You might be surprised to know that in 1875 there were newspapers on a Sunday. The Police Courts were closed on Christmas Day so this report must have been from Friday’s business however. It is one in which definitions of the law, and of what constitutes ‘music’ were the at centre of proceedings, but it also involved dancing ghosts and a conjuring trick.
William Wallser ran a traveling fairground show and in December 1875 he set up a tent between two houses in Old Street, in the parish of Shoreditch, and ‘parked’ his caravan next to it. Each night he performed magic tricks and ‘a “ghost illusion” similar to that of the Polytechnic the Worship Police Court was told. This was the use of glass and mirrors pioneered by John Henry Pepper at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London which became known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’.
Wallser’s must have been a cheap version of Pepper’s trick and he only charged a penny to get in. As a result it was probably a pretty rough and ready form of entertainment with a lot of noise and boisterous behaviour from the (probably) tipsy paying customers and their children.
It was certainly noisy and disorderly enough to cause a number of people to complain to the parish authorities. The vestry clerk of St Leonard’s brought a complaint that the showman was operating ‘disorderly house’ and Wallser was informed that, if convicted at the Sessions, he faced a possible fine of up to £100, a huge amount in 1874 and an awful lot of penny entrance fees.
Wallser was well-off enough to be defended in court and his lawyer claimed that the act was concerned with places of public entrainment that allowed music and dancing. It had recently been decided, he explained to Mr Hannay (the magistrate) ‘that a booth used by strolling players for the performance of stage plays was not a house within the meaning of the Act, and did not require a license’.
The vestry clerk was adamant that music was being being played as Wallser had both an organ and a triangle and he had heard reports that dancing had taken place. Mr Abbott (defending) said it was the ‘ghosts’ that were dancing and the people that played them were not ‘seen’. In other words they were part of the theatrical performance, dancing and music wasn’t the purpose of the entertainment.
Mr Hannay said an organ and a triangle ‘meant music’. Mr Abbott disagreed but he didn’t win the argument. The magistrate committed the showman to appear at the next Sessions at Middlesex but released him on his own recognisances. I wonder if he managed to magic himself out that one.
This is not the first time Pepper’s Ghost has made an appearance on this blog, if you want to know more then follow this link ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ and the disgruntled scene painter
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, December 26, 1875]