The Strange World of Spirit Photography

Read more about Seance in Sepia here.

In my newest Victorian mystery novel, Séance in Sepia, I invite the reader to enter the strange world of spirit photography. This was a very real phenomenon that flourished during the second half of the Nineteenth Century and well into the early Twentieth.

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. There were doubters, of course. P.T. Barnum and others charged Mumler with fraud, claiming that some of his ghost images belonged to living persons. 

The May 8th, 1869, issue of Harper's Weekly Magazine reported, "If there is a trick in Mr. Mumler's process it has certainly not been detected as yet. To all appearances spiritual photography rests just where the rappings and table-turnings have rested for some years. Those who believe in it at all will respect no opposing arguments, and disbelievers will reject every favorable hypothesis or explanation. " 

Mumler was acquitted, but his reputation was damaged by the charges. Spirit photography's most famous proponent was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. In 1925, he wrote "The Case for Spirit Photography." 

He also defended a contemporary spirit photographer of his named William Hope. Some of Hope's photos inspired my descriptions of spirit photographs in Seance in Sepia.

Read the first two chapters of Séance in Sepia by clicking here.

Available from Amazon.com.


Consumed by Consumption: TB and the Victorian West in Mercury’s Rise

I am pleased to present a guest post by award-winning author Ann Parker. The fourth entry into her wonderful Silver Rush Mystery series, Mercury's Rise, has just been released. She and I , along with mystery novelist Beth Groundwater, will be appearing together on November 17th in Longmont, Colorado, in an event hosted by High Crimes Books
Read the fascinating historical underpinnings of Ann's intriguing new novel:
Ann Parker, posing with
a map old Leadville, CO
Although most of my Silver Rush historical mysteries are set high in the Rocky Mountains in 1880s Leadville, Colorado, my latest novel, Mercury’s Rise, has my protagonist Inez Stannert heading down to Manitou Springs to reunite with her young son and his guardian, Inez’s beloved sister.

As I nosed about, getting my bearings for this new location, I became intrigued with the “selling” of this area of the Victorian West—particularly of Manitou Springs—as a health resort and tourist destination in the mid- to late-1800s. Colorado Springs was hyped as “Little London,” while Manitou Springs was touted as the “Saratoga of the West.” Promotion and puffery was hot and heavy in nearly every period piece of documentation I read, from the backs of cabinet cards to books such as Tourist Guide to Colorado in 1879 by Frank Fossett and New Colorado and the Santa Fe Trail by A.A. Hayes, Jr., published 1880.  The latter quotes one fellow who praises the healthful effects of the weather and mineral springs, adding, “I came here [Manitou] from Chicago on a mattress.”

Many of those coming to the area were, like the fellow from Chicago, “chasing the cure,” that is, looking for relief from tuberculosis, aka consumption, the white plague, the wasting disease, and phthisis. TB was the leading cause of death in the U.S. in the 19th century. From the beginning of the century thru 1870, it was the cause of 1 in 5 deaths, or 20 percent. You need only read about the scourge of the disease, before the discovery of antibiotics effected a true cure, to shudder and pray that “superbug” tuberculosis does not breach the current spectrum of antibiotics. As a science writer, I appreciate the power of metaphor and analogy to make a point, and found this passage in Transactions of the American Medical Association, 1880, written by Ephraim Cutter, M.D., to his colleagues, a real eye-opener:

"It is estimated that one-quarter of the human deaths is caused directly or indirectly by what is commonly called consumption…I find I can write my name readily ten times in one minute…it would take 1 year, 213 days, and 16 hours of unintermitted writing to inscribe the names of this host, if on the average they consisted of thirteen letters. Suppose the vast company could be marshaled in rows four deep and two feet apart, this host would reach 770 miles in length, and occupy 10 days and 17 hours in passing a given point at a continuous rate of three miles an hour.”

It boggles the mind. It’s also hard to imagine that anyone living in the 1880s remained untouched by the effects of the disease. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to tackle the topic of tuberculosis comes from my own family’s history: my grandfather was 9 years old and his sister 13 when their mother and father died of tuberculosis in 1892. Thus orphaned, they were taken in and raised by an aunt and uncle. My grandfather’s story is not unique, and was part of what started me wondering about the effects of this dread disease on the families and individuals of the era. And truly, consumption was everywhere, and patients, families, and physicians were desperate to find a cure.

The 1880 Transactions are full of papers on tuberculosis treatments and research, including “The Salisbury Plans in Consumption—Production in Animals—Rationale and Treatment,” “Artificial Inflation as a Remedial Agent in Diseases of the Lungs,” and “Some Remarks on the Lesions of the Larynx in Phthisis.” The so-called causes and cures ranged far and wide. For instance, in 1881 in the textbook The Principles and Practice of Medicine, some of the causes put forth were hereditary disposition, unfavorable climate, sedentary indoor life, defective ventilation, deficiency of light and “depressing emotions.” Cure routines ranged from reliance on nourishing food, fresh air, and exercise, to the “slaughterhouse cure,” i.e., drinking the blood of freshly slaughtered oxen and cows (reported in Denver in 1879), to patent medicines and nostrums containing such ingredients as cod-liver oil, lime, arsenic, chloroform, the ever-present alcohol, and yes, mercury, even into the 1920s.

Another “cure” proposed by a well-respected physician in 1875 was—I kid you not—growing a beard. (You can find that particular medical treatment in Addison Porter Dutcher’s Pulmonary Tuberculosis: Its Pathology, Nature, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Prognosis, Causes, Hygiene, and Medical Treatment, “Chapter 30: A Plea for the Beards; Its Influence in Protecting the Throat and Lungs from Disease,” pg. 304.)

Is it no wonder, then, when Inez travels to Manitou for her family reunion she hears much about the wonders of the mineral waters and their miraculous health effects, and also finds out about some not-so-miraculous treatments being pedaled to the desperate and the dying? And, since Mercury’s Rise is a mystery, she discovers that not all the deaths are natural …


Ann Parker is a California-based science/corporate writer by day and an historical mystery writer by night. Her award-winning Silver Rush series, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, is set in 1880s Colorado, primarily in the silver-mining boomtown of Leadville. The latest in her series, MERCURY’S RISE, is out November 1. Learn more about Ann and her series at http://www.annparker.net

MERCURY’S RISE and the other Silver Rush mysteries are available from independent booksellers, amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and other places where mystery books are sold.

Leave a comment on this post to be eligible to win a Silver Rush mystery prize! Winner will be announced later this week. To see the rest of Ann’s blog tour, check out her Appearances page on her website.


What is a "Steampunk-Adjacent" Novel?

I have been involved in the burgeoning Steampunk movement for the past three years and when friends find out I have a newly released book, they immediately ask if it is a Steampunk novel.  I have to reluctantly sigh and say, “No, but I consider it to be ‘Steampunk adjacent.’”

Now some of you are undoubtedly asking right now, “What the heck is a Steampunk novel?” A shorthand answer is: Victorian science fiction. At least, that is the seminal idea that inspired the group and still sparks the fiction carrying this label.  Another interesting and more descriptive phrase is a Neo-Victorian Retro-Futurist Techno-Fantasy, but that is a lot hyphens to cope with. 

Buy it on Amazon
While Steampunk novels all tend to have a science fiction or fantasy element attached, I would like to make the case that the premise of SÉANCE IN SEPIA could and should be considered Steampunk, or at least a cousin of the genre, because its focus is spirit photography which represents, at its heart, the merging of two major obsessions of the Victorian era:  technology and the occult. 

With these two elements present in the novel, its sensibilities are definitely Steampunk in nature. However, since none of my novel is fantasy—all elements really happened or could have taken place—it probably does not qualify for the Steampunk moniker. Thus, I rely on calling my story “Steampunk adjacent.”

The novel begins in the present day with a woman named Flynn buying an old photograph at an estate sale. She takes it to an antique dealer who tells her he thinks it might be a “spirit photograph.” During the heyday of séances in the last half of the Nineteenth Century, some photographers claimed they could photograph the departed during a seance.

Flynn starts researching the history of the photo and learns that the three people pictured were involved in a notorious Chicago murder trial in 1875 that the press dubbed the “Free Love Murders.”  A young architect was accused of murdering his wife and his best friend in a love triangle gone very wrong.

Real life feminist, Free Love advocate, and practicing spiritualist, Victoria Woodhull, soon gets involved in the case when the husband asks her to conduct a séance to discover how his wife and friend really died.  Victoria quickly finds herself involved in a web of intrigue that will take much more than a séance to resolve and by the conclusion, both Victoria and Flynn find their views on love and life have changed.

If I have piqued your interest in Steampunk fiction, or better yet, Steampunk Adjacent fiction, you are invited to read the first two chapters of SÉANCE IN SEPIA found on my website: www.MichelleBlack.com


The Endless Adventure of Research for the Historical Novelist

I have written six historical novels, the most recent of which, Seance in Sepia, will debut on October 21. They all have one thing in common for me: each required research that led me into new areas of life that I never saw coming.

Never Come Down
My first novel, Never Come Down, took place in an old mining boom town-turned-ghost town in the Colorado Rockies. Of course, I turned to history books and old newspapers, but the real joy for me was hiking with my two small sons to local ghost towns. We lived in Frisco, Colorado, at that time, elevation 9,100 feet, and we were surrounded by what was known as the Ten Mile Mining District. The mountains were pocked with abandoned mines and mining towns whose fortunes had played out a century earlier. We all know the phrase, “If walls could talk....” Well, the ruins of those old towns practically sung with stories of their rise and fall.

An Uncommon Enemy
Research for An Uncommon Enemy, my novel about the aftermath of the Washita Massacre, when troops of the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer, attacked a sleeping Cheyenne village in 1868, caused me to search for a Cheyenne-English dictionary. When local bookstores and even Amazon.com had none to offer, I broadened my search and eventually located a linguist on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana who had put together a beginning course in the Cheyenne language.

I ordered the course and was fascinated by the voice on the tapes, that of the late Cheyenne elder, Ted Risingson (who happened to be a grandson of the great Cheyenne leader Dull Knife—for those of you who might be familiar with Cheyenne history, or who have at least read Mari Sandoz’s amazing Cheyenne Autumn).

The linguist was producing the course himself out of the local Kinkos, but I thought the material deserved a much wider distribution. I owned a bookstore in Frisco at this time and so was very familiar with the wholesale book market. I approached the linguist and offered to professionally publish and distribute the course. He was reluctant at first to deal with a stranger, so I traveled to Lame Deer, Montana, and visited the reservation to meet with him personally. Soon I was able to publish “Let’s Talk Cheyenne” and make it available to libraries and bookstore outlets all over the country.

The experience was an amazing education for me and I feel proud to have contributed. in some small way, to the preservation of our rapidly disappearing Native languages.

Read the first two chapters here
My research adventure for Seance in Sepia took me all the way to London, though the story is not set there. The novel begins in the present day when a young woman buys an antique “spirit photograph” at an estate sale. The Victorians were obsessed with the occult and some photographers of that era claimed they could photograph the dearly departed during séances.

When the spirit photograph’s origins seem linked to a notorious 1875 murder trial, my historical protagonist, Victoria Woodhull, enters the story. Woodhull was a real person who, in addition to being the first woman to run for the U.S. presidency, was also a spiritualist. This was a lucrative career for a woman of that time period and widely respected. Spiritualists had their own trade organizations and even held national conventions.

Woodhull was also an outspoken advocate for Free Love, which earned her so much public scorn, she eventually left the United States and headed for England. There she married a wealthy banker and lived out the remainder of her very long life as the “lady of the manor” in the English countryside (proving, I hope, that living well is the best revenge).

I began to correspond with a descendant of her banker husband who had inherited all her personal papers. When he learned that my family and I would soon be visiting London, he invited us to dinner at his elegant Chelsea townhouse on Tite Street, just a few doors down from where Oscar Wilde once lived.

A memorable evening, to be sure, and one which reminds me how much my writing career continues to broaden my outlook and life experience.
This post was reprinted with permission from the blog of novelist Patricia Stoltey, author of The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders.  Visit her on the web at http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com/


New ''Séance In Sepia" review from "Mystery and Me" blogger Allene Reynolds

Available for pre-order on Amazon.com

 "Séance In Sepia, by Michelle Black, is an extraordinary novel. Spanning two worlds it guides the reader from present to past in a deft and enchanting chapter by chapter narrative. 

Flynn Keirnan, a woman helping her father purchase merchandise for his Antiquarian bookshop, discovers a old photograph in one of the volumes. It's not an ordinary sepia picture but a Victorian 'spirit photograph'. A local antique dealer offers Flynn a nice price for the the photo but she decides to try her luck on eBay, little knowing that she is generating a firestorm that will alter her life forever.

Who are those tragic, ghost-like images looking outward from the fading photo? Are they subjects of a bizarre and notorious murder trial held in Chicago in 1857 that the press dubbed 'The Free Love Murders'?  Would Victoria Woodhull, a popular spiritualist of that time, decipher the true answers in a séance? Was it murder, or suicide?  And, how does Flynn cross the boundaries of time to resolve old issues? Séance In Sepia is a mystery and a romance, both old and new.  A fascinating read, peeking into private thoughts found in an old journal, reading the actual trial transcript and pursuing notes of the famous feminist Victoria Woodhull. 

Seance In Sepia has not yet been released but can be reserved on Amazon."--Allene Reynolds

Reprinted with permission from Mystery and Me Blogspot.


Publishers Weekly weighs in on Séance in Sepia

This coming October, my new Victorian mystery novel, Séance in Sepia, will be published in hardcover by Five Star/Gale. As regular followers of this blog know, the story invites the reader to enter the bizarre world of Victorian spirit photography along with Flynn Keirnan who buys a strange old photograph at an estate sale.

She soon discovers the three figures in the photograph were involved in a notorious 1875 murder case in which a young architect was accused of killing his wife and best friend. Through trial transcripts, a journal kept by one of the victims, and notes from a jailhouse interview with the accused husband, Flynn learns that feminist firebrand and renowned spiritualist Victoria Woodhull was asked to contact the victims of the notorious “Free Love Murders” but the one-time presidential nominee soon found herself entangled in a web of intrigue and deceit that would take much more than a séance to resolve.

Weathering the gauntlet of reviews is the moment that every novelist both lives for and fears to the point of night sweats, but for this writer, the waiting is over and I can breathe again.

Publishers Weekly has reviewed my five previous novels and I am proud to share this new review of Seance in Sepia wherein they called it a "complex, skillfully told stand-alone" and conclude with:

"The smooth prose moves subtly between historical and modern investigative voices, leading the reader to muse along with the characters on the nature of how love has changed over the centuries."

The full review can be read on their site: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-4328-2548-5


Two States, Two Conventions, One Dizzy Author Having Lots of Fun

Talking about absinthe with Anomalycon steampunks
Last week offered a multitude of author-flavored treats for me. Two conventions, one brand new and one, an old favorite, were both timed for the same busy weekend in March.

Left Coast Crime, a mystery writers' convention which travels the Western states and landed in the gorgeous locale of Santa Fe, New Mexico, this year was slated to run from Thursday, March 24 to Sunday, the 27th.
Appearing on the Mysteries with a Social Conscience Panel
The venue of the conference was the charming La Fonda Hotel in the heart of the 470-year-old city (It is a thousand years old if you also count the Pueblo Indian villages on the site).

I was so intent on attending, I made my hotel reservations a year in advance. A few months ago, however, I was invited to attend the inaugural Anomalycon Steampunk Convention in Denver, which was scheduled for the same Saturday and Sunday of that week. Intent on meeting as many of my fellow Coloradoan steampunks as possible, I decided to split my time between the two cities so that I could appear at both.

My fellow panelists: Rhys Bowen, Susan Goldstein,
Mar Preston, and Elizabeth Gunn 
Left Coast Crime was everything a writer could hope for in a mystery conference. The size was manageable so an attendee could feel they were participating in the the entire event without being overwhelmed. Writers were everywhere, so mingling with favorites and meeting new ones was easily possible.

Early Saturday morning, I bid goodbye to Santa Fe and drove to Albuquerque to catch a flight to Denver. By that afternoon, I was dressed for (steampunk) success and gave a talk and demonstration on the cultural history of absinthe at Anomalycon. 

This steampunk convention was held in a unique, 100-year-old building that once housed the Tivoli Brewery, but is now the student union of the Auraria Campus of CU. My absinthe presentation was held in the ancient boiler room of the old brewery and pipes and gears formed an excellent steampunk venue.
I am in the lower right-hand corner with my
favorite absinthe fountain on the table.

I appeared on several author panels on Saturday and Sunday. My fellow panelists included David Boop, Sarah Hoyt, Quincy Allen, Tanglwyst de Holloway and Terry Kroenung.

Terry Kroenung, me, and Quincy Allen gabbing on a panel
I feel certain the first-ever Anomalycon was a success because a 2012 event has just been announced. As a part-time Coloradoan, I hope it is the first of many steampunk events.


Western Steampunk Comes into its Own

The March issue of True West Magazine has a strong Steampunk component. I am proud to say I contributed a 7-page article to this, reporting on the increasing interest not only in the Steampunk phenomenon as a growing subculture, but a rising tide of Western focus within the larger movement.

While many still insist Steampunk does not truly exist outside the fantasy parameters of Victorian London, we westerners can rightfully claim that the first modern expression of the Steampunk esthetic was born in the 1960’s CBS television show, “The Wild, Wild West.” This unique show highlighted the actions of James West, a dapper 1870’s Secret Service agent who traveled the West in an elegant train car and used amazing scientific gadgets to fight crime and protect President Ulysses S. Grant.

The March issue is on sale now
The editors of True West Magazine apparently agree in that they have added an interview with Robert Conrad, the actor who portrayed James West in the TV series, to the March issue.

The True West issue also includes a beautiful 6-page Steampunk fashion spread, not to be missed by anyone loving modern reinventions of Western Victorian style. March will also see the debut of Wild Wild West Con Steampunk Convention in Tucson.

Viva The Victorian West!


Solomon Spring: My "Accidental" Mystery Novel

Available on Amazon Kindle now.
I have just given a new lease on life to my second Eden Murdoch novel, Solomon Spring. This book was first published as a hard cover  by TOR/Forge in the fall of 2002. A mass market paperback followed in 2003. Last month the rights reverted to me and I have now released a digital version of the book on Kindle.  You can purchase a download for $2.99 here.

Read an excerpt on my website.

A trade paperback will also be released soon. Solomon Spring is a sequel of sorts to An Uncommon Enemy, though it can be read as a stand alone novel as well.

This book has always been very special to me for a variety of reasons.  This was the most critically acclaimed and widely reviewed of all my novels, which pleased me, of course, but it also marked a new direction for  my writing in that I first began to explore the mystery genre--but did so almost by accident.

The story had been originally conceived as an exploration of two very different child custody battles. The "Solomon" in the title was an intentional reference to the Biblical story of King Solomon deciding the custody of a baby, though the real mineral spring portrayed in the book did exist at the fork of the Solomon River.  

I had every intention that the book would be a traditional historical novel in the same vein as its predecessor, An Uncommon Enemy. The story wove diverse threads that would include a naive experiment in social disobedience, a bittersweet love story, and a struggle to stay true to one's principles when a hard won career hangs in the balance--all played out against real life events of Great Plains history.

The original cover. The "label" features
an actual photograph of the spring
taken in 1879.
As the story began to take shape, though, I realized I truly hated my heroine's estranged husband so much I decided to kill him off.  This placed Eden in the awkward position of being the most likely suspect since the warring couple had been engaged in a nasty custody battle over their son. At about this time, the notion began to dawn on me that this plot was veering into the province of a murder mystery.

My chosen setting also played a role in this transformation. The place I called the "Solomon Spring" was actually named the Great Spirit Spring, or Waconda Spring. This natural wonder was situated in north central Kansas. I refer to it in the past tense because the Glen Elder Dam was built there in the 1960's which flooded the area and, sadly, this amazing formation now sits at the bottom of the resulting reservoir.

I first learned about the spring while researching An Uncommon Enemy. Its mineral waters were thought to hold wondrous healing properties by the Indian tribes who made pilgrimages there for centuries. Once white populations moved into the area, they bottled and sold the waters as a miracle elixir. A health spa was opened at the site in the early 1880's and continued in operation until the 1950's.

When the Spring was dredged in 1895, they found countless Native American offerings and artifacts, plus one item they did not expect: a human skull. I longed to invent a story that would explain the presence of that skull! 

The excerpt below, from Solomon Spring, is a historically accurate description of the Great Spirit Spring. The photo shown above was an actual photograph taken there in 1879, the same time period as my novel.

"A longing for happier days had drawn Eden back to the fork of the Solomon River after a decade’s absence. She had followed the Solomon once again to find the Sacred Spring. The last time she had made a pilgrimage to the Spring she had been carrying Hadley in her womb and had prayed there to be delivered of a healthy child. Her prayers had been answered and so she had given her the Cheyenne name of Maheo Maape, Medicine Water.

The natural–or supernatural–wonder that was the Spring never failed to amaze her. The silvery blue circle rose out of the prairie like an ancient remnant of the primordial sea that had once covered the vast plain. Why the sea vanished and left in its place only this round well of salty water perplexed and confounded innocents and experts alike. The Spring never froze in winter, nor flooded with the torrents of spring rain, nor did its surface recede in times of drought.

 It mineral-laden waters seeped over the edges of its circular bank in steady and even proportions year after year, decade after decade, slowly increasing its own basin. Higher and higher it grew above the prairie floor surrounding it as the minerals laid down their deposits for centuries to create an imposing and enormous limestone dome."