A Humble Instrument

June 20, 2017
Natalie Hulla
For many Playhouse theatre-goers, Arlitia Jones’ world premiere Summerland will be an introduction to the strange and fascinating story of spirit photographer William H. Mumler. But in the mid-19th century, Mumler was the subject of widespread national and even international attention, pitting believers against skeptics in judging whether Mumler’s haunting images were the stuff of miracle or deception.

Mumler began his career as a jewelry engraver in Boston but soon exhibited an interest in the new field of photography. Mumler himself believed his first spirit photograph to be a mistake caused by double printing. But when subsequent images exhibited similar results, Mumler drew the attention of prominent Spiritualists, who saw his photographs as proof that ongoing communion was possible with those who had passed from this world to the next.

In an effort to prove his photographs weren’t faked, Mumler opened his process to numerous observers. He would show them how images of both his living clients and accompanying spirits were contained within a single negative, would invite people to bring their own glass plates to use in his camera and would even allow those investigating him the opportunity to help develop their pictures.

In November 1862, the Banner of Light, the most popular Spiritualist paper of the day, reported: “If there be deception in this unaccountable phenomenon, it is so shrewd and so deep that it has thus far eluded the detection and very careful and thorough examination of many persons. There has been, heretofore, no phase of the spiritual manifestations more beautiful and convincing than this, and it is proper that it should be thoroughly scrutinized and, if real, be proved free from any odium that should justly stigmatize trickery, swindling or deception.”

As popular as Mumler became, doubts persisted as to the veracity of his claims, particularly when several of the “ghostly” figures in his images were proven to be likenesses of people very much alive. To escape growing scrutiny, Mumler relocated to New York in 1868 and established a thriving business there, though trouble continued to plague him. When a complaint reached the mayor’s office, Marshal Joseph H. Tooker was assigned to investigate. Assuming a false name, he scheduled a session with Mumler — kicking off the sequence of events that inspired Jones’ fictional take on the remainder of their story in Summerland.

In real life, many were called to defend Mumler against charges of fraud and larceny in his hearing before New York’s Tombs Police Court in April 1869. The New York Daily Tribune wrote, “The intensity of the interest manifested by the public in this case has perhaps never been surpassed in reference to any criminal investigation in this city.”

William W. Guay had been employed by Mumler as an assistant and commissioned by Spiritualist leader Andrew Jackson Davis to investigate the photographer years earlier. According to his testimony, “I tested the process by every means I could devise. I could find no trick or device and became convinced that the spectral pictures appearing in photographs of living persons were actually and truly likenesses of those departed and were produced by means other than those known to artists.”

Charles Livermore sat for Mumler for an image in which he claimed to see the spirit of his deceased wife. “I went there with my eyes open, as a skeptic,” Livermore said. He showed up a day early for his appointment with Mumler, “to disconcert him. [I] suddenly changed my position so as to defeat any arrangement he might have made. … I was on the lookout all the while.”

In summarizing attorney John D. Townsend’s defense for Mumler, The New York Times wrote, “What sort of man must the prisoner be if the theory of the prosecution were correct? First, he would require a gallery of immense proportions; he would be compelled to have on hand negative pictures of the parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and great-grandmothers of all the persons who call to get photographs. Next, he must be possessed of a knowledge of chemistry and scientific matters generally, matters of which he professed no great knowledge … be so shrewd as to defy detection at the hands of the most scientific men.”

For his part, Mumler asserted his innocence his entire life. In an 1875 pamphlet, he wrote, “The history of all pioneers of new truths is relatively the same, and happy is the man who is not the chosen one to meet the prejudices of a skeptical world in the development of some new discovery. And yet, as I look back upon my past experience, I feel that I have been the gainer, personally for all the sacrifices I have made, and all the troubles I may have endured in the knowledge I have gained of a future existence, and in the soul-satisfaction of being a humble instrument in the hands of the invisible host that surrounds us for disseminating this beautiful truth of spirit-communion.”

To learn more about the Playhouse's world premiere production of Summerland, visit the production detail page.
Billy Finn and Michael Rothhaar in Summerland. Photo by Mikki Schaffner.