The Spirit Photographer

Written by John Michael Varese
Review by Bryan Dumas

Edward Moody (based on the real William Mumler) is a spirit photographer from Boston who saw the horrors of the Civil War through the lens of his camera while working for Mathew Brady, and through him we learn of the horrors of Reconstruction and the strength of love.

During the Gilded Age, mediums and spiritualists were all the rage, and one of the most highly sought-out services was that of spirit photography. Moody sets up shop in Boston and has quickly drawn the attention of the nation. Elizabeth Garrett, the wife of prominent Massachusetts Senator and abolitionist James Garrett, wants to sit for Moody in the hopes of capturing an image of her dead 3-year-old son. But when the image of Isabelle—known both to the Garretts and Moody—appears instead, her family and her husband’s political status become threatened. It sets Moody on a quest for answers that takes him into the bayous of Louisiana.

The Spirit Photographer deftly moves between the story of the Garretts and, specifically, James’ radical views on Reconstruction and his debates with more conservative Sen. Dovehouse, and the tenuous journey of Moody and his former slave/Union soldier assistant Winters from Boston—where Moody is being sought for fraud—to the South with a bounty hunter on their tail. The writing is crisp, and the storytelling keeps a quick pace and helps illuminate the racial inequalities during the Reconstruction period. Aspects of Moody’s time in the bayous become a little tedious, and the voodoo and mysticism border on far-fetched. Despite this, Varese’s debut is a solid effort and an intriguing look at the Reconstruction period through a unique lens.