For John Henry Pepper, Christmas Eve of 1862 promised one that Londoners would not soon forget. If all went well, he would be the man responsible for bringing a skeleton to life on stage.
A senior lecturer and analytical chemist at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, Pepper was a man of science with a reputation for showmanship. He drew a lot of people into the institution with elaborate demonstrations that were partly a scientific principle and partly a stage show.
Sometimes there was more spectacle than science. For the holidays the Polytechnic assembled a production of A haunted man by Charles Dickens. Pepper wanted to use an optical effect that is still used today.
During a private performance that day for select guests, Pepper watched the skeleton appear on stage in ethereal form, seemingly present but with the hazy definition of a ghost. Pepper had planned to reveal the secret of the trick, but the audience reaction ̵
For a while, the trick was talking about Victorian London, with people regularly flocking to performances where it happened. And while it was named “Pepper’s Ghost” after the man who popularized it, it wasn’t quite his. The concept had its origin in a man named Henry Dircks, who would watch with no small frustration as his concept made Pepper one of the first “prominent” scientists in history.
John Henry Pepper was born in London on June 17, 1821. Pepper trained at King’s College School and the Russell Institution and was later employed as a lecturer in chemistry at the Granger School of Medicine. It was uniquely suited to the Victorian brewing curiosities.
At the time, it was not uncommon for scientists to demonstrate experiments with light, energy, and the human body. Pepper was a born showman with an interest in theater, realizing that scientific concepts are easier to understand when disguised as a show.
By the time he arrived at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in 1848, Pepper was all too willing to comply with the Polytechnic’s desire to draw crowds and make science a form of spectator entertainment. Founded in 1838, the institution was designed to celebrate invention and ingenuity. There Pepper waved to the audience with a promise to show the largest and smallest photos in the world – one a life-size portrait, another a tiny reproduction of the front page of a newspaper. (Pepper used The times For the exhibition, he pretty much guaranteed a good announcement in the newspaper.) He demonstrated harps that could play music without being hit by hands, and instead provided acoustics from the conducted sound of musicians playing instruments several floors deep. During a lecture on the art of balancing, he let a trapeze artist navigate a tightrope walk. Such stunts drew everyone from the curious to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who attended a performance in 1855.
Although there was no academic justification for the title, the Polytechnic owners referred to him as “Professor” Pepper, the man who could command a stage while illuminating science. He was responsible for running the Polytechnic until 1854 and remained an integral part of it until 1858, when he left a financial dispute behind him.
In 1861 Pepper closed his differences with Polytechnic and returned as managing director. He was anxious to raise the institute’s profile even further, and he believed that the solution lay in the work of Henry Dircks. Dircks, an engineer, had given a lecture at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Leeds in 1858 in which he described a “model of phantasmagoria” for theatrical purposes.
The trick wasn’t really new. A version of this had been described by Giambattista della Porta in his 16th century book. Natural magic (Natural magic), and it was remarkable in its simplicity. The goal was to make an object behind a person appear as if it were in front of them.
The easiest way to imagine this is to look out the window at night and see something behind you – like a lamp – reflecting in the glass. It’s not technically an illusion as the object is precisely reflected, but it does act as an optical trick for the viewer.
Dircks described a facility that would have a compartment under the seating area of a theater. Inside, an actor would be illuminated by light enriched with oxygen. This light would be reflected off a large sheet of glass on the stage. While the glass would be invisible to the audience, the reflection in the mirror would not be visible and the actor in the compartment would look like they were on stage. The light would make it appear as if there was a ghostly apparition. When the actor wore a black coat and was manipulating a skeleton, the skeleton seemed to move.
The idea was intriguing, but Dircks hadn’t found a way to assemble such a production in existing theaters, and no theater manager seemed willing to work with Dircks to pursue it. When Pepper discovered the idea, he partnered with Dircks, provided that Pepper could get the trick working with only minor adjustments to the stage area.
Pepper placed the actor in the orchestra pit, then tilted the glass panel 45 degrees towards the audience while adjusting the angle of the actor on a board so that it could be more easily covered. It seemed to work, and Pepper knew it would amaze the audience at the Polytechnic.
Dircks and Pepper have entered into a business agreement filing a joint patent, with Dircks inexplicably agreeing to sign all financial rights to Pepper. Originally marketed as “Dircksian Phantasmagoria”, it quickly became synonymous with Pepper. Then and now, the illusion – a joint effort by the two men – has been called “Pepper’s Ghost”.
After its successful debut in 1862, Pepper’s Ghost became an integral part of the Polytechnic’s program, and the news of its incredible effects spread to Londoners. Any actor could appear weightless and somewhat transparent. In advertisements, the institution drew attention to the fact that it would be possible for people to see a “living being” seemingly “walking through” another person, an achievement that was achieved when an actor strolled behind the glass.
A frequent response was recorded in the July 17, 1863 issue of The Nottinghamshire Guardianin which one viewer wrote:
“The appearance of the mind as an optical illusion is one of the most remarkable discoveries of modern science. The apparent reality of the ghost casts the living individual, who plays his part in the haunted chamber, into a dim shadow, making him more like the dark, shadowy representative of a ghost than the ghost itself … [Pepper’s] Observations on the laws of light were also very interesting, and his experiments to illustrate some of these laws were extremely educational and amusing. “
The Prince of Wales and his wife came to see for themselves in 1863 and were so impressed that the Prince became a Patron and restored the “Royal” designation that the Polytechnic had lost. In a short amount of time, Pepper made about £ 12,000, or about $ 1.5 million in today’s dollars, from people eager to see what everyone was talking about.
While Pepper’s Ghost helped make the Polytechnic a popular attraction in the 1860s, The novelty eventually waned. Other theaters tried a similar trick with mixed results. The lighting, the glass, and even the right rehearsal – because the actors couldn’t see the reflection on stage and had to move carefully – all had an impact on success.
Even when done right, viewers wanted some variation. Pepper was able to use the trick to expose the then popular spiritualism, even demonstrating floating tables in front of crowds to illustrate how easily they could be fooled by people who claimed to be able to communicate with paranormal entities.
Ultimately, Pepper discovered that people were interested in the spectacle. He was some kind of wizard and had to create increasingly sophisticated effects in her eyes to get her attention. With his assistant Thomas Tobin, he developed a magic cabinet in 1865 in which objects in a box were hidden with the help of mirrors so that they appeared empty. In 1866 he gave another lecture on balancing in the Great Hall, this time with a machine on a trapeze that delighted the audience.
The Polytechnic had its last Christmas show in 1871. Pepper left the facility in 1872 to perform at the Egyptian Hall, a popular magic theater, but the turnout was low. He then left the country to give international lectures. When he briefly returned to the Polytechnic in 1878, he had a new illusion in which he turned oranges into pots of jam and distributed them to the audience.
Brochures and books based on his lectures became popular, and in 1890 he published a book on Pepper’s mind. The true story of the mindwhich had clearly become his permanent legacy. He died in 1900.
Dircks had also published a report on the trick and its development in 1863. (He died in 1873.) He was reportedly irritated by how closely he was identified with Pepper, who had improved him, but he wasn’t the only innovator. It soon became a parlor ploy, with carnivals using it to create a popular “girl to gorilla” illusion in which a woman appears to transform into a monkey with careful manipulation of the lighting.
Today the “trick” of Pepper’s Ghost lives on, both in amusement park attractions like The Haunted Mansion, where ghostly characters appear, and in “holograms” that apparently got the late rapper Tupac Shakur to perform again at Coachella Valley Music and arts festival in 2012.
It is also widely used in television production, where teleprompters allow broadcasters to read scripts while looking straight into the camera lens. Maybe it fits: John Henry Pepper spent much of his life providing information with a simple trick of light.