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Before he invented telegraphic code, Samuel Morse was a portrait painter. In the winter of 1825, he left his family in Connecticut and traveled to Washington, D.C., for a sitting with the Marquis de Lafayette. On February 9 he sent a letter to his beloved wife, Lucretia. Three days later he received word that Lucretia was dead. She had been dead when he wrote to her. “What had it meant that he had thought he was communicating with her?” asks Peter Manseau in THE APPARITIONISTS: A TALE OF PHANTOMS, FRAUD, PHOTOGRAPHY, AND THE MAN WHO CAPTURED LINCOLN’S GHOST (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27). “Had she not been fully alive in his mind as he scratched his ‘ardent affection’ on the page?” If necessity is the mother of invention, grief must be a kind of need. Morse would go on to patent the telegraph and to help found the first daguerreotype portrait studio, ensuring, as Manseau puts it, that “no man should remain as unknowing for so long as he had been of his lover’s fate, and should never more fear forgetting a single detail of her beauty.”

Photograph of the Battle of Antietam, September 1862, by Alexander Gardner. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

Manseau is the curator of religion at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History, as well as the author of four books of non-fiction, a novel, and a memoir. “It is my hope,” he writes,

that this story of photography’s infancy will provide a fresh view of a time shaped by war, belief, new technology, and a longing for connection across ever greater distances — a time not unlike our own.

The Apparitionists is breezy, clever, and exuberant. (Only a fusspot would ask: Was an inflating hot-air balloon “like a pimple on the face of the earth”? And about that mourning band on Lincoln’s hat: “a ring on the finger of a nation now married to Death”? Really?) In addition to Morse, Manseau’s cast includes Mathew Brady, P. T. Barnum, and William Mumler, a spirit photographer. In the 1860s, Mumler was working as an engraver, with a sideline peddling a homemade digestive remedy, when he met a pretty medium (in the parlance of the day, a “battery”) named Hannah Stuart, who ran her own photo studio. Mumler liked to help her by organizing the chemicals in the darkroom or testing the camera’s focus, and along the way he picked up a few fundamentals. One day he was developing the negative of a self-portrait when he discovered the ghostly image of a little girl next to his body. Mumler assumed that he had improperly washed the glass plate before coating it with collodion, but Stuart knew a visitation from a carte de visite. Soon the gallery was thronged with spiritualists and curiosity seekers willing to pay the outrageous sum of ten dollars for their own spectral snapshot, and Ms. Stuart became Mrs. Mumler. Mumler was brought up on charges of fraud in 1869.

Photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with Abraham Lincoln’s “spirit,” by William Mumler. From the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection. Courtesy the Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the Indiana State Museum.

Spiritualism, which arose in the 1830s, was a “hangover” from the Second Great Awakening. Its proponents flubbed public trials of their skills, and its influence was waning — “the automatic writing seemed to be on the wall” — when the Civil War broke out and “a hokey parlor trick turned into the receptacle for the most intense collective grief the nation had ever known.” Spiritualists, however, were divided on the validity of spirit photography, and the spirits themselves were no help. At a séance in the early 1860s, they spoke through the medium Fannie Conant to explain that determining the truth or falsity of Mumler’s pictures was “your work, and not ours.”

As Manseau shows, Mumler’s more reputable contemporaries were also in the business of necromancy. Jeremiah Gurney took a picture of Lincoln’s corpse lying in state. (The corpse then popped up and placed a loving hand on Mary Todd’s shoulders, in a photo that Mumler took in 1872.) Brady displayed photographs of fallen Confederate soldiers in his gallery on Broadway. Brady’s associate, Alexander Gardner, trawled Southern battlefields in a rolling darkroom known as a “whatsit wagon.” Mumler’s enemies were never able to say exactly how he achieved his supernatural effects, but we know Gardner’s tricks. If gunfire didn’t do its worst artfully enough, he dragged the bodies to more scenic locations, or carefully inserted a prop rifle into the frame.

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