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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 a