In a world overcome with death and the horrible losses of the Civil War, people turned to photography hoping to be united with deceased loved ones in perpetuity. It’s that strange combination of desire, hope and the presence of an image that seems almost alive that makes us think we’re in contact with a timeless realm that transcends death ... Manseau has created an exceptional story of how photography intersects with the hope that some heretofore unexplored scientific process will reveal something about the nature of man and our limitations. It is one of the persistent myths of mankind that death isn’t final — that photography, which transcends time and space, can show a way around death.
Mumler’s notoriety, and the growing suspicions of his detractors, is the scaffolding of Mr. Manseau’s entertaining and ambitious narrative, but several supporting characters add heft and context, elevating The Apparitionists from an engaging biography of a huckster to a portrait of America during arguably its most formative years ... Mr. Manseau develops these threads so that The Apparitionists itself is like a photograph—each successive chapter adding depth and shade and specks of mystery, until the final result magically appears, provoking as many questions as it provides answers.
Given that the path loops through the Civil War, the telegraph, P.T. Barnum, spiritualism and a trained seal, it's impressive that The Apparitionists is as brisk a read as it is. The tone is knowledgeable, but the touch is light; technology is deftly explained, figures who have been gone too long are always briefly reintroduced, and Manseau is happy to reassure you you're reading a history ... It's remarkable how breezily Manseau weaves all this together, given the sheer volume of back story required to get us to Mumler's fraud trial. But there's also a sense of mounting dread as we circle back to that courtroom again and again, and realize along with the participants that this wasn't a case about consumer fraud so much as it was a case about the limits of faith. Manseau finds a clever balance of historical remove and the immediacy of suspense, and manages to maintain a — perhaps necessary — agnosticism when it counts. Because as diverting (and telling) a history as it is, in the end, The Apparitionists is a biography about why we believe.