Facts are ventriloquists' dummies. Sitting on a wise man's knee they may be made to utter words of wisdom; elsewhere, they say nothing, or talk nonsense.

 
ALDOUS HUXLEY (1894-1963)

Ventriloquism

An engastrimyth is another word for ventriloquist, meaning the same in Greek as 'ventriloquist' in Latin: 'belly-speaker'.

The Rise of the Doll, or, Heeeere's Chucky!


In the 19th century ventriloquism became popular entertainment. At first it was treated as a conjuring trick: people paid to see the technical ability of the performer. Instead of talking to dolls, early ventriloquists had conversations with unseen people such as chimney sweeps up chimneys, or somebody in another room. An important aspect of the act was that the invisible person 'moved' - so the chimney-sweep's voice got more distant and muffled as he climbed the chimney – or, in the case of the 'boy-in-the-box', the voice was either muffled or clear depending on whether the lid was open or closed. The use of dolls was scorned as unmanly - real masters needed no such assistance.
 
In 1800 the big draw in London was one Mr Henderson’s impression of killing a calf, which included the conversation of the butchers, the struggling and bellowing, the quick breathing of the frightened animal, the whetting of the knife, the plunge, the gush of blood, and the death throes. The puppet-on-the-knee routine established itself during the Victorian era because of Music Hall variety shows; each act needed to be stripped down so as to get on and off stage quickly.
 
The conventional pairing of a ventriloquist and his cheeky friend, in which the dummy cracks most of the jokes, was developed in the 1880s by Fred Russell and 'Coster Joe'. By 1900, these acts were the norm. Arthur Prince was another famous act, who was known for drinking a glass of water while his doll Jim sang – an effect achieved by having an assistant offstage do the singing. Jim was the first object to be televised by John Logie Baird, and when Prince died, Jim was buried with him.
 
Some people find it odd when ventriloquist acts appear on the radio, but this reflects the old attitude of regarding the show as a piece of mere technical virtuosity; if it’s seen as a comedy act in which the doll is a character, there’s nothing odd about it at all.

The First Ventriloquists


Ventriloquism was once called 'the wickedness which lurks in the belly and deserves to dwell in the cesspool'. The quotation is from Photius, a 9th-century Patriarch of Constantinople (and a tough nut who once excommunicated the Pope). At that time ventriloquism wasn’t seen as a clever trick so much as an illness or demonic possession. The sufferers were almost always women – as 'the weaker sex' they were supposedly more liable to possession.
 
Christian commentators explained the Oracle at Delphi, an ancient Greek mystic, by saying she sat on a cleft in the earth, and that a gas entered her through her genitals. In this gas was a spirit which spoke through her genitals. (The idea that a naturally-occurring hallucinogenic gas might explain the oracle at Delphi persisted for many years, but it's discounted by modern geologists).
 
Another ventriloquist who came a cropper was Elizabeth Barton (1506-ish to 1534), an English nun known as ‘The Holy Maid of Kent' or 'The Mad Maid of Kent'. She claimed that she was hearing spirits through her abdomen. For a while they were favourable prophecies, as she reported to Henry VIII himself. However, the voices soon started prophesying against the royal divorce, predicting wars and plagues and that Henry would be deposed if he married Anne Boleyn. Henry responded by having her hanged, and put her head on a pole at London Bridge. Whilst under sentence she confessed that the ventriloqual voices had been a trick, but sadly it didn’t do her any good.

There are only 15 registered professional ventriloquists in the UK. In the 1950s there were around 400.

The first thing ever seen on television was the head of a ventriloquist's doll named Jim, on the 2nd of October 1925.

Death and the Dummy


In Kentucky, there is a museum dedicated to the preservation of ventriloquiana. Its centrepiece is a tasteful mausoleum known as ‘Vent Haven’ where 700 dummies rest in peace, following the death of their partners. Nina Conti was left the dolls of her mentor Ken Campbell when he died, and took them all to Vent Haven.
 
The typical doll’s exaggerated features (garish, glossy colours, bright staring eyes, protruding chin and nose, an unruly mop of hair) were designed to be visible from the back row of a theatre, which is why they can seem so grotesque in close-up.

WENDY LIEBMAN

My mom was a ventriloquist and she always was throwing her voice. For ten years I thought the dog was telling me to kill my father.

SHUTTERSTOCK