|The cover image for SÉANCE IN SEPIA|
Spirit photography embodies the ultimate Steampunk conceit: it represents the nexus of two of the biggest Victorian obsessions--technology and the occult.
What was spirit photography?
The first commercial spirit photographer set up shop in Boston in the early 1860's. His name was William Mumler and his photographs were an instant sensation. He soon moved to New York to further his reputation and success. The massive loss of life during the Civil War spurred interest in making contact with the departed. Séances were more than a popular parlor entertainment. A large percentage of the population sincerely believed they could contact spirits of deceased loved ones using the services of a medium.
Mumler began to conduct séances in his photographic studio and, because the technology represented by the new invention of photography, his spirit photographs had added credibility. Technology was scientific and science couldn't lie, right?
His most famous sitter was the recently widowed Mary Todd Lincoln whose portrait seems to show a spectral Abraham Lincoln standing behind her.
|Harper's couldn't resist lampooning the Mumler trial in the cartoon|
A fascinating website is available from avid spirit photography collectors, Jack and Beverly of the BrightBytes Studio. They not only own an impressive collection of original spirit photographs, but offer a wealth of information and links to other sites on the subject.
My forthcoming novel, SÉANCE IN SEPIA, is a Victorian mystery delving into the world of spirit photography. Real life feminist Victoria Woodhull is featured as the protagonist in that, before she was the first female presidential candidate and the foremost proponent of Free Love and other radical causes, she was a spiritualist and even served as the president of the American Association of Spiritualists in the mid-1870's. (for more information on Victoria, please see my previous post here.)