Search for Truth  by Harry Price  (1942)


Chapter 2  .  The Magic of the Fairs, and a Talking Miracle

I ONCE made a list of all the quacks, 'mediums,' clairvoyants, and itinerant thought-readers who frequented the fairs and markets in and around London between the years 1895 and 1900, and compared their methods, discovered their secrets, and noted the technique which each one employed.  At that period there were more than eighty 'occult showmen' who had their regular pitches.  Some of these people were very clever performers, but the majority depended on confederates ('horses' or 'boosters') among the audience for any mind-reading or other 'psychic' miracles that were produced.

On the other hand, the quacks and vendors of more or less harmless specifics usually depended on their own efforts - mostly vocal - for the sale of their nostrums.  One could not but admire the showmanship of some of these men, several of whom had been selling in the same market-place for forty years.  Some of these quack doctors were not very clever and my contact with one of them nearly got me into trouble.  On Saturday evenings I frequently visited the market at Broadway, Deptford, and often watched a vendor of quack medicines selling his 'Titan's Tonic, double-distilled,' and guaranteed to cure everything from influenza to impotency.  He was known to the habitués of the market as 'Old Isaacs.'  He was a short, squat, purple-faced man, with red hair, a hemp-coloured walrus moustache, and had a dusty bowler hat jammed on the back of his head.  Standing behind an upturned soap box, illuminated by means of a dripping naphtha flare, he used to start off something like this (I once knew his harangue by heart, as it never varied):

'Ladies and gents: I stands before yer ternight as a public bennyfactor.  I ain't doin' this for no money - I've got quids and quids in my pocket.  No, ladies and gents; I'm a-doin' this becorse I loves yer!  I'm standing in this 'ere market ternight to interdooce to yer the greatest spercific of our age: "Titan's Tonic," double distilled from the rarest 'erbs brort from every part of hour glorious hempire.  From the snowy slopes of Tartary to the shores of China, these 'ere 'erbs 'ave been brort hat henormous hexpence to your 'umble servant who 'as a dooty to perform - a dooty to his feller sufferers. Brave men 'as perished a-gettin' these 'ere 'erbs . . .' And so on.


It would be tedious to give in full the whole of old Isaacs' 'spiel,' which was a jumble of foggy geography and still foggier medical jargon.(1)  After about ten minutes he would open his carpet bag and bring out about a dozen of 'Titan's Tonic' - a rich purple-coloured liquid in small round bottles, to each of which a dingy label was affixed.  He would continue:

'Now 'oo wants a bottle of my famous "Helixir of Life?"  It will cure heverything you think you've got, to say nothin' of the things you 'ave got, wot you don't know nothin' abaht.  I ain't goin' to charge yer a quid a bottle for it.  I ain't goin' to charge yer half-a-quid.  I could charge yer half-a-dollar without a-strainin' of me conscience.  No!  My price ter sufferin' 'umanity ternight is a tanner a bottle, complete with book o' the words.  Now 'oos goin' to be the fust to 'ave a tanner's worth of Erysipulus's (2) own helixir?'

At this stage of the proceedings there would be about forty people in front of the soap-box: some credulous, some visibly critical, and all amused.  But no one stirred.

'What! Yer don't want none?  Well, I don't blame yer.  But seein's believin' as they say, and I'm a-goin' ter show yer what good the helixir is goin' to do to yer.  His there any gentleman in the hordience a-sufferin' from scarlet-fever, contraction of the kidneys, 'are-lip or 'eart disease, 'ay fever or pains in the 'ead?  If so, let him step up and see a hocular demonstration of my perfect cure.'

Still no one stirred.  Then, seizing one of the youths who invariably formed the front row of his audience, he would produce a dirty darning needle and, with it, make an incision in the fleshy part of the boy's hand ('I ain't a-goin' to 'urt yer, sonny'), removing a drop of blood on its point.  From the interior of the soap-box he would then bring out two tumblers filled with what appeared to be clean water.

'In case yer don't know wot's in these 'ere glasses, I'll tell yer.  It's water!  I thort you'd be serprised!  I don't suppose some of yer 'ave ever seen water before.  I will now dip this 'ere needle in one glass and the hanimalulees wot this pore boy is a-sufferin' from is all swimmin' abaht nice and 'appy.  I now put a dose of my preshush helixir into the glass, and wot do we see?  Nothin'!  And the water remains as clear as the gin wot mother drinks, and the pore little hanimalulees his all stone-dead!  In the other glass, I pours another dose of Titan's best, and now wot do we see?  It turns the 'ole into

1. Quack doctors have flourished for centuries.  In my collection of such things, I have a circular (c.1800) which reads: 'Elixir Grandior, or Aurum Potabile of the Ancients, and Soverign Restorative for Health and Long Life, Prepared by Jasper the Hermit, Rosicrucian Philosopher,' etc.

2. Did he mean Aesculapius?



a ruddy red becorse there ain't no germs to kill, see?  A miracle of 'ealing I calls it.  Now, 'oos the first to risk a tanner's worth? '  

After his peroration, there was usually a brisk trade for several minutes, and perhaps he would sell a couple of dozen bottles of his 'cure.'  Then the light would be extinguished and old Isaacs would step across to the nearest pub for a drink.  Ten minutes later he would be back on his pitch and the 'performance' would begin afresh.

I had watched old Isaacs' show many times, and was certain that the coloured liquid inside the bottles was merely a much-diluted solution of permanganate of potash - quite harmless and ineffective, except as an antiseptic.  One Saturday evening I happened to arrive when Isaacs was erecting his 'stand' and saw him squeeze the juice of a lemon into a tumbler of water which was shielded from the more inquisitive by the sides of his box.  The secret was out!  Next morning I tried the experiment and found that diluted permanganate of potash lost its colour when mixed with an acid, such as lemon juice.

On the next Saturday evening I was an early arrival at old Isaacs' pitch, and when he reached the spectacular part of his experiment and exclaimed, '...and now wot do we see?'  I shouted, 'What about the lemon?'  Old Isaacs stopped dead, looked at me with a pained expression and said, 'Wot ruddy lemon?'  I replied, 'The lemon I saw you squeeze into that glass just now!'  There was a shout of laughter from the audience, but nothing much else happened because I could run so much faster than he.  I was fourteen years old.  The following Saturday saw old Isaacs back again on his pitch, but I avoided that part of the market for a few weeks.

I could write a volume on the fakes and frauds of fair-grounds, but we in this country hardly know what a real fair is like.  One has to go to the Continent- especially to Paris - to see how vast and interesting fairs can be.  In France fair life, or the vie foraine, is a very highly-organised business.  The same families have, for generations, been connected with the show business, and a vast capital is invested in the thousands of booths, caravans, stalls, carrousels (mechanical roundabouts, some of which cost half a million francs each), steam wagons and haulage plant.  It is estimated that 100,000 people are employed in the French fair business.  Social upheavals, revolutions, wars and invasions, make little difference to the French fairs which, for hundreds of years, have supplied the simple - and often the only - amusements of the people.(1)

Paris is particularly rich in fairs.  I had just turned seventeen

1. For a fascinating, illustrated account of French fair life, se Les Jeux du Cirque et la Vie Foraine, by H. les Roux, Paris. n.d.


when I paid my first visit to Paris, and spent three days at the famous Foire aux Pains d'Epice, which, every Easter, is held in the Place de la Nation and radiating streets.  This fair (like all Parisian fairs) is an annual one.  I was amazed at the immensity of the show, and fascinated by what I saw there.  Miles of booths and entertainments, thousands of showmen, the whole illuminated by myriads of lights.  Some streets were entirely closed to vehicular traffic.  Trams and buses were diverted, and the whole neighbourhood was - by ancient and legal usage - given up to the showmen and the crowds that visited the fair.  Especially interesting were the faro wheels (mechanical aids to fortune), the Lotterie des Familles, where one attempts to ring the necks of champagne bottles with small wooden hoops, the successful ones winning a substantial prize.  I tried many times (at five hoops for a franc) but was never successful.  But prizes were won, as I afterwards became aware, by confederates belonging to the booth.  Many years after I became possessed of a book giving complete details of how these and similar games of 'chance' are 'rigged' in favour of the proprietors.

One of the most remarkable hypnotic shows I have ever seen I first witnessed at this 'Ginger-bread Fair.'  Among the many spellbinders and wonder-workers in endless variety who had pitches at the Fair was a young man named Charles Piaux, who really was a first-class hypnotist.  Many times had I seen Kennedy's hypnotic shows at the halls round London, but Piaux eclipsed even Kennedy's well-known experiments.

After the usual - and ridiculous - stock tests, such as the hypnotised subjects making love to one another, eating Spanish onions and pretending that they were peaches, undressing themselves, etc., Piaux hung a slack wire across the booth, the centre of the wire being about six feet from the ground.  He then called upon two youths and a girl, each aged about fourteen, all of whom were still in the hypnotic state, to walk the wire.  Placing a long pole between the hands of the girl, who was the first to make the experiment, he led her to a short ladder and assisted her to mount.  Then he placed her feet on the wire and, suddenly releasing his hold of her, commanded her to walk the wire. I n quite professional style she slowly slid her feet (she was not wearing any special form of shoes) along the wire and reached the far end.  Then she turned and, at command, and without assistance, retraced her steps to the ladder, a distance of about twenty feet.  It really was a clever exhibition.  Piaux then clapped his hands and the girl was out of trance.  The two youths then went through the same performance, successfully.

It is a most difficult feat to walk a slack wire without long


training and the question arose in my mind as to whether his subjects were in reality clever confederates.  I do not think they were.  It would come much too expensive.  Twice on this same evening, and once on the following night I paid my half-franc for admission, and, although the show was identical on each occasion, his subjects were always different.  But I noted that the wire-walking performers were invariably young persons.  During the years that followed my first visit to Paris I often saw Piaux's booth at the Foire aux Jambons in the Boulevard Richard Lenoir (Place de la Bastille); at the Foire de Neuilly (Bois de Boulogne); at the Fête de St. Cloud; and at the Fête des Loges in the Forest of St. Germain-en-Laye, thirteen miles from Paris.  The show was always the same; and always, on the platform outside the booth, was a young woman in tights, as rigid as a poker, stretched horizontally with her neck on the high back of one chair and her ankles on the back of another - the so-called 'cataleptic bridge.'  It was a good 'draw.'  I do not know where Piaux is to-day.  He may be dead or, more probably, living the life of a respectable rentier in his cottage ornée at Meudon or Passy - the ambition of every French showman when he feels that he is too old for the rough and tumble of the vie foraine.

I have witnessed some extraordinary sights at the Paris and other fairs.  In addition to strong men (whose strength is made more spectacular by the employment of knacks and tricks well known in the 'trade'), contortionists, men swallowing live frogs, goldfish and brass watches; conjurers, and so on, I have seen some shows that were as clever as they were novel.  For example, one of the side-shows at Luna Park, that 'temple of pleasure' near the Porte Maillot, consisted of a 'spotted woman' in a small booth.  Her manager, 'in front,' gave a long pseudo-medical explanation of the phenomenon and invited his hearers to see the spotted wonder for themselves, at 50 centimes per visit.  I had half a franc's worth.  She was a stout woman of about forty-five years, seated in a large armchair, and quite unclothed from the waist upwards.  The whole surface of her ample bosom, back, face, neck and hands was covered with what looked like small carbuncles, about half an inch apart, spaced at regular intervals.  There must have been hundreds of them, and the effect was most unpleasant.  The audience was not allowed to investigate the 'spots' too closely, but the woman herself answered many questions as to how she acquired her unusual decorations.  Boiled down, she alleged that she got them through sleeping in a damp bed!  Obviously, there was a moral somewhere in this story.  We then all trooped out of the booth, more or less impressed.  Happening to pass the Café Napolitain next morning


soon after eleven o'clock, who should I see on the terrasse but the 'spotted woman,' her husband-manager, and two small children.  They were seated at one of the tables, sipping apéritifs prior - I hope - to a good déjeuner.  Madame was then as spotless as Cæsar's wife!

A similar show was staged at another Parisian fair held in the Belleville district, but in this case the woman - 'Mlle. Fifine' - had her thighs exposed down to her knees and the audience was invited to stick pins in them at four pins per half-franc!  Outside the booth was the usual 'manager' telling the usual story with the usual medical 'explanation.'  Also, outside the booth were several large photographs of Fifine; practically nude, with thousands of pins stuck all over her, just like a good-looking hedgehog.  It was alleged that the young woman was quite insensible to pain, had had several operations without an anæsthetic, and was completely bloodless.  As Fifine weighed about 200 pounds, I had some difficulty in swallowing this last statement!  However, I went in and there was Fifine, reclining on a couch, dressed in a nondescript Eastern costume, wearing extremely short 'shorts,' and waiting to be pricked.  When the booth was full; the manager followed us in and invited those who had purchased pins to stick them anywhere 'in the pillars of Venus,' but nowhere else!  So we stuck our pins within the prescribed area (I am afraid we did it rather gingerly, subconsciously afraid of hurting the girl, who merely smiled) and walked out again.  I have never satisfactorily solved this particular mystery.  Her legs were real.  A local anæsthetic might have been applied to the girl's limbs, making her insensible to pain, but that would hardly account for the absence of bleeding where the punctures occurred.  (It is a fact that she did not bleed.)  Or a self-induced hypnotic state might have produced local anæsthesia.  Or there may be another explanation.

Also at another Parisian fair I saw a young girl named Olga, nude except for a loin cloth, enclosed in a glass 'coffin,' and reclining on a bed of two hundred broken wine bottles.  She was 'fasting.'  Her manager explained that the glass case had been sealed by ten of the best-known Parisian doctors (whose names he gave) and the chef of the local mairie, and that she was fasting for the traditional forty days, half of which had already elapsed.  He offered a reward of 10,000 francs to anyone who could prove that the girl was receiving sustenance in any shape or form; or that the bed on which she was lying was not composed of ordinary wine bottles smashed with a hammer.  She was billed as 'the girl with the cast-iron skin.'  He stated that a representative of the local mairie set a watch over her every night.

Another 'faster,' also in a glass case, I saw in a popular


restaurant in the Leipzigerstrasse in Berlin.  He was a man, pale and emaciated, and the sealed casket was placed right among the diners in the centre of the restaurant.  He, too, was fasting for forty days.  At intervals a young girl moved among the customers, collecting money for her hungry friend in the glass case.  This was in 1922.

Speaking of glass cases, the most outrageous swindle I ever saw at a fair was staged in that part of the Prater (Vienna's park and playground) given up to amusements and side-shows.  The public was invited to 'Come and see the living dead man.'  I entered the booth, after paying an Austrian Schilling (7½d.) admission, and saw in the semi-darkness a glass coffin resting on a pair of trestles.  Inside the casket was the figure of a man garbed in the dress of a Hindu fakir.  His face was yellow and emaciated, his arms and legs almost fleshless, and his glassy, staring eyes appeared to follow you round the booth wherever you went.  On the top of the coffin was a notice to the effect that the man had been entranced for three years!

Feeling somewhat sceptical, I asked the proprietor of this curious show whether the exhibit was real.  He replied, 'Of course!' and seemed rather hurt at my question.

The proprietor invited me to examine the case and its contents more closely.  The coffin, I found, was composed of six sheets of plate glass, with their edges fused together.  Through the glass ends of the coffin were drilled two series of small holes to admit air.  By a careful scrutiny of the living skeleton's body, I could just detect the movement made by his feeble respiratory organs.

I left the booth interested but not at all convinced as to the genuineness of the fakir or his trance - though undoubtedly the coffin was really sealed up.  I decided I would visit the booth later in the week.  On the following Sunday morning I again journeyed to the Prater and found many of the booths closed, as some of the showmen were moving on to fresh locations.  Among them was the exhibitor of the entranced Hindu.  I found the booth empty, and the Hindu's owner missing.  Not far away was a motor-van, being loaded with  Aunt Sallies' and other impedimenta of a showman's profession.  I strolled towards the driver, with a view to ascertaining the whereabouts of the missing fakir and his 'owner.'  Happening to glance inside the van, I was astonished to see the glass coffin, partly enveloped in a mattress, resting on its larger end in the front of the van.  At the same time I realised that the 'Hindu' must have been standing on his head!

Just at this moment the Hindu's master came out of an adjoining booth and I very bluntly asked him 'What about it?'  Then the truth came out.  As I suspected, the Hindu was a wax dummy


containing a clockwork device that simulated the respiratory effect which I had noticed.  The mechanism was in the body of the dummy, and the winder was hidden in the folds of the automaton's turban.  A long key inserted through one of the air-holes in the glass end of the coffin wound up the clockwork and set the 'lungs' in motion.  The whole thing was very cleverly executed.  And yet the spiritualists wonder that I am sceptical!

Some of the shows at the French fairs are intended to be educational, rather than diverting.  For example, at nearly all the large Parisian fairs can be found replicas of the Musée Dupuytren, the famous pathological collection in the Rue de l'École-de-Médecine in the Quartier Latin of Paris.  This building was once the home of the revolutionary Cordeliers' Club, and formerly the refectory of an old Franciscan monastery.

I have seen the original Musée Dupuytren, and, many times, the copies of it at the French fairs.  And I do not hesitate to say that the copies are the more horrible.  The original museum consists of many thousands of anatomical and pathological monstrosities, deformities, abnormalities and abortions, mostly in glass bottles containing spirits of wine.  Dust, neglect, and time have somewhat softened the hideous features of some of the exhibits.  But the travelling exhibitions, models of these same specimens realistically executed in wax and vividly coloured, are so horrible as to produce a feeling of physical sickness.  The various stages of certain diseases - largely venereal - abnormalities in the generative organs, monstrous births and the like, are patronised by crowds of young people of both sexes who stand in apprehension - or perhaps admiration! - before the glass cases containing these horrid examples of humanity gone wrong.  Children under fourteen are supposed not to be admitted, but I have seen little ones of very tender years staring in wonderment at the exhibits which they discuss in frightened whispers.  It is possible that these shows have a certain educational value.  I could relate many more wonders of the show-ground, but I have sufficiently digressed.

I was once engaged in the 'show business' myself, in a mild sort of way as an amateur, and for charity.  When I was fourteen years old someone gave me a very early model of the Berliner gramophone - a crude affair with a cardboard trumpet, a permanent needle, and a steel diaphragm.  One's hand supplied the motive power, and the 5-inch records were few in number and simple as to repertoire.  I remember I had the Lord's Prayer, 'Who Killed Cock Robin?' and the recital of the alphabet.  By turning the handle of the instrument, and by placing one's ear at the mouth of the


trumpet, one could catch the words as they were slowly croaked out.

But I was thrilled with this instrument.  It was real magic to me.  I took it everywhere I went and gave many shows at school and elsewhere.  I determined to get a better one, but I had to wait more than two years for it.  However, it arrived from America at last, early in 1898, when I was seventeen years old.  Compared with Berliner's first model, it was an instrument of precision, operated by a powerful clockwork motor.  A highly-polished brass trumpet, a sensitive mica diaphragm, and removable steel needles, the whole enclosed in a heavy oak cabinet, it was a joy - to me - to behold.  The records (about fifty) were mostly of classical tunes, American negro spirituels, famous American bands, and, what pleased me very much, the records were loud!  Each item was introduced by an announcer, who solemnly gave its name, composer, artist who was performing, etc. - exactly as the B.B.C. does to-day.

My acquisition of the new gramophone (perhaps the first to be imported into this country) caused literally a sensation.  It was hailed as a talking miracle.  I - and it - was in great demand for concerts, social evenings, and similar functions all over the country and people flocked to our house to examine the new wonder more closely.  I have one of my early Press-cutting books before me (I have kept all my Press-cuttings since I was 15½ years old) and in it are a number of programmes, bills, etc., where the exhibition of the gramophone is prominently featured.

During the year 1899 I added to my repertoire of records and one handbill I have before me gives the complete programme of a 'recital' (as it was termed) that I gave at the Parish Room, Withington, Salop, on August 10, 1899.  It is interesting to note what popular songs and melodies were then in vogue.  I see that my list included excerpts from the Geisha and Shop Girl, Moore and Burgess Minstrels, Dan Godfrey's band, and the Belle of New York.  There were records of church bells ringing, the Church Lads' Brigade marching, and, as a grand finale (I am quoting verbatim from the handbill), 'A battle scene taken from the Battle of Omdurman, Lord Kitchener's voice being clearly heard giving commands for the last gallant charge; also a vivid representation of the Maxim gun in action.'  Of course, the whole thing must have been a fake, but a very effective one, and it aroused the patriotic audience to fever pitch.  Looking through my old programmes I note, not without amusement, that at a 'Grand Bazaar' held at St. Mark's, Walworth, on June 27, 1901, this identical record was announced as 'a thrilling representation of the Battle of Spion Kop, Buller's voice


being clearly heard...,' etc., etc.  I was not responsible for this topical transformation!  I gave this same entertainment at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington, and the place was packed.  I notice that on all programmes after this event I am billed as 'of the Agricultural Hall, Islington.'  I must add that all these entertainments were given in aid of charity; and the fact that my gramophone caused such interest shows what a novelty the magic 'talking machine' was in those days.  It also shows, I think, that during my adolescence, my interest in 'magic' and in the unusual was being maintained.  To me, Berliner's gramophone was a phenomenon of the first order. T he novelty of the gramophone took a long time to wear off, and even as late as 1902, I was asked to exhibit my 'Berliner' at the Coronation dinner held at the New Cross Hall on July 5 of that year, when Edward VII and Queen Alexandra entertained thousands of poor persons all over the country.

I must mention two incidents that occurred during my happy school days.  The first, that, when running after a friend in the street, I fell and broke my left forearm just above the wrist.  The accident happened outside a doctor's house.  He witnessed the incident and came out to see whether I had damaged myself.  He found the fracture, and my arm was set and in splints within five minutes of my fall.  He refused to take a fee for his timely skill!

The second incident was nearly an accident, and might have been a serious one.  When I was at Shrewsbury some boy friends and I occasionally chartered one of the little steam long-boats that plied on the Shropshire Union Canal.  We were going at full speed, and I was sitting on top of the cabin facing the stern of the boat.  Suddenly I heard a shout, and managed to duck my head just as we shot under a low culvert.  Another fraction of a second and my head would have struck the brickwork and I should have been knocked out.  I mention the above trivial incidents - which I completely forgot soon after they occurred - because, years later, they had an amazing sequel, as the reader will learn in due course.


Chapter One              Chapter Three 


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