Showing posts with label Alexander Herrmann. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alexander Herrmann. Show all posts

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Bancroft Prince of Magicians

This poster above belonged to a magician named Frederick Bancroft. This poster is beautiful to be sure. And apparently it was also humongous. This was either a 28 sheet or 16 sheet poster. In other words, its a HUGE poster. I'm not even sure where you'd be able to hang such a poster. It clearly is for the side of a building. But how many buildings had free space for this monster? In 1925 this poster and another similar one were for sale at the price of 10 cents per sheet. It also came with a stand for an additional 50 cents. Imagine that.

Seeing this poster you might think that Bancroft was one of the greatest magicians to ever live. Well, let me tell you about Bancroft. His name was Frederick Bancroft.  He was born in 1866 in Winona Minnesota.  At a young age he saw Alexander Herrmann and decided he wanted to become a magician. Not only did he see Herrmann, but it appears he became a bit of a groupee following around from town to town for a period. Maybe he was more of a stalker! lol. 

Bancrofts first foray into magic was under the name DeCastro and it was a disaster. He was an enterprising individual who got into many different businesses.* He moved to St. Paul MN. where he married and had a child. He also speculated in real estate and sold insurance. He spent $30,000 or about $777,000 in today’s money. By all accounts he had purchased top of the line posters, top of the line brochures, top of the line draperies, scenery and even hand carved tables. Almost every mention I could find of Bancroft mentioned his elaborate and beautiful stage settings. What he didn’t spend the money on however were the latest magic effects.

In 1896 Bancroft set out on his own.  The magic in his show consisted of smaller platform style magic and it was very old, one article called it hackneyed. Other seasoned performers could take the same material and make it shine but Bancroft simply did not have the strong personality that Herrmann did. Alexander Herrmann had been performing since the days of the Civil War, and had coaching in the early days from his very popular brother Compars. Bancroft struggled. He had huge a 5 part show, with 3 parts devoted to smaller magic. 

Also in 1896, The Great Herrmann died. And Bancroft, being a smarter businessman than he was a magician, hired Herrmann’s agent, E.L  Bloom. Bloom helped to reshape the Bancroft Show, and I  included at least one illusion in this new version. Dr. A.M. Wilson in the Sphinx mentions that Bancroft was the inventor of The Lions Bride, using Black art. I’d never heard this before. But sure enough there is a poster of Bancrofts that advertises an illusion called LEONII, using an 'untamed lion' named Wallacker. So now Bancroft had a feature to his gigantic production!

E.L Bloom booked Bancroft into a theatre in Charleston, SC on Sept 26th, 1897. Bancroft came down with Typhoid Fever and died. Much like our friend Maro who was featured in Podcast Ep 11 he too died to Typhoid Fever. 

WHAT HAPPENED TO the show following Bancrofts death? Good question. It seemed that it was acquired by Henry A. Dixey, who was managed by Edward Bloom (Bancrofts former manager). Dixey would later debut in NY in his new role as magician in early 1898. By July of 1898, Mahatma Magazine says “Henry Dixey, the comedian who succeeded the late Bancroft, as a magician, has given up magic."

Dorny said of him, “Bancroft had one of the most lavishly mounted magical shows on the road? And a very promising career was cut short by his untimely death”

You might be familiar with the story that Houdini would tell about his early years of struggling, so he sent letters to Maskelyne, Kellar, and Herrmann, inquiring about possible work with them. Well, you can add Bancroft to that list because apparently Houdini had contacted him too, according to Dr. A.M. Wilson in a Dec 1922 Sphinx magazine column. 

Here is a piece also from the Sphinx,
"The spontaneous familiarity of Herrmann and the quiet yet not austere dignity of Kellar gave to their entertainments a fascination never equalled by any other magician on the American Stage. Bancroft could not follow Herrmann. Dixie could not succeed Bancroft. Thurston is not filling the place left by Kellar. Not that Bancroft, Dixie, or Thurston were and are not qualified magicians..."

So it puts into perspective the challenge of taking on someone like a Kellar or a Herrmann. Even with Bancrofts massively beautiful sets and stage decor, it wasn't enough. He did not have the personality to win over audiences. Yet at the same time, his advertisements were so grandiose that it appeared to fool someone like Houdini into thinking that Bancroft was one of the leading performers of his day.
Bancroft lasted barely two years before he died. And many people suggested that over time, Bancroft may have grown into the role that his advertisements portrayed, that of a GREAT Magician. But his premature death ended that.

*There were a couple corrections made to this article. One, originally I posted that Bancroft went into Denistry, but apparently this was not so. This is a mistake that was recorded a couple times in magic periodicals and books. I also mentioned he was born in St. Paul, MN, but he was born in Winona MN in the year 1866. He did later move to St. Paul however.

(Library of Congress Photo)

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Grave of Olive Dot Robinson, Wife of Chung Ling Soo

Dot Robinson being floated by Harry Kellar
When it comes to one of the greatest magician's assistants in history, surely one of the early ones was also one of the best. Olive Robinson was the wife of William E. Robinson. She was born Olive Path and had been with William Robinson since the very beginning of his career. For a time she worked as Harry Kellar's chief assistant in his show. Her husband was stage manager, illusion designer, and even performed his Black Art Act in the show. Olive, or Dot as she was known because of her small size, presented The Cocoon Illusion in Harry Kellar's show. She also was featured in an amazing levitation that was co-created by her husband and several other magicians, the effect was known as Astarte.

Later, when the Robinson's were wooed away by Alexander Herrmann, she became an assistant in his show. Astarte was performed in Herrmann's show also, but it was retitled The Maid of the Moon, and again featured Dot Robinson.

Finally, when William Robinson decided to go out on his own, he presented a show as an Asian character named Chung Ling Soo. His wife Dot was renamed, Suee Seen, and became the chief assistant in her husband's show. So Dot Robinson got to perform with three of the most iconic magicians of their era.

After the tragic death of her husband, who was shot on stage at the Wood Green Empire Theatre in 1918, Dot Robinson quietly fades into the background. The book The Glorious Deception by Jim Steinmeyer, suggests that Dot had become embarrassed by the scandal and controversy involving her husbands death. In 1921, she leaves London without informing her friends there and relocates to New York. She moves not far from many well known magicians, including Houdini. But she never let anyone in America know of her move either. She remained in seclusion throughout the rest of her life. In 1933, Dot Robinson was diagnosed with cancer. She died the following year at the age of 71. Olive 'Dot' Robinson was buried in the Bronx in Woodlawn Cemetery in an unmarked grave. But that's not the end of the story.

In 2016, magic historian, Diego Domingo, started raising money to put a stone marketer on her grave. The dedication for the stone marker was Oct 24th, 2017. Olive Robinson is buried in the Robinson Family plot not far from Williams' brother, and apparently just down the path from one of her former employers Alexander Herrmann. And today she has a proper gravestone.
Photo courtesy Diego Domingo

Friday, May 26, 2017

Adelaide Herrmann For Kids

I stumbled upon this book quite by accident. I found it while searching ebay for vintage magic props. What is it? It's a new children's book all about the life of Adelaide Herrmann by Mara Rockliff.

I have most great things to say about the book. First, it's wonderful to see a book about a different magician (other than Houdini) for the general public and especially kids. Second, it's wonderful to read about a female magician who deserves all the press she can get, both in her time and in ours! Third, the illustrations are phenomenal.

But sadly, there is one negative. It's not something that hindered my reading or my purchase of the book, but I'm a magic fan. They've included the story of the Bullet Catch routine. And though it's historically accurate, schools, libraries and parents are hyper politically correct these days and this one single thing could prevent them from purchasing or reading the book, which is unfortunate I must say. Because I love the book.

The author did a fantastic job covering the life of Adelaide Herrmann. You also get a glimpse of ole Alexander in there as well. And there is a tip of the hat to the two leading Herrmann historians of today, James Hamilton and Margaret Steele. This book came out in 2016, so James would have seen it and I'm sure he loved it. For those unaware, James passed away this week from liver cancer.

If you want to pick up this book, I found my copy on eBay, and I know there are other copies available there as well. The price runs just under $20.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Dot Robinson, Wife of Chung Ling Soo

Olive 'Dot' Robinson was the wife of William Ellsworth Robinson, known professionally as Chung Ling Soo. She was born Olive Path and had been with William Robinson since the very beginning of his career. She worked with him in his Black Art act. When he signed with Kellar, she was there and acted as assistant in the illusions. Later, when they switched over to work with Herrmann the Great, she continued on, performing the illusions as only she could. Her nickname was Dot, due to her small stature. And because of her size, it allowed for very deceptive illusions. Several sources, including Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theatre, mention that she was one of the greatest assistants to ever live. When William Robinson created the Chung Ling Soo character, he renamed his wife Suee Seen.

Her life was not all sunshine and roses however. Though everyone thought she was married to
Robinson, they actually did not marry until 1906.   Robinson had a reputation for being a womanizer and Dot overlooked it all those years. But after the marriage, his extramarital affairs strained their relationship.

In 1918, Chung Ling Soo/William Robinson was shot on stage of the Wood Green Empire Theatre in London while performing the Bullet Catching Illusion. He died as a result of his wound and was buried in London. Dot, remained in London until 1921 when she quietly returned to America. She moved to the Bronx and became a recluse, never again associating with her friends in the magic world.  She died November 13, 1934 from cancer.

Olive 'Dot' Robinson is buried in an unmarked grave in The Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  Other notables in the magic world who are buried there include: Alexander and Adelaide Herrmann, Max Holden, and Black Hermann.

Fellow magic historian, Diego Domingo is now working to raise funds for a grave marker for Olive Robinson. I learned of this at this years Yankee Gathering, when Diego gave a brief talk about Olive and the unmarked grave. As you know, I am a believer in caring for these graves of our brethren, and have contributed to the fund and would like to give you an opportunity to as well, if you so choose.

If you would like to contribute to the fund Checks should be made out to:
Funds have been collected and a new gravestone is in place.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

More Forgotten Illusions-The Decapitation

The Decapitation is an old illusion and I'm not 100% sure of the creator. I know the origin of the illusion dates back hundreds of years. In fact, it might be the very first illusion. It was known as the John the Baptist effect for a long time. The historical John the Baptist was beheaded by King Herod. By 1584, the beheaded John the Baptist was turned into an illusion. It appears in The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginal Scot as 'The Decollation of John the Baptist". In the illustration there is a long table which splits down the middle. Two holes in the table allow one actor to lay upon the table and put their head through, thus looking like the beheaded body, and a second act sitting underneath the table and inserting his head through upwards, so as to look like the head. It was usually set upon a platter or plate that also split in half to allow it to surround the persons head. It was a crude illusion and probably used for church dramas.

If we move forward in time to the mid to late 1800s, we come upon The Decapitation Illusion of
which I'm referring. I know of at least two performers who presented it and given these two were big names in the art, there were likely others performing it as well. The two names are Alexander Herrmann and the other is J.N. Maskelyne. The version of the decapitation illusion they used involved a chair and a cabinet. Both items were made to look like ordinary furniture. The cabinet had glass doors in the front and was filled with bottles and plates. The chair just looked like an apolstered chair. In the effect, a person reclining in the chair would have their head removed and the severed head would be set upon the top of the cabinet. The beheaded body could still move its arms and legs with no problem. The head could smile and talk. I imagine for the Victorian Era audiences this was quite a remarkable and yet grisly illusion.

I saw one at the Salon deMagie, which is Ken Klosterman's wonderful collection of magic artifacts. I think the chair may have belonged to Alexander Herrmann to be honest. I also have a feeling this same chair and cabinet combo may have also been on display at the now burnt down Houdini Museum in Niagra Falls.

The method is really quite remarkable and the workmanship that went into building these things is stellar. Below are two photos from my visit to the Salon de Magie and you can see the Chair and the Cabinet used in The Decapitation Illusion. If you're wondering if the skull is part of the trick, I'm afraid I really don't know for sure.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Golden Age of Magic - In Bronze

I have posted many statues, sculptures, carvings, figurines and busts of magicians. But now it's time for the finest renditions of them all. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you 'The Masters of Magic's Golden Age!

This series of museum quality, limited edition bronze busts are the creation of Mike and Mary Elizalde. This whole project came about because Mike wanted some museum quality busts for his own magic collection. Mike funded the entire project and they were produced through Spectral Motion, the company that he and his wife own and operate. Spectral Motion is among the world's leading creature and makeup effects studios with over 50 films to its credit. Headed up by Academy Award Nominee Mike Elizalde and his wife Mary, Spectral Motion is known for its astounding cinematic effects and an unblemished record of reliability, believability and superb quality. Let's take a closer look at these incredible bronze busts. I'll post them in historical order. 

Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (b.Dec 7,1805 d. June 13, 1871) Known to all of us as the Father of Modern Magic. He was the great French Conjurer who we still revere today. Inventor of many incredible automaton like Antonio Diavolo and the Fantastic Blooming Orange Bush.  Also, creator of incredible magic like the Ethereal Suspension, which in updated forms is still presented today. 

Another of his iconic creations was the Light & Heavy Chest, which was used not only to amaze and impress but also to stop a tribal uprising in French Algeria.  

A full size statue of Robert Houdin resides in front of the Maison de la Magie in Blois France.

Alexander Herrmann (b. Feb 10,1844 d. Dec 17, 1896)
The GREAT Herrmann is considered by many to be the first in the line of the famed Mantle of Magic. He was also a Frenchman, like Houdin, but made his fame here in America. Originally, he worked with his brother Compars, until he went out on his own. Compars Herrmann was equally as famous in Europe as his younger brother was in America. The Herrmann's had a Mephistopholean appearance that added to their mystery and intrigue.

Though he had a very mysterious appearance, his magic and performance was filled with comedy. He was also known to do magic off-stage in public places. Perhaps we should credit Alexander Herrmann with being the creator of 'Street Magic'!

Herrmann died suddenly on a train in 1896. His wife Adelaide took over the show and was joined by her nephew Leon, who also bore a striking resemblance to Alexander.

Harry Kellar (b. July 11, 1849 d. March 10,1922) Here we have the Dean of Magicians. So called, because he was the first 'Dean' of the Society of American Magicians. Harry Kellar was the first nationally famous American born magician. The second in line for the Mantle of Magic, though technically, it really started with him, though some do put Herrmann first.

Kellar began his career as an apprentice to the Fakir of Ava. He went out on his own for a short time and eventually went to work for the Davenport Brothers. When he had a falling out with one of the brothers, he left them and took another employee, William Fay, with him. They toured North and South America and were heading to Europe when a ship wreck ended their tour.

Kellar found his way back to the U.S. and rebuilt his show and went on to  have a flourishing career. He and Herrmann, though not friends, shared a secret that I will reveal a bit later in this article.

HOUDINI (b March 24,1874 d. Oct 31, 1926) The most famous magician in the world, who wanted to be known as an 'escape artist' for much of his life, and then as an actor, producer and later as an author and scientific investigator. Eventually, he would return to magic in a grand way with his Three In One Show of Magic, Escapes and Spiritualist Exposures. Houdini is likely responsible for inspiring more people into magic than anyone alive. I know my own push into magic came from discovering Houdini. 

The creation of the Magic Detective Blog, really has a lot to do with Houdini. There are 172 articles on the blog that are either about or that refer to Harry. The next closest is Harry Kellar with 32. He is an icon, a legend and the bust of Houdini created by Spectral Motion captures Houdini in all his splendor. He looks confident, proud and defiant. It's a fantastic image of the Master Mystifier.

Howard Thurston (b. July 20, 1869 d. April 13, 1936) 
If we talk of the Mantle of Magic, Howard received the Mantle of Magic from Harry Kellar in a ceremony at Ford's Theatre in Baltimore on May 16th, 1908. In all truth, it had more to do with Kellar selling his show to Thurston, but it sure made a great publicity campaign and a tradition that has continued up until present time.

I always thought Thurston was a great performer. But I never quite knew the whole story until Jim Steinmeyer published an incredible biography on Thurston called, The Last Greatest Magician In The World. It is a must read for anyone interested in magic or magic history.

Thurston had been making plans to pass the Mantle of Magic onto one of his associates, Harry Jansen, known professionally as Dante. There was never an official ceremony however because Thurston died suddenly.

Chung Ling Soo (b. April 2, 1861 d. March 23, 1918) 
I must admit when I first looked over the list
of people who were selected for bronzes, the one odd one was Chung Ling Soo, at least to me. He was born William Ellsworth Robinson and in all truth, his inclusion in this list is well deserved. Robinson worked for Alexander Herrmann. Later, he worked for Harry Kellar. Robinson was the 'secret' that I referred to earlier. He worked for the rival magicians before his own rise to fame. He was known as the most knowledgeable man in magic during his time. He played an important part in the success of both. 

Robinson also has a connection to Thurston. He allowed Thurston to show Leon Herrmann his version of the Rising Cards, and when it amazed Herrmann, Thurston publicized himself as 'The Man Who Fooled Herrmann'. The meeting would never have happened without Robinson however.

When Robinson went out on his own, he failed miserably. It wasn't until he came up with the idea of doing an Chinese after seeing Ching Ling Foo, that things really took off for him. So convincing was he in his performance that the public was unaware that Soo was really an American. They truly bought into the idea that he was Chinese. He even used an interpreter when he gave interviews. He is the only real life magician who gets a spot in the movie 'The Prestige'. He also had one of the most tragic deaths in the history of magic having been killed while performing the dangerous Bullet Catching Feat.

All of these busts are a little over 12 inches tall. They are made of bronze and are available for purchase. They were produced in limited quantities of 40, so there isn't a huge supply, but there are some that remain. They are all on display at the Magic Castle if you are interested in seeing them in person. If you want to purchase one of these wonderful works of art, realize you are not buying a mass produced bust from Target or Walmart. These are museum quality and exceptional pieces. If you are interested in purchasing one, and I really encourage you to consider this investment because once they are gone, they will be gone for good. Below is the flyer which has all the information for purchasing. You can reach them at (818)956-6080 or by email at

Special thanks for Mike and Mary Elizalde for providing all the wonderful photographs and for your great contribution to magic.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Maid of the Moon Addition

I wrote an article on an intriguing levitation illusion that had been presented by both Harry Kellar and Alexander Herrmann. It was called Astarte or the Maid of the Moon. I had also posted a video of Doug Henning recreating the illusion for one of his TV specials. Well, at the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History 2013 this illusion was recreated by John Gaughan. And in the January 2014 Digital version of Genii Magazine you can watch a video of the illusion. It is beyond incredible. You  have to check it out! It is a real thing of beauty!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Grave of Herrmann The Great

photo courtesy of Kenneth Hughes

Over on my DeadConjurers blog, I have posted photos of the graves of Adelaide Herrmann and her husband Alexander, known as Herrmann The Great. But recently I came upon THIS photo on and the owner of the photo Kenneth Hughes kindly gave me permission to put the photo up. Just below this image are two grave markers, one for Adelaide and one for Alexander. But I'd never seen the large tombstone before.

I've written a number of articles on Alexander and his wife Adelaide. I'd encourage you to check them out if you've never read them before!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Maid of the Moon Illusion

I have always been intrigued by the poster above, but was never quite sure what the actual effect of this illusion was. 'Maid of the Moon' was a creation of three people William Robinson,  Benjamin B. Keyes of Boston and Will B. Wood. The original idea belonged to Wood who filed for a patent in 1889, but both Keyes and Robinson added things to the concept to take it from a novelty to an amazing act. The original name for the illusion was 'Astarte'.

The illusion first appeared in Harry Kellar's show, as William Robinson and his wife Dot were both working for Kellar at the time. It was a revolutionary illusion for the time. The effect is a levitation where a woman floats upwards and can move up and down, left or right and even spin her body around and turn somersaults. The method was exposed in an article in the Chicago Herald newspaper, but it didn't stop Kellar from performing it. He would eventually alter the name of the illusion to Astarte-Maid of the Moon.

Astarte. A new aerial illusion... Digital ID: 1697168. New York Public LibraryIn 1892, William Robinson and his wife Dot left the employment of Harry Kellar and went to work for Alexander Herrmann. It's obvious by the poster, that Robinson either built the Astarte illusion for Herrmann or took it with him when he left the employment of Harry Kellar as it was included in Herrmann's touring show under the title 'Maid of the Moon'. I could not find a Kellar poster advertising Astarte, though he did advertise other levitations over the years. The Herrmann poster for the illusion is breathtaking, and honestly, more beautiful than the effect really is, but I'm judging it by modern standards and perhaps for it's time it too was incredible.

In Kellars Wonders by Mike Caveney and Bill Meisel, there is a picture from the original patent papers showing the elaborate mechanics of the trick.

Astarte was dropped from Kellar's show during his never ending quest for the ideal levitation. It was likely dropped from the Herrmann show after Alexander's death. As better and more realistic levitations were created, Astarte was soon forgotten. That is until 1980, when Doug Henning added Astarte to one of his World of Magic TV Specials. In this special he used Loreen Yarnell as his floating subject. The video below shows Doug Henning presenting Astarte. Enjoy!

By the way, the above poster is also on the latest issue of Magicol Magazine.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Adelaide Herrmann and the 1926 Fire

Warehouse on 46St NYC
This is a story I had read about in different books over the years, but always in snippets. I never quite knew the whole story and now thanks to the publication of Adelaide Herrmann's Memoirs, I've got more information. But I'm also going back to other sources to pull out the various discussions of the event because other historical figures get involved.

Adelaide Herrmann was the widow of Alexander Herrmann, known as Herrmann The Great. After Alexander died in their traincar in December of 1896, Adelaide decided to take a version of their show out. She chose Alexander's nephew Leon to fill the male role and she sent for him in Europe.
They toured together for three seasons until personality clashes caused them to part ways.

Adelaide had inherited all of the properties from the original Herrmann the Great show and these were stored in a warehouse near 37th St in New York City.  However, Mrs. Herrmann had been notified that the warehouse building that held all her equipment was due to be demolished and she would need to find a new location. The new warehouse was at 611 46th Street NYC.  Along with all the props, costumes, scenery, and illusions were also all of Adelaide's animals that she used during her 'Noah's Ark' routine.

On the morning of September 7th, 1926, an explosion occurred at the warehouse and the building was engulfed in flames. All 200 animals perished in the fire, along with an animal trainer and the majority of the Herrmann props. Apparently, one crate remained unharmed but was later broken into by thieves so nothing remained of the Herrmann legacy.

What caused the fire? The New York Times reported that an alcohol still, or several stills, hidden on the roof of the warehouse had exploded causing the fire.

It would seem that Adelaide Herrmann's show business career was over. However, a number of professional performers came to her aid. Among them was the President of the Society of American Magicians, Harry Houdini, who donated a Noah's Ark Illusion to replace the one that had been destroyed by fire. Harry Blackstone Sr. also helped Mrs. Herrmann by donating equipment. She quickly put together a new act and was up and running by October 1926.

Though the majority of the props owned and used by the Herrmann's had been destroyed in the Sept 7th warehouse fire, some props still remain today in private collections. Among the props that still exist are a Pistol used by Alexander Herrmann to vanish rings and a pair of Rapping Hands, both in the collection of Ray Goulet. Also Ken Klosterman has a center table that belonged to Herrmann, and the magic wand that used by Alexander Herrmann, which once was owned by Houdini, is now in the Copperfield collection. There may be other props scattered among collectors but those are a few I'm aware of.

Below is a photo of the location of the 611 46th Street warehouse. You'll see today it still remains a shell of it's former self. However, at the top of the page is a photo of 609 46th Street,  a warehouse that has been there since 1879 and this is very likely exactly what Adelaide Herrmann's warehouse once looked like. One other note, this location is walking distance from the pier where the USS Intrepid is docked and also where one of the NASA Space Shuttles now sits on display.
Location of Adelaide Herrmann's Warehouse & Fire

Milbourne Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic
M-U-M Magazine, March 1981, article 'Ladies of the Hall of Fame' by Colette Cozean
Genii Magazine August 2000, article 'Adelaide Herrmann' by James Hamilton
M-U-M Magazine, May 2011, article 'Adelaide Herrmann & The SAM' by Margaret Steele
Frank Dudgeon with Ann Goulet, RAY GOULET Recollections of a Renaissance Man
Adelaide Herrmann & Margaret Steele, Adelaide Herrmann Queen of Magic, Memoirs

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Queen of Magic - Book Review

A while ago I mentioned that Margaret Steele had published the recently discovered memoirs of Adelaide Herrmann. But at the time I had not read the book. I was unaware that the book would be released not only in a hardbound edition but also in trade paperback version. This is exciting news because the book is much more affordable and easily accessible.

The bulk of this book (30 chapters) was written by Adelaide Herrmann. These were the Memoirs of her life with Alexander Herrmann and then her own career after he passed on. Sadly, she did not quite finish the book. She did complete the section on her life with Alexander but the part about her own career stops at a particular part which I plan to cover in a separate blog later.

Margarete Steele edited the book and then gathered additional information, such as all the articles that Adelaide ever wrote on magic and reprints of newspaper articles and similar articles of interest. There were no corrections in the language of the times, so there are occasions when Mrs. Herrmann was not politically correct by modern standards.

As to the content of the book, it is simply amazing. I've always enjoyed the brief biographies of the Herrmann's that appear in various magic books, but always yearned to know more. In this book, we learn that there was a rivalry between the two brothers Compars and Alexander and that they didn't speak for a period of time. I'm not sure still if they reconciled their differences. Adelaide implies they did but it's really tough to say.

One of the things I love about Alexander Herrmann was that he chose to a magician both on and off the stage. He was 'street magic' 100+ years before David Blaine and others were even born. He would cut open fruit to find coins inside while at a market. He would often produce a diamond ring from a biscuit or piece of bread, which had backfired on him on one occasion. A waitress took the ring and did not want to give it back! Alexander had to plead with the restaurant owner to retrieve his ring.

I was fascinated to learn that Alexander Herrmann was doing the 'muscle pass' with a coin as far back as the 1890s. For some reason I thought this effect was a bit more modern, but Adelaide properly describes his method for causing a coin to apparently float up from one hand to the other through the use of muscle control.

Adelaide doesn't go into specifics on the amount of money that Alexander made over the course of his lifetime but it had to be millions. He invested in theatres long before that kind of thing was popular. The Herrmanns you see were on the scene before Vaudeville came about. Herrmann's idea of buying theatrical properties and putting shows in them was just ahead of it's time.

Herrmann was also very generous and on more than one occasion took it upon himself to help pay expenses for other performing troupes. His generosity and his excessive spending had left them with very little money at the time that Herrmann passed away. It's clear that the hope was the restore their money by the end of their tour, however Alexander died midway.

In the book, The Illustrated History of Magic by Milbourne Christopher, there is a wonderful photo of Herrmann's house, known as Whitestone Manor on Long Island Sound. There is an even better photo of it in the book. It's a beautiful property but apparently, Herrmann only leased the property he did not actually own it.

Herrmann loved purchasing extravagent items like his  Herrmann Railcar. This train car was originally owned by actress Lily Langtry and Herrmann purchased it from her. The book contains photos of the interior and the exterior of the train car. As it turns out, Alexander Herrmann would die upon this train car in December 1896. They also owned a yacht which they called Fra Diavolo.

After her husband died, she went out on her own, first with her nephew Leon and then as a solo act. Apparently, she never spoke on stage, all of her work was done silently. She also incorporated special dances into her act as well. Her husband was known as an excellent sleight of hand artist and while he was alive Adelaide never ventured into that part of performing. But after he died, she began to learn and develop her own Billiard Ball Manipulation act, which takes a great deal of skill.

Adelaide and Alexander were remarkable people from a unique time in history. They were performing during the days of the Wild West right up until just before Vaudeville started. Eventually, Adelaide became a popular Vaudeville attraction in her own right.

This book is a must have for any magic historian or magic enthusiast. Margaret Steele has done a fine job which really feels like a labor of love from all parties involved. I saw the book listed on the Barnes & Noble website so it's even available to the general public which is exciting. For the price, you just can't beat it!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Devil Made Them Do It

The Devilish Connection

Magic has a long history of being associated with the devil and the dark arts. The book, 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.

I'm not sure who the first magician was to use the devil/imp idea in their marketing & advertising, but it may have come out of the old Phantasmagoria Shows of the early 1800s. These were magic lantern shows, where images of angels, demons, devils, or simply recently departed people were projected onto a wall, or screen or thru smoke giving the illusion of movement. They were a popular form of entertainment in the their time. Magicians were often on the cutting edge of science & technology and so many of the people demonstrating the magic lanterns were from the magic trade.

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.

In America, Robert Heller made more blatant use of the demonic imagery. His early posters were primitive and usually in a single color, but towards the end of his career he began to use two color playbills and posters with the devils appearance becoming more prominent. At one point in his career he adopted the slogan "Go To HELLers!" and would have print up flyers with this headline and information about the show. Some of these flyers were specifically sent to local churches. The clergymen would attend the programs to see what was going on and often return to tell their congregations about the wonderful entertainment they had seen. I can't help but imagine this scheme had to backfire a time or two, but it was a bold ploy and it worked for Robert Heller.

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.

The two most prominent performers to use full color lithographs and devilish imagery were Alexander Herrmann and Harry Kellar. Which one of them used the devil images first is open to debate. My guess would be Herrmann, afterall he looked just like the Victorian eras depiction of Mephistopheles himself. The suave devil with small horns, mustache and goatee and a pitchfork is an invention from this time period. No such description of the devil exists in any biblical texts, so where the origin of this image actually comes from I've not been able to uncover.

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. Two devilish figures appear on a poster for his Spirit Cabinet, this can be seen on page 242 of Kellars 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 (right) with the whispering imps is probably the most copied posters in the annals of magic.

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.
If you're interested in ordering one of David Blaine's very cool posters, they are available at
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

Friday, September 2, 2011

Houdini & The Herrmann Connection

Houdini and Compars Herrmann
I had heard speculation that Houdini and the Herrmann Family (Compars and Alexander) were related but I always thought it was more of a myth. As it turns out, the Kalush biography does spell it out a bit more and explains they were first cousins through marriage. However, here is the family connection in Houdini's own words.

"Knew Blanche Corelli very well, and it may surprise you to know that my father's first wife
was a first cousin to Compars Herrmann's first wife. Rosa Csillag. My dear old Dad and Compars Herrmann were great companions and for business reasons have never given out the facts, because they might think that at one time I was seeking publicity."
The last line of this is priceless, Houdini fearing someone might think he was just out to seek publicity! lol. This is from a letter Houdini wrote to Frederick Eugene Powell.

In his day, Compars Herrmann was enormously successful in Europe and very well known. Compars had one child by the name of Maria Dorothea Herrmann. She was named after the daughter of the Belgian Archduke Josef Palatin and his wife whose name was Dorothea. Maria would grow up to become a fairly well known opera singer and change her name to Blanche Corelli. My article here centers on Herrmann's daughter, Houdini's cousin, Blanche Corelli. Incidentally, Blanche herself would often tell people that she and Houdini were related. To make it easy, I'll refer to Compars daughter from here on out by her stage name Blanche Corelli.

Compar's daughter
I honestly had never heard her name before. She is mentioned in a single sentence in the Herrmann biography by H. Burlingame. She does appear in a few magic periodicals, but again, mentioned briefly as attending German magic society meetings. I found her by stumbling upon an extremely interesting website devoted to a man named Hall Lippincott, If you've heard of the famous Lippincott Box which was created by Jack Lippincott, well Hall was Jack's first cousin. Hall's daughter Cindy put together an incredible website about her father and his exploits traveling around the world. The information was taken from her father's journals and from letters he had written. One of the people that Hall Lippincott encountered on his journey was Madam Blanche Corelli. Hall and Blanche exchanged so many letters that Cindy Lippincott created a separate site for Ms. Corelli.

Postcard showing the students of Blanche Corelli
It's hard to know where to begin. So let's just start with what I know. Blanche was born Feb 4, 1853 in Odessa Russia. She was the daughter of Compars Herrmann and his first wife Rose.  Rose Szchlig (as Houdini spelled it) sang in the Imperial Opera of Vienna, the proper spelling of her name is Rosa Csillag. Her daughter Blanche would follow in her mothers shoes and one day became an operetta vocalist.  One book I found says that 'Blanche Corelli' was actually a stage name and her real name was Blanche Crillae, though her actual real name was Maria Dorothea. She would one day live in America and have her own opera company. Eventually Blanche returned to Germany and started a family. She changed from singing in the opera to becoming one of the most well known and sought after music teachers in all of Germany.
An online search for Blanche Corelli brings up several pages where her name is mentioned either in conjunction with her Opera Company or as a music teacher. But the only place that I could find that really reveals who this woman really was is the site created by Cindy Lippincott.

Houdini was aware of the family connection and he knew and corresponded with Blanche. In one letter he wrote to Blanche he signs his name 'Harry Houdini-ski". In another letter he begins with "My Dear Dear Blanche Corelli, You note that I call  you dear dear, that means I want something from  you." which is a very funny line to start the letter.

Another line of interest reads "PLEASE dont refuse, for if you do, when I play a return to Berlin, I will tell Ike Rose." This line makes no sense to me today, so I tried to research who 'Ike Rose' was. Turns out there was an Ike Rose who managed a troupe of midgets. So I take it that the line was written in jest, again showing the friendly terms that Houdini and Blanche Corelli were on.

On a different note, I found the red/white/blue Houdini sticker at the top of the letter to be quite interesting. The very same sticker was placed over the back of the envelope that the letter was sent in. Take a closer look.

Getting back to Blanche, when she met Hall Lippincott she was 75 years old and living in Berlin. They stayed in touch through letters all the way into 1939. The letters are revealing in many ways. From a historical perspective, remember in 1933 Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and it was that same year that the first Concentration Camp was opened. But her letters describe the conditions in Germany as being bad as early as 1931.

It's clear that Blanche is not a wealthy woman and money is an issue at this time of her life. She tried unsuccessfully to obtain money from her fathers estate. When Adelaide Herrmann died Blanche tried to obtain something from her Aunt's Adelaide's estate. Blanche reveals that she was the one who kept after Alexander Herrmann, her Uncle, to marry Adelaide. Sadly, Adelaide gambled away her money and left pretty much nothing when she died. And to make matters worse, poor Blanche ended up getting into a battle of words with Herrmann family members here in the U.S..

What eventually happened to Blanche Corelli is unknown. Her last letter to Hall Lippincott was in 1939 when she would have been 86 years old. I can't help but hope she died quietly of old age in her home and not suffered the fate of many Jewish residents of Berlin Germany in the 1930s.

I have a personal interest in the Houdini/Herrmann connection, because I too have a Herrmann in my family tree. I've not been able to dig deep enough to discover if there is a connection to Compars & Alexander & Blanche, but even if there is, my connection is via marriage and regardless I would not be a blood relation only related through marriage.

If you'd like to read the letters that Compars Herrmann's daughter wrote you can read them by going to

I want to extend a huge thank you to Cindy Lippincott for letting me use the photos on this blog and for creating the site that records such incredible information about not only Blanche Corelli but also her father Hall Lippincott, one very amazing individual.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Civil War Era Magicians Part 3

In part 1 of this series, I told you about John Henry Anderson, The Great Wizard of the North who was actually Scottish. He was one of the early performers to present the Rabbit from Hat Trick. Anderson went into debt during the Civil War because he was unable to pull in the attendance needed for his shows. After a difficult run-in with the people of Richmond VA who didn't take too kindly to his title, "The Great Wizard of the NORTH" he stayed mostly in the Northern States and catered to Northern Audiences.

Next was a true southerner, William Augustus Reich, better known as Guss Rich, The Wizard of The Blue Ridge. Gus played drums in the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band and thus was part of the Confederate Army. His performances outside of his regular duties raised money for the Confederate Soldiers. He survived the war and lived a long life.

This time we visit another European who happened to be touring the United States just as the Civil War broke out. This person was Compars Herrmann, the elder brother of Alexander Herrmann. Compars was very well known all over Europe for his special brand of conjuring. In 1861, he came to America and began to perform in New Orleans. As the Civil War broke out Compars headed north to New York.

Unlike his competitor, John Henry Anderson who struggled during the War to bring in crowds, Compars was setting attendance records. Interestingly, both John Henry Anderson and Compars Herrmann used pirated Robert-Houdin props in their show. However, Compars had a huge advantage over Anderson in that he was also adept at sleight of hand. This ability set him apart from his competition and made him a must-see attraction.

In November of 1861, Compars Herrmann was in the Nations Capital to perform. The National Republican Newspaper wrote this about his performance, "This extraordinary magician gave his first entertainment in this city at the Theatre, last evening. The house was crowded to repletion by a large and fashionable audience. Mr. Herrmann in his performances fully realized all the wonderful things that have been said about him, and left the impression upon the minds of the audience that they had seen "Old Nick" himself." (Old Nick was another name for The Devil)

East Room of the White House in the 1800s
During his stay in Washington D.C., Compars Herrmann was invited to perform at the White House for President Abraham Lincoln and his invited guests. This took place in the East Room of the White House where many celebrities have performed over the years. At one point during his show, Herrmann handed a deck of cards to President Lincoln asking the President to shuffle the cards. President Lincoln handed the cards to his Secretary of War and said "This man shuffles the cards for me at present".

Compars Herrmann's assistant during this engagement was his 18 year old younger brother Alexander. Together they presented 'The Second Sight Routine' no doubt just like Robert-Houdin and his son Emile used to present.

In 1862, Alexander Herrmann went off on his own to perform and Compars remained.  Compars performed throughout the Northern States during the Civil War and in 1863 he left America and headed to England. It seems that Alexander didn't come back to America until 1869, after the Civil War had ended.

NEXT: Signor Blitz Another Civil War Era Magician.