Monday, January 22, 2018
With the recent release of the movie, The Greatest Showman, I've once again become intrigued with Barnum. I will say that this movie has about as much to do with Barnum as the Tony Curtis movie about Houdini had to do with Houdini. But, like the Tony Curtis movie, it's an enjoyable film.
I'd like to examine the real Barnum for a moment, specifically his connection to the world of magic. If you're unaware, his connection is huge. Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel CT, July 5th 1810. Consider, Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, Robert Houdin was born 1805 and you'll begin to understand where Barnum fits in history's timeline.
In 1836, Barnum had created something he called "Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theatre." This was a traveling troupe of performers and had on the bill a gentleman by the name of Joe Pentland. Mr. Pentand was a magician, and at some point, Barnum acted as hidden assistant to his act. This job seems to be shortlived however, as one faithful performance, Barnum, while hiding inside a table, was bitten by a squirrel, which caused him to straighten his neck and legs and thus collapse the table which he had been hidden inside of.
In February of 1837, Barnum sold half his interest in Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theatre to a man named Henry Hawley. Mr. Hawley was a magician who performed many standard tricks of the day, including the 'egg and bag trick'. According to Barnum's Autobiography, Barnum's Own Story, this was the trick were multiple eggs are produced from a bag, and then eventually a live chicken. This is quite different from the 'egg and bag trick' many of us are familiar with today. This was the original age old version that dated back to the time of Issac Fawkes. Hawley, remained with the show until August 1837, when Barnum dissolved their partnership.
In 1841, Barnum purchased Scudder's American Museum. Scudder's was a run down place featuring mostly taxidermy displays. When Barnum took it over, he transformed the building inside and out. He added performers, freak show entertainers and more. Among his most popular freak show entertainers was General Tom Thumb. Barnum met Tom (Charles Stratton), when the boy was only 4 years old. He brought him to his museum and soon took him on a tour of Europe.
Barnum first sets up shop in London, at a place that would one day be known for magic, Egyptian Hall. In here he shared many curiosities, automaton, and General Tom Thumb. It wasn't long before Barnum and company received an invitation to visit the Queen. The company was coached in proper etiquette, but that would go awry when young Tom Thumb would speak out of turn to Queen Victoria. She loved it. And Barnum and company were invited back a second time to the palace.
Barnum attended the World Exposition in Paris, while on tour in Europe in 1844, . This is where he happened to see Robert-Houdin and his many wonderful automaton, for the first time. Barnum was most intrigued with Houdin's latest creation, The Writing and Drawing automaton. The device was a small human like figure who was very lifelike in both appearance and physical action. By all accounts it was much more than a wind up novelty, this automaton wrote or drew according to the question asked.
During the exhibition, King Louis Phillipe attended and made a special arrangement to visit with
The final test involved the automaton's ability as an artist. The King turned to the Comte de Paris who was in the King's entourage, and said, "choose your own subject for a drawing." The prince who was heir to the thrown, chose a crown to be drawn. The automaton began to fashion a crown on the piece of paper but in the midst of drawing the pencil lead broke, preventing the drawings completion. The King spoke up and said to the Comte de Paris, "As you have learned to draw, you can finish this for yourself." The Christian Fechner book, The Magic of Robert Houdin An Artists Life Volume 1, points out that this was a forewarning of events to come, as the Comte de Paris never took the thrown.
In the book, Struggles and Truimphs: Forty Years' Recollections of P.T. Barnum, by Barnum, he shares the story of meeting Robert Houdin. Barnum attended the Exposition specifically to find new curiostities for his museum, and right there he purchased from Houdin the Writing & Drawing Automaton, along with numerous other automatons. While in Paris, Barnum attended Robert Houdin's Soirees Fantastic, and was always introduced by Houdin to the other attendees.
Barnum sent the Writing & Drawing Automaton to London to be put on display and then later shipped it off to his museum in NYC. Sadly, the fire which destroyed the Barnum museum in 1865 destroyed the legendary Houdin automaton, along with many other irreplaceable treasures.
Let me back up slightly to 1856. At this time in history, there were three names that reigned supreme in American Magic History, Signor Blitz, Wyman the Wizard, and Jonathan Harrington. They all had similar acts which included magic, ventriloquism, and imitations. Ventriloquism back then was different from what we think of today. They used no mechanical dummies to speak through. Rather, they 'threw their voice' and made it appear that sounds, and talking, were coming from other places. In regards to the imitations, they would recreate the sounds made by animals, birds, even machinery and such. All three gentlemen were well known by Barnum. In fact, Barnum had hired Harrington previously to perform for him at an exhibit in Boston. Blitz performed at Niblo's Garden, right near the Barnum Museum, and was on friendly terms with Barnum. Blitz in fact, may have been the most famous magician in the country at the time. It's said that there were 13 other performers working throughout the U.S. claiming the name Signor Blitz. Finally, we come to Wyman the Wizard, who was extremely popular and one of the most financially successful magicians of his time.
There is an interesting event that took place in 1855 when Barnum had invited Blitz to witness the
In the late 1850s Barnum was back on England on a lecture tour. He hired the famous European magician, Kratky Baschik to perform on his tour. I would surmise that Barnum was always on the hunt for talent and oddities in his travels. For example, in 1873, he featured an Italian Magician by the name of Patrizio, who performed a feat known as, "Catching a Live Cannon Ball". It was also around this time he hired Professor Verbeck from France to tour with his show in the United States.
The Illustrated History of Magic by Milbourne Christopher describes John Henry Anderson, The Great Wizard of the North, "as the Barnum of nineteenth century bafflers." The book goes on to describe how Anderson would not just put up one or two posters advertising his shows, but rather he would paper the town, covering every available inch of space on a wall. The book even claims he put posters on the Pyramids in Egypt and on the cliffs of Niagara Falls! Anderson is also credited with the grand parade that was later copied by many circuses. One wonders who came up with this first, Anderson or Barnum? But, looking at his period of time, John Henry Anderson was born in 1814 and died in 1874. And, Barnum and Anderson knew each other well. The Illustrated History of Magic shares a story of Barnum having dinner with Anderson and the later introducing people to Barnum saying, 'he is the Great Wizard of the North'. He apparently played along at first but then started giving out 'free tickets' to people who came over. Once the REAL Great Wizard of the North realized what was happening he quickly reclaimed his title and put a stop to the free tickets!
It turns out that Joseph Faber was a German inventor, scientist who in 1840 created the first talking automaton. But because of the lack of interest in the device, he destroyed it! In 1844 he built another one but discouragement soon set in due to lack of interest and he again destroyed it. In 1845 he was building another one. What was this device? It was made almost entirely of wood and rubber and had a keyboard which could produce various sounds. The device also had a bellows which created the flow of air combined with the keyboard made the sounds. A female face was mounted to the device and in 1846, Barnum found out about it and purchased or leased it, I'm not 100% certain which. He sent the inventor and the machine to London where it was exhibited at Egyptian Hall. The inventor and the device made it's way through Europe before coming back to America and being put on display at Barnum's Museum.
Barnum continued to feature the device, even in his traveling circus as late as 1873. To the right is a photograph of the automaton taken by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.
I know there are more connections to magic by Barnum, I have not uncovered them all. In my next article, I'll be sharing a fascinating story of another artist who often gets compared to Barnum. It's quite the revelation, and one you'll want to read!
Houdini and Barnum
Saturday, June 21, 2014
|Robert Heller and his Peacock Automaton
As fascinated as I am by Heller, I must now admit, I also have an odd fascination for the so-called Peacock Automaton. I had seen one in the collection of Ken Klosterman (Salon de Magie) and assumed it was Robert-Houdin's Peacock. In his book 'The Memoirs of Robet-Houdin', the author mentions seeing the 'magic peacock' in a show presented by Phillipe. Researching this unusual creature I found that according to Harry Houdini, Robert-Houdin claimed to have created it. But Houdini, in his book 'The UnMasking of Robert-Houdin' makes the claim that Houdin did not create it but rather ripped it off.
Actually, it appears that though there were Automaton Peacocks prior to the Houdin version, his was different in operation and mechanics, so Houdini got that one wrong. I actually assumed, like Houdini, that all these birds were the same. But their appearance is deceiving. They do share a few attributes, one being the realistic look of a peacock and the ability to take the tail feathers and raise them and spread the giant plumage for display. But that is where the similarities stop.
An even earlier playbill from 1803, belonging to a performer named de Philipsthal, also from 'The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin' reads as follows, "The MECHANICAL PEACOCK, which exactly imitates the Actions of that flately Bird, that is has frequently been thought Alive. It eats, drinks & at command, unfold its Tail in a brilliant circle, and in every respect seems endowed with an intuitive Power of attending to the Thoughts of the Company." Frankly, that sounds pretty amazing to me.
I believe the Robert-Houdin bird was different from the above automatons and I base this on the illustration used by Heller and a similar illustration used by another Robert-Houdin imitator. Let me point out that Robert Heller began his career by doing an act which was essentially a duplication or imitation of Robert-Houdin.
Heller obtained his props from a mechanic named LeGrand who worked for Robert-Houdin. This is the same man who sold props to John Henry Anderson as well. This duplication of props was going on behind the back of Robert-Houdin, and when he found out he called the authorities and LeGrand faced prison time because of his theft. But the damage had already been done and untold props from the Houdin show were now out and being used by his competitors. These included: The Ethereal Suspension, The Fantastic Orange Tree, the Peacock, and numerous other automaton.
Other performers of the time had Automaton Peacocks in their shows which can be seen in their advertisements. I think some of these were like the automatons listed above, true actual automatons, clock-work mechanical devices that could imitate a few actions of the bird. But the Robert-Houdin automaton appears to not be a true automaton, but rather what is referred to as a false automaton. This means it was partly mechanical but also relied upon human aid to perform it's functions. If the Heller illustration is any indication, the bird sat upon a raised platform and was able to grab selected playing cards with it's beak. It probably also moved it's head and raised it's plumage, but the action of grabbing a selected card may have been the work of a hidden assistant. That doesn't lesson the impact of the effect and to my way of thinking, is just as much a mechanical marvel as the others. Houdin was known to use both true automaton and false automaton in his show, so it makes possible that the Peacock was a false automaton. And Heller, who had purchased duplicate props of Houdin, was using The Harlequin as well as the Peacock, and the Harlequin was also a false automaton.
While doing research online for this article I came across a photo for an item listed as The
For those who might be curious, in the late 1800s, a company called Roulette & Decamps out of Paris France was producing the Peacock Automaton for the general public. They made three versions of the Peacock, a small, a medium and a larger version with a music box inside. All three of their Peacocks had the ability to walk, moves its head and raise it's plumage. One of the Roulette & Decamps Automatons can be seen in the video below. By the way, the Peacock in the Klosterman collection is one of these Roulette & Decamps Automatons. It is identical to the bird in the video, so my initial assumption that it was Robert-Houdin's was incorrect.
*I don't have access to all of the Robert-Houdin books on magic, so I'm unsure if his Peacock and it's workings were listed in a book I missed. If anyone knows and can enlighten me, please do. I make an assumption that Houdin's automaton was a false one, which I also found similar statements online. But with Houdin's knowledge of clockworks, it's just as possible the bird was 100% mechanical.
Sunday, May 27, 2012
In Jan of 2009, I put up a blog about Robert Heller at my old blog( which is now deceased). I added a little biographical information as well. But in my now voracious quest to learn everything there is to know about Victorian aged magic, I kept returning to Heller. In January 2011, I wrote a three part article on Heller for THIS blog. But I held back on covering the actual 'magic' he presented. I'd like to explore a little of his magic.
If anyone has information on the location of any of Heller's equipment and props, please drop me an email as I would love to feature them here!
This time it involves one of his automatons, The Harlequin. I should point out, it was not his invention. Robert Houdin also had The Harlequin in his show, and it was also not his invention. The Harlequin Automaton dates back to the 1700’s and was the creation of a dutch mechanic by the name of Opre. The effect was that the magician would bring out a small chest and set it on a table. He would then knock on the lid which would open and slowly a harlequin doll would poke its head out. It would eventually flip out of the box and sit on the edge of the chest. It could turn it’s head, take bows and even smoke a pipe!
Apparently the original Harlequins used in the 1800s were false automatons. This means they were mechanical, but they were operated by a hidden assistant. True automatons were all mechanical and relied solely upon their inner clockworks to achieve their results.
I recently saw a picture of a Harlequin automaton in the collection of John Gaughan. I don’t know whose Harlequin it was, so it very well might have belonged to Heller. Pierre Mayer, a wonderful modern day automaton creator has built a miniature version out of wood. Pierre Mayer's version is a simplified rendition, but still quite intriguing. And for those interested, please enjoy this short video of Pierre Mayer’s modern Harlequin automaton.
If anyone has information on the location of any of Heller's equipment and props, please drop me an email as I would love to feature them here!