Friday, August 12, 2011

Civil War Era Magician Part 6

photo from the Mark Cannon Collection
This next magician is the real deal in regards to a Civil War magician. He served in the Union Army. He had a connection to Lincoln unlike anyone else. He was, a teacher, an inventor, a carnival showman, magician, escape artist, soldier and one remarkable individual, but I'm mainly going to focus on his relation to the Civil War.

He was born Horatio Green Cooke on February 1, 1844 in the town of Norwich, Connecticut. As a youth his family moved around a bit finally settling in Iowa. In 1862 the second year of the Civil War, Horatio, who would go by the name Harry, enlisted in the Union Army.

He went from being a private in the Union Army to being selected to be one of Lincoln's Federal Scouts.  In 1863, he fell under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant during the Siege of Vicksburg. The surrender of Vicksburg by the Confederate Army gave control of the Mississippi River to the Union Army, and basically split the Confederacy in half. This event, along with the Battle of Gettysburg, were the turning points in the war for the Union.
R. Ingersoll, Gen Hancock, E. Stanton, Gen Sherman, A. Lincoln
On May 1st, 1864, Harry Cooke was ordered to appear before Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War in Washington D.C.. When he arrived  he found that along with Stanton, was General William Tecumseh Sherman, General Hancock, Robert Ingersoll and President Abraham Lincoln. They had heard of the young scouts unusual ability to free himself from restraints and were curious. So he was tied up with fifty feet of rope. After he was securely tied, Cooke asked Lincoln to walk ten feet away. Then he asked him to return and before Lincoln got back, Cooke had freed himself from the confinement! According to the Los Angeles Evening Express Newspaper, Lincoln was amazed and jubilated. Lincoln said to Cooke "Here my boy, keep this to remember Uncle Abe by" and Lincoln then handed Cooke a two dollar bill. Harry Cooke kept that two dollar bill his entire life.

John Singleton Mosby - The Grey Ghost
In the Fall of 1864, Harry was assigned to join General Sheridan in Winchester VA. On October 19th, Harry Cooke and six other scouts were captured by Mosby's Raiders under the command of  'The Grey Ghost', John Singleton Mosby*. Mosby was notorious for his stealth-like raids against Union forces. When his band of raiders captured Harry Cooke and his fellow scouts they took from them all their possessions. In Cooke's pocket was a personal letter from Lincoln appointing him to the position of Federal Scout, a cherished memento. In Mosby's eyes Cooke was a spy and was sentenced to be hanged along with his other scouts. They were to get an early morning hanging, but their final evening on earth would be spent tied to a tree. Being the escape artist that he was, Cooke quietly freed himself from the ropes, and then proceeded to free his fellow prisoners and return back to the Union side under the cover of darkness. The prisoners split up on their return and three swam across the Potomac and the others made their way through the woods. Only two of the scouts made it back safely, and Cooke was one of the two.


Fords Theatre /Library of Congress photo
Harry had always been bothered by the theft of his Lincoln Letter by Mosby's Raiders and decided to try and get a copy from the President himself. In April 1865, Cooke went to the White House in Washington to see Mr. Lincoln. Upon arriving at the White House he was told that Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln had left for an evening at Fords Theatre. Harry Cooke went to Fords Theatre, where the President and First Lady were watching the play "Our American Cousin". A short time after Harry Cooke arrived a loud shot rang out, and well, the rest is history. Cooke was there, in the audience, as John Wilkes Booth shot the President and then jumped to the stage and out the back doors of Fords Theatre.

It's hard to say when Harry Cooke got his interest in magic or where he learned to escape from ropes. One thing is certain, he had an ability to escape like no one before him, and few since. Unlike the other Civil War Magicians I profiled Harry Cooke did not perform during the war, except for the rope escape demonstration before President Lincoln and his friends.  After the Civil War ended Horatio Green Cooke became "Professor Harry Cooke" and worked as a professional magician and 'Celebrated King of the Spirit Exposers". Years later he would become President of the Los Angeles Society of Magicians and would obtain the new moniker 'the oldest living magician'. His favorite trick throughout his life was the Linking Rings and apparently his routine was one to wonder over.

On May 1st 1924, at the young age of 80, Harry Cooke duplicated his feat of escaping from 50 feet of rope for the Los Angeles area magicians. During this exhibition, Harry Cooke wore his blue Union Army uniform, the same one he wore during the Civil War. The result was exactly as it had been 60 years earlier when he presented the stunt before President Lincoln and his cabinet, HE ESCAPED! A short time later Horatio Green Cooke passed away on June 17, 1924.

Harry Cooke later in life. He is on the left, the one with the hat.

I must admit I never had heard of Horatio Green Cooke until Mark Cannon told me about him. Sadly, Cooke, like many magicians, had fallen through the cracks of time and had been forgotten. Mark knew about him because he received Cooke's personal scrapbook from Cooke's very own daughter! He has since written several articles on Harry Cooke and given lectures on Cooke's life. About the only information I had on Cooke was a short single page article that Mark had written on Cooke in MUM Magazine. Then I began digging deeper and I found Cooke's name popping up in much older magic periodicals. The internet provided a few surprises like the a Civil War record showing that Cooke was part of the 28th Regiment, Iowa Infantry. Census records showed the various places he lived. Gradually other pieces to the puzzle began to come together through newspaper archives.

Then I got an even bigger surprise, a relative of Harry Cooke contacted ME! That really spurred me on to finish this and help her learn more about her Great Great Uncle. The above family photo is from Harry Cooke's Great Great Niece. I also discovered a second much longer and extensive article about Harry Cooke that Mark Cannon had written after I did a lot of the research. It would have been nice to have this info early on as I might have finished sooner, but it was fantastic information and far more than I found.

For the record, Mark Cannon is in the process of writing a biography of Harry Cooke. I don't think he has a date set on when it will be finished.  Mark was also gracious enough to let me use the photo of Harry Cooke with the linking rings that is at the top of the blog. Mark certainly deserves the credit for reintroducing the world to Horatio Green Cooke and I look forward to the day his book is completed!

UPDATE: I just found out that there was a film made of Harry Kellar and Harry Cooke. It was taken by Mr. Ford of the Ford Film Company and was shot in California. According to the Kellar Book by Mike Caveney and Bill Miesel, the footage still exists and portions can be seen on the A&E TV Special "The Story of Magic" and also the PBS special "The Art of Magic". I must admit that I don't recall seeing Harry Cooke on video before, but I have seen very brief film footage of Harry Kellar.

UPDATE 2: I believe a copy of the film was given to the SAM. However, a search of the SAM DVD Library does not show this footage.

*My art teacher in High School was related to John Singleton Mosby.

NEXT: A Few More Civil War Magicians

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