A popular phantasmagoria ghost show, Cabaret du Neant (Tavern of the Dead) opened in Paris in the 1890s giving Parisians a macabre destination. Patrons would enter through a blackened hall into a cafe with candles on coffin-shaped tables. Waiters dressed in funeral attire served refreshments with a disease theme. Paintings of figures morphed into skeletons on the walls. As bells tolled and a funeral march played patrons were led into a second chamber. A standing casket containing a live person was displayed at one end. As spectators watched the person would change into a skeleton, frightening on-lookers by the apparent “X-ray” effect.

The items you see here were inspired by this fascinating and macabre attraction. We are offering a sterling silver plate necklace, sandstone drink coaster, 1 inch diameter mini button and 2 7/8 inch porcelain ornament featuring the original image used on the actual drink coasters of the time.

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The trick is done, of course, using the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, which requires only a big sheet of glass and careful manipulation of the lighting.  But here again, I think Albert Hopkins’ explanation is inadequate.  He’s got a simple two-chamber set up, turning the coffin occupant into a skeleton and back again.  With this arrangement, the sense of gradual transformation would be enhanced through the use of colored light.  The light on the volunteer goes from normal to greenish-yellow before fading down, while the skeleton is gradually lit up.

Below is a simplified pair of diagrams.  When the coffin-with-occupant (#1) is illumined and the coffin-with-skeleton (#2) is dark, the audience sees only the first. When coffin 1 goes dark and coffin 2 is lit up, you see only the second, but it looks like it’s in the place of the first.  This is simple, rudimentary Pepper’s Ghost illusioneering.

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The problem with the Hopkins arrangement is that it does not account for the descriptions of the effect.  Morrow describes a slow dissolving of the face into a corrupt state of decomposition before finally becoming a dried skull:

Her face slowly became white and rigid; her eyes sank; her lips tightened across her teeth; her cheeks took on the hollowness of death,—she was dead.  But it did not end with that.  From white the face slowly grew livid…then purplish black…. The eyes visibly shrank into their greenish-yellow sockets. …Slowly the hair fell away….The nose melted away into a purple putrid spot.  The whole face became a semi-liquid mass of corruption.  Presently all this had disappeared, and a gleaming skull shone where so recently had been the handsome face of a woman.

Well, Morrow is giving a flowery, second-hand description based on Cucuel’s notes, so maybe this is all exaggerated.  But the 1894 New York Times account also describes a three-stage process, although the stages are different: man, skeleton, vacant.  The shroud on the volunteer “by some trick gradually melted away, so did the flesh, or rather the man in the coffin, and a skeleton appeared in his stead.  There remained another experiment to be witnessed, namely, the crumbling away to dust of the bones.”

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Steve

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