On Tuesday, April 3rd at 7 PM at the Perryville library, we are welcoming Peter Manseau, acclaimed author of The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost. The book was dubbed one of the “Best Books of 2017” by NPR and Publisher’s Weekly. We had the opportunity to ask him some questions about the origins of the book.
What inspired you to write about history?
I began my writing career wanting only to be a novelist, and I still enjoy writing fiction, but the more I engaged with history the more I felt that grappling with the facts of the past can often be more compelling than creating works of the imagination. History is also not just trivia but something of vital significance. We cannot hope to understand our own complicated times without an awareness of the ways in which the experiences of previous generations were far more complex than we often assume. The lives of those in history were equally as conflicted and full of uncertainties as our own; only by telling the stories of historical figures in all their full humanity can we make sense of how we got where we are now.
How did you decide to write a book on Mumler and the trial?
Each of my books has grown out of a lingering question from the one before. In this case, after my 2015 history One Nation Under Gods was published, I realized that though that book had successfully told the stories of many minority religious groups in America, I had somehow missed Spiritualism. The massive popularity of ideas concerning communication with the dead in the 19th century struck me as full of narrative potential, so it was just a matter of finding an individual in that world who had a story that cried out for telling. With that in mind I read Spiritualist newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s and soon Mumler crossed my path. Mumler’s career as a so-called spirit-photographer who claimed he could take pictures of ghosts was exhaustively covered in both Spiritualist and secular newspapers. It was possible reading through those accounts to recreate the story in a dramatic way down to the smallest details.
What’s the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?
Though The Apparitionists may seem to tell a strange story of a different time, it is also very much a story that resonates with our own image-obsessed age. I began my research looking for a quirky story that would bring the era of Spiritualism to life, yet the story that soon emerged was eerily relevant to our own world, in which questions of faith and technology often intersect. Collectively, we take a billion photographs every day; we do so often in order to hold on to people and moments we fear we might lose — just as the clients of Mumler and other photographers did before us. Spirit photography has now managed to outlived Mumler by more than a century. It continues online in the form of widespread digital photographs that claim to capture ghosts and auras. Seen more broadly, the digital sphere generally is a place where technology allows us to feel we are accessing a world of invisible entities. Facebook has an estimated dead population of 50 million — when we interact with the social media pages of the dead, we participate in some ways in the kind of communication that 19th century Spiritualists pursued through seances.
What are you currently reading?
I recently finished Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch, a surprising and engaging exploration of the life and works of Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness and other dark explorations of colonial ambitions. A Harvard historian with the soul of a natural storyteller, Jasanoff combines biography with literary criticism to create a portrait of a troubled writer who anticipated our globalized world like no other. The book knits together the strands of Conrad’s life story and the fiction it inspired to form a web of human hopes and tragedy. It’s doesn’t sound like it should all fit together as a coherent whole, but it does—in the haunting, evocative way that I hope The Apparitionists also does with its tales of photographers, hucksters, and the ghosts that connect them.
Don’t miss Peter Manseau at the Perryville library on April 3rd! To register, call 410-996-6070 x 3, or go online to our website!