Sunday, August 7, 2011

Civil War Era Magicians Part 5

John Wyman Jr.
Our next magician who conjured in America during the Civil War seems as though he deserves a bigger place in the annals of conjuring than he has. His name was John W. Wyman Jr. and he performed professionally as Wyman The Wizard. He was born in 1816 in Albany NY and according to several magic history books, he was the most successful magician of his time from a financial perspective. I think that Signor Blitz would take the honor of being the most well known of that time, especially with his dozen + imitators. Though a number of newspapers dispute that fact and say that Wyman was THE most popular. Either way Wyman apparently made the most money, and unlike Blitz, Herrmann, Anderson, Heller and others he was American born!

He had the honor of having performed for President Abraham Lincoln four times. Apparently Mr. Lincoln was a big fan of magic as he had seen, Blitz, Compars Herrmann and now Wyman the Wizard! David Copperfield has in his museum, the very coins that Wyman the Wizard used to pass through the hands of Abraham Lincoln during one of his performances before the President. Wyman lived on 6th St in Washington D.C. for a period of time. And his regular performance spot was a place called The Odd Fellows Hall, which was located at 419 7th St N.W Washington, almost exactly half way between the Capital Building and The White House. I assume that his close proximity to the White House and his celebrity status helped him obtain his numerous appearances before not just President Lincoln, but also President Martin Van Buren and President Millard Fillmore.

Odd Fellows Hall in Washington D.C.
According to Houdini, Wyman had one particular attribute that made him popular, he was honest! This is an important fact to remember because Wyman presented what were called 'Gift Shows'. Basically, all the tickets that were sold to his shows had numbers on them and every ticket received a prize depending upon the number. Wyman apparently gave out some really good quality items, among them, watches, table sets, family bibles, silver plated ware and more.

I can't find any record of Wyman having performed for the soldiers during the Civil War, but four performances for the Commander in Chief are enough to put him in this category as a Civil War Era Magician. He very likely performed for members of the military and their families at some point. Prior to the war he was a popular attraction in the Southern States and even out west on Mississippi River Boats.

Like several of his fellow conjurers of the time, one of the features of his act was 'The Gun Trick'. What made his Gun Trick special is that he bought it from John Henry Anderson. He apparently also purchased Anderson's Floating Lady which was a pirated version of Robert-Houdin's Etherial Suspension. Besides magic, Wyman also was an accomplished ventriloquist and mimic and even presented automatons.

The American Civil War began in 1861, but also in 1861 there was almost a Magical Civil War between Wyman the Wizard and Compars Herrmann. This Civil War being started in the press with a challenge from Wyman to Compars Herrmann. In the challenge, Wyman disputed the claims of Herrmann to be performing 'original material' and offered the sum of $25,000 to the winner of a magical duel. Ten of his best tricks would be performed by Herrmann, and ten of Herrmann's best tricks would be performed by Wyman. The challenge would be public and the winner would get all the money plus the box office receipts. The outcome of the Magical Civil War? It never happened because Herrmann ignored Wyman completely.

Besides living in Washington D.C., Wyman also lived in Philadelphia and eventually purchased quite a bit of property in Burlington NJ where he retired. He died in Burlington and was buried in Fall River, MA. in 1881 (the hunt is on to find his grave!)

One interesting historical note, Wyman kept a scrapbook of his career. After Wyman's death this scrapbook was sent to George M. Cohan who claims he never received it. So this very valuable historical item was 'lost in the mail'. I can't help but wonder if it has ever turned up?

NEXT: Horatio Cooke, Civil War Era Magician


  1. This is really an amazing series, Dean. Thanks.

  2. John, glad you like it. As I dig deeper and deeper researching that time period I find more and more of these guys. There is another fellow yet who has a very unique connection to Lincoln, I'm hoping to get to him in a few days.