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