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Part 4 - The Arrest and Trial

Definition: Part 4 of a 7 part series about spirit photography.
Part 4 of a 7 part series about spirit photography.

On March 16, 1869, another gentleman entered No. 630 Broadway. He introduced himself as William Bowditch and asked Mumler for a portrait with a dead relative. When he paid for his photograph but failed to see the spirit promised him, Bowditch pulled off his own act of revelation: He was, in fact, Joseph Tooker, New York City marshal, working undercover-the sharp end of an elaborate police sting being run against Mumler, courtesy of the office of the mayor, A. Oakey Hall.

Earlier in the month, a science editor at World newspaper had approached Mayor Hall with complaints against Mumler made by members of the Photographic Section of the American Institute of the City of New York (PSAI), a society of reputable photographers dedicated to advancing the science of photography. Seeking to keep the medium truthful, and realizing the medium's power, the society had expressed outrage against Mumler and demanded action.

Tooker's men arrested Mumler on April 12 for "swindling credulous persons by what he called spirit photographs," and, in a cruel stroke of irony for the world's first spirit photographer, Mumler was incarcerated in New York's most infamous prison: the Tombs.

"Spiritualism in Court," "A Stupendous Fraud," "The Alleged Spirit Photograph Swindle"- the New York papers swarmed over the news of Mumler's arrest, their sensational headlines blaring like trumpets. "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," exclaimed the New York Daily Tribune . On April 21, Judge Joseph Dowling opened the Court of Special Sessions, the police court for the Tombs, with a preliminary hearing into Mumler's case. He would listen to counsel for both sides, weigh up the evidence and, if the facts warranted, put the case to the grand jury.

No members of the public displayed greater interest in the trial than the many spiritualists who filled the courtroom in support of Mumler. Newspapers had a field day describing their odd demeanor and appearances. The New York Times jibed that the women, "worn down" in their study of "ethereal essences," and the men "with sickly sentimental eyes, and cavernous, lantern-jawed physiognomies," seemed to "fill the room with a cold and clammy atmosphere." For the press, as for the prosecution, William Mumler would be only a symbol of the trial's real accused: the modern spiritualist movement.

As the spectators settled into their places, prosecutor Elbridge T. Gerry rose and opened the trial by calling Marshal Tooker to the stand. Tooker deftly related his experience purchasing spirit photographs from Mumler, and then, apparently satisfied that Tooker's statement was definitive for the purposes of an indictment, Gerry rested for the prosecution.

Mumler had assembled a crack defense team for the hearing, led by an aggressive lawyer named John D. Townsend. The first witnesses Townsend called were photographers, all of whom had keenly scrutinized Mumler at work in his studio without detecting any chicanery. Townsend then summoned to the stand a parade of Mumler's clients. One by one, these heart-sore people testified in defense of their oracle, clutching their spirit photographs, which were shown to the courtroom and entered into evidence.

Charles Livermore testified that it was indeed his wife in his photographs, an identification with which all of his friends agreed. "I went there with my eyes open, as a skeptic," Livermore said. He had tried to outwit Mumler: He made an appointment for a sitting on a Tuesday, but went on Monday, "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." The two pictures of Livermore and his ghost wife appeared in the May 8, 1869, edition of Harper's Weekly , which covered the trial and ran nine engravings of Mumler's photos on its frontpage.

Judge John Edmonds, a former justice of the New York Supreme Court, astonished the assembled by testifying that not only could he see the dead, but he also often conversed with them during trials, when they assisted with his decisions. He told the court that he was satisfied with his pictures, as the spirits were "charmingly pretty."

Perhaps the most heart-rending testimonial came from Luthera Reeves, who identified the spirit in her picture as a son she had lost. Her boy, she explained, had suffered from the same curvature of the spine as the spirit. It must be him.

With these witnesses, Townsend opened a gaping sinkhole at the prosecution's feet: How could Mumler be accused of cheating people who clearly claimed to see their loved ones in his pictures?

Realizing now that the prosecution had rested too soon and could not rely solely on Tooker's testimony to prove Mumler a fraud, prosecutor Gerry reopened his case. Gerry summoned his own battery of photographers, each of whom laboriously explained how using double exposures, costumed confederates, trick lenses and other arcane, but purely mechanical, devices, Mumler created his apparitions.

 

Collections:

William H. Mumler - Father of Spirit Photography

 

Related Categories:

| The Birth and Death of Spirit Photography | Spirit Photography Defined | Part 1 - The Birth Of Spirit Photography | Part 2 - Leaving Boston | Part 3 - New York City | Part 5 - Witnesses for the Prosecution | Part 6 - The Descision | Part 7 - Return to Boston | William H. Mumler and Spirit Photography | William H. Mumler and Spirit Photography - 2 | | Mumler's Spirit Photos | | Haunting Spirit Photography from the Age Before Photoshop | 15 Incredible Examples of Early Spirit Photography | HISTORY OF SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY | William H. Mumler, Spirit Photographs, Amazed Audiences With Ghostly Images | Of Spooks, Proofs, and Truths: Reflections on the Mumler Spirit Photograph Case - YouTube | The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer — University of Minnesota Press | Spirit Photography | The Mumler Mystery: A Gallery of Spirit Photography from The American Museum of Photography | The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer - Louis Kaplan - Google Books | A Ghostly Image: Spirit Photographs | Picture This: Library of Congress Prints & Photos | When Cameras Took Pictures of Ghosts - Megan Garber - The Atlantic | G is for ghosts... the birth and rise of spirit photography | National Media Museum blog | | The Ghost and Mr. Mumler |

Resources:

  external linkThe Birth and Death of Spirit Photography | Dark Shadow Ghost Tours

 

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