Stone Telling

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The exposure of William H. Mumler

by J.C. Runolfson

He saw them only
through the lens,
all but that first
haunted self-portrait.
So he thought the lens
would prove him sane.
But if the lens captured
what he saw
the plate revealed only
the corporeal bending of light—
what he saw without the lens.

He tried to find a plate
to match the lens
tried again the plate
that rendered his dead cousin beside him
but none he tried recorded
the spirits hovering within
the lens' scope, no matter
the chemicals applied
the time exposed.

He wanted to ask his assistant
Look through this lens, what do you see?
But fear gripped him, uncertainty.
What would it mean if his assistant said
What would it mean if the man said
Two men working with the fumes of
development and fixative,
staring at the world through lenses.
The proof had to come from elsewhere.

I have an idea, he said to his assistant
instead.  It could make us very rich.
That's when the fraud began,
the hiring of actors to pose separate
from the bereaved,
imitators who never asked
how he knew when they looked
like the dead,
just took the picture
took the money
went home to dream a death not theirs.

He knew they'd be caught—
the public loves a good scandal—
but he had a plan for that too.
Skeptics are always illusionists.
They want to know
how the trick is done.
When asked, he offered
his detractors the lens and said
Tell me what you see.
He lost everything but this:
he gave them the lens and said
Tell me what you see
and they said nothing.

They said nothing.

J.C. Runolfson's work has appeared before in Stone Telling, Goblin Fruit, and Mythic Delirium, among other venues.  This poem is one in a series inspired by her interest in the history and science of photography.  She currently lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Photography: An image of Fanny Conant with a ghost, by William H. Mumler. This image is in the public domain.