The History Of Ventriloquism

The year is 1813. At the St.Louis hospital in Paris, bodies are kept in the cellar for about three days before burial. But one night the voice of a man is heard, making everybody believe that someone in the cellar is still alive, although a search reveals nothing unusual.

Imagine you are a medical student, undergoing surgical training with some of your class-mates. Suddenly the cadavers start talking!

Creepy? Unexplainable?

Not when your classmate is French ventriloquist and philanthropist, Alexandre Vattemare. He was actually refused his diploma because he used his ventriloquist abilities to make cadavers speak during surgical exercises!

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A few years later in Hamburg, a voice crying for help was heard from a park well that wasn’t in use. No amount of excavation brought anything up.

Just another prank by the ventriloquist!

How?

Ventriloquism refers to the action of ‘throwing’ your voice, or making it seem like the sound is coming from elsewhere and not your throat or mouth.

Ventriloquism comes from the Latin venter meaning stomach and loqui which means to speak. A person actually creates the sound and speaks something but the face or mouth does not move at all.

Ventriloquism is an ancient art but it wasn’t always as well-received as it is today. It has its origins as a religious practice in Greece, where people believed that the voices coming from a person’s stomach were the voices of spirits or dead souls. At the temple of Apollo in Delphi, the Pythia (priestess) spoke the word of God through her or rather made it seem so.

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During the 16th century, a nun named Elizabeth Barton was popular for her predictions through ventriloquism. She claimed she was hearing spirits through her abdomen. She regularly reported positive prophecies to Henry VIII but when she said that the king must not marry Anne Boleyn, she was hanged for it. Confessing in prison that her acts had been ventriloquism tricks didn’t do her any good.

Ventriloquism was looked upon as something horrendous during the witch-hunts of Europe. People believed that ventriloquists possessed dark powers and indulged in witchcraft.

It was only 17th century onwards that ventriloquism began to be accepted as entertainment in fairs and carnivals. Fred Russell is considered to be the Father of Modern Ventriloquism. He also came up with the use of a dummy. He was followed by Edgar Bergen popularly known for his famous dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. The most famous dummy or figure makers in America were a father and son duo named Theodore and Charles Mack, after whom Charlie McCarthy was named.

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Ventriloquism today has come a long way and gained wide acclaim in entertainment and comedy for kids as well as adults. Most of us are familiar with popular ventriloquists like Jeff Dunham- the highest grossing touring comedian or Terry Fator in the US.

An interesting fact about the art is that there is only one ventriloquist museum in the whole world, situated in Kentucky, and houses about 800 ventriloquist figures. The museum also houses a mausoleum called Vent Haven where 700 dummies lie, following the death of their partner.

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If you ever wondered why dummies look so grotesque at close range, it is because their over-enhanced features were purposely designed in order to be visible from the back row of a theatre.

Though Dr.Robert Jarvik is known as the inventor of the artificial heart, the first ever recorded patent for it was owned by Paul Winchell- an American ventriloquist and actor.

Ventriloquism has often been the subject of horror and thriller cinema as well, where dummies come alive or take revenge on their partners.

Creepy or entertaining, this ancient art has certainly been on a long journey. Hope it continues to see good days with audiences appreciating and encouraging it whole-heartedly!