Pepper’s last optical illusion: metempsychosis

A month ago, I shared the lengthy, odd and sometimes dramatic history of the illusion commonly known as “Pepper’s ghost,” which I believe is more properly called the “Pepper-Dircks ghost.”  In researching this post, I uncovered a wealth of fascinating information and trivia related to Pepper, Dircks, and their work, which continues to serve as fodder for posts.

For instance: “the ghost” is not the only optical illusion that John Henry Pepper (1821-1900) developed! Much later in his life, when the ghost had lost some of its novelty, Pepper worked on and patented a clever new illusion, which he called “metempsychosis.”

So what is metempsychosis?  In this post, we take a look!

Our source is again Pepper’s 1890 book The True History of Pepper’s Ghost, which we show the cover of again below, simply because it is so cool.


This book appeared some 30 years after the invention of “the ghost.” In the meantime, Pepper had used his fame to travel the United States and Canada in the 1870s, putting on shows in both countries.  From there, we let Pepper himself tell the story:

Since the ghost was produced at the Polytechnic years ago, the author has visited America, and seen not only the chief cities of the United States of America, but also those of patriotic Canada; and about ten years ago, paying a casual visit to Messrs. Walker, the eminent organ builders, he enquired of Mr. James Walker what he had done with a model shown him during the height of the popularity of the ghost, by which an empty glass goblet, or one full of water, was gradually filled with, or changed into, wine (or coloured water resembling it), thus unwittingly and apparently embodying or putting into an illustrated form the miracle of the conversion of water into wine.

I was too busy and too well paid at the time to think of a new illusion, but I praised it much, and said if not confined to too small stage limits, it was certainly as good, if not better, than the ghost illusion.

It is noteworthy that the new illusion, like “Pepper’s ghost,” was originally invented by someone else and then perfected and popularized by Pepper.

The time had now arrived when the London world was ready for something new (as commercial men would say) in the ghost line, and although Mr. James Walker, with the modesty of a truly scientific man, disclaimed the merit due to his invention, he did at last, at my request, throw himself, with the author, heart and soul into the production of the new illusion, which we called Metempsychosis.

By this point, the ghost had been on display for some 15 years, and the shows involving it were not as popular as they had been;  Pepper was keen to present something new to the public.  He took out a joint patent with Walker on the illusion.  Unlike the Pepper-Dircks ghost, however, it seems the partners remained on good and mutually profitable terms.

“Metempsychosis” is seemingly a merging of “metamorphosis” — transformation — and “psychosis” — distorted reality.  It is easiest to see what this means by describing the initial shows, which were presented at the Royal Polytechnic in 1879, the same place that the ghost had made his appearance in 1862.

The entertainment opened with a vacant stage, disclosing a sort of inner apartment about twelve feet square, tastefully upholstered, and closed by a curtain which could be lowered at pleasure, without interfering with the great roller and white curtain upon which Dissolving Views were shown.  The author’s adopted son, for he never had any children of his own, was now seen walking through the inner apartment to the foot-lights, where he bowed and, addressing the audience, had hardly got as far as the words, “Ladies and Gentlemen,–I am sorry to inform you that something has detained Professor Pepper—” when my voice was heard crying out: “Stop, stop; I am here!” and, appearing out of nothing and without the aid of trap doors or descent by the help of copper wires, the author stood in the midst, and bowed his acknowledgments for the hearty greeting kindly given him by his audience.

In short: Pepper appeared in the middle of the stage, not as a ghost, but seemingly whole and in the flesh.  The rest of the show involved transformations of objects into other objects:

The entertainment now proceeded, and, after apologizing for the gloom he was about to cast upon the meeting by the harassing story he was about to relate, finally stated that his subject would be those “fearful bags of mystery” called “sausages,” remarking incidentally that though, thanks to Government analysts, many persons had heard of the examination and analyses of this dietetic refresher of the inner man, no one probably had ever seen sausages put together again, as it were, and formed into the very animal from which they were originally educed. A large white dish of sausages was now produced.  They were placed in a wire basket, such as pot-plants are suspended in from windows and verandahs, and hung up in the inner chamber. About one minute elapsed; the sausages were gone, and out of the basket came the author’s dear little sagacious white poodle, with his blue ribbon and little bells, wagging his tail, barking at the audience, and coming down to lick the hand of his master.

Other transformations were done:

…oranges into pots of marmalade, and given away to the boys, and a chest of tea was converted into a tray carrying a steaming teapot, sugar, milk, cups of tea, and handed by the attendants to the ladies in the reserved seats only–such is the blighting influence of cash, which caused the one-shilling people to be neglected and the eighteenpenny-reserved-seat folks to have their teas.

So how was it done?  The mechanism is simple, though the explanation of the various transformations is not made clear by Pepper and is perhaps a bit more subtle.  First, let’s describe the mechanism, using Pepper’s original diagrams. It was, as they say, all done with mirrors.


The key to the illusion is a mirror, that can be slid from the offstage position C to A” to the onstage position B to B and presumably beyond.  When the mirror is absent, the full stage can be seen. When the mirror is in place, the audience is treated instead to the hidden portion of the stage, and the figure at K.

But it is not an ordinary mirror, but one that has had increasingly thicker strips of the silver scratched off of it, leaving it transparent in those positions.  It was sketched by Pepper as shown below.


So, on the left of the glass, it is almost 100% a mirror; on the right, it is much more a plain piece of glass.  When the glass is slid on or off the stage, the reflected image seems to fade gradually into view, appearing out of nothing — metempsychosis!

I assume that there are a couple of different ways in which the transformations could be effected.  For the dramatic appearance of Pepper, the glass could be subtly put into place, and Pepper could sneak behind it on stage, thus appearing when the glass is removed.  For the transformation of the sausage into the dog, the mirror would be not present, and the dog at position K; when the mirror is slid into place, it blocks the sausage and reflects the dog.  For the transformation of goods which are then given to the audience, like tea, I imagine that the raw goods were placed on the hidden part of the stage at K by a cast member, with the mirror in place, while the prepared goods were hidden behind the mirror, to be transformed and served.

The mirror used for the illusion was itself something of a technical achievement.  Most mirrors are made by taking a piece of glass and affixing a thin reflecting metal, like tinfoil, to the rear side.  However, such a mirror could not be cleanly scraped to create the strips shown above without tearing the tinfoil.  Pepper and Walker had to directly deposit metal onto the glass via chemical means, and had to develop their own process to scale it up to such a large piece.

The same year that Pepper and Walker created their new illusion, Pepper had already planned an extended tour of Australia.  He left the Metempsychosis illusion in Walker’s hands, and Walker modified the illusion, even improving it in Pepper’s eyes.  The sketch of the modified illusion is shown below.


Walker removed the hidden stage entirely, and instead made the entire stage symmetric about the line A to D, where the mirror goes. With this, objects, and people could be made to appear/disappear right in the middle of the room, instead of near a corner of it, as in the original illusion.  In the middle, at points L and M, were seats with a slot between them for the mirror to go.

For the transformations, objects would have to be placed out of sight on the seats at L and M. Then, the placer would move off the main stage (out of reflection range), and the mirror slid across.  With the stage reflected, the transformed object could be switched out unseen, and then the mirror removed, making the transformation complete. Neat!

Unfortunately, Metempsychosis did not seem to be as big a success as the original ghost.  In his memoir, Pepper himself hinted at this, stating that “all went well as long as the author remained in London and could devote his time and energies to the daily exhibition…”

But Pepper went to Australia, where he evidently continued his more familiar ghost performances. By this time, however, interest in the ghost had waned, and Pepper’s shows only garnered attention for a few weeks before he was forced to move on to a new city.  In 1882, when a drought hit Queensland, Pepper actually tried to make it rain using electricity and explosions in a highly publicized experiment that ended as a disastrous failure. (I will have to research this and write about it more in a future post.)

By 1889, Pepper was ready to retire, and he returned to his native England.  But his mind was still active, and he was eager to return to the fame and acclaim of his earlier years.  He concludes his 1890 memoir by noting:

The author hopes to show “something new” at the Polytechnic; and a lady in miniature, as it were from Liliput, dances on a silver waiter held out by the author; and the great man Napoleon I., for whom, like Alexander the Great, the world was too small, stands in the palm of the hand of the author.

I don’t know if Pepper managed to wow the crowds again, or if they were unimpressed with another take on the now 30-year-old tricks that had made him famous.  Even if he did not, he left behind a legacy beyond his illusions. He was also the author of 11 popular science books, a fitting legacy for a man who used science to entertain and educate the public.

This entry was posted in History of science, Optics. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Pepper’s last optical illusion: metempsychosis

  1. kaleberg says:

    We take special effects so for granted now. Thanks for reminding us that special effects have always been part of theater. In the 21st century, they are done with pixels. In the 19th century, they were done with mirrors. I’m sure there is a long tradition of special effects before then.

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