SALEM — The tug of war between science and culture has deep roots. Back in the 1800s, before the general public understood how photography worked, sympathetic photographers and clever charlatans produced manipulated images of the deceased mysteriously hovering near their loved ones. Called spirit photography, these eerie images nonetheless brought comfort to the bereaved.
On Wednesday, October 2, at 6:30 p.m., award-winning historian, author and preservation specialist Bethany Groff Dorau will present her illustrated lecture, “Secure the Shadow: Victorian Spirit and Post-Mortem Photography.” The seventh in this year’s Seven Lectures at Seven Gables’ series continues to explore the reach and influence of pop culture in our society. Dorau’s lecture will be held in the Visitor Center, The House of the Seven Gables, 115 Derby St., Salem. Members are admitted free of charge. General admission is $10. Some parking is available.
Those interested in attending may visit https://store.7gables.org/Events.aspx; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or call 978-306-7003.
“It’s very interesting to do this talk in Salem,” says Dorau. “There are people who believe in spirit photography and there are still spirit photography businesses in the region. Technology and culture may sometimes seem out of synch. Things may happen on film that you might not have imagined. In fact, there are imponderables because our understanding of the world is sometimes based less on science and more on other aspects of our lives,” she says.
One of the most famous spirit photographs is William H. Mumler’s portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln sitting with her husband, Abraham, five years after he was assassinated. Mumler, who Dorau will explain in fascinating detail, was a Boston photographer who began his practice in the 1860s. He is credited with being perhaps the first to capture a “spirit” in a photograph and, later, discredited by, of all people, PT Barnum.
Dorau first got interested in spirit photography while working on her master’s thesis in college. She also investigated the very popular Victorian practice of post-mortem photograph. People often commissioned photos of family members after they had died. Sometimes the deceased were infants that had never been photographed or memorialized. “These photos served a real cultural need at the time,” says Dorau.
Dorau, the North Shore Regional Site Manager for Historic New England, is based at the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury. She’s the recipient of a Preservation Leadership Award from Newburyport Preservation Trust, a Pioneer in Preservation Award from the Essex National Heritage Commission, and a Leadership Award from the North of Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. She is also the author of “A Newburyport Marine in World War I: The Life and Legacy of Eben Bradbury,” History Press; “A Brief History of Old Newbury,” History Press; and a primary contributor to the Defining Documents in American History Series.