Friday, November 19, 2004

The Invisible Man
Harry Price is one of my favourite characters from the history of magic. He made his living as a professional psychic researcher and ghost hunter, working in the 1920s and 30s, apparently shining a light on the unexplained but in reality casting quite a shadow over almost everything that he touched. His books, and he wrote many, are absolutely fascinating. Harry's investigations were always founded on some kind of strangeness; a talking mongoose, a girl plagued by the devil, a medium who was tried and found guilty under the Witchcraft Act and, of course, the most haunted house in England, Borley Rectory.

He's worth rereading again and again. You never know what you might find in his writings that has some bearing on magic. Take the following as an example. A man who came to Harry Price claiming that he could make himself invisible.

One of the most brazen spellbinders who have ever entered my office was a man who called himself ‘Sandy MacPherson’: he was a Jew from Houndsditch. He came to see me because, he said, he had some wonderful apparatus by means of which he could make himself invisible at will. I call him the ‘Invisible Man’.

He said he wanted a large fee for a test, as it meant a van-load of ‘properties’ and a great deal of trouble to arrange his ‘set-up’. We compromised by agreeing to settle the carter’s bill.

The day – and a small pantechnicon – duly arrived for the test, and as the men carried in his impedimenta, I wondered if ‘Sandy’ had ever kept a draper’s shop, as his sole apparatus consisted of about a dozen tall pier glasses or mirrors such as they are used in the dressmaking stores where ladies foregather in such large numbers.

Sandy shut himself up in my séance-room for half an hour and then called me in and said he was ready for the test. He now commenced ‘hedging’; he said he could not make himself invisible, but could make his reflection invisible. On the principle of ‘half a loaf’, etc., I had to be content with the prospect of witnessing only a semi-miracle.

When I entered the séance-room (from which the daylight had been excluded), I found that all the tall mirrors had been stood vertically on their edges at one end of the apartment in a most curious formation, and at several different angles, roughly in the form of a semi-circle. In front of the looking-glasses was placed a chair. Sandy now asked me to switch off all the lights, count ten, and then switch them on again. This I did, and found that the spellbinder was sitting on the chair in front of the mirrors.

‘Walk slowly up to the chair’, said Sandy, ‘and see if you can find my reflection.’ I did as I was directed and must admit that for a fraction of a second I was genuinely startled. Although the end of the room furthest from the set-up was visible in every detail, the reflection of my Caledonian friend from Houndsditch appeared to be missing. The chair was also invisible, whereas normally, of course, both chair and man should have been reflected.

Although for a moment I was impressed at the result of the arrangement of the mirrors, my knowledge of the law of optics came to my rescue, and I quickly realised that what I saw before me was modelled on a well-known principle in conjuring which is often used in stage illusions. And I lost no time in telling Sandy what I thought of him and his ‘psychic gift’. I went up to him, made him stand up, moved his chair six inches from the spot where he had so carefully placed it, told him to sit down again, stepped back a few paces – and I saw the very unusual spectacle of half a man and half a chair reflected in the mirrors. A move of another six inches and both man and chair were fully reflected.

Well, they loaded up the van with a little less alacrity than when they unloaded it and, an hour later, when I was going to lunch, I saw Sandy and the van driver coming out of the local hostelry where, doubtless, they had been consoling each other with the fact that we live in a hard and incredulous world.

This story has a sequel. A few months after Sandy tried to ‘put over’ his mirror ‘phenomenon’, a toy, in which the same optical principle was employed, was put on the market. I was at once reminded of the illusion I had seen demonstrated in my séance-room. The toy was in the form of a box, closed on all sides, but partly open at the top. At one end of the box were a number of strips of looking-glass and, facing them, was a peep-hole. If a person put his eye to the peep-hole, he could see it plainly reflected in the mirrors opposite. Then, if a small object such as a marble, were placed in the box and the observer again placed his eye to the peep-hole, he could still see the reflection of his own eye – but neither the marble nor the reflection of the marble were visible. So my friend had turned his magic mirrors to account, after all. It is wonderful how these ‘Scotsmen’ persevere.

This account is taken from Harry's 1936 biography Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter. I've no idea what arrangement of mirrors Sandy used nor have I seen the optical toy that Harry Price mentions. If you know of either, do let me know.