William John Hilliar was born in Oxford England November 27th, 1876. He is not to be confused with John Northern Hilliard with a D, who was famous for the book Greater Magic among other things.
William J. Hilliar’s first exposure to magic was via the pages of Charles Dickens All the Year Round. This was a weekly British literary periodical, owned and published by Charles Dickens. He would often write of the exploits of magicians and his own magic exploits as he was an amateur conjurer. In addition, William’s father told him about the wonderful theatre known as Egyptian Hall and the fabulous conjurers there.
It’s safe to say young Hilliar was obsessed with magic. He devoured the magic books of the time, He purchased magic props when he was able, and saw various magicians including the celebrated Dr. Lynn of Palagenisia fame. Despite his father wanting him to become a lawyer, young Bill Hilliar wanted only to become a magician. Some biographies of Hilliar mention he became interested in magic when he saw Bosco perform. He mistakenly thought this performer was the famed Bosco. However, Bartelomeo Bosco died in 1863, before Hilliar was even born. The man who Hilliar saw was likely a good or decent copycat using Bosco’s name. This is pointed out in great details in the pages of The Conjurers Monthly Magazine in an article by Houdini.
BTW, Hilliar’s own audition before Maskelyne and Devant was less than earth shattering. Nerves set in when he realized that only two people were watching, the aforementioned Maskelyne and Devant. Hilliar dropped, knocked over, spilled, and flopped every routine in his audition. Damn those nerves! Thankfully though he did not allow this one situation to destroy his resolve. He pushed forward, practicing and rehearsing and eventually becoming, as you will say, a very accomplished magician.
Hilliar as a magician, first appeared on the December 1900 issue of Mahatma Magazine. The article mentions he is 24 now but has had 9 years of experience performing before the public. Two of his specialties were Shadowgraphy and sleight of hand. It isn’t well known but he began his performing career under the name Professor Lennox, this monicor didn’t last long however.
As the article in Mahatma reveals, Hilliar got his start working with a touring vaudeville company. And after two years of touring through England, he went out and created his own touring company. He also created a show full of magic and novelty, including: ventriloquism, juggler and mentalism. But special mention has been made to his manipulative skill, specifically, his skill with coins. The articles says he is second only to T.Nelson Downs in that area of conjuring. That’s high praise, indeed. Here is a write-up on Hilliar from a leading English Society Paper, “
A young magician named Hilliar, is working his way rapidly to the fore, and it suggests itself to me that in teh near future he will make a stir in the world. He is a marvelous wonder-worker, and his sleight of hand is phenomenal. After witnessing his performance one begins to doubt whether what we see is a reality. Who knows whether most of the things of beauty that delight our vision are but mere illusions? After looking upon the brilliant legerdemain of this conjuror one is so lost in amazement that one begins to doubt the reality fo existence. Who knows? Perhaps its all sham. The longer one lives the less certain one is of anything. Mr. Hilliar last night delighted the audience of St. Georges Hall with an exhibition that gave as much delight as it caused curiosity. A time is not far distant when this rising young prestidigitator will be sought for by the best hosts in London who would give joy to their friends. As an addition to any evenings entertainment, Professor Hilliar’s services are an acquisition”
We also learn here that Hilliar is also representing T. Nelson Downs as manager of his magic company. And speaking of Downs, on my podcast on Tommy Downs, episode #23, you’ll hear me mention Hilliar several times in relation to Downs. One of the reasons was because it was William Hilliar who ghost wrote Tommy Downs book on Coin Manipulation in 1901.
With the encouragement of T.Nelson Downs, Howard Thurston made the trek to England to perform as The King of Cards. And he too became a sensation. His act consisted of card manipulations, card scaling and a duck production. Interestingly, in the press the emphasis was placed upon his skill at palming cards and not on the ‘magical appearance’ of the act. This was common for the time. There is no denying Thurston was a skilled manipulator. And to show just how strong of a card man he was, he had to eventually pull the duck production because it just seemed so out of place amongst such a strong card act.
As he had done with Tommy Downs, Hilliar introduced himself to Thurston and apparently offered to ghost write a book for him as well. Howard Thurston’s Card Tricks was the name of the book. Hilliar wrote the entire book, even creating material for the book as well.
Several things happen in 1902. For one, William Hilliar moves to the United States. Two he writes his own book called, The Modern Magician’s Handbook.
chose Harry Kellar to grace the cover of the first issue. One of the most amazing things in this issue is the inclusion of the Great Gold Fishing Trick. He gives the complete history, mentioning that it was the creation of a fellow named ‘Professor Mingus’. He includes a picture of Minguses, letterhead, showing the fish trick. and says the first to do the trick after Mingus were Robinson and Goldin. But what’s fascinating is that he says Mingus played Tony Pastors for One week. and during that week Both Robinson and Goldin saw the show. NO MENTION is givin of their getting Minguses permission to duplicate it. Only that they built their own. We can’t know either way unfortunately. But just as odd, after the trick appeared in the Sphinx, Mingus himself wrote two other articles about the trick for Mahatma, revealing the parts of the trick that were left out in the Sphinx article. So perhaps Mingus was eager to see his trick performed by others after all.
In the second issue of the Magazine we find our old friend Henry Ridgely Evans writing a column. We learned a bit about him in Ep 62 of the podcast.
Strangely however, by Issue #7, it seems Hilliar was ready to move on. Issue #8 abruptly posted that “Mr Hilliar is no longer connected with The Sphinx, but has kindly consented to furnish gratuitous an article each month, which will be of great interest to those interested in magic.”
What happened? One assertion was the Hilliar just deserted The Sphinx, perhaps in favor of another job opportunity. From a 1905 issue of The Sphinx we find, “It was largely due to the aid and advice of Mr. Harry S. Thompson (afforded M. Inez and Co.) that The Sphinx was kept alive after its desertion by W.J. Hilliar, and it was Mr. Thompson who induced Dr. Wilson to take up the editorial work. BTW, in 1905, Hilliar was performing in Vaudeville in the U.S..
But get this, in 1902 Hilliar was starting something he called Hilliar’s Magicians Scrapbook. He even took advanced orders on the project. This was an interesting concept. It was basically a book with the chapters spelled out and a single trick in each section. However, after the single trick there would be several blank pages. I think it said that each chapter would have 10 pages. The idea was this would be a subscription and each month, Hilliar would send you the latest trick(s) formatted to fit within the book. All you had to do was paste the page in place. Eddie Dawes, in his column, A Rich Cabinet of Magical Curiostities in the Magic Circular 1993, uncovered that Hilliar only received 10% worth of advanced orders, not near enough to proceed with the project. He waited another month, with no success. So he left the Sphinx and let them know where to contact him to get refunds for the Magicians Scrapbook. In the Jan 1903 edition of The Sphinx, they mention that the Sphinx was never part of this project, it was solely and completely that of Hilliar’s. Then they mention, that he (hilliar) has mentioned in several columns that if people contact him who have paid in advance, he will return their monies. His address is also given as 493 6th Avenue NY.
This next piece comes from Richard Hatch who made me aware of it. There is a theory, that the book, The Expert at the Card Table, by S. W. Erdnase, was actually written by a man named Milton Franklin Andrews. This theory was held by no less than Martin Garnder, Jeff Busby, and Bart Whaley. Andrews was a gambling man but not a writer. He could have created the content, but not likely written the book without help. They believe Bill Hillar either edited the book or ghost wrote parts of it. The timing is perfect, as it was around the exact time that Hilliar came to the United States. Richard points out that Hilliar, in his last issue as editor of the Sphinx does mention thusly, “A recent book on gambling tricks has been published by S.W. Erdnase, under the title The Expert At the Card Table, it contains a chapter on legerdemain.”
Richard points out there is no mention of where to get the book or who has it for sale, but others point to this as an indication Hillar was involved in the writing of the book. But it is one theory of many, and we are likely to never know the truth where that book is concerned.
In 1904 there is this interesting piece in the Sphinx. “Information comes to us that the National Magical company of Cincinnati OH, is composed of William J. Hilliar and Mr. C. E. Wallace of the Standard Oil Company. We also learn that Mr. Hilliar is on the road with the Dixie Amusement company. Subscribers to Hilliar’s Scrap Book may now be able to communicate with Hilliar himself.
My guess is that he made good with all the advance buyers over time, as a 1906 issue of the Sphinx mentions meeting Hilliar in person and being quite taken with his excellent abilities in sleight of hand, and no mention of any negative feelings towards Hilliar.
In Oct 1907, The Sphinx featured Hilliar on the cover of the magazine. And the editor Dr. A.M. Wilson revealed something that always made me wonder. He revealed that when they chose someone for the cover, that person was supposed to provide a biographical sketch or write-up. And in this case, Hilliar did not provide one so his write-up was rather short. And many many many other issues suffer from the same problem. I could never figure out why they’d feature someone on teh cover and then not write about them. Now I see it’s because the artist didnt provide the necessary information.
One piece of information that fits into the 1907 picture is that Hillar was preparing to take out a really big show. The show would feature illusions and escapes, as well as mind reading and manipulative magic. He will be under the management of Samuel Carter of Washington DC.
In September 1909 in the Sphinx it’s reported that W. J. Hilliar is now the manager of Barnum and Bailey’s side show. He is in charge of all business related to that side of the company.
In 1912, we find Hilliar performing at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. Here is a write-up from the Tennesean Newspaper. “Patrons of the fifth avenue during the week have enjoyed the act of Hiliar, The Talkative Trixster. but probably very few were aware of the act that they have witnessed the performance of a recognized authority on magic, and one whose reputation is world wide. Mr. Hilliar is the author of several volumes on the subject: he started the magazine known as The Sphinx, the oldest and most successful magical magazine published, and has entertained with his magic and shadows in all parts of the civilized world.”
In 1914 it is reported that Hilliar and his wife are at the Hagenback Wallace Circus doing the Misers Dream and a Levitation.
I need to break off a bit and ask you something. Have you ever heard of Billboard Magazine? It’s a very old periodical that is still published today. In fact, if you saw it today, you’d think it was just a modern magazine. It covers primarily the music industry. But in 1918, William Hilliar was the editor of the magazine and founded a magic section, called Magic & Magicians, in The Billboard. Back then the periodical was devoted to the theatrical world, because, that was all there was. The fact that Magic was thought of so highly to have it’s own section is mind boggling to me. The column featured all the popular acts of the day, along with quite a few advertisements from magicians and magic manufacturers. Hilliar had his office in the Billboard offices in Times Square.
In 1919, W.J. Hilliar moves to California to open an office of Billboard Magazine on the West Coast. However, in July 1920 we learn that Hilliar has retired from his job to due to his health. This reported in the Magic Bulletin. But in the Sphinx, July 1920, it also mentions Hillars retirement from Billboard, but it says, “so that he can return to the stage.” And the August edition of The Sphinx sheds more light. Hilliar took several weeks to rest in the Hills of Wisconsin before heading back on the road.
I was curious as to Hilliars connection to Houdini. The bios on Houdini do no mention Hilliar in any depth if at all. Fortunately, I’ve learned that Hilliar met Houdini when Houdini first appeared at the Alhambra in London. No doubt they crossed paths on the touring circuits. But in 1918 Houdini, serving as president of the Society of American Magicians, chose Hilliar to be part of the permanent entertainment committee for the SAM Parent Assembly. It’s clear in the MUM write ups that Houdini is quite fond of Hilliar. And listen to what Hillar wrote about Houdini in his Billboard column…”Houdini’s prodigious presentation of perfect prestidigitation at the NY Hippodrome, where twice daily he causes a huge elephant to vanish in thin air in about ten seconds, has amazed New York….When a magician can become the big feature of the Hippodrome Show of Wonders, and he is billed like a circus, the art is certainly on the boom. What are you going to do next, Harry?”
In 1921, in Hilliard own column in The Sphinx, he writes, “don’t be the least bit surprised when the announcement is made that HOUDINI will make a farewell tour of the world-elephant, eagle and all!”
But, my friends, that is not all. You see Houdini chose Big Bill Hillar (as many called him) to be one of the folks with whom he shared a secret code. This revealed in the book The Secret Life of Houdini by Bill Kalush and Larry Sloman. Well, I say first revealed, because Hilliar himself revealed a far richer story years after Harry died. According to The Secret Life of Houdini, Houdini himself went to visit Hillar in his office at Billboard Magazine. He was delivering a gift, a thesaurus. But inside was an inscription, the CODE. Houdini gave him instructions to never reveal it to anyone. Fast forward to Houdini’s death and we find a couple weeks later, Hilliar opening the thesaurus to read the inscription again and the code was GONE. Yes, you read that correctly, it had vanished off the paper. IT had been written in pencil. Fortunately, they could see the indentation left behind from the writing and were able to trace it in to once again, SEE the code. But according to Hilliar, the next day it was gone again.
And that is not all. Bill Hillar wrote MORE about Houdini in the pages of Billboard Magazine from October 1933 to Jan 27, 1934. The article Hilliar wrote was called, “Is Harry Houdini Trying To Communicate With Me?” This was uncovered by Diego Domingo and written about by John Cox on his Houdini blog. John Cox even has a photo of the Thesaurus Houdini gave to Bill Hilliar. He covers the whole code/connection rather extensively on WildaboutHoudini.com
IN January of 1921, the Sphinx reports that Hilliar is about to take outa Big Show. The article says it will have a $10,000 production with the Great Rubin and Cherry Shows next season. It goes on to say, “Hilliar says that is will be the most beautiful demonstration of mental and physical mysticism ever attempted under canvas. Rubin and Cherry are building Hillar a gorgeous wagon front which will cost over $5000 alone, and the whole show will be constructed by Adoph Seeman, the sun of the famous Baron Hartgiw Seeman. Mr. Hilliar cannot resist the lure of the great outdoors, and feels that magic, properly presented, is just as dignified under a tent as it is in a theatre.”
I’ve mentioned how Bill Hilliar befriended Tommy Downs, Howard Thurston and Houdini. Now here is another big name in magic, Harry Jansen. Apparently, it was Hilliar who first taught Jansen some of the rudiments of magic. The next story comes from the pages of The Magic Circular in an article by Eddie Dawes. The date is around 1923 and Hillar just witnessed one of Dante’s shows. He is a bit befuddled because within the show Dante presents a trick with a burning handkerchief. The part that confused him was when Dante presented the trick using Hilliars patter word for word. According to the article, “Afterwards he asked, “Harry, who gave you permission to use my original patter for that handkerchief trick and how did you get it?”
“Where did I get it and who gave me permission to use it? That’s rich. Why Bill, you wrote it out and sold it to me for $5 in Chicago in 1902 and one of the most treasured possessions I always carry with me is your original in your own handwriting”. Then Dante produced the original, lol.
Sept 1927, Hilliar is on the cover the The Linking Ring.
According to John Booth in his column in The Linking Ring, “When the great depression began in 1929, show business felt the pinch fairly quickly. Attendance fell off and a shadow started to pass over Big Bill’s life. His health had begun to fade, and it was getting more difficult to switch to more promising work. He became increasingly depressed. “
He committed suicide by gunshot just a few days short of his 60th birthday in Cincinnati Ohio.
Now listen to this: There is a write up in the Sphinx by Bill Bland, the Australian Illusionist, years before, when he visited Hilliar in his office. He gives a brief overview of his life and the ends with this, “When the time comes that Mr. Hilliar has to retire from business worries he can lay his pen aside and say, “I have done my duty and fought fearlessly for the betterment of magic.”
Sounds like a person with a life well lived and a lot of accomplishments to look back upon. But due to depression and health issues none of that mattered.
In the Dec 1936 issue of Genii magazine, WilliamLarsen Sr. writes, “I wish to record a strange thing. In going through the Houdini files at Payson Avenue, I ran across letters from Hilliar’s father in England to Houdini. I laid those letters to one side and told Mrs. Houdini I was going to send them to Bill who would treasure them. The next morning I learned of Bill’s death at his own hand. I’ve placed the letters back in the file. A showman knows when an act is finished. It takes nerve to ring down one’s own curtain but I know Bill Hilliar was a showman!
William J. Hilliar was interred at Rosehill Cemetery and Mausoleum in Chicago IL.
Special thanks to Richard Hatch who shared his information on the Hilliar Erdnase connection and to John Cox & Diego Domingo for the Houdini Code info. that Houdini had with Hilliar. And also to AskAlexander and Eddie Dawes who did a bunch of biographical work, some I found on my own, some I would have never found without his writings.