Phantasmagoria: How Étienne-Gaspard Robert terrified Paris for science

Scientists are so often imagined to be bland and unimaginative, slaving away at research and taking away the joy of nature.  I’m no longer so irritated by this perception as I used to be, but rather surprised by it: going through the history of science, there are countless colorful characters whose personalities and activities almost defy description.

A great example of such a character is Étienne-Gaspard Robert (1763-1837), a Belgian physics teacher who was also a pioneer of ballooning and, of interest in this post, a stage magician known as “Robertson.”  Using his knowledge of physics and optics, Robertson perfected the optical stage illusion known as “Phantasmagoria,” which he used both to educate and terrify the Parisian public!

His activities were succinctly described in an 1855 biographical article (to be called BA1855 in this post):

He was a charmer who charmed wisely,– who was a born conjurer, inasmuch as he was gifted with a  predominant taste for experiments in natural science,– and he was useful man enough in an age of superstition to get up fashionable entertainments at which spectres were to appear and horrify the public, without trading on the public ignorance by any false pretence.

Robertson’s exploits could fill up several books — indeed, he filled two himself with his own memoirs!  Here we will take a look at some highlights of the remarkable man’s life, focusing particularly on his optical endeavors — and his phantoms!

Étienne-Gaspard Robert was born in the town of Liège in Belgium, as the son of a rich merchant.  Even at an early age he showed an interest in the macabre that foreshadowed his later career; from his Memoirs (translated from the French):

Who has not believed in the devil and werewolves in his early years! I confess frankly, I believed in the devil, in evocations, in enchantments, in infernal pacts, and even in the  brooms of witches; I thought an old woman, my neighbor, was, as everyone assured, in regular commerce with Lucifer. I envied his power and his relationships; I locked myself in a room to cut off the head of a rooster and force the prince of demons to show himself to me; I waited for seven to eight hours, I molested, insulted, jeered that he did not dare to appear: “If you exist, I cried, slapping my table, get out of where you are, and lets see your horns, or I deny, I say that you’ve never been.” It was not fear, as we have seen, that made me believe in his power, but the desire to share it to also operate magical effects.

Portrait of Robertson (also known as Stephan Kaspar Robertson), c. 1801.  (via bildindex)

Portrait of Robertson (also known as Stephan Kaspar Robertson), c. 1801. (via bildindex)

As a young man, Robert also demonstrated a keen interest in science.  After returning from a course in philosophy in Louvain, he struck up a friendship with a local optical instrument maker named Monsieur Villette.  From Villette he learned optics, and developed a curiosity to extend his studies into other disciplines.  Robert built himself an electricity-generating machine to experiment with, and also bred and studied insects.  He was also a skilled artist, and ended up making many detailed drawings of his specimens.

In what is a rather familiar story in the biographies of early scientists, Robert’s parents wanted him to take up a career as a priest.  Etienne himself, however, was drawn towards a career in painting, and his friend Monsieur Villette suggested that he go to Paris, where he would be able to satisfy both his artistic and scientific interests.

One event on the horseback ride to Paris is worth noting.  From BA1855 again:

Among the various things noted by M. Robertson upon the way, we shall observe only the device of a village conjuror inhabiting a boggy district not very far from Notre Dame de Liesse.  He would cause, he said, the spirit of any dead person to appear at night out in the open country.  Whoever desired to call a friend back from the spirit world had only to meet the conjuror at night upon the moor with staff and lantern.  The staff was to be stuck into the ground and lantern set down beside it: while he who would see the ghost knelt with his back to them and said a paternoster. Then he turned round, took up his staff again, and out of hole which it had made in the ground the spirit arose, clothed in fire-that is to say, a little stream of inflammable gas rose, which was instantly ignited by the lantern.

This act of conjuring showed to the young Robertson how easily people could be duped into believing in the supernatural if they were ignorant of science, and this observation would play a great role in his future career.

Paris in 1789 was a seeming land of opportunity but also one of danger.  The bloody French Revolution would begin that year, and Robertson would have the grim fortune to be on hand to see some of the last moments of Madame du Barry as well as Marie Antoinette.  Before this, however, Robertson made headway into Paris society, first working as a cameo artist and then as a tutor to the children of nobility.  The brother of one of his clients was proficient in mathematics, and was kind enough to teach Robertson this skill while Robertson taught his nephew.  At the same time, Robertson began to attend physics lectures, first with one Monsieur Brisson and later, when he had the funds to pay, with the celebrated Monsieur Charles, who was evidently the Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day.

The French Revolution led to many dangers for Robertson, especially since he was teaching the son of a noblewoman, Madame Chevalier, when violence erupted.  He ended up staying with the family throughout the darker times, helping them surreptitiously sell family possessions to survive.  Eventually, though, his own weak constitution led to ill health, and he returned to his native Liège to recuperate.

Even with ill health, though, Robertson could not remain idle.  Intrigued by the classic story of Archimedes’ burning mirror igniting enemy ships, Robertson undertook to design his own version of the device.  He concocted a simple method by which different segments of the mirror could be adjusted quickly and easily by a single trained person to create the burning effect.  He showed it to the officials of his province, and they sent him back to Paris to present his discovery there.

Robertson's design for a simple burning mirror, via his memoires.

Robertson’s design for a simple burning mirror, via his Memoires.

His invention was well-received by the Parisian scientists, including the aforementioned Monsieur Charles, and Robertson went off expecting to hear some further word regarding the mirror’s development and implementation.  He never received this word.  Robertson no longer cared, however, because his active mind had turned itself to a new scientific and artistic endeavor: the principle of a “supernatural” light and optics show known as phantasmagoria, which he had seen a crude performance of some time earlier.

Robertson delved almost fanatically into the study of optics and the supernatural, concocting not only novel optical devices but a set of macabre images and stories to be presented by them.  Armed with these, he performed his first show at the Pavillon de l’Echiquier in Paris on the 23rd of January, 1798.  For a description of the show itself, I turn to a contemporary account by one Poultier, as recounted in Fulgence Marion’s 1871 book, The Wonders of Optics:

A decemvir of the republic has said that the dead return no more, but go to Robertson’s exhibition and you will soon be convinced of the contrary, for you will see the dead returning to life in crowds. Robertson calls forth phantoms, and commands legions of Spectres. In a well-lighted apartment in the Pavillon de l’Echiquier I found myself seated a few evenings since, with some sixty or seventy people. At seven o’clock a pale thin man entered the room where we were sitting, and having extinguished the candles he said: ‘ Citizens and gentlemen, I am not one of those adventurers and impudent swindlers who promise more than they can perform. I have assured the public in the Journal de Paris that I can bring the dead to life, and I shall do so. Those of the company who desire to see the apparitions of those who were dear to them, but who have passed away from this life by sickness or otherwise, have only to speak, and I shall obey their commands.’ There was a moment’s silence, and a haggard looking man, with dishevelled hair and sorrowful eyes, rose in the midst of the assemblage and exclaimed, ‘As I have been unable in an official journal to re-establish the worship of Marat, I should at least be glad to see his shadow.’ Robertson immediately threw upon a brasier containing lighted coals, two glasses of blood, a bottle of vitriol, a few drops of aquafortis, and two numbers of the Journal des Hommes Libres, and there instantly appeared in the midst of the smoke caused by the burning of these substances, a hideous livid phantom armed with a dagger and wearing a red cap of liberty. The man at whose wish the phantom had  been evoked seemed to recognise Marat, and rushed forward to embrace the vision, but the ghost made a frightful grimace and disappeared. A young man next asked to see the phantom of a young lady whom he had tenderly loved, and whose portrait he showed to the worker of all these marvels. Robertson threw on the brasier a few sparrow’s feathers, a grain or two of phosphorus, and a dozen butterflies. A beautiful woman, with her bosom uncovered and her hair floating about her, soon appeared, and smiled on the young man with the most tender regard and sorrow. A gravelooking individual sitting close by me suddenly exclaimed ‘Heavens! it’s my wife come to life again,’ and he rushed from the room, apparently fearing that what he saw was not a phantom.

Robertson was apparently well-armed with images to show at least a passable approximation of whatever the audience might desire to see, within reason.

A Swiss asked to see the shade of William Tell. The phantom of the great archer was evoked with apparently as much ease as the others. Delille, who was present, called for Virgil, whose Georgics he had lately translated. The poet appeared, having in his hand a laurel crown, which he held out to his French commentator. Many other equally extraordinary apparitions were shown at the will of various individuals in the audience, and towards the end of the evening Robertson showed his judgment, and under very difficult circumstances. A royalist who was present asked for the phantom of Louis XVI., the appearance of which would no doubt have raised a tumult amongst so many redhot Republicans, had not Robertson replied that before the 18th Fructidor, the day on which the French republic declared that royalty was abolished for ever, he had had a receipt for bringing dead kings to life again, but that same day he lost it, and feared that he should never recover it again.

Curiously, it seems that even the threat of Louis XVI’s ghost appearing was troubling to the nascent French Republic, and authorities shut down the show immediately.  The ban did not last, however, and soon Robertson had moved his performance to a nearby convent which possessed ample space for the crowds he had gathered.

An illustration of the phantasmagoria itself, taken from Robertson’s own Memoires, is shown below.  Note the delightful hysteria amongst the audience members: crying, panic, swords drawn, and one person who even appears to be aiming a pistol at the apparitions (or who is perhaps Robertson himself pointing out his horrors).

Robertson's Phantasmagoria, from his Memoires.

Robertson’s Phantasmagoria, from his Memoires.

Robertson’s shows were hardly limited to simple apparitions appearing and disappearing.  Over the course of four years of performances in Paris, followed by shows worldwide, he came up with a variety of grisly stories to depict in light.  His Memoires list some of the other scenes in his repertoire (translated by me from French):

Preparation of the Sabbath. A clock strikes midnight: a witch, her nose in a book, raises her arm three times. The moon descends, is placed in front of her, and becomes the color of blood; the witch strikes her wand and cuts it in half. She starts to raise her left hand for the third time; cats, bats, skulls flutter about with fire-wisps. In the middle of a magic circle one reads these words: DEPARTURE FOR THE SABBATH. In comes a woman astride a broom and rising in the air; a demon, incredibly on a broom, and many figures follow. Two monks appear with the cross, then a hermit, for exorcism, and everything disappears.

Convent of St. Bruno. In the monastery which St. Bruno was the superior, they wanted to canonize a monk who had been long regarded as a saint. One day when they were gathered around his grave for the invocation, the tomb opens, out comes flames, and the monk appears. He admits that far from deserving to be sanctified, he was always of an extremely bad conduct, and he is damned forever. He disappears in the middle of the demons.

A gravedigger, with a lantern, looking for treasure in an abandoned temple; he opens a tomb, there is a skeleton, whose head is still adorned with a jewel; when he tries to remove it, the dead man makes a move and opens his mouth; the gravedigger drops dead of fright. A rat was housed in the skull.

Robertson was not above using famous literary, historical, or artistic works in his shows.  For example, he used Hans Holbein’s 1538 series of woodcuts “The Dance of Death” as a series of images, such as The Solider battling with Death.


Holbein’s The Soldier. (Via La Mort Dans L’art)

Enough grisly stories existed in literature to provide Robertson with phantasmagorical fodder:

Macbeth. The king is with presented Macbeth; he is received with demonstrations of respect for a subject. Macbeth’s wife, driven by ambition, presses to kill the king; he is undecided. His wife goes to find three witches who come and promise him the throne: he no longer hesitates, and kills the king. Appearance of the shadow of vengeance and punishment of Macbeth.

Robertson played his shows very straight, and treated them during the performance as genuine supernatural phenomena.  During his heyday, he kept the secrets of his phantasmagoria closely guarded, and only his close assistants learned its workings.  However, he was always very clear in his closing remarks that the spectacle was the result of science, not sorcery — though not without ending on a macabre note!  From Wonders of Optics:

Robertson generally ended his entertainment with an address something like the following:-

“We have now seen together the wonderful mysteries of the phantasmagoria. I have unveiled to you the secrets of the priests of Memphis. I have shown you every mystery of optical science; you have witnessed scenes that in the ages of credulity would have been considered supernatural. You have, perhaps, many of you, laughed at what I have shown you, and the gentler portion of my audience have possibly been terrified at many of my phantoms; but I can assure you, whoever you may be, powerful or weak, strong or feeble, believers or atheists, that there is but one truly terrible spectacle- the fate which is reserved for us all ;” and at that instant a grisly skeleton was seen standing in the middle of the hall.

Depiction of phantasmagoria, from Marion's Wonders of Optics.

Depiction of phantasmagoria, from Marion’s Wonders of Optics.

So how did Robertson manage to terrify Paris with optics?  How could he make scenes that, from the descriptions above, were not simply static but included some degree of motion?

The phantasmagoria is built around an exceedingly simple device that was known in its day as a “magic lantern“, which was simply a primitive version of a slide projector!

A magic lantern demonstration, from Wonders of Optics.

A magic lantern demonstration, from Wonders of Optics.

The creation of the magic lantern has been attributed to several people in the 1650s, including optical scientist Christiaan Huygens and German Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher. It did not take long for a variety of charlatans to apply the new projection device to simulate ghosts, demons and other supernatural entities.

Robertson modified and perfected the use of the magic lantern for illusion.  So what distinguishes a “magic lantern show” from “phantasmagoria”?  First, the slides for phantasmagoria are entirely black except for the image to be projected, making them look more ghostly.  Robertson, a gifted artist, painted his own slides, and was able to give them a wonderfully diabolical appearance.


Next, instead of displaying images on an obvious fixed background like a wall, project them onto smoke or, as Robertson did, a semi-transparent screen.  The ghosts and demons will then seem to hover in midair.  Robertson arranged a screen between the projector and the audience, and wrote detailed instructions in his Memoires on the size of the room he used.


The magic lantern itself was improved significantly by Robertson, and he patented his own version known as the “Fantoscope”.  An illustration of the device and its detailed optics is shown below.  A lamp is backed by a parabolic reflector which forces most of the light into a parallel beam that goes through the lens arrangement.  The slot for slides to be inserted can be seen at the rear of the optics, and in the middle is a diaphragm of controllable size, allowing the user to regulate the amount of light passing through it.

Fantoscope main box and detail, via Wonders of Optics.

Fantoscope main box and detail, via Wonders of Optics.  Inset detail shows the slot for inserting slides as well as the adjustable aperture for controlling light intensity.

One of Robertson’s simplest and most effective improvements was to place the entire Fantoscope onto wheels, allowing it to be moved forward and backward easily.  This, combined with the diaphragm, could be used to create the illusion of a spirit rapidly coming closer.  With the diaphragm mostly closed and the Fantoscope close to the screen, the audience would see a small, faint image of a spirit, which would appear to them as if at a great distance.  By pulling the Fantoscope away from the screen and opening the diaphragm, the spirit would get rapidly larger and brighter, terrifying the audience with its approach.

Crude animation could be done by the use of multiple slides in a single projector.  A pair of Robertson’s surviving slides include the face of a phantom and a separate slide for the phantom’s eyes, which could therefore be shifted about on the face, giving the appearance of unholy life.

Multiple projectors could also be used, both for preparing animations of a scene or for projecting images onto multiple surfaces at once, including the ceiling.  Triple lanterns were eventually sold commercially for the purposes of dissolving between multiple scenes; Robertson would have used a similar strategy for telling his phantasmagorical stories.

1886 advertisement for a "triple lantern," via Wikipedia.

1886 advertisement for a “triple lantern,” via Wikipedia.

Robertson invented his own tricks that were completely independent of the magic lantern, as well, sometimes by accident.  From Wonders of Optics:

One of Robertson’s most famous delusions was the “Dance of Demons,” an effect he discovered quite accidentally. One evening, while experimenting with the phantasmagoria, he suddenly found himself in the dark, when two persons, each bearing a light, crossed the room on the other side of the screen. A little window which happened to be between the lights and the screen, immediately threw its double image on the cloth, and the method of multiplying shadows was discovered.

With this “Dance of Demons” or “Dance of the Sorcerers,” multiple images could be put into  motion at the same time, circling about each other or “leapfrogging” in a playful dance.

The "Dance of the Sorcerors," from Wonders of Optics.

The “Dance of the Sorcerors,” from Wonders of Optics.

Here is Robertson’s own diagram of the “Dance,” from his Memoires.

Robertson's sketch of the "Dance of the Sorcerors."

Robertson’s sketch of the “Dance of the Sorcerors.”

In addition to the optical tricks, Robertson used sound and psychology to enhance the terrifying experience.  Sound effects would accompany the performance, including voices of the spirits produced by Robertson and his assistants.  His choice of an abandoned, decaying convent as the location of his shows helped add to the macabre atmosphere.

Robertson was not able to maintain secrecy for his phantasmagorical techniques for long.  In 1799, two of his assistants left his employ to start their own show in town; Robertson sued, and in the course of the lawsuit all of his tricks were revealed to an amused public.  Soon competing shows cropped up throughout Europe.  Robertson might have been lost in the crowd if he had not hired a first-rate ventriloquist named Fitzjames, who brought a new level of realism to the shows that his competitors could not match.

Étienne-Gaspard Robert was therefore a pioneer in exposing the science behind supernatural phenomena to the public, much like Harry Houdini would be after him.  In fact, the copy of Robertson’s Memoires that I read from this post was scanned from Harry Houdini’s personal copy!

Robertson is known best for his phantasmagoria now, but he did much more throughout his life.  He made 59 balloon ascents in his lifetime, including an altitude record in 1803, at a time when ballooning was in its infancy and highly dangerous; he also made scientific observations on many of these flights.  Robertson also continued his interest in electrical experiments, and he actually played a key role in introducing the discoveries of Alessandro Volta — such as the invention of the battery — to Parisian scientists.  As written in BA1855:

Volta gratified M. Robertson with friendship, admired the beauty of his instruments ; and after his return to Italy, wrote for some like them. Robertson, the conjuror, was the only man whom Volta found in Paris not entirely ignorant of his discoveries.

Perhaps one of the best indications of Robertson’s influence and intriguing character is the identity of the author of the short biographical sketch we’ve called BA1855.  The article, “Robertson, Artist in Ghosts,” appeared in the January 27, 1855 issue of the journal Household Words, which was written by none other than the great author Charles Dickens!

Robertson was one of many great scientists who sought to beat back the ignorance and superstition of his day by using his science to entertain as well as educate.  He is, in a very real sense, the forefather of all those today who seek to bring science to a larger popular audience.  For that, at the very least, he deserves to be remembered and acknowledged by scientists today, as well as all those who believe in bringing scientific knowledge to the public.

Update: Want to see what phantasmagoria slides looked like?  Check out this link.

Detail of Robertson's gravesite in Paris, France. (Via Wikipedia)

Detail of Robertson’s gravesite in Paris, France. (Via Wikipedia)

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5 Responses to Phantasmagoria: How Étienne-Gaspard Robert terrified Paris for science

  1. Pingback: The Giants’ Shoulders #56 | The Dispersal of Darwin

  2. Chris says:

    Great post!

  3. Pingback: Phantasmagoria – the18th Century horror show | The Haunted Palace

  4. Pingback: Phantasmagoria – The Eighteenth Century Horror Show | The Haunted Palace

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