Mission in Action

The Ghost of the Dismal Swamp

Detail of an illustration, depicting an actor on a stage, reacting to a ghost-like apparition on stage.

During the Civil War, Richmond flourished as the theatrical center of the South. It boasted four large theaters in The Broad Street, New Richmond, Varieties, and Metropolitan. Over the war years, these venues hosted thousands of performances for an audience of upper-class Richmonders, soldiers on leave, civil servants, workers, and other rowdy types who could afford the cheaper balcony seats. Richmond theater was for the people, and it was hugely popular. 

The popularity of the theater, along with the increasing difficulty of putting on productions amidst wartime privations, meant theater managers were often desperate for material and sometimes sacrificed quality in order to put on as many shows as possible. 

Stage setup for Pepper's Ghost. A brightly lit figure out of the audience's sight below the stage is reflected in a pane of glass placed between the performer and the audience. To the audience, it appears as if the ghost is on stage
Pepper’s Ghost stage set up. Le Monde Illustré, 1862.

Other managers, like D’Orsey Ogden of the New Richmond theater, resorted to gimmicks, like a new visual effect called “Pepper’s Ghost.” The technology made it possible to produce on stage the spectral image of a translucent apparition. It works by shining a strong light upon an actor below the stage. This light is reflected on a large piece of glass set at an angle. Although the glass is invisible to the audience, the reflection is not, and the actor below the stage appears as though they are on it. 

Pepper’s Ghost had debuted in London in 1862 during a production of Charles Dicken’s “A Haunted Man.” The effect was an immediate hit, and it soon made its way to the Confederate capital. In May, 1864, the New Richmond theater debuted Pepper’s Ghost in Richmond with a performance of “The Ghost of Dismal Swamp.” 

Newspaper advertisement for Ghost of the Dismal Swamp.
Newspaper advertisement for Ghost of the Dismal Swamp.

Pepper’s Ghost was an immediate sensation in Richmond. The Southern Illustrated News reported that: “Tis needless to say that this ‘Ghost’ has been the subject of great wonder to all who have seen it, and has been one of the principal themes of conversation in all circles for more than a fortnight.” 

“The Ghost of Dismal Swamp,” which had been written specifically for this visual effect, was another story, however. In the same article, the Southern Illustrated News called it “a very dismal piece,” then remarked that “…Shakespeare says, ‘the play is the thing,’ but in this case the play was nothing–a huge mass of words, formed into a variety of ungrammatical and unmeaning sentences.”

The quality of the writing aside, Richmonders flocked to see the latest sensation. The “ghost” was such a box office draw that it was used again for the ghosts that appear in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” In fact, the theatre manager used any excuse to include the visual effect, whether or not the play called for it.

Finally, on April 2, 1865, the New Richmond theater closed. The Confederate government had fled the city, and U.S. troops were moving in. Richmond now had other ghosts it would have to reckon with.