Magic and Illusion

John Henry Pepper's Ghost

Magic and illusion are intertwined with the history of the fairground and the tradition of the sideshow.

As a performance genre magic can be traced back hundreds of years, but it was within the entertainment industry of the nineteenth century that it flourished. Its influence, both stylistically and in presentation mode, can be seen with the arrival of the cinematograph in 1895.

The Victorian era was the age of the great illusionists. Optical projection and magic tricks could be found within the sleight of hand shows on variety and theatrical bills, and on the fairground Magic and illusion shows where it became a staple diet of Victorian entertainment.

The Victorian Era provided the optimum conditions for the development of magic through the marriage of mechanical development, ingenuity and an insatiable curiosity for the unknown and the strange. By the end of the 1900s magic had developed a language and spectacle of its own, either residing within an act on a music hall variety bill or presented in a stand-alone show in venues such as the Egyptian Hall or the Royal Polytechnic. These two venues became uniquely associated with magic from 1873 to 1905 and provided the perfect platform for renowned magicians such George Alfred Cooke and John Neville Maskelyne.

The theatre enclosure enabled the magic act to become increasingly complex and elaborate, with large spaces to hide mechanisms and assistants, creating the impossible illusion in front of astounded audiences.

The Royal Polytechnic Institution was inaugurated in 1838 with the purpose of educating the public in matters of science. The Polytechnic offered a range of attractions from exhibitions to lectures and demonstrations of the latest mechanical and scientific innovations, such as photography and working machinery. The Polytechnic became known specifically for its spectacular magic lantern shows, particularly after 1848 and under the management of John Henry Pepper. The Egyptian Hall became a venue for all types of optical illusions and peculiar entertainments throughout the nineteenth century, as well as the home of magic through its association with Maskelyne & Cooke until its closure in 1905.

Egyptian Hall

Maskelyne & Cook first came to fame when they unmasked the American spiritualistic mediums, The Davenport Brothers, during their visit to London in 1865. By the 1870s they were the premier magic act in the United Kingdom, presenting a mixed bill of magic and illusion alongside ventriloquists, quick-change artists and up and coming conjurers they were promoting. Ironically they refused the young American magician Harry Houdini a place on the bill at the Egyptian Hall in 1898, two years before his triumphant London show in 1900.

Magic found key allies in science and physics and became intrinsically linked and dependent on them. Performers such as Professor John Henry Pepper were masters of science and maths and created illusions using scientific techniques unknown to the crowds of the day 'The True History of Pepper’s Ghost by John Henry Pepper'.

Professor Pepper conjured up his famous Ghost in 1862 for an audience at the Royal Polytechnic, which was described as the "greatest scientific exploratorium of the Victorian Era". The presentation drew upon the methods of the magic lantern phantasmagoria popular from the 1790s.

Fairground showmen were quick to pick up on the Pepper's Ghost illusion, and the fairground Ghost Show emerged around 1873 with Randall Williams exhibiting at the Agricultural Hall. By the late 1880s the Ghost Show was a popular theme on the fairground where it flourished for over 20 years.

Magic and illusion became a staple part of the sideshow and famous acts like the Headless Lady and the Girl in the Goldfish Bowl developed from the principles of Pepper’s Ghost. Magicians such as John Henry Anderson, the Great Wizard of the North, were instrumental in keeping the art of magic in the forefront through incredible publicity and self-promotion.

Before its use as a venue for conjuring and illusion shows, the Egyptian Hall was popular for all types of performances, including displays of mechanical wonders such as the Euphonia, the Wonderful Talking Machine in 1848 and an appearance by Tom Thumb in 1844.

Although connected and utilised by magicians during their performance in particular the phantasmagoric professors at the end of the eighteenth century, magic lanterns featured as a stand-alone entertainment throughout the Victorian period. They were a popular feature of entertainment both in the domestic sphere and within the variety of entertainment venues that became increasingly available. Either presented as a solo act at home or accompanied by lecturers, musicians and actors the performance combined illustrated sing-along sessions, presented information about a specific subject and utilised special effects such as dissolving images and animation.

An important American magic lanternist was Joseph Boggs Beale, who incorporated it into his work as part of his publisher’s effort to present great literature, history and religion on the screen from the 1880s onwards.
In the United Kingdom, companies such as Bamforth's of Holmfirth produced millions of magic lantern slide sets which could be enjoyed in the comfort of the Victorian parlour, the schoolroom or as a weapon for the temperance society such as the Band of Hope who employed them to illustrate the perils of drink. A popular factor in the wide spread use of the magic lantern is that it was utilised as an instrument of education and religious instruction, and could therefore be shown during the Sabbath.

This combination of entertainment and education is very clear when we consider the popularity of the painted panoramas and dioramas shows in the early Victorian period. Consisting of a pictorial representation of a landscape or other scene, the panorama was either arranged on the inside of a cylindrical surface round the spectator as a centre (a cyclorama), or unrolled or unfolded and made to pass before the audience. Although they first appeared in the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century showmen utilises special effects, dissolving scenes on a huge scale combined with smoke and spectacular lighting. Their popularity continued well into the 1840s and incorporated battle scenes, romantic topography and martial and naval subjects with theatrical narratives.

See also Showmanship, Magic and Illusion and The Fairground Bioscope Shows

Further reading
• Bayer, Constance Pole. The Great Wizard of the North. Watertown, MA): R. Goulet's Magic Art Book Co (137 Spring St., Watertown 02172, 1990.
• Clarke, Sidney Wrangel. The Annals of Conjuring. Seattle: The Miracle Factory, 2001.
• Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: attention, spectacle and modern culture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.
• Dawes, Edwin A., and Arthur Setterington, The Book of Magic, London, Admiral Books, 1986.
• Dawes, Edwin A., Bailey, M (ed). Circle without end: The Magic Circle 1905-2005. London : published by The Magic Circle in association with Centre for the Magic Arts Ltd., 2005.
• Eagleman, David. Incognito: the secret lives of the brain. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012.