Spirited journalism

February is Catholic Press Month. So let’s tell a story.

I was reading “The Apparitionists” by Peter Manseau (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27). It’s about William H. Mumler, a photographer when the art was in its infancy. He went on trial in April 1869, accused of swindling the public.

Mumler had set up shop in New York to sell portrait shots. The uniqueness, shall we say, was that faintly in the background of his portraits images of dead men, women or children appeared.

The second half of the 19th century in America was the heyday for “spiritualism,” a non-denominational belief that we could contact a “spirit world” and communicate with the dead who continued to exist in an invisible world out there.

Spiritualism required no understanding of God, conversion or creed. Like first-job kids today living in their parents’ basements and proclaiming their atheism, spiritualism was a religion of privilege and pedigree that made no demands. Thus it was ripe for a scam.

Mumler left Boston as the heat turned up and soon had New York spiritualists lining up for the pleasure of being taken, in more ways than one. Mumler’s hocus pocus attracted the attention of Patrick V. Hickey. And the story got serious. Born in Dublin, Hickey had come to America after college and became science correspondent for the New York World newspaper.

When Mumler came to his attention, Hickey decided to visit his shop to investigate doing a story on the scam. But the visit ended up offending at a far deeper level. Hickey was a devout Catholic, “a man of deep devotion whose faith informed every aspect of his life.” He saw Mumler not just as a swindler, but as a crooked evangelist selling a fake spiritualism that contradicted a true Catholic understanding of life after death. He saw this spiritualist humbuggery as “the working of the devil, a tangle of blasphemies and brazen absurdities.” As a journalist for a secular newspaper, Hickey couldn’t go after Mumler based on religious arguments. But he could ask the government to go after him. He called attention to the fraud — selling faked photos — and complained to City Hall.

Mumler was charged. Hickey testified at his trial that he visited Mumler’s studio and that the portraits sold were fakes that took advantage of those in mourning.

Oddly enough, Mumler was found not guilty. The judge ruled that Mumler had provided portraits of those who posed. It was a legitimate exchange of goods for fees. Despite what was in the background.

Mumler died in 1884 and didn’t come back to see anybody. Hickey moved on from science reporting in the 1870s and became one of the early pioneers in the Catholic press in the United States.

Hickey began a newspaper, The Catholic Review of Brooklyn, and started two magazines, The Catholic American and The Illustrated Catholic American. He also produced a series of books on the Faith known as the Vatican Library. Hickey became a leading Catholic layman. In 1888, the bishops recognized him for his work. Pope Leo XIII made him a Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Gregory. That same year, Notre Dame presented Hickey with its sixth annual Laetare Medal.

Then I lost track of him. Don’t know when or where he died. A friend at the Brooklyn diocese couldn’t find a thing about him. Hickey seems to have fallen off the face of the earth after 1888.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

But that’s OK. So many who work in the Catholic Press do so faithfully for many years. Then go quietly, peacefully. The patron saint of the Catholic press, Francis de Sales, put it this way: “Never be in a hurry. Do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever.”

Keep supporting the Catholic press. It’s a peaceful gift of hope and truth to the world.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.