This article originally appeared in Jan 2012. However, I have some things to add and alter from the original version, so I've updated the article here. There are lot more links in this article than the previous one, so I'd encourage you to check those out as well.
The Devilish Connection
Discoverie of Witchcraft written by Reginald Scott in 1584 came about specifically to show that what witches often did was bunk and what conjurers did was certainly not in a league with the devil. The book was written during the reign of King James 1. This is the very same King James that commissioned an edition of the Bible that still carries his name. He was aware and concerned about witchcraft and demons at one point in his life. He wrote a book on that very topic in 1597, but eventually came around to see that the claims of witches were often grounded more in folklore than in fact.
Let me be clear, though there is a history of association, there is no actual association with the devil. Magicians are not devil worshipers, nor do they conjure up demons in order to present their effects. A number of conjurers over the years have implied this link in order to make their effects more mysterious. The reality is they do not use nor require demonic assistance to create a theatrical magic illusion.
Magicians and conjurers of the 1500-1700s were mostly street & outdoor faire performers. Their use of advertising would have been limited, due to the lack of technology mainly. Whatever early pamphlets or fliers there might have been would have had only words and no graphics or very primitive graphics. But that changed in the 1800s and the use of playbills and posters would eventually be the primary source of advertising a magicians performance right up into the early 20th Century.
By the 1840s, European magicians began using devilish creatures in their advertising in limited amounts. The 1848 poster advertising Robert Houdin's performances at the St. James Theater in London even has a few imp creatures on the poster. Though I couldn't find anything like that on his French advertising material.
At the same time Robert Heller was performing in the United States, John Henry Anderson too arrived with a show that was very similar, both men had copied Robert Houdin's act. John Henry Anderson, who went by the moniker The Great Wizard of the North, may have used demonic imagery at some point. But interestingly, I saw a poster of Anderson's that used the opposite approach, rather than have devils and demons, he had a poster with the border covered in angelic beings. In Anderson's Second Site poster an angelic being can be seen hovering behind the performers.
Why Devils and Imps?
I couldn't help but wonder why this fascination with demonic forces. I still can't explain the earlier uses by Robert-Houdin and others. However, I'm sure I've figured out the connection to Herrmann, Kellar and beyond. If you look at the devilish figure in the Herrmann poster below, or in the famous posters with Kellar toasting the Devil, or even the devilish images that appear in some of the Servais LeRoy posters, this devilish character is Mephistopheles who comes from the stories of Faust and German folklore.
The Faust story has been written by numerous authors like Marlowe and Goethe and interpreted in plays, poems, novels, and movies. The story in a nutshell is that of a learned man who sells his soul to the devil for magic powers and ultimate knowledge. Mephistopheles is a servant of the devil whose job it is to collect the souls of the damned. In the original story of Faust, Mephistopheles does not tempt Faust, but because he senses he is already damned accepts the deal that Faust offers him. Bingo! This is the imagery that Herrmann and Kellar and others are capitalizing on. Making a deal with the devil for magic powers and secret knowledge.
I'm only speculating here, but because magic as far back as the time of King James had an assumed connection to the devil, this notion may have continued, even though it was disproven over time. However, magicians decided to keep the notion going by adding the imps and devils and in some cases other magical creatures from folklore like gnomes and fairies*. It made the magic more mysterious and mystical, but in a mostly playful way. Even though I'm sure the more religious segment of society still stayed away from their performances.
In addition, the image of the Devil with horns and pitchfork is from the Greek mythological creature called The Satyr. These creatures were famous for being part man, part goat and being drunk and chasing nymphs. If one were to color the Satyr red, he would look exactly like the typical image of the Devil. The Satyr Head Trick, popular in Victorian times, looks to be a devil. We have grown accustomed to the horned red suited character with the pitchfork or trident as the Devil. But I believe that his image came from the Satyr and morphed into the Devil. In biblical texts, the Devil is only described as a fallen angel, and the most beautiful of the angels. So the image we are used to seeing, a horned red suited character with a pitchfork, was an artist rendition that continues to today.
Magicians & Lithographs
The explosion of devilish advertisements took place when magicians moved from using simple printed playbills to elaborate full color lithographs. The lithographic process dates back to 1796 but the use of color in lithographs wouldn't begin until 1819 and even then wasn't quite perfected until the 1840s.
Regardless of who first created this devilish depiction, both of these performers used the imagery heavily in their promotions. Alexander Herrmann died in 1896 and his nephew Leon Herrmann, who bore a striking resemblance to Alexander, joined with Adelaide, Alexanders widow, to take over the show and the hellish pictures continued. After Adelaide and Leon split up their act, Adelaide used a devil at least once before moving to a more contemporary look.
Harry Kellar's first use of a devil on his posters was in 1884. The poster is for a levitation and depicts Kellar being lifted above the heads of the audience by angels, while on stage is a winged demon. This poster would insinuate magic more akin to the supernatural or assisted by the supernatural.
Another poster from 1884 shows two devilish figures and a third devilish face on a poster for his Spirit Cabinet. This can be seen on page 242 of Kellar's Wonders by Mike Caveney and Bill Miesel. It wasn't until 1894 that Kellar really begins to commit to this design idea. His iconic poster (below) with the whispering imps is probably the most copied posters in the annals of magic. Kellar continued to use the imps in his advertising throughout his career, an image of many different Kellar posters can be seen here.
Carter, Raymond, Dante and Blackstone all used devils in their posters. Even Houdini was not immune to the effects, though it looks as if he only used the devils once and that was in his poster promoting his Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery.
After the Golden Age of Magic the use of the devilish figures diminished though they have not vanished entirely. A few years ago, Ricky Jay used a version of the whispering imps poster to promote his Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants show. David Blaine has included the use of devils in some of his posters.
Recently, Dan & Dave put out a t-shirt with the Kellar imp emblazoned on it. In 2012, magician and TV producer Chris Chelko created a series of playing cards called The Whispering Imps. The illustrations for the cards were done by Mark Stutzman, the same illustrator who does all of David Blaine's poster work.
*If you're wondering who the magician was that used gnomes, it was Edward Maro. He never used devils in his promotional materials. In fact, there is a cartoon from an old issue of The Sphinx showing Maro patting the head of a little imp and the caption below has to do with the fact that Maro never uses the devils in his work.
After 100+ years of using this imagery in magic posters, it's now part of magic history and people who use it today are really connecting back to the Golden Age of magic.
Also, if you'd like to see a cool site with over 100 pictures of magic posters with imps and devils on them please check out this link to Rhett Bryson's site.
Blog comments are welcome and encouraged. Also, if I happen to get some fact wrong historically I do appreciate having someone set me straight on that. I try to get the best information possible, but even I can miss something. If you want to discuss a blog in detail, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org