A couple of months ago I started to look at X-rays and magic with an account of the Cabaret du Néant in Paris and New York in the 1890s. One of the sources for this was Albert Hopkins – Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Discoveries, Including Trick Photography (1898) and this is a book I have been dipping in and out of ever since. [You can view it for free here]
Under the title “The Neo-Occultism” Hopkins describes a trick that utilises X-rays and the discovery that glass, porcelain, enamel, diamonds and other objects covered with platino-cyanides or zinc sulphate are luminous in the darkness when under the action of X rays.
“In the experiment under consideration, a diner (who is doubtless near-sighted, since he wears eyeglasses) is about to do justice to his breakfast. Armed with a knife and fork, he attacks his beefsteak; but he is assuredly a greater eater than drinker, since he contents himself with water, while his light consists of a single candle.
A black curtain on the other side of the table conceals from the spectators a skeleton covered with zinc sulphide.
Let us put out the light and set the Ruhmkorff coil in action. What a surprise! A plate, a glass, a water bottle, and a candle shine in space with the light of glow worms.
A sinister guest in the form of a skeleton sits opposite the place occupied by the near-sighted gentlemen, who had disappeared, and whose eyeglasses alone have held their own before the ghastly apparition. Finally, to complete the illusion, hands are seen moving over the head of the spectators, and those multiply, and then disappear, only to appear anew.”
Hopkins continues to explain that the trick is performed using X rays passing through a black cloth that conceals a nearby Crookes tube. The X rays go through the body of the man and then render the glass objects (covered with zinc sulphide) luminous. The hands are merely zinc sulphide coated gloves on long sticks moved around by accomplices.
Accomplices were entirely necessary as Hopkins suggested that members of the party (this trick was designed for intimate soirees rather than theatrical performances) could tie the gentleman to his chair – binding his hands and feet to prove that there was no trickery, at least on his part. This little flourish was known as the ‘rope test’ and actually put a stop to many a spiritualists’ career when they were unable to manipulate nearby devices in order to make their trick work. Here Hopkins subverts this control and it becomes part of the performance.