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Festive Science Drew Victorian Holiday Crowds

Festive science shows became cutting-edge events in the 19th century. Chemistry demonstrations and the like were so popular that fashionable people competed for front-row seats where they would be seen. This was particularly true during the extended holiday season when London was a center hub of activity.

Lectures, concerts and exhibitions were all popular pastimes during the holidays. But Rupert Cole at The British Society For The History Of Science (BSHS) writes that Victorians had a special relationship with festive science.

The Polytechnic Institution’s holiday lectures were gearing up by 1825 when Christmas was undergoing its modern day makeover. By 1832 the Adelaide Gallery offered fantastic shows of Festive Science.

“Their Christmas bill included performances of traditional festive oratorios – usually Handel’s Messiah or Haydn’s Creation – that featured massive projections of microscopic organisms or dramatic displays of electricity…By the mid-1800s, festive science was all the rage.” Rupert Cole

Festive science presentations developed into grand affairs that competed with operas and other theatrical performances. Some scientists became celebrities. Among their popular spectacles were experiments involving light and energy, mysteries of the human body, coal combustion, electromagnetism and electrochemistry.

What more could a person want for Christmas?

Enter “Professor” Pepper

British scientist and inventor John Henry Pepper (1821–1900) joined the Polytechnic Institute in 1848 as a lecturer and resident chemist. He was also a talented showman who drew large stylish crowds. Pepper created a Yuletide wonderland at the Polytechnic with legendary Christmas trees and evergreen decking between the collection of inventions and machines.

Under Pepper’s direction, The Royal Polytechnic Institution (1838) soon topped the Adelaide’s Festive Science shows in popularity and financial success.

Cue The Holiday Ghosts

One of the most popular shows involved the latest form of festive science–the visage of ghosts on stage. The illusion had a long history of “inventors” that dated back at least to Giovanni Battista Della Porta in the late 1500s. The modern version is most often credited to English engineer Henry Dircks’s who refined the mirror-based technique in 1858. Dircks created the illusion of a convincing ghost by projecting to the stage the image of an actor who was concealed below the stage. He called his illusion the “Dircksian Phantasmagoria”.

But it was his colleague and partner in a patent, John Henry Pepper, who became associated with the illusion.

On Christmas Eve 1862 Pepper staged the Edward Bulwer Lytton’s gothic novel, A Strange Story. It was a trial show for a select audience of scientists and journalists. When it proved a raging success, Pepper dropped his plans of explaining the optical illusion. Instead, he and Dircks advanced their patent process. Much to Dircks’ aggravation, “his” illusion became known Pepper’s Ghost. The term is used to this day.

Charles Dickens Provided Holiday Ghosts

No one created holiday ghosts like Charles Dickens. While ghost stories were popular among Victorians, Dickens launched a profitable sub-genre with A Christmas Carol (1843)—a tale teeming with ghosts.

The showman in Pepper could not resist the natural connection between his illusion and Charles Dickens’s popular Christmas works.

Pepper won permissions to stage an adaptation of the novella The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. This was Charles Dickens’s fifth and last Christmas book that was published in 1848. Like his other popular Christmas books, it is about the spirit of Christmas and featured holiday ghosts. When Pepper staged it on Christmas day 1862 it became one of the must-see hits of the holiday season.

The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain tells the story of Redlaw, a teacher of chemistry who broods over wrongs done to him and grief from his past. His phantom twin, (in the form of holiday ghosts we’ve seen in other Dickens tales) offers to erase his memory of all the sorrows and wrongs in his past. Redlaw accepts the offer. But because he can no longer remember the grief in his life, he is overcome with anger that spreads to the families around him. The only person who remains unaffected by his grief is Milly who says:

“It is important to remember past sorrows and wrongs so that you can then forgive those responsible and, in doing so, unburden your soul and mature as a human being.”

The reception for Dickens’s play, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain staged with Pepper’s Ghost launched a sub-genre of spirit-themed plays that was wildly popular for several decades.

As a Victorian footnote, the public adoption of “Pepper’s Ghost” was a thorn in Henry Dircks’s side as he watched his invention take on a new life with Pepper becoming a top celebrity scientist. This must have been a particularly bitter time for Dircks who had planned to use his work to unveil what he considered foolishness and fraud perpetrated by the Spiritualist Movement of the time.

Pepper Brought His Ghost To The Royal Family

The May 20th, 1863 edition of The Times reported that Professor Pepper shared his latest Festive Science illusion with the Royals.

“Yesterday morning, by special command. Professor Pepper had the honour of delivering his ghost lecture before their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the Prince and Princess Louis of Hesse, who were attended by the Countess of Macclesfield, Baroness Von Schenck, Major Teesdale, and Captain Westerweller. The distinguished party were received by Professor Pepper, and after being conducted round the galleries passed to the large theatre, where a commodious Royal box had been prepared for their reception. At the conclusion of the lecture, by the invitation of Professor Pepper, they went behind the scenes, and examined with much interest the machinery and appliances for producing the Polytechnic ‘ghost.’ At the conclusion, their Royal Highnesses graciously thanked the directors of the institution, and after shaking hands with Professor Pepper, retired.”

Pepper’s Ghost Haunts Us To This Day

Victorian Festive Science remains in our midst thanks to Pepper’s Ghost. The illusion or versions of it is still used in magic acts and amusement park attractions like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. And versions of it allow ghosts to appear on stage. Among them are Michael Jackson, Elvis and Tupac Shakur to name just a few.

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