He was born Joseph Buatier on November 18,1847 in Lyon France. And before I get too far, I know I am probably pronouncing the name wrong. Please forgive me as I am not certain as to the actual pronunciation. You’ll have to go with my version for now. One thing you’ll notice is his last name is not DeKolta. More on that later.
We start with his Origin Story. How did get get interested in magic? Well, at the early age of 6 years old he was chosen to be a helper in a magic show of a traveling magician. And that was all she wrote. From that point on, he was hooked. A short time later he received his first magic book as a birthday present. And he set out to learn everything in the book, all the sleights, all the tricks, how all the effects worked. Now there is but one small problem with the story and that is his wife. She wrote a manuscript which gives the same story but she claimed he was 18 at the time, not 6.
But his parents desire was for him to go into the priesthood. In fact, they wished this for all three of their boys. But in the end, only the youngest, Auguste, would become a priest. Buatier, upon graduation had his sights on something else, and it wasn’t magic. He actually became interested in art and painting by meeting painter, Elie Laurent. According to the book, Buatier DeKolta Genuis of Illusion by Peter Warlock, Buatier spent two years away from magic and just painted.
He had gotten himself a simple job as a waiter when one night along came a Hungarian impresario by the name of Julius De Kolta. Buatier was not just waiting tables, he was doing strolling magic, as he went from table to table and Julius saw this and was captivated. He suggested to Buatier, that he could make a fortune if he did this very same thing in Europe, and with Julius De Kolta acting as his manager. So now you get a glimmer of where that name came from. I should mention this now, De Kolta was his manager, and also a bit of a con name, more on that later.
It’s been suggested that Buatier was possibly bi-lingual, so his abilitiy to connect with english, spanish, and french speaking audiences was heightened. The year was 1870, and he first played in Geneva Switzerland and upon finishing there, went to Rome. IT was not all sunshine and roses however. Because his act was primarily card tricks, he was playing Inns and cafes, and the occasional private engagement.
Once again, according to his Buatier’s wife’s manuscript, while in Rome, Buatier ran into a priest friend from his old Seminary. The two spoke and Buatier revealed that his time on the road had been anything but successful. He was on the verge of giving up. But it seemed providence was now shining upon him as the Priest arranged for Buatier to give a performance before very important representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. This event, as Buatier would later admit, was the turning point. Everything changed now. This led him to give some performances all around Rome at the finest theatres.
In 1873, he would add a piece of apparatus, something of his own invention. A new routine called La Cage Eclipse. It was an early version of what We would come to know it as The Vanishing Birdcage. To begin with a small rectangular bird and cage was held with one hand. Then he would grab the cage with the other hand holding it by the two sides. With no covering at all, he would give an upward toss and the cage simply vanished. He then walked off stage and a second later came back with the cage and bird, safe and sound. Later in 1875, the routine would be called The Flying Cage. In the 1880s, Buatier created a new version of his Flying Cage and this time it used a large oblong cage as opposed to the square one. The effect was essentially the same!
I should mention it now, DeKolta never sold his Vanishing Birdcage to anyone. Yet it became a sensation all over the Globe. In Ep 8 of the podcast, I share with you how the Vanishing Birdcage made it’s way to the United States in 1875 via Harry Kellar. A short time later, Robert Heller wrote to french magic dealer Charles DeVere and ordered a cage. Eventually, it would become a staple in the acts of many magicians like Kellar, Servais Le Roy, Fred Keating, FuManchu, John Booth, Frakson, Tommy Wonder, The Blackstone’s Sr and Jr, Billy McComb, Walter Blaney, Jonathan Pendragon and a host of other performers. A trick invented in in the 19th Century is still popular today in the 21st. Buatier did sell the secret of the cage to a magic dealer in Holland, as times where bad and money was not coming in with just performing, but he did not sell an actual cage with it.
In 1875, Buatier made his debut at Egyptian Hall in London. He was brought in by Dr. Lynn. His engagement was for one night. And this was basically so Dr. Lynn could see how Buatier performed before an audience. Dr. Lynn was duly impressed, as were the London audiences, so they worked out a schedule where the two would alternate perofrmances. And if I might stop for just a moment to explain something that I previously was not aware of. Apparently, Egyptian Hall, was divided between Dr. Lynn and Maskelyne and Cooke. Lynn having exclusive use of the large hall, while Maskelyne & Cooke had a drawing room and small hall. But in July of 1875, Dr. Lynn left and the establishment was open to lease again. So this time Maskeylne and Cooke jumped at it, and the entire Egyptian Hall was theres. I had no idea of this bit of drama. Buatier, began working for M&C at Egyptian Hall in August. His act appears to be mainly parlor sized magic, along with the Vanishing Birdcage.
Speaking of inventions, De Kolta’s wife suggests in her short manuscript on her husband, that he never purchased a magic trick. But instead, invented and built everything he ever used. This is not exactly accurate. In regards to magic tricks, it’s likely everything was his invention. But he did purchase a copy of the automaton Psycho, who was called Altotas in De Kolta’s show, so here is an example of something he did not build or create. And it’s also something that irritated John Nevil Maskelyne greatly.
Now back to the tour, at some point, Joseph Buatier, who had been performing as Dr. De Buatier, altered his name and became simply Buatier. Though, I think he did the name change after he fired his manager. The name fits him well, and along with his completely original repertoire made him one unforgettable artist.
If we take a look at some of his effects, I think you’ll be surprised. One of the earliest was his version of The Rising Cards. You can find this in Tarbell 2, for the curious. But in effect, three cards are chosen and shuffled in a deck. The deck then placed into a glass which is sat on a chair. At the command of the performer, all the cards start jumping from the glass creating a fountain like effect. At the end, the three chosen cards are found to remain in the glass, all others have flown out at the magicians command. It’s a very beautiful and offbeat effect. And it may have been an invention that was also invented by someone else years before. I doubt DeKolta had knowledge of this. In the Feb 1903 Mahatma, they mention the wonderful mystery that DeKoltas trick creates and that in 1887, a juvinelle magician by the name Sig Fritzini presented the same trick. A case of independent creation, or is that independent duplication?
There is an effect that is only briefly touched upon in the Genius of Illusion book. It is De Kolta’s Diminishing and then Expanding Cards. The way it is written, he takes a deck of cards and says he is going to make them the proper size for ladies. And then simply shuffling them over and over they begin to shrink in size as he is shuffling then he holds them up to show that the cards have shrunk in size! Next he says he is going to make them suitable for gentleman, and this time by shuffling the cards, they not only grow, but they continue to grow into a size that is astonishing to say the least. At least twice the size or more than regular playing cards size.
His sleight of hand skills must have been impecable. One of his features was something he called “The Five Coins” Yes, there is a rousing title if ever there was one, lol. The five coins is the coin flourish known as The Coin Star. It appears to predate the T. Nelson Downs Coin Star.
Now lets skip to 1878. Buatier has returned to France, Paris to be exact. For whatever reason, he changes his name slightly, and takes the last name of his somewhat worthless manager, DeKolta. Now he is Buatier DeKolta. And on this stay in Paris he creates another one of his masterpieces, The Flowers from Cone, or the most basic simplistic title, The Spring Flowers. I honestly think this was close to a miracle in his hands, and in the hands of the earliest practitioners. Rolling up a paper into an empty cone, the magician suddenly causes the cone to fill with flowers, over and over and they continue to appear and are dropped into an open umbrella held by an assistant. One of the secret techniques used would later be adopted by dove workers, so in a way, DeKotla gave birth to that genre. I’m also fairly confident that the early Spring Flowers were made in life-like flower colors, and not the neon colors that are often seen today. Sadly, many a magic prop was ruined by good intentioned but poorly thought out design choices (think of all the poorly painted apparatus magic of the 20th century).
DeKolta now begins to set his sights on larger effects. One interesting illusion was called Le Cocoon, which I believe he debuted in December of 1885. Here is a very artistic piece, a departure from what anyone was doing in the world of magic at the time. It began simply enough, with a paper framework being hung in the air. The magician would draw the outline of a silkworm and suddenly the paper burst open and there was a large cocoon, not a picture of a cocoon, but a very large cocoon which would be picked up and placed upon a stool. As the cocoon is placed on the stool, the realistic cocoon, bursts open and out comes a woman dressed as a moth or butterfly. But tell me, am i the ONLY one who thought of the ALIEN bursting forth from a cocoon ala Ridley Scott’s famous movie???Seriously, though, this is a very complicated illusion in methodology. The patent for this illusion appears in the book, Buatier DeKolta Genius of Illusion by Peter Warlock. It love the poetic imagery with the silkworm, cocoon and moth/butterfly.
I think it would make a wonderful illusion today, though with an altered method.
Now, we come to 1886. DeKolta was in St. Petersburg Russia and would debut a game changing illusion. To begin with, he would take a sheet of newspaper and place it upon the stage. The purpose of this was to discount any thought of a trapdoor. Then a chair was placed on top of the newspaper. DeKolta’s assistant then came and sat down on the chair and a thin sheet was placed over her entire body. You could make out the outline of her head, shoulders and knees. No sooner was the sheet placed over her, it was suddenly whisked away. In the process, the lady vanished. Her outline was seen right up until the moment the cloth was taken away. OH, and to add another element to the mystery, the cloth that covered her body ALSO vanished!!!
The illusion known as The Vanishing Lady would become an instant hit. John Nevil Maskelyne wanted it for Egyptian Hall, but DeKolta couldn’t get there soon enough. So they made arrangements for Charles Bertram to present the illusion. Interestingly, Bertram and DeKotla actually resemble each other.
I was excited to find a newspaper ad for DeKolta in America presenting the Vanishing Lady in 1886, however, before I could contemplate the timing, I found in the Genius of Illusion book, a write up on the very same article. Apparently, this person was not DeKolta, in fact, the performers name is not given. What it says is “The first authorized performance in this city of M. Buatier DeKolta’s trick entitled The Vanishing Lady”. Also mentioned in the book, was that Alexander Herrmann was the first famous magician in America to present the effect.
Soon the Vanishing lady would be in a lot of acts. Did DeKolta get any compensation for this?? Other than the Charles Bertram appearance at Egyptian Hall, and his work with Maskelyne, he got nothing as far as I know. The Vanishing Lady was so popular at one point that the method became common knowledge having been exposed numerous times, both in books and in magazines. Probably only Richardi Jr. kept presenting the illusion right up until his death in the 1980s. His version was nothing short of a miracle. After the girl had been covered, a steamer trunk on a tall platform was rolled out. The trunk was tilted down to show it empty, then it was closed and put upright. Richard walked over to the lady, pulled the cloth away and she vanished! And then a second later the same cloth was whisked by the empty trunk and the vanished lady was now found inside the trunk!!!!!!
David Copperfield would produce one of the most stunning examples of the Vanishing Lady. ( Watch it below) His routine was a vignette, a scene from an attic. The magician reminiced over a picture of an old girlfriend and suddenly she appears. They interact and at the end, she climbs up on a table, where a chair is sitting. She sits in the chair and covers herself with a cloth, almost in a type of hide and seek game. When Copperfield spots her, he steps up onto the table pulls away the cloth and the woman is gone. It’s a powerful presentation, filled with emotion and romance.
Now, I must bring up a device that DeKolta invented and as is my rule not to reveal secrets, I shall be rather stealthy in my description. The device is called The Cache, it is used along with another device called a pull. I always thought DeKolta invented the Pull, but actually I believe his contribution was The Cache which allowed for the barehanded vanish of scarves and handkerchiefs. Another tool of the 19th Century conjurer, that over time as fallen out of favor.
Just as a side note, my best friend, Bobby Dymond, who passed away a couple years ago was a master of this device. He was fairly new to magic and had seen magicians at magic shops make small silk scarves vanish and then reappear. He asked me if it was possible to make something vanish that was larger than the tiny 6 inch square scarf. I pointed him towards the modernized version of DeKolta’s device. I had used one so I knew the impact. I taught my friend Bobby who learned it so well, he was fooling everyone with it. Now, here is the ultimate.
He would use this while doing walk around magic. He’d borrow a dollar bill. Show his hands empty. Take the bill and push it into his fist. Sometimes, he’d even let them push it into his fist. Then without any unusual movements, he’d open his hands and the bill was gone. People were often so amazed, they’d let him keep the money because it was such a good trick. He told me one day he made over $100 in the afternoon, just doing that trick over and over. I honestly, thought he was exaggerating, but later I saw him do that very thing, again, and again and again. People were so surprised, that he’d make dollar after dollar after dollar vanish.
Ok, let’s get back to DeKolta. One of his lesser known illusions was called The Magic Carpet. This was a large rug, an assistant would stand in the center of the rug, and then he and another assistant would pick up the corners of the carpet and raise it up so as to obscure the view of the person inside the folds. They would shake the carpet a bit and then drop it and the person was gone! Them vanished person would reappear in the audience.
In regards to his personal life, Buatier DeKolta married Alice Mumford, likely some time in the mid 1880s. She had previously been a musician, so they likely met in the theatre where they both were performing. In the book, The Old and New Magic by Henry Ridgely Evans, he says that DeKolta married Alice Allen in London, on Dec 8th, 1887. But this is not correct. Alice Allen was an assistant in the show, but DeKolta had already married Ms. Mumford and remained married to her his entire life. Now, it is an understandable mistake. As it would appear that DeKolta was having a secret affair with Alice Allen, who would go by Lizzie. More on that later.
Buatier DeKolta claimed to have invented Modern Black Magic. This same principle was also claimed by Max Auzinger (likely the originator), and others. I think it’s likely another independent creation, though DeKolta’s does differ slightly from Auzinger’s principle. And I’m not going to say anymore on this one. If you’re a magician, you know the principle involved in this.
In The Old and New Magic by Henry Ridgely Evans, he says, “At the Eden Musee, in NYC, Dekolta introduced the large vanishing cage, which he intended as a satire on the flying cage because of the repeated suppositions that a bird was killed at each performance.” This was an illusion he called The Captive’s Flight. It clearly has some similarities to the Vanishing Lady. It began innocently enough with a large serving tray that was held out for inspection. This was then laid upon the stage. Next, Dekolta’s wife, dressed in a costume to look somewhat like a bird came out and knelt upon the small tray. DeKolta then covered her with a parrot’s cage and then in the original version, he covered the entire affair with a cloth and in a moment, whisked away the cloth and the bird woman and cage had vanished. Over time he would eliminate the cloth covering and add large playing cards which were connected by pieces of fabric. These would be placed all around the cage hiding it from view. Then DeKolta would attempt to lift the cage with the bird woman inside, and he would accidentally drop it where the cards would collapse and thus the bird woman and cage were gone!
The final illusion I want to share is an iconic effect known as the Expanding Die. In effect, the magician walked out on stage with a die (single dice) which was approx 6 inches square. He placed this upon a table where it suddenly grew to 50 inches square. Then the die was lifted to reveal a woman inside. It reads like a miracle. Was it? Not having seen it in action, I really don’t know. I expect the appearance of a woman inside was quite stunning. The actually expanding of the die, I don’t know. I do know how it worked. Without revealing anything, this thing was a beast! You’d have to be a genius just to figure out how to construct such a thing.
If we take a look at the entire routine, it actually begins when he walks out. DeKolta is carrying a satchel, he claims the satchel contains his wife and that this form of travel cuts down on traveling expenses. He sets it down on a chair and then removes his hat and overcoat and proceeds to work his act. He presents a number of smaller effects before returning to the satchel. He reaches into the satchel and removes the small dice which he places upon a low table. He introduces a large japanese style fan and opens and attaches it to the back of the table. Then by waving his hand over the die, it instantly goes from it’s small size to the much large cube! Then, DeKolta and his assistant, pick up the die together revealing his wife underneath. Given a bit more context, it sure sounds amazing. The fact that it instantly increases in size is also revealing. This would be DeKolta’s final creation.
In 1902-03, Dekolta was back in America. He had appeared here in 1891, but now he had returned and brought with him his Expanding Die. He began appearing in NYC at the Eden Musee in September 1902. He finished there 7 months later in April 1903. At this point he began a tour throughout the United States. In September of 1903 he was in New Orleans appearing at Orpheum Theatre. By all reports he was not feeling well during this week. The following week, he was extremely ill and still in New Orleans. Joseph Buatier died on October 7th, 1903. He had Bright’s disease, or what we know today as Kidney disease. He was only 55 years old but he was a heavy smoker and likely had a unhealthy diet. His body was taken back to England and buried.
Revealed in Genius Of Illusion, Lizzie Allen was 5 months pregnant when DeKolta died. He had been having romantic relations with her unknown to his wife Alice. But, at 5 months, she could no longer hide the fact. On March 9, 1904, DeKolta’s daughter, whom he would never meet, was born. She was named Violet, but went by the name Vicky during her life.
Charles Morritt pointed out the fact that it was Dekolta who coined the term Illusionist, and was the first to use it.
If you’re wondering how so many of DeKolta’s tricks were ripped off? Well it turns out he patented most of them. So unscrupulous magicians needed only to get copies of the patent papers, though, many had more devious techniques than that.
That my friends is the story of Joseph Buatier DeKolta.
The Old & New Magic by Henry Ridgely Evans
MAGIC A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theatre by David Price
Buatier DeKolta: Genius of Illusion by Peter Warlock
Mahatma Magazine Feb 1903 Edition
Tarbel Vol 2
This article originally appeared as Episode 31 of The Magic Detective Podcast. This is the transcript of that podcast.