Update: Potter & Potter sold the copy of The True History of Pepper’s Ghost for $1,020.
What you see: A copy of The True History of Pepper’s Ghost, an 1890 book by Professor John Henry Pepper. Potter & Potter estimates it at $600 to $900.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
What is Pepper’s Ghost, and how was John Pepper involved in it? It’s a theatrical effect used to manifest figures on a stage. They could be ghosts, they could be people, they could be objects, even. It was devised in the mid-19th century by Henry Dircks and popularized by John Pepper.
How did he popularize it? Pepper came up with a way to streamline the installation of the device. Dircks wanted to modify every theater in a major way to install the invention. Pepper made it adaptable and practical.
Why was the special effect such a big deal when it debuted in 1862? Because it made ghosts walk on stage.
Were there previous attempts to do something like Pepper’s Ghost, which fell short? I’m not aware of any, and I’m not an authority, but people had played with using glass in a similar way going back centuries.
To what extent, if at all, was the impact of Pepper’s Ghost amplified by debuting in a play based on a book by Charles Dickens? My recollection is the play it was used in involved the appearance of a ghost. What I like about that was Charles Dickens was an amateur magician. They probably chose it [the debut of the effect] coincidentally, but there’s some serendipity there.
What I find interesting is Pepper tried, almost heroically, to give due credit to Dircks, but the public persisted in calling the effect “Pepper’s Ghost.” But look at songwriting. Maybe it’s a stretch, but how many of Whitney Houston’s songs did she actually write? It’s the performance that makes the memory in the public mind.
But it’s not typical for someone to try as hard as Pepper did to share credit. No, especially when the profit motive is involved. But, eventually, Henry Dircks signed the patent over to Pepper. It shows he had no animosity to Pepper. It helped cement it in the public mind, I suppose, but the public doesn’t go back and read patent papers.
Have you read the book? Do we know why Pepper felt he had to write a book titled The True History of Pepper’s Ghost? I have not read it, and I don’t know his motivation.
Does it go into detail about how to produce the Pepper’s Ghost effect? Oh, yeah. The folding frontispiece shows you how to set it up. It’s literally the first page.
How is the Pepper’s Ghost effect used today? I know it’s been adapted for many practical and entertaining purposes. One you probably don’t think of is the headsup display on a car’s windshield. A more frivolous use brought Tupac Shakur to life on stage. It’s been used for decades in carnivals to turn a girl into a gorilla.
It’s a surprisingly durable special effect, given that it’s more than 150 years old. Sometimes, you know, simplicity is an art. It’s hard to improve upon something so direct and effective.
Do we know how many copies of the book were printed? Also, how many copies have you handled? I don’t know the number printed, but I’ve handled two or three in 11 years.
What condition is the book in? Lovely. It’s not in fine condition, but considering its age and scarcity, it’s good, in bookseller’s terms.
Who would have been the audience for this book? I imagine it would be scientists, or theater owners, or people who wanted to incorporate effects into a production. It could have been magicians or curiosity seekers as well. The cover is beautiful–one of its main attractions these days. The skeleton on the cover says it all.
Gabe Fajuri is a favorite on The Hot Bid. He’s talked about a Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout–a device for cheating at cards–which sold for $9,000, a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.
Gabe rightly points out that the peerless Jim Steinmeyer wrote the definitive book on the Pepper’s Ghost special effect: The Science Behind the Ghost, which you can purchase from Steinmeyer’s website.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.