Henry Ridgely Evans.

The Old and the New Magic online

. (page 10 of 28)
Online LibraryHenry Ridgely EvansThe Old and the New Magic → online text (page 10 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

The conjurer Robin claims, on very good authority, to have been the
original inventor of the ghost illusion. He writes as follows:

“I first had the idea of producing the apparitions in 1845. Meeting
innumerable difficulties in carrying out my invention I was obliged
to wait until 1847 before reaching a satisfactory result. In that
year I was able to exhibit the ‘spectres’ to the public in the
theatres of Lyons and Saint Etienne under the name of ‘The living
phantasmagoria.’ To my great astonishment I produced little effect.
The apparitions still were in want of certain improvements which I
have since added. After succeeding in perfecting them I met with
great success in exhibiting them in Venice, Rome, Munich, Vienna and
Brussels, but as my experiments were very costly I was obliged to lay
them aside for some time.”

He further declares that M. Séguin, who had been employed by him to
paint phantasmagoric figures, had based his toy, the Polyoscope,
upon the principle of his (Robin’s) spectres. Robin was one of the
managers who brought out the illusion in Paris, despite the protests
of M. Hostein. He opposed Hostein with the patent of the Polyoscope
and some of his old theatre posters of the year 1847, advertising the
“living phantasmagoria.”

Houdin is rather severe on M. Robin when he classes him among the
plagiarists and pirates. But the two conjurers were great rivals.
M. Caroly, editor of the _Illusioniste_, in an article on Robin,
suggests that perhaps Pepper had seen and examined a Polyoscope,
and built upon it the theatrical illusion of the ghost. My personal
belief is that Professor Pepper was ignorant of the existence of the
toy as well as of Robin’s former exhibitions of phantasmagoria, and
independently thought out the ghost illusion. This frequently happens
among inventors, as every one knows, who has dealings with the U. S.
Patent Office.

In the year 1868, there was exhibited in Paris, at the Ambigu
Theatre, the melodrama of “La Czarine,” founded on Robert-Houdin’s
story of Kempelen’s Automaton Chess Player. In this play was a
remarkable use of the “ghost illusion,” arranged by Houdin, as well
as a chess-playing automaton. I quote as {96} follows from Houdin’s
_Les Secrets de la prestidigitation et de la magie_, Chapter VI:
“My collaborators, Messrs. Adenis and Gastineau, had asked me to
arrange a ‘ghost effect’ for the last act. I had recourse to the
‘ghost illusion’, but I presented it in such guise as to give it a
completely novel character, as the reader will be enabled to judge
from the following description: The scene is laid in Russia, in
the reign of Catherine II. In the last act, an individual named
Pougatcheff, who, on the strength of a personal likeness to Peter
III, attempts to pass himself off as the deceased monarch, is
endeavoring to incite the Russian populace to dethrone Catherine. A
learned man, M. de Kempelen, who is devoted to the Czarina, succeeds,
by the aid of scientific expedients, in neutralizing the villainous
designs of the sham prince.

“The scene is a savage glen, behind which is seen a background of
rugged rocks. Pougatcheff appears, surrounded by a crowd of noisy
adherents. M. de Kempelen comes forward, denounces the impostor, and
declares that, to complete his confusion, he will call up the spirit
of the genuine Peter III. At his command a sarcophagus appears from
the solid rock; it stands upright on end. The lid opens, and exhibits
a corpse covered with a winding sheet. The tomb falls to the ground,
but the phantom remains erect. The sham Czar, though a good deal
frightened, makes a pretence of defying the apparition, which he
treats as a mere illusion. But the upper part of the winding sheet
falls aside, and reveals the livid and moulding features of the late
sovereign. Pougatcheff, thinking that he can hardly be worsted in
a fight with a corpse, draws his sword, and with one blow cuts off
its head, which falls noisily to the ground; but at the very same
moment the living head of Peter III appears on the ghostly shoulders.
Pougatcheff, driven to frenzy by these successive apparitions,
makes at the figure, seizes it by its garments, and thrusts it
violently back into the tomb. But the head remains suspended in
space, rolling its eyes in a threatening manner, and appearing to
offer defiance to its persecutor. The frenzy of Pougatcheff reaches
its culminating point. Grasping his sword with both hands, he tries
to cleave in twain the {97} head of his mysterious adversary; but
his blade only passes through a shadowy being, who laughs to scorn
his impotent rage. Again he raises his sword, but at the same moment
the body of Peter III, in full imperial costume, and adorned with
all the insignia of his rank, becomes visible beneath the head.
The re-animate Czar hurls the impostor violently back, exclaiming,
in a voice of thunder. ‘Hold sacrilegious wretch!’ Pougatcheff,
terror-stricken, and overwhelmed with confusion, confesses his
imposture, and the phantom vanishes.

“The stage arrangements to produce these effects are as follows:
An actor, robed in the brilliant costume of Peter III, reclines
against the sloped support beneath the stage. His body is covered
with a wrapper of black velvet, which is designed to prevent, until
the proper moment, any reflection in the glass. His head alone is
uncovered, and ready to be reflected in the glass so soon as the rays
of the electric light shall be directed upon it.

“The phantom which originally comes out of the sarcophagus is a
dummy, whose head is modeled from that of the actor who plays the
part of Czar. This head is made readily detachable from the body.

“Everything is placed and arranged in such manner that the dummy
image of Peter III shall precisely correspond in position with the
person of the actor who plays the part of ghost.

“At the same moment that the head of the former falls to the ground,
the electric light is gradually made to shine on the head of the
actor who plays the part of Peter III, which being reflected in the
glass, appears to shape itself on the body of the dummy ghost. After
this latter is hurled to the ground, the veil which hides the body of
the actor Czar is quickly and completely drawn away, and the sudden
flood of the electric light reflects his whole body where his head
alone was previously visible.”

As a clever producer of the living and impalpable spectres, Robin
had no equal. I will describe two of his effects. The curtain rose,
showing a cemetery with tombstones and cenotaphs. It was midnight. A
lover entered and stood weeping over the tomb of his dead fiancée.
Suddenly she appeared before him {98} arrayed in a winding sheet
which she threw aside, revealing herself in the dress of a bride.
He endeavored to embrace her. His arms passed unimpeded through the
spectre. Gradually the vision melted away, leaving him grieving and

The impression produced by this illusion was profound and terrifying.
Amid cries of astonishment and fright resounding through the hall,
many women fainted or made their escape.


Robin devised another scene which he called “The Demon of Paganini.”
An actor made up to resemble the famous violin virtuoso, Paganini,
tall, gaunt, with flowing locks, and dressed in shabby black, was
seen reclining upon a couch. A devil, habited in green and red, and
armed with a violin, made its appearance and clambered upon the
sleeper, installing himself comfortably on the violinist’s stomach.
Then the demon gave himself up to a violin solo which was not in the
least interrupted by the frantic gestures of the nightmare ridden
sufferer, whose hands attempted in vain to seize the weird violin and
bow. The demon, {99} sometimes sitting, sometimes kneeling on the
body of his victim, continued his musical selection.

The Demon of Paganini was mounted on a special support by which he
could be elevated and depressed at pleasure. The violinist, who was
the real player, stood below the stage, but in the shade, at one side
of the electric lamp which illuminated the demon. The sound issued
from the opening in front of the glass. The glass used by Robin
measured 5 by 4 meters, in a single piece. It was placed with great
care, for the least deviation would be followed by a displacement of
the image.

[Illustration: Fig. 81.—Les spectres de Robin; explication théorique.


It should be remarked that Robin’s auditorium comprised only a
sloping parterre surrounded by a range of small boxes. There was no
gallery. The spectators, consequently, were not elevated sufficiently
to perceive the opening in the stage.

When, in 1866, Robin’s Spectres were taken to a large theatre
in Paris, the Châtelet, he was obliged to devise a different
arrangement, for the spectators in the galleries above were able
{100} to see, at the same time, both the actor and his reflection.
Robin had been obliged to place his actor on a lower level because
he had no room at the side of his little stage. At the Châtelet,
however, space permitted a much more convenient arrangement, for
it allowed the actor, who furnished the reflection, to move about
freely on a horizontal plane. The glass was placed vertically and
formed, on the plane, an angle of about 45° with the longitudinal
axis of the theatre. The actor was hidden behind a wing; his
reflection appeared in the center of the stage toward the back-drop;
visible, nevertheless, to all the spectators. His field of movement,
necessarily restricted, was marked out in advance upon the floor.

Robin was able to preserve for a considerable time the secret of the
ghost illusion; just enough to pique the curiosity of the public.
It was guessed at last that he made use of unsilvered glass. The
fact became known and several wags proved the presence of the glass
by throwing inoffensive paper balls which struck the obstacle and
fell, arrested in their flight. Robin was greatly vexed at these
occurrences but the trick was none the less exposed.


Pepper eventually brought out a new illusion called “Metempsychosis,”
the joint invention of himself and a Mr. Walker. It is a very
startling optical effect, and is thus described by me in my American
edition of Stanyon’s _Magic_: “One of the cleverest illusions
performed with the aid of mirrors is that known as the ‘Blue Room’,
which has been exhibited in this country by Kellar. It was patented
in the United States by the inventors. The object of the apparatus
is to render an actor, or some inanimate thing, such as a chair,
table, suit of armor, etc., visible or invisible at will. ‘It is
also designed,’ says the specification in the patent office, ‘to
substitute for an object in sight of the audience the image of
another similar object hidden from direct vision without the audience
being aware that any such substitution has been made.’ For this
purpose employ a large mirror—either an ordinary mirror or for some
purposes, by preference, a large sheet {101} of plate-glass—which is
transparent at one end and more and more densely silvered in passing
from this toward the other end. Mount this mirror or plate so that it
can, at pleasure, be placed diagonally across the stage or platform.
As it advances, the glass obscures the view of the actor or object in
front of which it passes, and substitutes the reflection of an object
in front of the glass, but suitably concealed from the direct view of
the audience.





“When the two objects or sets of objects thus successively presented
to the view are properly placed and sufficiently alike, the audience
will be unaware that any change has been made. In some cases, in
place of a single sheet of glass, two or more sheets may be employed.”

By consulting Fig. 1, the reader will understand the construction
of the illusion, one of the best in the repertoire of the {102}
conjurer. The shaded drawing in the left upper part, represents a
portion of the mirror, designed to show its graduated opacity.

“_a_ is a stage. It may be in a lecture-room or theatre. _bb_,
the seats for the audience in front of the stage. _cc_ is a
small room—eight or ten feet square and eight high will often be
sufficiently large; but it may be of any size. It may advantageously
be raised and approached by two or three steps from the stage _a_.

“_d_ is a vertical mirror, passing diagonally across the chamber
_c_ and dividing it into two parts, which are exact counterparts
the one of the other. The mirror _d_ is so mounted that it can be
rapidly and noiselessly moved diagonally across the chamber in the
path represented by the dotted line _d_^1, and be withdrawn whenever
desired. This can conveniently be done by running it in guides and
upon rollers to and from a position where it is hidden by a screen,
_e_, which limits the view of the audience in this direction.

“In consequence of the exact correspondence of the two parts of the
chamber _c_, that in front and that behind the mirror, the audience
will observe no change in appearance when the mirror is passed across.

“The front of the chamber is partially closed at _cx_ by a shield or
short partition-wall, either permanently or whenever required. This
is done in order to hide from direct view any object which may be at
or about the position _c_^1.

“The illusions may be performed in various ways—as, for example, an
object may, in the sight of the audience, be passed from the stage to
the position _c_^2, near the rear short wall or counterpart shield
_f_, diagonally opposite to and corresponding with the front corner
shield _cx_, and there be changed for some other. This is done by
providing beforehand a dummy at _c_^1, closely resembling the object
at _c_^2. Then when the object is in its place, the mirror is passed
across without causing any apparent change. The object, when hidden,
is changed for another object externally resembling the first, the
mirror is withdrawn, and the audience may then be shown in any
convenient way that the object now before them differs from that
which their eyesight would lead them to suppose it to be. {103}

“We prefer, in many cases, not to use an ordinary mirror, _d_, but
one of graduated opacity. This may be produced by removing the
silvering from the glass in lines; or, if the glass be silvered
by chemical deposition, causing the silver to be deposited upon
it in lines, somewhat as represented in Fig. 1. Near one side of
the glass the lines are made fine and open, and progressively in
passing toward the other side they become bolder and closer until a
completely-silvered surface is reached. Other means for obtaining a
graduated opacity and reflecting power may be resorted to.

“By passing such a graduated mirror between the object at _c_^2 and
the audience, the object may be made to fade from the sight, or
gradually to resolve itself into another form.”

Hopkins in his fine work on _Magic, stage illusions, etc._, to which
I contributed the Introduction and other chapters, thus describes one
of the many effects which can be produced by the Blue Room apparatus.
The curtain rises, showing “the stage set as an artist’s studio.
Through the centre of the rear drop scene is seen a small chamber
in which is a suit of armor standing upright. The floor of this
apartment is raised above the level of the stage and is approached
by a short flight of steps. When the curtain is raised a servant
makes his appearance and begins to dust and clean the apartments.
He finally comes to the suit of armor, taking it apart, cleans and
dusts it, and finally reunites it. No sooner is the armor perfectly
articulated than the soulless mailed figure deals the servant a blow.
The domestic, with a cry of fear, drops his duster, flies down the
steps into the large room, the suit of armor pursuing him, wrestling
with him, and kicking him all over the stage. When the armor
considers that it has punished the servant sufficiently, it returns
to its original position in the small chamber, just as the master
of the house enters, brought there by the noise and cries of the
servant, from whom he demands an explanation of the commotion. Upon
being told, he derides the servant’s fear, and, to prove that he was
mistaken, takes the suit of armor apart, throwing it piece by piece
upon the floor.”

It is needless, perhaps, to explain that the armor which becomes
endowed with life has a man inside of it. When the {104} curtain
rises a suit of armor is seen in the Blue Room, at H, (Fig. 2).
At I is a second suit, concealed behind the proscenium. It is the
duplicate of the visible one. When the mirror is shoved diagonally
across the room, the armor at H becomes invisible, but the mirror
reflects the armor concealed at I, making it appear to the spectators
that the suit at H is still in position. An actor dressed in armor
now enters behind the mirror, removes the suit of armor at H, and
assumes its place. When the mirror is again withdrawn, the armor at
H becomes endowed with life. Again the mirror is shoved across the
apartment, and the actor replaces the original suit of armor at H.
It is this latter suit which the master of the house takes to pieces
and casts upon the floor, in order to quiet the fears of the servant.
This most ingenious apparatus is capable of many novel effects. Those
who have witnessed Professor Kellar’s performance will bear witness
to the statement. When the illusion was first produced in England a
sketch entitled Curried Prawns was written for it by the famous comic
author, Burnand, editor of _Punch_.

An old gentleman, after having partaken freely of a dish of curried
prawns, washed down by copious libations of wine, retires to bed, and
very naturally “sees things.” Who would not under such circumstances?
He has a dreadful nightmare, during which ghosts, goblins, vampires
and witches visit him. The effects are produced by the mirror.


When I was searching among the books of the Bibliothèque Nationale,
Paris, for material concerning Robertson and others, a very
remarkable ghost show was all the rage in the Montmartre Quarter of
the city, based on the Pepper illusion. I will endeavor to describe
it. It was held at the _Cabaret du Néant_, or Tavern of the Dead.
“Anything for a new sensation” is the motto of the Boulevardier.
Death is no laughing matter, but the gay Parisian is ready to mock
even at the Grim Tyrant, hence the vogue of the Tavern of the Dead.
I went to this lugubrious cabaret in company with a student of
medicine. He seemed to {105} think the whole affair a huge joke, but
then he was a hair-brained, thoughtless young fellow.

The Inn of Death was located in the Rue Cujas, near by the Rue
Champollion. Over its grim black-painted portal burned an ashy blue
and brimstone flame. It seemed like entering a charnel house. My
student friend led the way down a gloomy passage into a room hung
with funeral cloth. Coffins served as tables, and upon each was
placed a lighted taper. From the ceiling hung a grewsome-looking
chandelier, known as “Robert Macaire’s chandelier.” It was formed of
skulls and bones. In the skulls were placed lights. The waiters of
the cabaret were garbed like _croque-morts_ (undertaker’s men). In
sepulchral tones one of these gloomy-looking garçons, a trifle more
cadaverous than his confrères, sidled up to us like a huge black
raven and croaked out, “Name your poison, gentlemen. We have on tap
distilled grave-worms, deadly microbes, the bacteria of all diseases
under the sun,” etc. Whatever one called for in this undertaking
establishment, the result was the same—beer of doubtful quality.
After drinking a bock we descended a flight of grimy stairs to
another apartment which was hung with black cloth, ornamented with
white tears, like the decorations furnished by the _Pompes Funèbres_
(Undertakers’ Trust) of Paris, on state occasions. Here we were
solemnly greeted by a couple of quasi Capuchin monks with the words:
“_Voilà des Machabées!_” We seated ourselves on a wooden bench and
waited for the séance to begin. Among the spectators were several
students and their grisettes, a little piou-piou (soldier), and a
fat gentleman with a waxed moustache and imperial, who might have
been a _chef de cuisine_ in disguise or a member of the _Académie
Française_. A curtain at one end of the room was pulled aside,
revealing a stage set to represent a mouldy crypt, in the center
of which stood upright an empty coffin. A volunteer being called
for, my medical friend agreed to stand in the grim box for the
dead. One of the monks wrapped about the young man’s body a winding
sheet. A strong light was turned on him. Presently a deathly pallor
overcame the ruddy hue of health on his cheeks. His face assumed
the waxen color of death. His eyes resolved themselves {106} into
cavernous sockets; his nose disappeared; and presently his visage was
metamorphosed into a grinning skull. The illusion was perfect. During
this ghastly transformation the monks intoned: “_Voilà Machabæus!_ He
dies! He wastes away! Dust to dust! The eternal worm awaits you all!”
A church bell was solemnly tolled and an organ played. The scene
would have delighted that stern genius, Hans Holbein, whose Dance
of Death has chilled many a human heart. We looked again, and the
skeleton in the coffin vanished. “He has risen to Heaven!” cried the

In a little while the figure reappeared. The fleshless skull was
merged into the face of my friend. He stepped out of the box,
throwing aside the shroud, and greeted me with a merry laugh. Other
people volunteered to undergo the death scene. After the exhibition
was over one of the Capuchins passed around a skull for penny
contributions, and we left the place.

Now for an explanation of the illusion.

A sheet of glass is placed obliquely across the stage in front of
the coffin. At the side of this stage, hidden by the proscenium,
is another coffin containing a skeleton robed in white. When the
electric lights surrounding the first coffin are turned off and the
casket containing the skeleton highly illuminated, the spectators see
the reflection of the latter in the glass and imagine that it is the
coffin in which the volunteer has been placed. To resurrect the man
the lights are reversed.



“ ‘What!’ I said to myself, ‘can it be possible that the marvelous
science which raised Vaucanson’s name so high—the science
whose ingenious combinations can animate inert matter, and
impart to it a species of existence—is the only one without its
archives?’ ”—ROBERT-HOUDIN.


Automata have played an important part in the magic of ancient
temples, and in the séances of mediæval sorcerers. Who has not
read of the famous “Brazen Head,” constructed by Friar Bacon, and
the wonderful machines of Albertus Magnus? Modern conjurers have
introduced automata into their entertainments with great effect, as
witness Pinetti’s “Wise Little Turk,” Kempelen’s “Chess Player,”
Houdin’s “Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal,” Kellar’s “Hindoo Clock,”
Maskelyne’s “Psycho,” etc. But these automata have been such in name
only, the motive power usually being furnished by the conjurer’s
_alter ego_, or concealed assistant.

The so-called automaton Chess Player is enveloped with a halo of
romance. It had a remarkable history. It was constructed in the year
1769 by the Baron von Kempelen, a Hungarian nobleman and mechanician,
and exhibited by him at the leading courts of Europe. The Empress
Maria Theresa of Austria played a game with it. In 1783 it was
brought to Paris and shown at the Café de la Regence, the rendezvous
of chess lovers and experts, after which it was taken to London.
Kempelen died on the 26th of March, 1804, and his son sold the Chess
Player to J. N. Maelzel, musician, inventor and mechanician, who
was born at Ratisbon, Bavaria, in 1772. His father was a celebrated
organ-builder. {108}

Maelzel was the inventor of the Metronome (1815), a piece of
mechanism known to all instructors of music: the automaton
_Trumpeter_ (1808), and the _Pan-Harmonicum_ (1805). He had a strange
career as the exhibitor of the Chess Player. After showing the
automaton in various cities of Europe, Maelzel sold it to Napoleon’s

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

Online LibraryHenry Ridgely EvansThe Old and the New Magic → online text (page 10 of 28)