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, but it just simply is not so.
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 pamplets 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 devil 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 his Second Site poster an angelic being can be seen hovering behind the performers.
Magicians & Lithographs
The explosion of devilish advertisments 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.
When Howard Thurston purchased the Kellar show and became Kellar's successor he continued using the imps and the devils in his posters throughout his career. And not to be left out, 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. More recently, David Blaine has included the use of devils or what is really now iconic magic imagery in some of his posters.
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 email@example.com