Dark Times

07 02 etienne robertToday, I want to tell you about Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Robert was an artist and showman, but also a physics lecturer and a balloonist. He died on this day in 1837. I don’t usually celebrate the death of a person here, not if I like them anyway. But Robert’s career was all about death, so it seems appropriate. Robert became a stage magician who was famous for his ‘Phantasmagoria’, which means, roughly, ‘gathering of ghosts’.

Robert was born in Belgium in 1763. He studied at the university of Leuven and became a professor of physics, specialising in optics. But he also loved painting. In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue his vocation. He arrived only a couple of years after the beginning of the French Revolution and he probably witnessed the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793. This was followed by the ‘Reign of Terror’ when more that sixteen and a half thousand people were guillotined. They were dark times. Coupled with this, France was at war with Britain. Robert thought he had a fantastic idea that would really help. He proposed building a giant burning glass that could be used to set fire to the British ships. His idea was based on the myth of the burning mirrors of Archimedes, who was supposed to have used mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to set fire to a fleet of ships at Syracuse in 212 BC. I mentioned this concept, when I wrote about Roger Bacon the other day. But the French government didn’t go for it and Robert focused his talents instead on a series of lectures about optics and galvanism.

07 02 burning glass

In 1793, he had attended a magic lantern show by the illusionist Paul Philidor and he realised the potential of the medium. He studied the work of seventeenth century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who is one of the many people credited with inventing the magic lantern. The magic lantern was an early form of the slide projector, with hand painted images on glass slides. Robert added adjustable lenses and mounted his lantern on wheels. The wheels and the lenses were connected in such a way that he could move his lantern backwards and forwards, thus changing the size of the image but still keep it in focus. By back projecting the images onto a waxed gauze screen, he could make his images look as if they were rushing towards his audience. He named his device the ‘Fantascope’.

So what sort of images did he choose to show in his new machine? Well, they were all about death. He could use his lantern to raise from the dead, famous French heroes: Marat, Rousseau, Voltaire. But he did not make the same mistake as Philidor, and try to raise their lost king. Robert, being a talented artist was able to produce pretty faithful representation of the dead. He had so many slides that he could ask his audience for requests and conjure up pretty much anyone. He also made speeches to whip up his audience into a state of terror before the show had even begun and he had unseen musicians playing ghostly music. His first show was on January 23rd, 1898. Everyone was terrified, he was investigated by the authorities and closed down.

07 02 robert's balloonHe left Paris for Bordeaux for a time and it was here that he had his first balloon ride. I’m not going to mention much about his ballooning today, but he went on to conduct several experiments about the effects of altitude: the shapes of clouds, the boiling point of water, the effect of altitude on pigeons and butterflies. From 1803 to 1839 he held the altitude record after flying to a height of 23,900 ft. However, you will have noticed this picture, on the left. This is what Robert imagined, in 1804, balloons would be like in a hundred years time. If you want to know more about what all the different bits are, I can refer you to Andrew Joseph’s blog, Pioneers of Aviation, and he’ll tell you all about it.

When he returned to Paris, he discovered that his assistants had just carried on the show without him. He moved his operation to a more permanent location and he made a good choice. He moved his show to the crypt of an abandoned convent and made it even more elaborate. His audience would have to wind their way through passages and tombs filled with scary surprises before they even got to his ‘Salle de la Fantansmagorie’. They would be seated in a room lit by a single candle, which was then extinguished. Next, they where treated to the sounds of wind and thunder and the sound of a glass armonica. Then, Robert himself would begin his frightening monologue about death and the afterlife. It was along the lines of: no one knows what happens to us after we die, but I am going to show you. All light would be extinguished and the projections would begin. He used a brazier to make smoke, using sulphuric and nitric acid and, for added effect, two cups of blood. Apparitions would begin to form in the smoke above the heads of the audience. He did this by having assistants dotted about with lanterns strapped to their chests. With a more complex lantern he was able to project more than one image and make it seem to move and change. He could make an image of the Three Graces turn into skeletons or make the eyes of his images seem to move. He was able, through using a screen, to present his ghosts alongside live actors and make the two interact.

07 02 fuseli nightmare

His shows presented the popular Gothic iconography of the time. He had images based of Fuseli’s painting, ‘the Nightmare, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, The Bleeding Nun, A Witches’ Sabbath, The Witch of Endor, The Gorgon’s Head, The Opening of Pandora’s Box. He would end the evening with another rousing speech:

“I have shown you the most occult things natural philosophy has to offer, effects that seemed supernatural to the ages of credulity,’ he told the audience; ‘but now see the only real horror… see what is in store for all of you, what each of you will become one day: remember the Phantasmagoria.”

Then a large skeleton would suddenly appear in the room. Robert had the perfect audience. Many people were completely captivated by death, having seen so much of it during the Reign of Terror. Then there was the birth of Gothic literature, with novels like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and ‘Vathek‘, and corpse re-animators like Galvani and Aldini. Robert performed his show at the convent for four years and then, like Aldini, he took his show on the road, visiting northern Europe and Russia. But this was partly in order to pursue his obsession with ballooning. If you need any more evidence that Étienne-Gaspard Robert was all about death, take a look at his tomb. There is a balloon on the other side of it, but I couldn’t get a picture…

07 02 robert's tomb

An Idle Place Of Intercourse

05 07 second drury lane 1674Today I want to celebrate the opening, in 1663, of the first theatre to be built at Drury Lane in London. I say the first theatre, because it has been demolished once and burned down twice but it is the oldest theatre site in London which is still in use.

Following the execution of Charles I, the Puritans had banned all theatre because they were a serious bunch and thought it was all a bit too frivolous. They called playhouses ‘idle places of intercourse’ and declared all actors to be ‘rogues and vagabonds’. If they were caught acting they could be whipped for a first offence, and for the second treated as ‘an incorrigible rogue’, whatever that means. Charles II loved the theatre and he granted licenses to two acting companies. One of these was led by Thomas Killigrew, whose acting troupe were named the ‘King’s Company’. You can find out more about him, and what he has to do with Ken Russell’s film ‘The Devils’ here.

02 07 thomas killigrew 1650It was under Killigrew’s direction that the theatre, then called the ‘Theatre Royal on Bridges Street’, was built. Sadly, there is no picture of it, so we don’t know exactly what it was like. The drawing above is of the second theatre, which was opened in 1674. We know that it was a wooden building with semi circular tiered benches in the stalls, three semi circular galleries around the walls, a lot of green baize and it could hold at least 700 people. It had scenery which could be changed by sliding it off into the wings and sliding another into place, which was then a very new thing. Performances happened in the afternoons and it had a glazed dome to let in the light. It was not entirely weather-proof though. We know this because Samuel Pepys tells us that he and his wife were once forced to leave because of a hail storm.

Many of Killigrew’s troupe were seasoned actors. Charles Hart and Walter Clun had acted in the ‘King’s Company’ (Shakespeare’s old company) prior to the closing of the theatres in 1642. It was through this connection that Killigrew claimed the sole right to perform all of the plays that had belonged to that company which, of course, included all of Shakespeare’s plays. Much of what we know about theatre in the 1660s comes from the diaries of Samuel Pepys and we know that he didn’t care for Shakespeare. He called ‘Romeo and Juliet: “the worst that I ever heard in my life” and Midsummer Night’s Dream: “the most insipid ridiculous play”. He loved Macbeth though. Pepys was also 05 07 edward kynastonrather impressed by an actor called Edward Kynaston, who was well known for playing both male and female roles. He said Edward was ‘the loveliest lady that I ever saw in my life”. Kynaston’s ambiguous sexuality made him very popular. Ladies enjoyed taking him out in their carriages after the performance whilst he was still in costume.

The age of acting being a men only career was coming to an end though, and Drury Lane Theatre became one of the first to employ female actors. The rumours of Kynaston continuing his female role playing away from the stage was one of the things that led the king to allow female roles to be played by female performers. Nell Gwyn, who later became the kings mistress, acted there, as did Pepys friend Mary Knep. Also Margaret Hughes and Anne Marshall, both of whom have been named the first actresses on the English stage. Killigrew even staged an all female production there of his own play ‘The Parson’s Wedding’. In fact women playing male roles became terribly popular but mainly because men liked to look at their legs.

The theatre was closed, along with all other forms of public entertainment, during the time of the Great Plague in 1665 but reopened in 1666. It survived the Great Fire of London but was burnt down in 1672. Killigrew rebuilt it, bigger and better two years later. In the following years, the theatre faced a lot of upheaval. Some of it political, some of it just mismanagement. But one of Drury Lane’s actors, Charles Macklin, became very famous in 1741 after appearing as ‘Shylock’ in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. His naturalistic style was much admired and he later tutored other actors. One of his students was Samuel Foote, who I’ve mentioned elsewhere because he was a terribly interesting fellow. Another was David Garrick, who I’ve only mentioned in passing because, although he is extremely famous, he was relatively dull. He took over the theatre in 1747 and, in 1776, sold it on the Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

05 07 third drury lane 1808Sheridan employed a lot of child actors, including a young Joseph Grimaldi, who made his debut there in 1780. Grimaldi was, of course, the man who popularised the role of clown, but unfortunately you won’t find him here either as his life was rather sad and difficult. In 1791 Sheridan had the theatre demolished and rebuilt again. It was enormous. There were three tiers of galleries. In fact, it was so big that people sometimes found it rather difficult to hear what was going on and productions tended to lead heavily on visual spectacles. In 1794 there was a play that featured real water pouring down a rocky stream into a lake which was large enough to row a boat on. The water came from huge tanks in the attic that were installed at the same time as an iron safety curtain as a precaution against fire.

In the year 1800, the theatre saw an assassination attempt on King George III by a man named James Hadfield. James was not a well man at all. He believed that he could help bring about the second coming of Christ by shooting the King. In 1809, despite the safety precautions, the theatre was, once again, burned down. Sheridan was found out in the street with a glass of wine in his hand, watching it burn. When asked about it, he said: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.” The theatre was rebuilt for a fourth time in 1812 and still stands today.

05 07 burning of drury lane from westminster bridge

So, with such a long history, you might not be surprised to learn that the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane has more than its fair share of ghosts. Both Macklin and Grimaldi have been seen at the theatre. But its most famous ghost is the ‘Man in Grey’, a gentleman dressed in 18th century costume complete with powdered wig, tricorne hat and a sword. He usually appears in the fourth row of the upper circle and proceeds towards the royal box. In 1848, a skeleton was found in a walled up passageway near the box. There was a knife in his ribs.


image credit: art jarka. licensed under creative commons

Even though it is almost May, here it seems to be suddenly Winter again, so it seems like a good time for another ghost story. Today is the feast day of Saint Mark, and if you had been sitting outside your church since eleven o’clock last night until around one o’clock this morning, you might have been treated to a pretty ghoulish spectacle. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth century, many believed that if you sat in the porch of your church during the night before Saint Mark’s Day you would see a ghostly procession of all the people that would die in your parish during the following year. The ghost of a living person is called a doppelgänger, which means double walker, and it’s rarely a good thing to see one.

There is an account from Lincolnshire in the parish of Burton which dates from 1631. It is given by a Gervase Hollis, a colonel in the service of Charles I. He was later made Mayor of Grimsby and also an MP, so presumably he was not given to flights of fancy. He had the story from a Mr Rampaine, who was minister to Great Grimsby, but had once been household chaplain to Sir Thomas Monson in Burton. Two men had decided to carry out the St. Mark’s Eve vigil. It was a bright moonlit night and by around midnight they had seen nothing and were thinking of giving up.

But suddenly, all light vanished and they found they could not move. Then, they saw the approaching light of a torch. Then the minister appeared, followed by a figure in a winding sheet moving towards them. They recognised the figure as one of their neighbours. As they drew closer, the church doors flew open, the two figures went inside and the doors slammed shut behind them. The two men, who were still rooted to the spot, heard the muffled sounds of a funeral service, followed by the rattling of bones and a noise like earth being shovelled into a grave. Then all was silent. But suddenly, the figure of the minister came again, with another of their neighbours and the whole scene played over exactly as before. This happened five times. When it was all over, the moon reappeared and they found they were free to move again, which they did, quite quickly.

The next day they were both quite ill and stayed at home, but when they met up again, they compared notes. Both agreed on the identity of the first three figures, but neither recognised the infant and neither had ever seen the old man before. Their three neighbours died that year in the order that they had predicted. Then, soon after, a woman in the town gave birth to a child who died. That just left the old man. That Winter, Sir John Monson was sent a message from his friends in Cheshire. The old man who carried the message had travelled on foot over the Pennines. The weather had been terrible and he was in a bad way when he arrived. The two men immediately recognised him as the stranger they had seen at the church. After two days, he was dead.

Of course, this is a terrible superstition to have. If you had a grudge against someone, it would be really easy to just pretend you’d seen them in a Saint Mark’s Eve procession. But there is one thing that might stop you ever trying it in the first place. Once you’ve taken part in the vigil, you have to carry on doing it. Every year. For the rest of your life. If you ever fall asleep while you’re keeping watch, that will be the year that you die.

The photo above, if you’re curious, is from an installation by an art student in the Czech Republic called Jakub Hadrava. Ghosts made from plaster sitting in the pews of an abandoned church. The church was closed up in 1968, after part of the roof collapsed during a funeral service. The installation has created worldwide interest and raised enough money to have the medieval church restored to its former glory. If you want to see more, there are some lovely ones here and also a video.


04 22 florence cookToday, I want to tell you about Florence Cook. She was born in the East End of London in about 1856. I’m not sure of the date, but she died on this day in 1904. Florence was a celebrated medium who made her name contacting the dead, so today seems like an appropriate day to remember her. She was most well known for contacting a spirit guide called Katie King who had a remarkably physical presence for a spirit form beyond the grave.

As a child, Florence claimed that angels spoke to her. Then, when she was fifteen, she attended a séance held by her parents where she became the focus of ‘activity’. At first she performed at private séances and according to her own account, loud knockings were heard, objects flew around the room, a table was flung against a wall and Florence herself was lifted to the ceiling and carried over the sitters. She began to develop her abilities under the guidance of two other mediums, Frank Herne and Charles Williams. Frank had a spirit guide called John King and Florence claimed to contact his daughter Katie King.

Now I need to go back a bit and tell you more about John and Katie King. Because Frank and Florence were not the first people to contact them. Back in the 1850s, an American Spiritualist called Jonathan Koons claimed to be in touch with John King. But John King was not the name he had in life. He was actually the spirit of Sir Henry Morgan, a Welsh buccaneer who had died in 1688. He was very sorry for all the terrible things he’d done when he was alive and had returned to our earthly realm to prove the existence of the spirit world as a sort of penance. I’ve no idea why he changed his name. Anyway, John King also introduced Jonathan’s audience to his daughter Katie, the spirit of Annie Owen Morgan.

As another aside, and because I like it when I find links between my posts, Jonathan Koons was the originator of the ‘Spirit Cabinet’ that was later used to great effect by the Davenport Brothers. Their act fired the imagination of John Nevil Maskelyne who was, in turn, a big influence on Georges Méliès. The Davenport Brothers also claimed to have manifested Katie.

04 22 katie kingIn the hands of Florence, Katie did actually physically manifest herself. She walked around the room, she spoke to people, she touched them. She even allowed herself to be photographed. Katie Cook is the most photographed spirit ever. There are more photographs of Katie King than there are of Florence Cook. The two look remarkably similar. In early manifestations, only Katie’s face appeared. Florence had a home made ‘spirit cabinet’ which was made from a cupboard that was large enough for her to sit inside. She would be bound to a chair and shut inside the cupboard. There was a hole cut in the door near the top and that was where the face would appear, covered with linen. Afterwards, the door would be opened and Katie would be still tied to the chair.

Eventually, Katie appeared as a whole being, clad in white flowing robes. She could walk around the room and talk with people whilst Florence was apparently in a trance, concealed behind a curtain. On at least one occasion, Katie had allowed one of the sitters to look behind the curtain and see Florence sitting in her chair in a trance. When Florence awoke, it seems that Katie disappeared. Of course, she may have had an accomplice.

In 1873, she was exposed as a fraud by William Volkman. He grabbed hold of Katie during a séance and there was a bit of an altercation. Attempting to touch a spirit being was absolutely not done. Some of the other sitters, and perhaps the spirit herself attacked Volkman and he was left with a bloody nose and had part of his beard was torn off. Afterwards, Florence was found to be in a state of distress, but still tied to her chair. There was no sign of Katie or the clothes she had been wearing. Volkman’s accusation of fraud didn’t really stick, especially after it was discovered that he was very close friends with another medium called Mrs Guppy, who really hated Florence.

In 1874, Florence was investigated again by chemist and physicist William Crookes. She stayed at his house and was willing to be subjected to any test Crookes could devise for her. He had her wired into an electrical circuit to find out whether or not she moved from her chair. The spirit Katie allowed herself to be weighed, measured and even have her pulse taken – Yes, I was surprised she had one too. It was discovered that Katie varied in weight and height but was always taller than Florence. Crookes also took forty-four photographs of Katie. Unfortunately for us, his family destroyed most of the pictures along with the glass plate negatives after he died. Crookes had co-discovered the chemical element thallium and become rather famous, they didn’t want his reputation blackened by spiritual nonsense.

04 22 william crookes and katie kingHe did send copies to friends, but we don’t know what they are meant to show. He did sometimes have Florence dress up like Katie so he could photograph her and compare the two. All his surviving photographs certainly do bear a striking resemblance to Florence, but he was convinced that he was not being duped. Her Supporters claimed that Katie was bound to look like Florence as she was borrowing some of her energy to manifest herself. Personally, I don’t believe in spirit mediums and I don’t know what it was that convinced William Crookes that she was genuine. It may have been that he was complicit with her for reasons we don’t understand, some claim they were having an affair. It could be that Florence was just really, really good.

Katie left Florence in 1874. Florence did appear again, in 1880, with another spirit guide, but she was caught out. Katie, however had a longer career. In 1875, she was apparently manifested and photographed by Jennie and Nelson Holmes at a séance in New York. But a woman called Eliza White later claimed that she had posed for the photos. She also appeared in Winnipeg, Canada in 1930. Her most recent manifestation was in Rome in 1974.

Burning Down the House

02 27 borley rectoryWinter is almost over and the days are definitely getting a bit longer here. Soon, I’ll be able to look forward to getting home from work before sunset. But, until then, maybe there’s time for just one more ghost story. Today, I want to tell you about Borley Rectory in Essex, a Victorian mansion that was built in 1862. It was built to replace a previous rectory that had burned down in 1841. Borley Rectory became famous as the ‘most haunted house in England’. On this day in 1936, it was destroyed by a fire.

The church at Borley may date, in parts, from the twelfth century. It served a small rural community and not far away, there were the ruins of an old house called Borley Hall which had once been the seat of the Waldergrave family. A local legend spoke of a Benedictine monastery in the area and a monk there who had begun a relationship with a nun from a nearby convent. They were discovered. The monk was hanged and the nun bricked up alive in the walls of her convent. Many people claimed to have seen the ghost of the nun. In fact, she had been seen so often that, in what would become the garden of Borley Rectory, there was an area known as ‘Nun’s Walk’.

Almost from the start, people reported hearing unexplained, heavy footsteps in the house. The first incumbent of the rectory, the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull died in 1892 and his son, Harry Bull took over the living. He had a large family of fourteen children and, in 1900, four of his daughters claimed to have seen the nun in the garden. But when they tried to approach her to talk to her, she had disappeared. Others said they had witnessed a coach driven by two headless horsemen.

The second Reverend Bull died in 1928 and Reverend Guy Eric Smith moved in. His wife was clearing out a cupboard in the house when she came across a brown paper package. Opening it, she found a human skull. After that, there were a number of incidents. More footsteps, servants bells ringing even though they had been disconnected and lights appearing in the windows of rooms that were empty. Mrs Smith thought she saw a 12 27 harry pricehorse-drawn carriage. In 1929, the couple wrote to a newspaper called the Daily Mirror about their experiences and asked to be put in touch with the Society for Psychical Research. They sent a reporter and also arranged for a psychical researcher called Harry Price to visit them. As soon as he arrived, new phenomena appeared. Stones were thrown and spirit messages were tapped out on the frame of a mirror. These sort of occurrences ceased as soon as Harry left the property. The Smiths left Borley about a month later.

The new Rector, Lionel Foyster, was a distant cousin of the Bulls. He moved in with his wife Marianne and their adopted daughter Adelaide in 1930. Lionel Foyster kept a record of the strange events that happened between then and October 1935 which he sent to Harry Price. Bells rung mysteriously, windows were smashed, stones and bottles were thrown. Writing appeared on the wall that seemed to appeal to Mrs Foyster for help. Adelaide was locked in a room that had no key and Marianne reported that she had been thrown from her bed. Reverend Foyster tried twice to conduct an exorcism, but it was no help. On the first occasion, he was struck in the shoulder by a fist-size stone. These incidents made their way into the Daily Mirror where they attracted the attention of several psychic researchers. The Foysters left Borley in 1935 when Lionel became ill.

Borley Rectory remained empty until 1937, when Harry Price took out a year long rental on the property. He gathered a team of forty-eight researchers who stayed there, mostly at weekends, and reported anything unusual. In 1938, the daughter of one of his researchers conducted a séance in Streatham, London and seemed to make contact with two spirits connected to Borley Rectory. One was a French nun called Marie Lairre who had left her order to marry a member of the Waldergrave family from the now ruined Borley Hall. But she had been murdered in a building that once stood on the site of the rectory. The second was a spirit called Sunex Amures who told her that he would burn down Borley Rectory that very night, March 27th 1938, and that the bones of a murdered person would be found. This did not happen.

02 27 ruined rectoryOn February 27th 1939, the new owner of the Rectory, Captain W H Gregson was unpacking some boxes in the hall when he upset a lighted oil lamp. The fire spread quickly and the house was badly damaged. Insurance investigators concluded that the fire had been started deliberately. A local woman claimed to have seen the nun looking out of one of the building’s upper floor windows during the fire. The house was left a ruin. In 1943, Harry Price returned and conducted a dig in the cellar of the rectory. He found two bones supposed to be that of a young woman. They were buried, with ceremony, in a churchyard, but not at Borley. They refused the remains because they believed them to be the bones of a pig.

Now, I need to tell you that there was no written information about the hauntings at Borley Rectory prior the the involvement of Harry Price. Someone who remembered the Bull family, Louis Mayerling, tells us how much Harry Bull’s fourteen children all loved the story of the ghost nun and exploited it at every opportunity. They claimed to have a magic piano that was played by spirits, but in fact it was one of the children hidden behind it, plucking at the strings with a poker. They found they could set off the servant’s bells by prodding at them through a nearby window. No doubt later occupants found they could do the same.

Certainly the discovery of a skull in a cupboard is a bit weird, but once you realise that the rectory garden had once been part of the cemetery, it’s exactly the sort of thing that might have been dug up by accident and held on to as a curiosity. The Smiths had written to the newspaper hoping that all the phenomena could be properly investigated and reasonably explained. Instead, they got Harry Price, who they rather suspected was responsible for the increased activity during his visit. Price did very well financially when he wrote two books about the hauntings at Borley Rectory. Marianne Foyster later admitted that she had faked some of the psychic phenomena to cover up the fact that she was having an affair with their lodger, Frank Peerless. Peerless himself probably faked some of the others. The house’s final owner, Captain Gregson, had bought the property for £500, but he had it insured for £3500.

Until the house fell down completely, the ghostly nun was still sometimes seen through the windows of the upper storey, even though there was no longer any floor there for her to stand on. With so many people having obviously faked the psychic evidence, it is now impossible to know whether the most haunted house in England was every really haunted at all.

Life in the Shadows

12 02 phantasmagoriaToday I am assigning a birthday to somebody who doesn’t have one. Yesterday I mentioned Paul Philidor who first brought Madame Tussaud and her waxworks to London. I don’t know when he was born, only that it was some time in the eighteenth century, I don’t know quite when he died, it was either 1828 or 1829. I don’t even think Paul Philidor was his real name.

The conjuring of ghostly apparitions, with the aid of a projector of some sort, for pleasure and profit, had been happening since at least the middle of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, other elements were being incorporated and the séance with lantern show was becoming something of an art form. One of its leading proponents was Johann Georg Schröpfer, who also had no recorded date of birth, so I might as well tell you about him too. Schröpfer was an occultist who presented himself as a necromancer who could raise the spirits of the dead. Beginning in 1768, he gave seances in his café in Leipzig. His was a multi-sensory experience. He would begin by giving his audience a special punch to drink. I don’t know what was in it. Then they would be taken into a darkened room in which there was a black altar with candles placed in skulls. They would be made to stand inside a magic circle. Schröpfer would light incense and begin his invocations. The lights would go out and the whole room would start to shake. Then his audience would see ghostly images appear, in the smoke of burning incense, which would speak. Of course, Schröpfer had a whole team behind the scenes to help him produce his startling effects. Though this does not seem to have prevented him from starting to believe in his own powers. He went a bit strange and his life did not end well.

By the 1780s, men of a more scientific persuasion had begun to publish books debunking Schröpfer’s work and exposing his methods. Although they were intended for scientific study, they also served as ‘how to’ handbooks for anyone else who wanted a go.

Paul Philidor was a follower of Schröpfer’s methods. We first hear of him in Berlin in 1789 where he was giving séances using magic lanterns and conjuring tricks to persuade his audiences that he had supernatural powers. He was exposed as a fraud and two years later he was in Vienna where his show ran for a year. He called his apparitions ‘Schröpferesque Geisterscheinings’ in homage to the man who had inspired him.

In 1793, he turned up in Paris. France was then several years into the Revolution and people were particularly interested in seeing ghosts of their martyred heroes. By now he was no longer claiming that the ghosts were real. In his introductory speech he said “I am neither priest nor magician; I do not wish to deceive you; but I will astonish you.” Despite this, his performance did still seem to be quite unsettling, as he was able to back project his images onto a screen which was not seen by the audience, as it was lowered after the lights went out. By moving his magic lantern away from the screen he was able to make it seem as though the spirit was rushing at the crowd. He also employed more that one slide at a time to he could make the ghosts seem to move and change.

It seems Philidor misjudged his audience though, as he got into trouble for depicting Robespierre as a devil and make it seem (though he swore it was an accident) as if the spirit of Louis XIV was rising towards heaven. As this was pretty much in the middle of the reign of terror, only months after the king and queen had been guillotined, it didn’t go down too well and Philidor disappeared pretty sharpish. He may have been imprisoned and then liberated by the same Dr. Curtius who rescued Marie Tussaud.

Whatever happened, it is likely the same man who arrived in London in 1801 calling himself Paul de Philipsthal. He set up a permanent show at the Lyceum Theatre called ‘Phantasmagoria’. As well as his projections there was an exhibition of automata including a mechanical peacock, something called ‘the beautiful cossack’ and a ‘self defending chest’ which shot anyone who tried to open the lid. The following year, he exhibited alongside Madame Tussuad at the Lyceum. I’m not quite sure what happened to him after that. Philidor is a rather shadowy figure, who disappears and reappears not unlike his ghostly projections. It’s been rather difficult to tell which stories belong to him and which to his predecessor, Schröpfer or his successor, Robertson, but I hope I’ve done him justice here.12 02 phantasmagoria

Ghost Story

10 15 sir john sherbrookeNow that it’s the middle of October, the nights are really starting to draw in here, so it’s probably time for a ghost story. This one concerns two young officers of the British army who were serving with their regiment in Nova Scotia in 1785. They were Captain John Coape Sherbrooke and Lieutenant George Wynyard. These two friends, unlike their fellow officers, liked to spend their free time reading rather than carousing. I don’t have a picture of Wynyard, but this is Sherbrooke, later Sir John Sherbrooke, Leiutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.

On the evening of October 15th, 1785 they were in Wynyard’s parlour, sitting beside the fire and drinking coffee. The Barracks where they were stationed were newly built and it’s important to the story that you know there were only two doors in this room. One led into a corridor and the other into Wynyard’s bedroom. There was no other exit from the bedroom and its window was closed. Sherbrooke looked up and saw, standing by the door into the corridor, a tall, very thin, very pale young stranger. He wondered where this stranger had come from and drew his friend’s attention to their guest. When Wynyard saw the man he was clearly agitated. Sherbrooke said later: “I have heard of a man’s being as pale as death, but I never saw a living face assume the appearance of a corpse, except Wynyard’s at that moment.” Wynyard was unable to speak and Sherbrooke also kept silent as they watched the figure walk slowly across the room and into the bedroom. As it did so, it met the eyes of Wynyard with a look of affection and sorrow. As soon as it had disappeared from view Wynyard recovered the power of speech and seized his friend by the arm. “Great God!” he said “my brother.” His brother, you must understand, was not stationed with them in Nova Scotia and there was no way it could have been him. Sherbrooke was sure they must be the victims of a prank and led his friend into the bedroom so they could talk to the man. They were surprised to find themselves in an empty room. The figure had vanished.

Another friend, Ralph Gore helped them search the room but nothing was found. Sherbrooke was still sure it was some sort of trick, but Wynyard knew what he had seen. The three decided not to mention anything to their comrades but Wynyard naturally became concerned over the fate of his brother. Their post was an isolated one, with the only news from England arriving by ship. Also they were cut off by ice from the outside world for many months and the story eventually came out. Everyone was waiting for news of Wynyard’s brother. When mail did get through, they would ask if there was any letters for Wynyard before they asked for their own correspondence. In vain, they scanned the newspapers they were sent for any mention of George Wynyard’s brother. Then a letter arrived addressed to Sherbrooke. He opened it over supper in the mess hall, read it in silence and then taking Wynyard with him he left the room. They were gone for an hour. Sherbrooke returned alone and the other men were afraid to ask him what news the letter contained. After a long silence he said quietly: “Wynyard’s brother is no more.” the first line of his letter read: “Dear John, break to your friend, Wynyard, the death of his favourite brother” he had died on the very day, at the very hour that the two men had seen his spirit pass through the apartment.

Several years later, Sherbrooke was back in London. While walking in Piccadilly he saw a man across the way who was the very image of the spectre he had seen in Wynyard’s room. Still expecting to find a rational explanation for the incident he introduced himself to the man and explained the story, expecting the man to admit that he had been the one who had tricked them. The man was, he said, very pleased to meet Sherbrooke, but they had never met before and he had never been out of England. He was however, another of George Wynyard’s brothers.

Getting Away With Murder

Today’s post is about an unusual court case, and it starts with a murder that happened on this day in 1749 in Braemar, a remote area of Aberdeenshire. The victim was an English sergeant called Arthur Davis. This happened less than ten years after the Jacobite uprising. Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson to the deposed king, James II, had tried and failed to regain the throne from the Hanoverians for the Scottish royal house of Stuart. So it was understandable that a single English soldier, lost and separated from his regiment, might meet with some animosity from the highlanders.

No one knew what had become of Davis for almost five years, but in 1754, two men; Duncan Terig and Alexander Bain MacDonald were put on trial for his murder. It was known that Davis had on his person a fowling piece (a shotgun) and some rings which the two men were known to have among their possessions. It seemed that robbery was a likely motive for the murder.

But then the court heard evidence from Alexander MacPherson, a young farm labourer. MacPherson spoke no other language but Gaelic and needed an interpreter. His account of the murder had come from an unusual source, the ghost of the murdered man. He had been in bed in his cottage, when a figure appeared and asked MacPherson to follow him out of doors. Thinking it was his neighbour, a man named Farquharson, he did as he was asked. But once outside, the apparition explained that he was the ghost of Arthur Davis and asked him to go and find his mortal remains and bury them. He would find them, the ghost said, hidden in a place called the Hill of Christie, and he must take his friend Farquharson to help him.

The next day he had gone to investigate and found the bones of a human body with much of the flesh decayed, but he did not bury it. A few days later the ghost came to trouble him again. He was angry with MacPherson for breaking his promise. The witness asked the ghost who had killed him and he replied with the names of the prisoners at the bar. After that he had asked his friend to help him bury the body. When Farquharson was called to give evidence, he told the same story.

MacPherson’s story of the ghost was further corroborated by a woman called Isabel Machardie whose bed was in the same room. She had woken to see a naked figure come into the room. It had been stooped over and moved in such a frightening way that she had pulled the covers over her head. Unfortunately, even though there was other evidence against the accused, the appearance of a ghost in the testimonies cast an air of doubt over the proceedings. The defence questioned MacPherson on which language the ghost had used to communicate his information. He replied that he had spoken in perfect Gaelic. The council for the defence then pointed out that that was pretty good considering he was the ghost of an English sergeant. The jury found in favour of the defendants and they were set free.

It is possible that MacPherson was using the excuse of a ghost to impart information without seeming to personally incriminate his fellow countrymen. But that does not explain the corroborative evidence of Isabel Machardie, or the fact that the events referred to had happened three years before two men were formally accused in court.