The history of all pioneers of new truths is relatively the same. I showed them a beautiful truth; in their ignorance, bigotry, and blindness, they called me fraud. Barnum called me fraud, a “humbug.” When last was a man cleared by a court so vilified?
I insert the plate into the camera, my channel through which the spirit host shines. “Through a glass darkly,” St Paul writes, “but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.” The glass plate brings the truth to our face. The camera brings the truth, and that is why she comes and why they will mock me no longer.
The boards creak as I pace to the door. For the fourth time and then the fifth, I peer down dim stairs though I know it is early. I sit in the one chair I can afford, now, the one in front of the camera, and then I stand again and pace to the window, door, window. Things had been different in New York, before the trial.
I check the camera again, ensuring I have inserted the right glass plate. If I am wrong about “Mrs. Lindall” I will have to switch it, but I am not wrong. And I can help her.
Slow footsteps echo in the stairwell. I can help her, I think again as the black veil enters. The mourning dress is elegant; the newspapers always said she spared no expense. She passes by me without a word and enters the studio, proceeding directly to the photograph on the table. It shows Bronson Murray with his head bowed. The spirit stands behind him, one hand on his shoulder, the other passing through the hairs on his cheek. She holds him. It is Ella Bonner; her husband, Robert, knew her immediately when he came in response to a letter, and he wept to see his deceased wife. They often weep; they give thanks as they pay me. I have taken many spirit photographs, but that one is among the finest. I wonder what the widow thinks as she examines it. I say nothing out of respect for what she’s endured, for her grief. For who she is. But at last, I must say something, and I must make sure I am right.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln.”
“I knew you would know.” She does not turn, but she lifts the veil to get a better look at Mr. Murray and Mrs. Bonner. I wait for some moments. “How did you first connect to the spirit realm, Mr. Mumler?”
I have learned it is best to be open. “It began as an accident, as a jest,” I say. “I was experimenting with my camera, developed a self-portrait, and saw it. The form. I assumed I erred somehow. One day a gentleman visited me who I knew was a Spiritualist. I was not at that time… inclined much to the spiritual belief. I concluded to have a little fun. My exact words were, ‘this picture was taken by myself when there was no visible person present but myself.’”
“And did you have a fine laugh, sir?” She faces me now with the veil again drawn. Her aspect and her voice are death-ridden.
I nearly falter, but I have told this tale many times. “The jest was on me. That man told others what he had seen, and in about a week from that time, I received a paper from New York called the Herald of Progress reporting on my ‘great proof.’”
“And were you exhilarated?” my inquisitor interjects. “Fearful?”
“I was mortified, ma’am. My name in public print… At that time, you see, I thought the photograph to be a kind of misrepresentation…”
“When did you learn otherwise? When did you believe, Mr. Mumler?”
I gaze at her obscured face. She has come all this way for my gift, but she still needs me to confirm it.
“When I went to the gallery where my photographs were displayed. A crowd of people waited, and one of them was a scientist from Cambridge, thoroughly acquainted with photography. I told him what another man had told me, that I had not cleaned the glass sufficiently and that the spirit was merely an image from a previous exposure. The scientist said no. He said that might be possible, and even probable, in daguerrotyping, but not in my photograph. Not on glass.”
“And you believed then?”
“How much then?”
Her questions are nothing if not efficient. “I ask ten dollars for a sitting, ma’am.”
“A pretty penny for a picture, but not beyond the means of a widow Congress finally saw fit to grant a pension. Are there… guarantees?”
“I cannot control the spirits, Mrs. Lincoln. I know only after it is developed.”
The black lace thinks. Whether hesitating or hoping, I know not.
“Good,” she says. “Am I to sit in this chair?”
I take a step to help her as a gentleman should, but she seats herself and, to my relief, lifts the veil. Hers is a hard, suffering face.
“Just a few moments while I prepare, Mrs. Lincoln.” She nods.
I open the camera and examine the plate yet again, confirming I have placed the correct one. I look through the camera. It is her. It must be perfect. I visualize where the spirit might be. Everything depends on its perfection. The great truth. The future of spirit photography. My return to grace.
“Do you consider yourself a great man, Mr. Mumler?”
She has surprised me, but I bow my head with appropriate reverence. “I am an instrument.”
“As are we all, Mr. Mumler.” She looks to the window; I curse myself for not having scrubbed the grime, then remove the slide cover. Nearly ready. I examine the shot through the camera again. She still looks away to the window.
“My husband was a great man. But you know that.”
“He was, ma’am.”
“You all know that. You think you know…” Her hand moves to draw down the safety of the veil, but she glances at the camera and catches herself. “He was destined for it. It was God’s will he be taken in his country’s cause. Do you know, when he was elected, what he said? ‘Molly, Molly, we are elected.’ We are elected, he said. For my life was predestined, too. In Illinois Stephen Douglas, that small man, courted me before Abe did. Did you know that?”
I realize she has asked me, and I shake my head. I cannot fathom calling this woman Molly. The scale of her life presses in upon me.
“When I refused Douglas, I told him, ‘I shall become Mrs. President, or I am the victim of false prophets, but it will not be as Mrs. Douglas.’ Oh, I knew, Mr. Mumler. And I knew when I saw him. People would never believe it now, but my husband danced. Quite appallingly, but he danced. Dear old James Conkling said he looked like old Father Jupiter bending down from the clouds to see what’s going on. Abe approached me, bowed, and said he wanted to dance with me in the worst way. I told him he did dance in the worst way.”
She laughs, so briefly I wonder if my ears have deceived me. I would not have known she could still laugh.
“He was a good man. He worried his income would disappoint me, coming from the family I did and living the life I did. But Abe was worth more than all the houses and all the gold. He was a man of mind with a hope and bright prospects, and a head for power. He could never manage to wear socks that matched, but he had a nobleness of heart. You have heard of my troubles, Mr. Mumler.”
The abrupt turn jars me. I feel my jaw hanging as she fixes her gaze on my wordless face.
“Do not dissemble, sir. You have… everyone has. Everyone with an ounce of education and the sense to find a newspaper has read of my impropriety.” She has mercy—she releases me and looks back to my unclean window. “It has been my hourly prayer that I might soon be removed from a world so filled with woe and bitterness. God has willed it otherwise.”
My jaw still hangs uselessly. Those in grief have sought me. For more than ten years I have given them comfort with my camera, and I have learned to comfort with my words. But they were men and women, and now I stand in reach of something beyond them. She is vast. Implacable.
“I saw what they did to him, Mr. Mumler. That angel of light. I was there when he forgot to eat dinner, and when he stooped with exhaustion, when the war sapped him. I knew what weighed on him. I read the Bible to legless men in Washington’s hospitals and held their hands as they died, and I could see their souls in my Abe’s eyes. And through it all, when the newspapers slandered me and his cabinet scorned me and our Willie left this world, that husband, in his great love and tenderness, would not allow the wind of Heaven to visit me too roughly. That, sir, is the man my husband was. Do you know what is inscribed on this wedding band?”
She points at the ring on her finger, and her ferocity demands an answer, but I can say nothing.
“’Love is eternal.’ He is here, I know he is here, because love is eternal. Now, you may take your picture, Mr. Mumler.”
I realize my hand still rests on the camera; I see my studio again and remember where we are. I take a final look through the camera; having been photographed many times, she is still, and I need give her no reminders before uncovering the lens to admit light.
She will have a spirit photograph worthy of her pain. I prepared this plate more carefully than any in my career. The subject was carefully chosen for height, nose and beard, and I exposed three different plates to ensure I had the best possible likeness and in case I spoiled one by cleaning too much. But after twelve years, I know just how much and how little to clean that first exposure from the glass.
They call me fraud because they do not understand. I do not fully understand, not after the trial. I thought I did.
When I ran to that gallery twelve years ago, mortified at the publicity my jest had received, my Emma was there. We had never met before that day, but I heard her cry in her pretty voice, “Why, there is Mr. Mumler!” She would be my wife; I sensed it. I confessed the secret to that Cambridge scientist because I could not deny them all. He gave me the explanation, and the assembled crowd gave me conviction; Emma gave me conviction. They called me an instrument, a divine instrument of the spiritual host. Could an error and a jest move these people so? I knew what I had done. I also believed. For in the end, what is truth? We Spiritualists believe the unknown can be known, that we can reach the other side. Spirits inhabit Emma. I have seen it.
Barnum called me humbug. He exhibits nothing that does not give a man his money’s worth, he claimed. Is ten dollars so much? They would not believe less.
A fearful man asks, “Is this all of life? Is there a hereafter?” And as the years roll on, bringing him nearer to the solution of this great problem, the question becomes, to him, one of great moment. The anchor to which he has been clinging for safety begins to drag; the advance of science demonstrates that the world was not made in a brief period, but has existed for innumerable ages, and where is he drifting? Spiritualism comes to him like a beacon-light to the mariner. And if he doubts this beautiful truth, he can turn to the photographs of William Mumler, for proof that there is more. Truth, manifest. Am I a fraud if it is real? I used to know…
“Are you quite finished, Mr. Mumler?”
I realize she is right, and she has sat still long after I had covered the lens.
“Yes, Mrs. Lincoln.”
She eagerly pulls the veil over her face. “When will it be ready?”
“You may pick it up in three days’ time.”
She whispers, “Was he here?”
“As I said earlier, I cannot—” The black lace arrests my voice. I know what eyes it hides. I cannot separate the plea and the demand in her whisper. I cannot face that veil. I turn my attention to the camera and mumble, “There may have been something at your left shoulder.”
Movement pulls my eyes upward. She holds that shoulder with both hands, tilts her head to it. A minute or so later she stands and turns. I might hear “Abe” once, but with her back to me, her words remain a murmured mystery. I feel I am lurking over a prayer. What prayer does one offer an idol whose children one has borne? She continues murmuring over a quarter of an hour, shaking sometimes; I assume she weeps. I feel him too. He is with her. He must be with her. I dare not move lest I disturb them.
When I notice her turning I pretend to work with the camera. “I will return in three days, Mr. Mumler.” Her footsteps descend slowly. The stairs labor her.
I pull the drape closed. I place the plate in distilled water and prepare the bath of developing fluid. The spirits need tending.
Mumler’s photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with Lincoln’s “spirit”: http://contentdm.acpl.lib.in.us/digital/collection/p15155coll1/id/56
Mumler’s photograph of Bronson Murray and Ella Bonner: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/95748/william-h-mumler-bronson-murray-american-1862-1875/
Portions of Mrs. Lincoln dialogue (notably “the winds of Heaven” line) adapted from letters published in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association by Thomas F. Schwartz and Anne V. Shaughnessy in 1990, available at the University of Michigan website here: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0011.105/–unpublished-mary-lincoln-letters?rgn=main;view=fulltext
Other portions of Mrs. Lincoln dialogue (notably the Stephen Douglas refusal and the discussion of Lincoln’s dancing) adapted from “The Life of Mary Todd Lincoln” by Kimberly J. Largent at eHistory, available on the Ohio State University website here: https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/life-mary-todd-lincoln
Ryan Love teaches high school English in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where he earned a degree from Alfred University. He and his wife live in a Victorian with pairs of daughters, beagles, and guinea pigs. He has yet to see any of William Mumler’s photographs in person but has plans of seeing the Fox sisters’ séance table someday soon in nearby Rochester.