A Most Wicked Fraud

June 20, 2017
Natalie Hulla
In today’s world of digital photography, fashion magazines are frequently called out for overzealous manipulation of their cover photos. Cell phone owners on a quest for the perfect selfie possess powerful editing software at their fingertips. As media consumers, we’ve become so accustomed to these modifications that we’re often more surprised to see unaltered images. With this cynical perspective, it can be difficult to imagine the world illuminated in Arlitia Jones’ world premiere Summerland and the fierce debate William H. Mumler’s spirit photographs inspired.

In the mid-19th century, photography was a new and mysterious medium. But while Mumler’s supporters were certain they saw their deceased loved ones captured in his camera lens, skeptics saw a different story, one summed up by prosecutor Elbridge T. Gerry in his arguments at Mumler’s 1869 fraud hearing.

“This case is simply one of many where an adroit criminal is attempting to evade the hand of justice and to practice, untrammeled by fear of human consequences, a most wicked fraud as a livelihood,” Gerry said. “If the prisoner’s innocence is as strong as his supernatural powers are said to be perhaps, like some of his ‘spirits,’ he may be able before a jury of his countrymen to create in their minds a marked impression of that innocence by his own reflected light!”

While Mumler’s defense attorneys brought client after client to the stand to swear there was no deception in his supernatural photos, the prosecution matched this testimony with a team of experts resolved on demonstrating the very natural ways in which Mumler may have achieved his results. In all, Gerry offered nine methods that could have been used to manufacture the photographs, ranging from double printing, or re-using a glass plate on which an image had been previously developed, to introducing another person dressed in white into the frame for a brief time. Other suggestions included the insertion of a tiny picture of a spirit into the camera itself via the screw holes located near the lens.

During the hearing, members of the Photographic Section of the American Institute submitted double-printed images as evidence of how easily Mumler’s spirit photographs could be mimicked. New York photographer Abraham Bogardus shared a print of P.T. Barnum with the “spirit” of the late President Abraham Lincoln hovering over him, an ironic precursor to Mumler’s most famous image, an 1872 portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln in which a ghostly likeness of her husband stands with his hands upon her shoulders.

Gerry saw a pattern in the experience of Mumler’s customers, telling the courtroom, “Your honor will note that in cases where persons went there avowing skepticism and their intention to investigate the matter, they had, in nearly every case, to sit more than once; and the inference is that they grew more careless every time they watched the performance.

“Those who went prepared to believe of course did believe on very slight proof. And that is all this evidence of the defense proves,” Gerry said. “It proves the existence of a belief in the prisoner’s statements, not the truth of those statements. … Man is naturally both credulous and superstitious, and in all ages of the world imposters and cheats have taken advantage of this credulous and superstitious nature to impose upon their fellows less sharp in intellect than themselves.”

Ultimately Mumler was acquitted of all charges thanks to an “anti-evidentiary” argument. The prosecution’s case failed because Gerry could not prove which of the proposed nine methods Mumler actually used to fake his photographs.

In refusing to send the suit to a grand jury, Judge Dowling ruled, “After a careful and thorough analysis of this interesting, and I may say, extraordinary case, I have come to the conclusion that the prisoner should be discharged. I will state that, however I may be morally convinced that there may have been trick and deception practiced by the prisoner, yet as I sit as a magistrate to determine from the evidence given by the witnesses, according to law, I am compelled to decide … the prosecution have failed to make out their complaint.”

In proving that photographs could be faked — if not that Mumler did so — the most lasting legacy of the Mumler case may be a lost innocence toward photography itself. In its coverage, the New York World summed up the dilemma: “Who henceforth, can trust the accuracy of a photograph? … Photographs have been treasured in a belief that, like figures, they could not lie, but here is a revelation that they may be made to lie with a most deceiving exactness.”

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.