‘Pepper’s Ghost’ and the disgruntled scene painter

Most of the newspapers I use for this blog are dailies or weeklies and, while they have different (and not always obvious) political alliances, they all tended to report ‘news’. The Illustrated Police News concentrated on ‘crime news’ and the Pall Mall Gazette (by the 1880s at least) had evolved into something of a campaigning journal.

Today’s story comes from The Era, a paper founded in 1838 to serve the pub and then, later, the entertainment trade. By the last quarter of the 1800s it was the paper for anyone working in the theatre, music hall or opera. So I didn’t expect it to be a rich source for the police courts but then again, why not? After all we’ve already had the appearance of the great Grimaldi in recent posts.


in 1888 Mrs Margaret Owston ran a ‘ghost illusion’ in a theatre on Tottenham Court Road. This might have been a ‘Pepper’s ghost’ effect; a well-known theatrical device invented by John Henry Pepper in 1862. This is a magic trick involving mirrored rooms and a sheet of glass placed at a 45 degree angle. A ‘ghost’ can appear to move from one to the other and disappear!

Mrs Owston had come to the Dalston Police Court in July 1888 to complain that a fellow theatre professional was threatening and abusing her. The person in question was Thomas Edward Marshall. Marshall was described in court as ‘gaunt individual’ and said to be ‘a combination of scene painter, actor, and marionette worker’.

Several of Maragret’s fellow workers – a range of different performers – testified in court that Marshall had come to her home in Homerton, East London, and had shouted abuse and broken her windows. demanding money he said she owed him.

The magistrate fully convicted him of the offence and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour. Perhaps he decorated his cell…perhaps he escaped by ‘illuding’ his captors…?


[from The Era, Saturday, July 28, 1888]

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