Stage Illusions

27th August 2021. Reading Time: 15 minutes General. 502 page views. 0 comments.

During the Victorian Era, the lines between magic and spiritualism were often blurred. What seemed like amazing supernatural acts were later found to be magic tricks. Here is how some of them worked!

During the Victorian Era, the lines between magic and spiritualism were often blurred.  What seemed like amazing supernatural acts were later found to be magic tricks.  Here is how some of them worked!

Pepper's Ghost

Pepper's ghost is an illusion that was named after Scientist John Henry Pepper who demonstrated this effect in 1862.  It is popular among magicians and illusionists and is also used to project images like holograms.  

In 1860, inventor Henry Dircks built an optical illusion dubbed Dircksian Phantasmagoria which used glass and light to project an optical illusion.  It was very complicated and never really gained much popularity as theatres needed to completely rebuild their stage to be able to use it making it an expensive option.  John H Pepper came up with a way to recreate this effect using the existing stage areas in theatres.  

Image Source: Public Domain

It involves using a large piece of glass at an angle between a brightly lit stage and a hidden room (much like the image above).  When you illuminate the 'hidden room', the lights on the stage are brought down and the image in the hidden room is reflected onto the stage and appears as a ghostly apparition.

Pepper’s Ghost can be explained using ray optics. To start, the glass or transparent film used in a Pepper’s Ghost illusion has a different refractive index than the air around it; that is, light in the two media propagates at different speeds. When light reaches a boundary between two materials with different refractive indices, typically some of the light is reflected and the rest is refracted, or transmitted at an angle. The amount of light that is reflected and refracted is governed by the Fresnel equations and depends on the angle of incidence and polarization of the incoming light, as well as the neighbouring materials.

Consider the setup used for the classical Pepper’s Ghost illusion, consisting of a stage, an additional room out of direct sight of the audience, and a wall of glass angled between the audience and both rooms. The light from the lit-up stage is refracted as it enters and leaves the pane of glass. The audience can see the stage, but not the glass, just as if they are watching any old stage play. When the lights in the side room are turned on, light propagates from the “ghost” to the glass. Some of the light is reflected by the glass and reaches the audience. The crowd sees rays of light from both the regular stage and the hidden room. This projects the hidden image in a semitransparent, or “ghostly”, manner.

https://www.comsol.com/blogs/explaining-the-peppers-ghost-illusion-with-ray-optics/

If you would like to read more on pepper's ghost and how this illusion still works today, check out my article Pepper's Ghost.

Spirit Slates

Slade was a famous spiritualist medium whose claim to fame was his discovery of mysterious spirit writings - otherwise known as slate-writing. Famous for using many different methods with some quite elaborate, Slade would eventually be found out by a few different psychical researchers looking to understand his claims.

Image Source: MAGIC STAGE ILLUSIONS AND SCIENTIFIC DIVERSIONS INCLUDING TRICK PHOTOGRAPHY

Two ordinary wooden-framed slates are presented to the spectators, and examined in succession by them. A small piece of chalk is introduced between the two slates, which are then united by a rubber band and held aloft in the prestidigitateur’s right hand.

Then, in the general silence, is heard the scratching of the chalk, which is writing between the two slates the answer to a question asked by one of the spectators—the name of a card thought of or the number of spots obtained by throwing two dice. The rubber band having been removed and the slates separated, one of them is seen to be covered with writing. This prodigy, which at first sight seems to be so mysterious, is very easily performed.

The writing was done in advance; but upon the written side of the slate, A, there had been placed a thin sheet of black cardboard which hid the characters written with chalk. The two sides of this slate thus appeared absolutely clean.

The slate B is first given out for examination, and after it has been returned to him, the operator says: “Do you want to examine the other one also?” And then, without any haste, he makes a pass analogous to that employed in shuffling cards. The slate A being held by the thumb and forefinger of the left hand and the slate B between the fore and middle finger of the right hand (Fig. 1), the two hands are brought together. But at the moment at which the slates are superposed, the thumb and forefinger of the right hand grasp the slate A, while at the same time the fore and middle finger of the left hand take the slate B. Then the two hands separate anew, and the slate that has already been examined, instead of the second one, is put into the hands of the spectator. This shifting, done with deliberation, is entirely invisible.

During the second examination the slate A is laid flat upon a table, the written face turned upward and covered with black cardboard. The slate having been sufficiently examined, and been returned to the operator, the latter lays it upon the first, and both are then surrounded by the rubber band.

It is then that the operator holds up the slates with the left hand, of which one sees but the thumb, while upon the posterior face of the second slate the nail of his middle finger makes a sound resembling that produced by chalk when written with. When the operator judges that this little comedy has lasted quite long enough, he lays the two slates horizontally upon his table,[125] taking care this time that the non-prepared slate shall be beneath (Fig. 2). It is upon it that the black cardboard rests; and the other slate, on being raised, shows the characters that it bears, and that are stated to have been written by an invisible spirit that slipped in between the two slates.

MAGIC STAGE ILLUSIONS AND SCIENTIFIC DIVERSIONS INCLUDING TRICK PHOTOGRAPHY
COMPILED AND EDITED BY ALBERT A. HOPKINS
EDITOR OF THE “SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN CYCLOPEDIA OF RECEIPTS, NOTES AND QUERIES,” ETC.WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY HENRY RIDGELY EVANS
AUTHOR OF “HOURS WITH THE GHOSTS; OR, XIX. CENTURY WITCHCRAFT,” ETC.

In 1876 Sir Ray Lankester who was a zoologist that went on exposing spiritualist mediums along with Sir Horatio Donkin sat in a seance with Slade. In the middle of the trick, Lankester managed to grab the slate before the spirit communication was supposed to commence. He found that the spirit's message had already been written on the slate. Many argued that it was impossible to know at what point in the seance the spirit would write communication and others criticized Lankester for not having a lot of experience when it came to psychical research. Slade was reported to authorities and sentenced to 3 months of prison through the Bow Court on the basis of fraud. Slade was able to appeal the sentence on a technicality and was released on bail.

Further people would go on to have dealings with Slade. Remingius Weiss gave Harry Houdini a signed confession from Slade when he was able to replicate different methods in the presence of Slade and gave him the option to either sign the confession or he would be reported and sent to jail. Weiss wrote the confession and had Slade sign it. Weiss claims he never released this confession while Slade was alive so that other mediums did not use these methods for their own financial gain. Harry Houdini claims that Weiss gave him a full expose of his dealings with Slade along with the written confession.

Slade himself had quite a strong standing within the spiritualist community and someone Sir Arthur Conan Doyle advocated for. While his deception was caught out, there are others who believe he had genuine abilities.

If you want to read more on spirit slates and Harry Houdini's thoughts, check out my article Spirit Slates.

Second Sight

Famous illusionist Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (who would inspire Erik Weiss to become Harry Houdini) was an expert in sleight of hand tricks, and became most famous for what was called his 'second sight'.  Using a verbal code, his son who was blindfolded was able to correctly identify objects held by Houdin who was standing far away in the audience.  Verbal code is one of the simplest methods of deception and something that is still used today.

Image Source: Mind Reading in Stage Magic: The “Second Sight” Illusion, Media, and Mediums

Robert-Houdin invented a “second-sight” system under the following circumstances:

“My two children,” he says, in his memoirs, “were playing one day in the drawing-room at a game they had invented for their own amusement. The younger had bandaged his elder brother’s eyes, and made him guess the objects he touched, and when the latter happened to guess right, they changed places. This simple game suggested to me the most complicated idea that ever crossed my mind—‘second sight.’

“On the 12th of February, 1846, I printed in the center of my bill the following singular announcement:

“In this programme M. Robert-Houdin’s son, who is gifted with a marvelous second sight, after his eyes have been covered with a thick bandage, will designate every object presented to him by the audience.”

Houdin never revealed the secret of this remarkable trick, but plainly indicated in his autobiography that it was the result of an ingenious combination of questions that gave the clue to the supposed clairvoyant on the stage. One of the first to come forward with an exposé was F. A. Gandon, who wrote a work entitled La Seconde vue dévoilée, Paris, 1849. Robert Heller saw[185] Houdin give an exhibition of “second sight” in London. It was the idea of people at the time that the experiment was the result of animal magnetism, but the acute Heller thought otherwise, and he went to work to perfect a system that far exceeded any of his predecessors in the art, adding certain subtle improvements that made the trick all but supernatural.

Briefly stated, the effect is as follows: A lady is introduced to the audience as possessed of clairvoyant powers. She is blindfolded and seated on the stage. The magician, going down among the spectators, receives from them various articles which the supposed seeress accurately describes; for example, in the case of a coin, not only telling what the object is, but the country where it was coined, its denomination and date. In the case of a watch, she gives the metal, maker’s name, what kind and how many jewels in the works, and, lastly, the time to a dot. And the same with other objects, no matter what they may be. Nothing offered by a spectator seemed to baffle Houdin and Heller. Half-obliterated Roman, Grecian, and Oriental coins were described with wonderful ease and accuracy by the assistant on the stage; also secret society emblems and inscriptions thereon, numbers on bank-notes, surgical instruments, etc.

MAGIC STAGE ILLUSIONS AND SCIENTIFIC DIVERSIONS INCLUDING TRICK PHOTOGRAPHY
COMPILED AND EDITED BY ALBERT A. HOPKINS
EDITOR OF THE “SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN CYCLOPEDIA OF RECEIPTS, NOTES AND QUERIES,” ETC.WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY HENRY RIDGELY EVANS
AUTHOR OF “HOURS WITH THE GHOSTS; OR, XIX. CENTURY WITCHCRAFT,” ETC.

Silent Thought Transference

I have written about the concept of thought transference when it comes to psychic ability.  You can read the article here: Thought Transference

Once again blurring those lines between spiritualism and illusion, the performer or 'clairvoyant' is able to seemingly transfer a thought by what seems to be psychic means, when in fact, it is all a clever work of a predetermined verbal code.

In this ingenious trick the clairvoyante, while blindfolded, tells “the suit and value of any number of selected cards, solves arithmetical problems, gives numbers on borrowed bank notes, indicates time by any watch, describes borrowed coins, and many other tests.” All this is accomplished in silence,[198] the medium being surrounded by a committee from the audience, if desired. The trick can be given in a private parlor, and requires no electrical apparatus, speaking tubes, etc. I am indebted for an explanation of “silent thought transference” to Mr. H. J. Burlingame. In his little brochure, “Tricks in Magic, Illusions, and Mental Phenomena,” he writes as follows: “By means of the silent code all the usual effects generally exhibited at thought-reading séances can be reproduced. It consists in both medium and performer counting mentally and together. It is a known fact that the beats for ‘common time’ are always the same in music; therefore, with little practice, it is easy for two persons, starting on a given signal, to count at the same time and rate, and when another signal is given, to stop. Of course both will have arrived at the same number. This then is the actual method employed in this code, and from it you will see that any number from 0 to 9 can be transmitted by the performer to the medium. It is best to experiment and find out what rate of counting best suits the two persons employing this code, but the following suggestions are offered: It may, perhaps, be best to begin counting at a slow rate, gradually increasing until you find it advisable to go no faster. Say you have in the room, when first practicing, a loud-ticking clock, with a fairly slow beat. On the given beat or signal you both start counting at the same rate as the clock. Of course the clock must be removed when the rate has been well learned. If preferred, count at the rate of ‘common time,’ viz.: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, and so on, or practice with a ‘metronome,’ such as is used during piano practice for the purpose of setting time. A very good rate to finally adopt is about 70 to 75 per minute. Whatever rate is found to suit best must be adhered to. You will find at the rate mentioned that any number up to 9 can be transmitted with absolute certainty, after an hour or so of practice.

“Now that the principle has been explained, the next items are the signals to give the medium the cue when to start and when to stop counting mentally.

“Say the performer has borrowed a coin, the date of which is 1862. The first figure of the coin 1 and 8 are generally understood, as most coins in use are 18 something or other; if of date 18, in the hundreds. The performer must advise the medium of this by his manner of thanking the person who lent the coin, which can easily be arranged to suit one’s fancy. The 6 and 2 have therefore to be transmitted. The performer stands away from the medium or among the audience. The medium being on the stage, securely blindfolded, the performer takes his position, with chalk in right hand, in front of a blackboard, holding coin in his left hand. He does not speak a word, but simply looks at the coin. After a pause the medium calls out: ‘The first figure I picture is a one,’ or words to that effect. Immediately the lady stops speaking, they both begin to count mentally at the rate agreed upon by practice. In this case the number to be transmitted is 6. As the last word of the sentence is spoken they commence mentally 1-2-3-4-5-6; during this short period the performer glances down at the coin as if to verify what the lady has called out. As soon as they reach the figure 6 the signal ‘stop’ has to be transmitted. This is done by the performer putting down on the blackboard sharply the figure[199] called out by the lady, viz.: ‘One’ (1). It will be seen by this method that the signal is quite easy to transmit, and it is perfectly natural to put down the figure on the board quickly and sharply. The third figure of the coin is now known to the medium. The last figure, 2, is transmitted in the same manner as the previous figure. The lady says, ‘The second figure I see is 8.’ As soon as she ceases speaking, they begin the counting again, 1-2; on the arrival at the figure 2 the performer puts down the 8, previously called out, sharply on the board, which is the signal for ‘stop.’ The lady now knows the full date of the coin. The metal of the coin must be indicated to the medium previously by the wording of the reply to the owner of the coin after it has been handed to the performer. This can easily be arranged. The value of the coin or its equivalent number is indicated in the same way as the previous figure; and between the 6 and the 2, that is, after the lady has called out the 6, they commence to count for the value. When an 0 occurs in the date, no pause is made. The performer puts down the figure on the board for the ‘stop’ signal immediately the lady stops speaking. This if followed carefully will be found quite easy and natural in practice.

“Any other system that one may adopt for giving the starting and stopping signals can, of course, be applied, but the method here proposed will be found to answer the purpose, and cannot be detected.”

The bank-note, card, and other tests are arranged on similar lines.

MAGIC STAGE ILLUSIONS AND SCIENTIFIC DIVERSIONS INCLUDING TRICK PHOTOGRAPHY
COMPILED AND EDITED BY ALBERT A. HOPKINS
EDITOR OF THE “SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN CYCLOPEDIA OF RECEIPTS, NOTES AND QUERIES,” ETC.WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY HENRY RIDGELY EVANS
AUTHOR OF “HOURS WITH THE GHOSTS; OR, XIX. CENTURY WITCHCRAFT,” ETC.

These are just a small amount of tricks that were used.  It made it difficult for an audience to know if what they were witnessing was an act of magic or an act of supernatural deception.  We know a lot more about magic and illusion and in particular mental tricks.  Mentalists are experts in manipulating the human mind to make a person think that they are literally reading your mind. 

So how do we know what is genuine and what is an illusion?  Do you think you would be able to spot a really good mentalist or illusionist?


References

MAGIC STAGE ILLUSIONS AND SCIENTIFIC DIVERSIONS INCLUDING TRICK PHOTOGRAPHY
COMPILED AND EDITED BY ALBERT A. HOPKINS
EDITOR OF THE “SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN CYCLOPEDIA OF RECEIPTS, NOTES AND QUERIES,” ETC.WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY HENRY RIDGELY EVANS
AUTHOR OF “HOURS WITH THE GHOSTS; OR, XIX. CENTURY WITCHCRAFT,” ETC.

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/houdini-houdin/

https://www.comsol.com/blogs/explaining-the-peppers-ghost-illusion-with-ray-optics/

Mind Reading in Stage Magic: The “Second Sight” Illusion, Media, and Mediums

Tricks, Magic and Mental Phenomena Burlingame, Hardin J (1985)

Top pages with similar subjects

Follow LLIFS on Facebook

Don't forget to follow the Facebook page for regular updates 

Mailing List

Join the mailing list to receive weekly updates of NEW articles.  Never miss an article again!

Haunted Magazine

Buy the latest and past issues Haunted Magazine

Books by LLIFS

Check out the books written by LLIFS

Post Comment