Luminous spectres and electrical kisses

The Quack Doctor wishes you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year! Thank you to all who have read the blog, bought the books, liked and shared my posts on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, or been in touch to share fascinating family history stories and pictures of medical ephemera during 2014.

It’s no surprise that Victorian Christmas parties featured plenty of food, fun and frolics, but there’s another aspect of 19th-century festivities that’s less popular today – chemical and electrical party tricks of a more or less life-threatening nature. I shared a few with you two Christmases ago; now here’s another selection of scientific and/or macabre party turns perfect for the season of goodwill.



Procure some glass globes, between the size of a pea and a small marble, in which there must be a small hole; put into it half a grain of fulminating silver. Paste a piece of paper carefully over the ball to prevent the silver from escaping. When you wish to explode one put it on the ground, and tread hard upon it, and it will go off with a loud noise. These balls may be made productive of much amusement in company, by placing a chair lightly on them; for whoever sits down upon them will cause them to explode. These globes may be procured at the barometer-makers.



Decapitation - from 'How to Entertain a Social Party' 1875

This is rather a startling ruse, and though in the sequel it is very funny, it should not be practised upon those who have very weak nerves.

The object sought to be represented is a decapitated head, and is done in the following manner:—A large table, covered with a cloth, reaching the floor all around, is placed in the centre of the room. A boy with soft silky hair should be selected to represent the head, and to do this he must lie on his back under the table, with all his person concealed except a portion of the head, which should be exposed to view from under the table-cloth, as shown in Fig. 1.

Next a companion, in collusion with him, must carefully comb the hair to imitate the whiskers of a man (see Fig. 2). He must also paint false eyebrows on the under part of the eyes, and false nose, moustache, and mouth upon the forehead (see Fig. 2.) This is easily done with the assistance of a camel’s hair brush, and a little India-ink, and when well completed the head appears to be entirely disconnected from the body, and has a very startling effect. The effect may be intensified by powdering the face, to make it appear pale. (Image: Library of Congress)



Dissolve some salt and saffron in some spirits of wine; dip a little tow in it, and set fire to it. At this light, those who are of a fair complexion will appear green, and the red of the lips and cheeks will turn to a deep olive colour.



Grind an equal quantity of fresh iron fillings (sic) with pure sulphur, till the whole is reduced to a fine powder. Be careful not to let any wet come near it. Then bury about thirty pounds of it a foot deep in the earth, and in about six or eight hours the ground will heave and swell, and shortly after send forth smoke and flames, like a burning mountain. If the earth is raised in a conical shape, it will be no bad miniature resemblance of a burning mountain.


A NOVEL POP-GUNA Novel Pop-Gun - Northampton Mercury, 20 Dec 1895 - British Newspaper Archive

A novel pop-gun may be made in the following way. Select a strong quill from the feathers of the goose or turkey which has served for Christmas dinner, and cut it open at each end in the form shown in our illustration. Make an ordinary wood piston, and the pop-gun is ready. Only the ammunition is required to enable you to bombard your friends across the table. Get a slice of raw potato, push the quill through it, and it will remove a piece exactly the size of the tube. Now push the other end of the quill through the potato in the same way, and the gun will be charged. Take the piston and push one bullet in the direction of the other. The intervening air will force the shot from the tube with great velocity. (Image: British Newspaper Archive)



Put a little newly calcined magnesia into a tea-cup upon the hearth or hob, and suddenly pour in as much concentrated sulphuric acid as will cover the magnesia; in an instant, sparks will be thrown out, and the mixture will become completely ignited. To prevent accidents, the phial containing the sulphuric acid should be tied to the end of a long stick.



For noisy young people who want to express their feelings electric shock is a good game. The person to be ‘shocked’ is sent out while the room is prepared. A table is cleared of its cloth and various articles put on here and there—inkpots, ash-trays, paper-knives, or vases, anything that is handy. The victim is then brought in and told that one of these articles on the table will give him the electric shock if he touches it. He goes to the table, round three sides of which the other players stand with fingers lightly joined. Gingerly he touches the inkpot and vase, with no result till he puts his hand out for the eighth time. As his fingers come in contact with the article on the table all other players give a terrific yell or war whoop, which will startle him quite as much as an electric shock.



Cut a piece of burnt cork, about the size of a pea, into the shape of a spider; make its legs of linen thread, and put a grain or two of lead in it to give it more weight. Suspend it by a fine line of silk between an electrified arch and an excited stick of wax; and it will jump continually from one body to the other, moving its legs at the same time, as if animated, to the great surprise of the unconscious spectator.



Phosphorus in its pure state should be very cautiously handled; as, unless used very moderately, it will burn the skin. By adding to it, however, six parts of olive oil, it may be employed with perfect safety. If every part of the face, except the eyes and mouth, which should be kept shut while applying it, be anointed with this mixture, it will give the party a most frightful appearance in the dark. The eyes and mouth will seem black, and all other parts of the face will appear lighted with a sickly, pale-bluish flame.



Cat - Expression_of_the_Emotions_Figure_15Place your left hand upon the throat of the cat, and, with the middle finger and the thumb, press slightly the bones of the animal’s shoulders; then, if the right hand be gently passed along the back, perceptible shocks of electricity will be felt in the left hand. Shocks may also be obtained by touching the tips of the ears after rubbing the back. If the colour of the cat be black, and the experiment be made in a dark room, the electric sparks may be very plainly seen.

It is, perhaps, unnecessary to add, that, in order to this experiment being conveniently performed, the experimenter must be on good terms with the cat.



Mix a little solution of subacetate of lead with port wine; filter the mixture through blotting paper, and a colourless liquid will pass through; to this add a small quantity of dry salt of tartar, when a spirit will rise, which may be inflamed on the surface of the water.


Note: The following two tricks require an electrical machine.


A lady may challenge any gentleman, not acquainted with the experiment, that he will not be able to kiss her, though she may incline to meet him. If he accept the challenge, and the machine turn while they are inclining their heads to kiss each other, provided their clothes do not touch before their lips meet, a spark of fire will fly from the lady to the gentleman, which will be sure to make him draw back without accomplishing his design.



Let a person stand upon a stool made of baked wood, or upon a cake of wax, and hold a chain which communicates with the branch. On turning the wheel he will become electrified; his whole body forming part of the prime conductor; and he will emit sparks whenever he is touched by a person standing on the floor.
If the electrified person put his finger, or a rod of iron, into a dish containing warm spirits of wine, it will be immediately in a blaze; and if there be a wick or thread in the spirit, that communicates with a train of gunpowder, he may be made to blow up a magazine, or set a city on fire, with a piece of cold iron, and at the same time be ignorant of the mischief he is doing.



Parlour Magic by Henry Perkins, 1838

The New Cabinet of Arts: a series of entertaining experiments in various branches of science, numerous valuable recipes, and useful facts by T C Thornton, 1846

Endless Amusement: A Collection of Nearly 400 Entertaining Experiments in Various Branches of Science, 1847

‘Scientific Amusements for Christmas’, Chelmsford Chronicle, 26 December 1851

How To Entertain a Social Party: a collection of tableaux, games, amusing experiments, diversions, card tricks, parlor magic, philosophical recreations, etc. 1875

‘Christmas Science’, Northampton Mercury, 20 December 1895

‘Children’s Christmas Budget’, Burnley Gazette, 24 December 1902