were not cut then as they are now, but I paid a thousand dollars. It is likely before I got through that I might have had some doubts upon the subject. (Great laughter.)

Townsend: When the doubt came into your mind, did you suggest it to the public?

Barnum: I did not think that I should put myself out of the way.

Townsend then turned to disputing Barnum's claim that he had corresponded with Mumler. Barnum testified that Mumler's employer had told him Mumler "was played out, and had a great many things on hand; then I wrote to Mumler, and he sold them to me." Under questioning Barnum revealed that he had been notified only the day before that he would be called to testify in this case, but that he had searched thoroughly his surviving files looking for the letters from Mumler, but without success.

Townsend: What you have given here as being contained in the letters is simply from a remembrance of seven years.

Barnum: Five, six, or seven; they were dated the same year that the exposure was published.

Townsend: Does your book speak of Mumler?

Barnum: I think it was at his request, or at the request of his employers, that I did not do it.

Townsend: Would it have any effect upon your mind to state by a positive assertion that he never wrote to you in his life?

Barnum: I should know that his assertion was not true, when I wrote to the establishment, and got the answer back, signed Mumler.

The defense being finished with the witness, the prosecutor posed one last question.

Gerry: When you were with Bogardus, did you want George Washington's nurse to appear?

Barnum: He said that she had no vitality left. (Great laughter, during which Mr. Barnum left the stand and left the court-room, the examination having been conducted.)53.

Irony and Deception

This cross-examination is more than an entertaining game of cat and mouse. Under oath in a court of law Barnum carried on the brilliant performance of gullibility and ignorance that was his trademark. When he offered his oath that his woolly horse was truly a woolly horse, the response from the audience in the courtroom was loud laughter. Everyone knew he was dissembling, yet he was not accused of perjury. Even the judge seems to have been amused by the performance. But Barnum was on the stand to offer truthful and potentially damaging testimony: that at a moment when his spirit photography business seemed to be failing, Mumler had agreed to sell Barnum some of his photographs in full knowledge that they were to be presented as examples of humbugs. How did the audience in the court know that these allegations by Barnum were not also tongue-in-cheek? Barnum was able to speak in the confidence that his audience would recognize his falsehoods as such—would know when he was playing the gullible fool and when he was being forthright. They seem to have appreciated his trusting them to know the difference.

Defense attorney Townsend seemed perfect in his assigned part as straight man. In one sense Barnum outsmarted him: now it was Townsend who could not prove calculated deceit or illustrate the mechanism of the alleged deception. So long as Barnum stonewalled, Townsend could do nothing to prove guilt. But Townsend's questions were ambiguous: was he attempting to discredit Barnum as a witness by reprising his history as a purveyor of notorious and fraudulent spectacles? Or was he attempting to draw implicit parallels between Barnum's enterprises and Mumler's? When he asked Barnum, "Have you as a public entertainer presented to the mass anything which you knew to be untrue, and took money for it?" he was only asking why Mumler should be prosecuted for doing the same. Why would a society reward one entertaining charlatan and send another to prison?

Barnum seems to have thought the difference was a matter of price. For fifty cents his patrons received two dollars' worth of pleasure, by his estimation, while Mumler's patrons received far less than ten dollars in value. At least one of the defense witnesses testified, however, that he paid Mumler twice his fee as a token of deep appreciation for his services. Who should decide whether a swindlewas sufficiently clever and entertaining to justify its price?

The issue of price only disguised a difference Barnum could not have articulated. His own patrons were willing participants in his games of deception, as the courtroom merriment made abundantly clear. Mumler's, by contrast, would not acknowledge through nods, winks, and poking elbows any possibility of fraudulence in his spirit photography. Most explicitly claimed to have had all doubts allayed by firsthand experience with the man and his work. For those who believed spirit photography a pure hoax, its patrons' earnestness was a sign of their naivete.

Barnum's position on his activities, as transcribed in the newspaper records, differed little from Mumler's. Both men asserted innocence of any deception. Both professed to have limited knowledge of the sources and causes of their attractions. Both were understood by many in the audience to be performing innocence, with Barnum implicitly acknowledging his playacting, but not Mumler. To some extent this difference is a matter of style—Barnum's smug voice or the coy double entendres of some of his answers. But it is also a matter of audience disposition. The first two words out of Barnum's mouth—"Yes, sir"—elicited laughter, a clear sign of an audience inclined to interpret Barnum's answers, on the basis of his past behavior, as deliberately artful and ambiguous. Mumler did not take the stand, but he read a closing statement to the court. It provoked laughter just once, when he explained that the large number of investigators curious about his photographic process demanded all his time and interfered with his ability to support himself. "While greedy themselves for intellectual food, [they] seemed entirely oblivious to the fact that I myself was a material body. (Laughter.)" Moreover, Mumler's words occasionally invited complex interpretation. For example, when he recalled Tooker's visit to his gallery, his strongest memory was that "the form which appeared upon his picture ... [was] the most villainous I had ever taken. I am now satisfied, from the manner in which he came there, under an assumed name, or, more vulgarly speaking, with a lie in his mouth, and with the purpose, which subsequent events have shown, that he got what was promised him." This statement might be read as a version of Barnum's claim to have given his patrons a fourfold return on their investment regardless of fraudulence.

Unlike the listeners Barnum entertained, who took his professions of truth as invitations to doubt, those who patronized Mumler asserted that he had overcome their skepticism and that they believed absolutely in the authenticity of his spirit photographs. Doubtless many of Barnum's patrons were taken in by his humbugs at least partially—thrilled by the sight of the Feejee Mermaid or astonished by the age and experience of Joice Heth. But those individuals were left to fend for themselves in the new market for sensational entertainments. Were Mumler's patrons so much more gullible that they needed the protection of legal authorities?

In New York's law courts in 1869 earnestness could be a liability and irony, a protection against the law. The Socratic irony of Barnum's masterly maneuvering suited the new culture of deception. Barnum feigned ignorance while communicating wit and shrewdness, absurdly persistent as he stonewalled in the face of the evidence. He assumed the persona of the dupe, the very target of his own promotions. The World mimicked his irony in describing the paradox of his testimony. "Mr. Barnum has a vast and various power of belief, but he cannot accept these spiritual photographs with an equal mind. He has unbounded confidence in the woolly horse; he stakes his reputation upon the authenticity of the mermaid; he actually overflows with child-like faith in Joice Heth; but he rejects Mumler. Mumler as a magician revolts his else universal credulity....Who will pretend a trust in the preposterous pretensions of the spiritual photographer when this child-like spirit, this marvel of credulity, this son of Connecticut in whom there is no guile, repudiates and disavows him?"

The evolution of irony as a cultural style in concert with modern skepticism is a recurrent theme of this book. It will return, along with Barnum, for further reflections in the final chapter.

Mumler was arguably as good as Barnum at finding a sensational claim that could not be disproved, but he would not acknowledge his mischief and allow his patrons to share his secret. His allegiance to the old supernatural forms of magic prevented him from following the course charted by Barnum, which might have proved at least as lucrative. Mumler claimed in his autobiography that he had at first doubted his early spirit photographs and had begun by treating them as novelties. Had he preserved that early doubt and simply professed continual amazement at the persistent appearance of spirits in his photographs, inviting the public to judge the results for themselves, he would have approximated the example of Barnum. But even Barnum was unable to preserve neutrality where spirit photography was concerned; he claimed to have definitively labeled the spirit photographs in his exhibit hoaxes. Barnum's brilliant stonewalling about his own hoaxes was always counterbalanced by his adamant claim that his purpose was to enlighten his contemporaries on the subject of humbugs to improve besieged modern citizens' quality of life. "If we could have a full exposure of 'the tricks of trade' of all sorts, of humbugs and deceivers of past times, religious, political, financial, scientific, quackish and so forth, we might perhaps look for a somewhat wiser generation to follow us. I shall be well satisfied if I can do something towards so good a purpose." Like all Barnum's statements, this one must be interpreted skeptically. Could he really have wanted to put himself out of business? Spirit photographs allowed him to enact his identity as a guardian without threat to any of his own enterprises.

If deception and illusion are ubiquitous, when should cases be prosecuted? No one doubted that a line had to be drawn somewhere between Barnum's entertaining humbugs and the massive financial and political swindles flourishing throughout the country—developments that contemporaries recognized as related. But had Mumler's ten-dollar spirit photographs crossed that line? The judge seems to have thought so, although he decided in favor of Mumler: "I am morally convinced that there may be fraud and deception practiced by the prisoner, yet I, sitting as a magistrate to determine from the evidence given by the witnesses according to law, am compelled to decide that I would not be justified in sending this complaint to the Grand Jury, as, in my opinion, the prosecution has failed to make out the case."

The verdict seems clear, reasonable, and principled, but as in all civil activities in Tweed's and Tammany's New York, there is reason to wonder. The public exposure of Judge Dowling's own corruption and malfeasance would begin to unfold in just a few months. As a key figure in the city's "Police Ring"—a conspiracy of the judiciary, law enforcement officers, and the district attorney's office to execute the idiosyncratic "justice" demanded by the Tweed Ring and Tammany Hall—Dowling was known for outrageous impropriety and disregard for the rights of the accused. He was eventually charged with corruption and removed from office. One of the early agents of his demise was none other than John D. Townsend. A few days after the Mumler trial concluded, Dowling summarily incarcerated two sisters, Anna Pearsall and Joanna Connor, in the Tombs for several days without charges or hearings. They managed to bribe a prison attendant to carry to the New York Tribune a letter they had written describing their plight. Learning of their situation, Townsend volunteered to represent the sisters and initiate legal proceedings before Dowling's agent, Judge Albert Cardozo, despite Cardozo's warnings against prosecuting the case. These events attracted extensive coverage in the newspapers, and, coming so soon after the Mumler trial, they brought Townsend notoriety as a courageous defender of the persecuted against corrupt authorities. As the Tribune would note a few years later, "This exposure of Dowling and Cardozo by Townsend was in fact the opening of the fight against the corrupt judges," which led to the impeachment, conviction, resignation, and removal of Dowling and several of the most powerful justices in the city. Townsend's success in the Pearsall-Connor case depended substantially on his ability to use the newspapers as a weapon against a repressive court. Although he occasionally found himself having to retract in the courtroom statements credited to him in the press, his aptitude for handling the engines of publicity confirmed him as a kindred spirit to Barnum.

Given the complex operations of New York City's judiciary at the time, one cannot help wondering why Dowling made a principled decision in the Mumler trial and whether ulterior motives conditioned his finding in Mumler's favor. But Dowling's motivations aside, the prosecution had indeed failed to make the necessary case. It had been unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mumler's photographs were frauds. More important, it had no answer to the defense's most powerful argument, which was never explicitly stated: that if truth was the issue, Mumler was no different from Barnum. If Mumler must be sent to jail for profiting from lying, so must Barnum. Townsend's subtle use of implications and secondary meanings in cross-examination effectively shifted the question. He showed that in the age of Barnum and Mumler, truth was no longer the issue, not even in a court of law. What mattered now was the style of the deception, and the business of the court was to determine which styles would be protected by law and which would not.

The failure of the prosecution was not complete, however. It had educated those following the trial in the technical processes of photography and the opportunities they provided for chicanery, and it had promoted skeptical looking. Photography's power to deceive could not afterward be found surprising, and deception remained a recurrent topic in commentary on the medium. The case helped to consolidate an experience of photography as a medium simultaneously of truth and illusion. Any given photograph might provoke oscillation between belief and skepticism, or it might generate the astonishment that comes of experiencing both responses at once.

If photographs could not be trusted to tell the truth, what visual images could? The next chapter on the paintings of Thomas Eakins takes up this question.