Australian History, History

The Haunted Swing

Invented by Amariah Lake of New Jersey in 1893, the haunted swing was a Victorian era amusement ride. Participants entered a room and took a seat on the swing provided. When the ride got underway, the attendant gave the swing a push. As it moved, it appeared to rotate, creating an illusion that the people on the ride were upside down. In truth, the swing stayed in the same position, and it was the small room surrounding them that rotated.

The original patent for The Haunted Swing circa 1893. Courtesy of Espacenet.

That is to say, the swing seems to whirl completely over, describing a full circle about the bar on which it hangs, while the occupants shriek convulsively and hug each other. And all the time the swing never moves!

The Mount Barker Courier and Onkaparinga and Gumeracha Advertiser (SA : 1880 – 1954); 12 October 1894; Page 4; Interesting Items

The room was decorated with tables, chairs, curtains, a mirror, lights, and framed pictures on the walls. Elaborate setups might have also included objects such as pianos or prams. Everything inside was secured to complete the illusion.

Even to initiated the deception is so complete that they involuntary seize the corners of the seats to avoid being precipitated below.

Traralgon Record (Traralgon, Vic. : 1886 – 1932); 2 November 1894; Page 1; An Illusion

The haunted swing grew in popularity in America and finally reached Australian shores in 1894. The Tasmanian International Exhibition was held at the Exhibition Building in Hobart in late 1894 and early 1895. The organisers boasted that there would be new sideshows, one of which was the haunted swing.

Established by James Petherick, it was open from 8 pm to 10:30 pm and cost sixpence for adults and threepence for children. Being a new ride, it was popular with patrons, with one newspaper describing the sounds of “shrieks and chuckles” coming from inside it. Unfortunately for James, a rival set up an ‘enchanted swing’ nearby, which impacted his business. He successfully took the organisers to court for breach of contract and was awarded £50.

In February 1895, it was announced that premises in Pitt Street in Sydney would soon be housing the haunted swing. Around the same time, Joseph McMahon, at Bourke Street, in Melbourne, was also constructing the “remarkable, startling and altogether delightful scientific novelty.

Much like in Tasmania, the haunted swing was popular in both New South Wales and Victoria. In Melbourne, it was all anyone could talk about, and people crowded the area to experience the ride. The swing could sit six people and was upholstered in “rich art-green plush.” The room was furnished, there were curtains hung over the windows, and it was lit with electric lights. When the ride was underway, it was noted that there was no “nausea or tendency towards sea-sickness.” It was so popular that one fashionable lady was said to have reserved it for an afternoon, in order to hold a “swing party.

The Haunted Swing (1895)

While many newspapers explained the illusion and how it was achieved, experiencing it first-hand nevertheless left a strong impression on the audience. Unfortunately, in one instance, that impression was spoilt by a lady who went on the ride in Sydney. As she took her seat, she placed her bag on the small table against the wall. When the swing started, and the room turned upside down, her handbag quickly followed suit.

On one Saturday, thousands of people patronised the ride in Sydney in order to experience “a complete bewilderment of the senses.” If that wasn’t enough of an endorsement, the actor, George Rignold, gave a glowing recommendation.

I think the effect produced by the Haunted Swing very remarkable indeed, and must confess that it has fairly astonished me. Indeed, I cannot see how delusion could further go. And yet it is a jolly delusion – one of an altogether pleasant sort. It is clever to a degree, and a charming feature is that it is absolutely harmless, even to the most timid. I should say that all Sydney will see it.

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1930); 19 February 1895; Page 2; Advertising

Most people who experienced the haunted swing were calm while on it. One gentleman, however, reacted badly. He sat on the swing, but when it seemed as though it was about to tip upside down, he panicked and jumped out. Running backwards away from it, he fell heavily and broke a mirror. It was then that he realised that the swing had not moved. It was noted that, “He did not appreciate the joke as heartily as the other occupants of the car.

In early April 1895, South Australian newspapers announced that the haunted swing was opening at premises opposite the Theatre Royal on Hindley Street in Adelaide. Brisbane newspapers soon followed with similar announcements, and the swing opened on Queen Street, opposite the Opera House.

Despite the many explanations in newspapers, not everyone knew how the illusion worked. Henry Richardson, of Woodville in South Australia, was curious and decided to conduct an experiment. He paid his money, took a seat on the swing, and placed his hat on the floor of the room (in defiance of what he was told). Indicating the owner (Alec Middleton) could see what was going on inside, he opened the door, rushed in, and called Henry “a damned coward for coming in to expose his business.” The group was ordered out, and when Henry asked for his money back, he claimed that Alec punched him. Alec denied the action and the words and, as it was deemed one man’s word against another (with no indication as to what was the truth) the case was dismissed.

On 14 August 1895, ‘The West Australian’ announced that Messrs. Wilkinson and Stevens had purchased the haunted swing (at great expense) and were in the process of erecting it on Hay Street in Perth. Construction finished at 7 pm on 24 August, and the ride opened for customers that night. For four hours “a steady stream of visitors poured into the building and experienced the pleasure to be derived from the inverted views…

Thousands of Western Australians patronised the ride, and, on one Saturday afternoon, it was set aside for school children. Approximately 500 children paid threepence to experience the world upside down. The ride operated throughout September, however, it seems there wasn’t as much continued interest in Perth for “the greatest scientific novelty of modern times.

After its popularity in 1895, in the late 1890s, the haunted swing mostly appeared in newspaper advertisements for carnivals, or in notices offering it for sale. Every now and then, it would show in smaller country towns, but the initial excitement for it was waning.

Five years after it showed in Perth, in October 1900, the haunted swing opened next to Grimwood’s Hotel on Hannan Street in Kalgoorlie. Advertisements incorrectly declared that it was the first time it was showing in Western Australia. Noises of “delighted approval” could be heard coming from the ride, however, interest again was short lived. By December that year, the “wood and iron building” was offered for sale.

In the years to follow, the haunted swing remained one of many attractions available at various fairs and carnivals around the country. However, by the 1920s, it was long forgotten. When it was mentioned in newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s, it was part of nostalgic articles describing past sideshows and amusements that existed in the “days before the movies.



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