Friday, August 5, 2011

Civil War Era Magicians Part 4

Our next conjurer hails from Deal, England and was born Antonio Van Zandt in 1810. His stage name was Signor Blitz and he was so popular that there have been over  a dozen other people using his name!
In fact, one of the most famous historical incidents in Blitz's life may have actually happened to one of his imitators, though I personally believe it did happen to the real Signor Blitz.*

President Lincoln's Summer Home
The incident took place near the Summer White House, this was a house used by Lincoln during the summer months to escape the heat. Today it's called 'Lincoln's Cottage'. In early July 1863, President Lincoln took a break from his duties to watch a rehearsal of the upcoming July 4th parade. Numerous people stood along the street watching the rehearsal and in the crowd was none other than Signor Blitz.
The sly magician reached out and produced a bird from the hair of one of the girls in the parade. This had the effect of stopping the parade as a number of people started to gather and watch the impromptu performance of the magician. Among his magical feats was producing an egg from the mouth of the President's son, Tad Lincoln.

A fellow from the crowd formally introduced the President to the magician. Lincoln replied "Why, of course, it's Signor Blitz, one of the most famous men in America. How many children have you made happy, Signor Blitz?" The magician replied "Thousands and tens of thousands". The President then said "While I fear that I have made thousands and tens of thousands unhappy. But it is for each of us to do his duty in this world and I am trying to do mine." This exchange took place just as the Battle of Gettysburg was finishing up and Lincoln had not yet heard the news of which side won the battle.

Though Blitz did tour the world with his show, it was Philadelphia that he called home. According the Blitz's own Autobiography, Philadelphia became the principal depot for the sick and wounded during the War. Because of this, Blitz donated his services many times to the soldiers. In his own words, "My exhibitions were remarkably popular with the soldiers. Constantly I was written to, and personally solicited by the surgeon and his assistants, or ladies of the committees, for my services. Occasionally some convalescent patient would procure permission to call, and entreat me personally, in behalf of his comrades, to come and amuse them; a request I am thankful I never refused."

He continues, "How the poor fellows loved to laugh, and drive away their pains and cares! It certainly appeared of more advantage to them than medical attendance. Whenever it was known that I was to appear, unusual excitement prevailed. Men whose limbs had been amputated but a few days, although forbidden by the physician, begged to be dressed, that they might attend; and the same was the case with the feeble and exhausted, who were confined to their beds; who, when reminded of the imprudence and danger, replied, 'A good laugh will raise our spirits, and bring about a speedy recovery.' 'Is not laughing good for health?' said one unfortunate man, who lost a leg and was suffering from a gunshot in the arm; he reminded the surgeon that there was no medicine like laughing."

One more thing of note that I think is important, Signor Blitz presented 132 shows before 63,000 soldiers. This was in Philadelphia, which means he performed for the Union Army, but there is no doubt that a few wounded Confederate Soldiers were in the mix as well.

His act was made up of magic, trained animals and ventriloquism. As with other magicians of his time, his favorite feat was the dangerous Bullet Catch. However, a number of close called persuaded the magician to remove it from his show. The last one was when an audience member took out a six shooter and proclaimed "if you can catch one,  you can call all of them!". Fortunately, Blitz was able to stop the man from shooting.

Signor Antonio Blitz lived to be 67 and died in 1877. He is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery, which is right around the corner from Machpelah Cemetery where Houdini is buried.

*The reason some scholars believe that this incident was with a Blitz imposter/imitator was that this adventure does not appear in his autobiography. 

NEXT: Wyman The Wizard -Civil War Era Magicians Part 5


  1. Great stuff! Love the Lincoln story.

    He's in the same cemetery as Houdini? I gotta visit his grave next time I'm there.

    1. Though this is from 9 years ago, NO, i had that wrong. The two cemeteries are within walking distance of each other, but NOT the same cemetery.