Saturday, June 21, 2014

Robert Heller's Magnifecent Peacock

Robert Heller and his Peacock Automaton

As fascinated as I am by Heller, I must now admit, I also have an odd fascination for the so-called Peacock Automaton. I had seen one in the collection of Ken Klosterman (Salon de Magie) and assumed it was Robert-Houdin's Peacock. In his book 'The Memoirs of Robet-Houdin', the author mentions seeing the 'magic peacock' in a show presented by Phillipe. Researching this unusual creature I found that according to Harry Houdini, Robert-Houdin claimed to have created it. But Houdini, in his book 'The UnMasking of Robert-Houdin' makes the claim that Houdin did not create it but rather ripped it off.

Actually, it appears that though there were Automaton Peacocks prior to the Houdin version, his was different in operation and mechanics, so Houdini got that one wrong. I actually assumed, like Houdini, that all these birds were the same. But their appearance is deceiving. They do share a few attributes, one being the realistic look of a peacock and the ability to take the tail feathers and raise them and spread the giant plumage for display. But that is where the similarities stop.

from 1815
There is a playbill from 'The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin' that belongs to Mr. Louis's Royal, Mechanical, and Optical Exhibition. The bird figures prominently on the playbill with the following description. "A Superb Mechanical Peacock-As Large as Life, In it's Natural Plumage! Which imitates, so closely, the Cries, Actions, and Attitudes of that stately and beautiful Bird, that it is not infrequently supposed to be an absolute Animal properly trained to act as an Amusing Deception."The playbill dates to 1815, certainly before Robert-Houdin was born, as Houdini points out.

An even earlier playbill from 1803, belonging to a performer named de Philipsthal, also from 'The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin' reads as follows, "The MECHANICAL PEACOCK, which exactly imitates the Actions of that flately Bird, that is has frequently been thought Alive. It eats, drinks & at command, unfold its Tail in a brilliant circle, and in every respect seems endowed with an intuitive Power of attending to the Thoughts of the Company." Frankly, that sounds pretty amazing to me.

I believe the Robert-Houdin bird was different from the above automatons and I base this on the illustration used by Heller and a similar illustration used by another Robert-Houdin imitator. Let me point out that Robert Heller began his career by doing an act which was essentially a duplication or imitation of Robert-Houdin.

Heller obtained his props from a mechanic named LeGrand who worked for Robert-Houdin. This is the same man who sold props to John Henry Anderson as well. This duplication of props was going on behind the back of Robert-Houdin, and when he found out he called the authorities and LeGrand faced prison time because of his theft. But the damage had already been done and untold props from the Houdin show were now out and being used by his competitors. These included: The Ethereal Suspension, The Fantastic Orange Tree, the Peacock, and numerous other automaton.

Other performers of the time had Automaton Peacocks in their shows which can be seen in their advertisements. I think some of these were like the automatons listed above, true actual automatons, clock-work mechanical devices that could imitate a few actions of the bird. But the Robert-Houdin automaton appears to not be a true automaton, but rather what is referred to as a false automaton. This means it was partly mechanical but also relied upon human aid to perform it's functions. If the Heller illustration is any indication, the bird sat upon a raised platform and was able to grab selected playing cards with it's beak. It probably also moved it's head and raised it's plumage, but the action of grabbing a selected card may have been the work of a hidden assistant. That doesn't lesson the impact of the effect and to my way of thinking, is just as much a mechanical marvel as the others. Houdin was known to use both true automaton and false automaton in his show, so it makes possible that the Peacock was a false automaton. And Heller, who had purchased duplicate props of Houdin, was using The Harlequin as well as the Peacock, and the Harlequin was also a false automaton.

While doing research online for this article I came across a photo for an item listed as The
Magnificent Peacock. I found this same image on several sites, including Pinterest. The first place I found it was All of the pages are unsure of it's origins and they only speculate as to the date of manufacture. One website in particular has a different photo but it's very blurry. It shows that the red base in the photo is actually on an ornate raised wooden or medal pedestal. What is amazing to me is, this looks exactly like an image I saw on one of the Robert-Houdin imitator's posters. So this image to the right could actually be a piece out of a magic show.

For those who might be curious, in the late 1800s, a company called Roulette & Decamps out of Paris France was producing the Peacock Automaton for the general public. They made three versions of the Peacock, a small, a medium and a larger version with a music box inside. All three of their Peacocks had the ability to walk, moves its head and raise it's plumage. One of the Roulette & Decamps Automatons can be seen in the video below. By the way, the Peacock in the Klosterman collection is one of these Roulette & Decamps Automatons. It is identical to the bird in the video, so my initial assumption that it was Robert-Houdin's was incorrect.

*I don't have access to all of the Robert-Houdin books on magic, so I'm unsure if his Peacock and it's workings were listed in a book I missed. If anyone knows and can enlighten me, please do. I make an assumption that Houdin's automaton was a false one, which I also found similar statements online. But with Houdin's knowledge of clockworks, it's just as possible the bird was 100% mechanical. 

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