Showing posts with label Houdini. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Houdini. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Buatier DeKolta The Master of Illusion

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
and more

This article originally appeared as Episode 31 of The Magic Detective Podcast. This is the transcript of that podcast.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Houdini Then and Now - Niagara Falls

I received this cool image from a listener/reader of my podcast and blog. He's doing research on the film locations for Houdini's movie The Man From Beyond. The photo above is Houdini on location near the Falls. The photo below shows the actual location today. And then below that photo is another one of the two images superimposed. Thanks to Sean Doran for allowing me to post the photos and best of luck in your continued search for Houdini locations!

Friday, November 8, 2019

Houdini Cutting Board by Wolf Magic

I can't help myself, THIS IS COOL. It's a cutting board, made of mahogany, walnut and maple. It's just amazingly cool. It is a little pricey, but, come on, IT's COOL!!!! Honestly, this is no joke. These are being produced by Wolfs Magic, and here is the link to order one....

A great holiday gift....may be a bit too big for stocking stuffer, unless its a very BIG stocking!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

HOUDINI Week 2019 On The Magic Detective Podcast

Over the years, I have had a Houdini Month and or Houdini Week here at the blog. This year, I'm trying out a Houdini Week over on the podcast. It involves a lot more work, but so far things are coming together well. You can also go over to and listen there. I'm on all the various podcasting sites, iTunes, stitcher, spotify, iHeartRadio and more.

On Monday, Oct 28th, I posted an episode about The Man Who Made Houdini. This was basically about Houdini & Martin Beck. I talked about a new theory that has arisen among some Houdini historians that Beck never saw Houdini in St. Paul, but rather it was a surrogate and only later in Omaha did Beck and Houdini meet. First, I think it's a valid theory. But I explore it a bit further and give you my opinion on the matter. You can listen to episode 32 below.

On Tuesday, Oct 29th, I posted an episode about Evanion-The Royal Conjurer. Henry Evanion was one of the early magic collectors as well as a performer during the Victorian era. He ended up selling part of his collection to Houdini, which became the cornerstone of Houdini's magic history collection.  It's a wild story, and you can listen to it below.

On Wednesday, Oct 30th, I share with you the story of Houdini's Forgotten Protege. I've discussed him here on the blog in the past. This time around I've gathered even more information, so I'm sure you'll enjoy this episode. You can list to it below.

On Thursday, Oct 31st, I talk about one of Houdin's game changing escapes, The Milk Can Escape, or the Death Defying Mystery. You can listen to the podcast episode below.

On Friday, Nov 1, I let Houdini talk for himself. I feature an address he gave before a club in Boston in 1922 and the final article Houdini wrote that didnt make it to print until after he had died. You can listen to this podcast episode below.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Daisy White Photos

Podcast Episode 24 is about the life of Daisy White and it's an eye opening episode. I found some facts that have never been revealed to the magic community, as far as I can tell. Along the way I found two images of her that are quite amazing. The photo at the top of the page actually has two pictures of her. The larger one shows her at age 25, the smaller one on the right surrounded by dolls is her at age 5.

Here is an amazing photo of Daisy, again as Gertrude Nickerson, in the year 1903. She would have been 22 years old in this photo. It's a much clearer image than the one above. I wish I had found this before I posted the picture on the podcast, but oh well.

It appears much of her music career took place in and around the Boston area. This worked out well for her because her birthmother lived in the Boston area, even though they did not know each other at the time. If you listen to the podcast you can hear how they eventually discovered each other.

Just for some perspective, this photo to the right is a more well known photo of her and possibly one of the last surviving images of Daisy. She was 46 when this photo was taken and she is actually surrounded by a group of magicians and their wives. Frank Ducrot is standing behind her in the larger image. This was during the time that she had been working at Hornmann's Magic Shop and just shortly before all the Bess Houdini/Arthur Ford nonsense.

I felt so fortunate to find the three photos (top, bottom and upper left), that I'm hoping somewhere along the way to uncover more photos of Daisy. My guess is that theatrical magazines of the early 1900s may have better images of her in her 20s when she was working in musical theatre as Gertrude Nickerson.

Then the lower photo is her around 22 years of age. She was into musical theatre and performing under the name Gertrude Nickerson. Listen to the podcast for even more information about the life of Daisy White. There is an article on this blog about Daisy White, but much of that information has changed, and it's all updated in the podcast.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The King of Koins & The King of Escape

My most recent podcast (#23) was on T. Nelson Downs. I had never heard much of his life story so I was amazed at what I uncovered. Did you know he was a twin? Sadly, his brother did not survive. Did you know he did other kinds of magic besides coin magic? Did you know he retired at a time when most performers were just making it really big?

His friends called him Tommy. He created a sensation in the entertainment world by doing an act
with only coin manipulation. After consulting with some of the great minds of magic and having them all tell him it was a terrible idea to do 'a coin only act' he decided to do it anyway. He was right and everyone else was wrong. His speciality act soon gave way to other specialty performers. He was known as the King of Koins and In 1899 he was making a huge splash in London with what would become one of the first specialty acts in the nation.

The story if often told that Martin Beck told Houdini to drop the magic, keep the escapes and the trunk trick and he would book him. Well, Houdini's career started to really gain steam after that.
Martin Beck made arrangements for Houdini to go to England in the fall of 1899. However, he didn't actually arrive until Spring 1900. Still, Houdini too was about to take England and all of Europe by storm. These American performers, Downs and Houdini, were about to be the toast of the town in London and beyond!

Here is an amazing fact about Houdini and Downs. They apparently met each other at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1893. Houdini was working the Fair. I can only assume Downs was visiting as he was employed by the Chicago & Northern Railroad Station. In the July 1901 Mahatma Magazine, this appears, “Travelers returning from Europe report the existence of a powerful mutual admiration society composed entirely of magicians, whose acts are features. The passwords are, “HOUDINI, I’ve seen all kinds of magical acts, but without exception, your is really the acme of perfection.” OR DOWNS, I don’t often praise a man, but whenever I see your act I can’t help thinking that there can never be another act conceived that will be so really marvelous” It is rumored that there are only two members of this society. 

As I mentioned earlier, Downs was already in London when Houdini arrived. But they spent many hours together talking magic. As you've read above they became good friends during this time and socialized often. But as close as they were, when Downs finally left Europe it would be many years before he would see Houdini in person again. This is the unfortunate side of being a traveling performer.

One great story from the life of Tommy Downs takes place in London, while both he and Houdini were appearing. In the November 1930 issue of The Sphinx, T. Nelson Downs relates a story of meeting up with Houdini at their hotel. Downs took from his trunk a ring of 52 keys and said to Houdini, "Here are the tools you do your act with." Houdini replied, "Tom, I don't use keys. You know I did not have the money to buy the keys" etc. Then Downs said, "Well you can't open them with hot air!" (Hilarious!!!)

There is a handwritten quote to Downs from Houdini which reads, "To: T. Nelson Downs, One of the old guards, and one of the Historical Lights of magic. Best Wishes from always the same, HOUDINI, April 1921"

In a Feb 1923 issue of MUM, Downs is sharing a story about what it takes to succeed in magic. He makes a point that a magician is an actor-hundreds of people can do tricks but they cannot all CONVINCE. And he stresses this word CONVINCE. It is the quality that makes one person a true magician/artist in the eyes of the public and another one just a mere trickster. He goes on to point out that people didnt go to see Kellar and Herrmann because of tricks, rather it was their personalities that audiences wanted to see, the tricks were incidental. 

Next he goes on to describe a trip he was making that he had to get up at 6 a.m. with 20 degree weather outside and then would have to travel 75 miles to get to the destination to see this mystifier. He says, "Can anyone imagine me going seventy five miles to see a mere magician do tricks??? NOT ON YOUR LIFE" he says. But he wasn't going to see a mere magician, and he knew that..
When he arrived at the theatre it was sold-out. Thankfully he had his seats down front reserved. Here is what Downs wrote, "After witnessing several interesting acts, the 'star' of the program THE ONE AND ONLY HOUDINI himself made his entrance. It was 21 years since I last saw him at Dusseldorf, Germany"

Now listen closely as Downs gives a very solid description of Houdini in action. "Houdini made a few introductory remarks relative to his performance and retired to prepare for the same. The screen was dropped, a movie shown of Houdini being bound and tied; then the curtain went back up and there was Houdini, bound and tied, as shown in the picture. He made a quick release. Then the screen was lowered again and showed Houdini  in action, actually jumping from one airplane to another, in mid-air (scene was from The Grim Game") then suddenly the machine fell 4500 feet, according to the film, and I nearly fainted it was so realistic. Besides, it was the truth, for you know the camera doesn't lie; remember that! Well, then came the crash; the plane fell to the ground, and our hero saved the girl. After that, I could be made to believe anything, and I am convinced that the balance of the audience  were in about the same mood. Next, Houdini called for a committee to come upon the stage and inspect everything. I was commanded to come up. There were doctors, scientists, and children. His first feat  completely mystified and baffled everyone, including the scientific gentlemen and myself. I was positive in my own mind at the time the manifestations took place ----that I was witnessing a purely spiritualistic phenomena, and that this man Houdini was a genuine spirit medium, but did not wish to acknowledge the fact, possibly for business reasons; for didnt I see him actually swallow several packages of needles, and then swallow several years of thread, drinking a glass of water to aid digestion, and then, didn't I see the thread actually pulled out of the medium's mouth by one of the gentlemen----all perfectly and beautifully threaded? I certainly did! And I wish to emphasize the fact that this was a miracle, if there ever was one. I repeat, that this particular miracle was accomplished on a full-lighted stage, under the strictest of test conditions. Surely, there is no chance for fraud or chicanery here! Here was a real medium, if there ever was one---of this I was thoroughly convinced. 

Then came the water tank escape, bordering on the supernatural; in fact, it was supernatural. Here Houdini was locked upside down in a tank of water, to all appearances it was a physical impossibility to escape or breath under the water. Yet, he did escape, after actually being submerged in water for nearly two minutes, by my watch. The suspense was something fierce! That two minutes seemed like two hours to me, and I almost lost control of myself and come very near to grabbing the ax that was to be used by Houdini's trusty assistants in case of some unforeseen accident. It was not until the next day, after I had returned safely to my native town and to my own domicile, that I awakened to the fact that I had been bulled, bunked, bamboozled, misdirected, and grossly deceived but HIGHLY ENTERTAINED by a clever necromancer---a mere magician." That later part, 'a mere magician' clearly said tongue in cheek. Downs had incredible respect for Houdini and vice versa.

love this description of Houdini's act and Down's reactions to same. This was not the handcuff king (who was great by the way) he remembered in Europe, but rather the very seasoned professional mystifier with thousands of performances under his belt. Downs was clearly impressed!

Frank Ducrot, F.E. Powell, HOUDINI, and Tommy Downs In Houdini's backyard
And a letter sent to Downs on Houdini's stationary from 1926 reads, "They are still talking about your wonderful coin work here. They all agree with me that you are the greatest manipulator of coins that ever lived. Your work with the ten dollar sized coins is simply marvelous and shows your incessant and tireless hours of practice. I am attaching the well known Binet "Pyschology of Prestidigitation" and am quoting your work in my article which is the highest compliment I can pay you. YOU have made The Misers Dream a reality, With Kindest regards and best wishes, Sincerely yours HOUDINI"

In the Ken Silverman book on Houdini it states "Downs like several other magicians had matured on the shady side of the law. According to Houdini, 'he ran a fake magic shop, worked for a fake spiritualist and had been wanted by the federal govt. for a swindle'."  Now, I must say, I have done some pretty extensive research on Downs, and I didn't see anything anywhere that suggested he was a dishonest person. Everyone who spoke of him, spoke very highly of his act and of him as a person. I think he had a mail order magic business, nothing wrong with that. As far as working for  fake spiritualist, I didn't find any info there. Nor did I see anything on a supposed 'swindle.' But its possible Downs was the one who got duped in some deal which was why he was involved. 

Finally there is this short piece which appeared in an old MUM, "Should I live to be a thousand years I'll never forget the wonderful time I had East. Everyone, everywhere, Houdini in particular, seemed to go out of their way to show me a big time and I don't think it will be my last trip. On reflection I can't imagine how I managed to stay away from little old New York for fourteen years." T. Nelson Downs. 

It appears that the two men were very close friends and stayed in touch by corresponding. Houdini as you know died in 1926. Downs, who was older, lived till 1938. Both of them, in their own way, changed the face of magic, forever. Long Live the Kings!

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Amazing Zancigs First Couple of Telepathy

The Zancigs were probably the first mind reading couple to make a name for themselves internationally. Granted, Robert Heller and Haidee Heller did raise a few eyebrows in their day, but they didn't have the impact of the Zancigs, nor did they tour as much. 

Their Real names were Julius Jorgensen, born in Copenhagen, Denmark March 7th, 1857
His partner was born Agnes Clausen, also in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1849.
Julius moved to the US in 1882 and a short time after he arrived, he met up with Agnes at a social gathering of Danish people who had immigrated to the US. They had known each other in Denmark and here upon meeting, they struck up a new relationship which eventually led to marriage. 

When he was living in Denmark his father had him apprenticed in the iron smelting industry. So when he came to America, this was one of his first jobs. While still employed in the iron plant,  an unusual request came to the young couple to perform at a church function. Because they didnt play any sort of instrument, they decided to try their hand at telepathy. Yeah, that makes sense. I can’t play an insturment, so I’ll read minds instead, lol. I’m going to guess that at some point Julius may have had an interest in this subject or picked up some of the expose pamphlets on how this was done. They began with the work that Robert Heller had done with his Second Site Act and expanded upon it. At any rate, they gave their crude demonstration and were surprised at how well it went over. 

According to Will Goldston’s book, Sensational Tales of Mystery Men, Zancig had an accident at the smelting plant, he badly burned his hand and was out of work for a long while. During his recovery, he decided that he would leave the iron works plant and try his fate in the world of mind reading. 

According to numerous sources, Their career began in 1899, when they start to present their telepathy act at San Souci Amusement Park in Chicago IL. This is even confirmed by a short article about them in a Mahatma Magazine in 1902.  Sensational Tales of Mystery Men, has them at Coney Island and claims that Horace Goldin discovered them there and later introduced them to Oscar Hammerstein.  I have a feeling Coney Island is incorrect, but it’s possible Goldin saw them at San Souci Park. And the Oscar Hammerstein connection is correct. He brought them to NYC to play his Roof Garden at $400 a week. The couple also performed at countless private functions for the high society of NYC. LONG before Steve Cohen took up residency at The Waldorf Astoria, The Zancigs performed there for 12 weeks.

In 1903 they met H.B. Leavitt, a theatrical producer who organized a Globe trotting tour for them.  And indeed they did travel the Globe. Arriving in London at one point they soon became a sensation. 

In 1906, The Zancigs gave a command performance before King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace. After this they toured across England as they had done before and again, the sensation continued. In the book, Illusion Show by David Bamberg, he talks about his family running into the Zancigs on a train in Norway. Agnes asked Okito if the young son, David, was going to follow in his footsteps. Because if he wasn’t she could make a ‘mind reader’ out of him. Remember that anecdote…

Here is a write-up from The Sphinx Magazine in 1906 of their act. “The Mysterious Zancigs were a strong feature of the Orpheum the week of Nov 6th. Their act is certainly a great one in every sense. They work rapidly and accurately in all their tests and are never baffled by any of the attempts made by the audience to fool them. Their exhibition may be termed telepathy, mind-reading, second sight, or by any other name. It goes just the same. Mr. & Mrs. Zancig honored the Sphinx with their presence, and during their call favored us with a private exhibition of their extraordinary powers. While this gifted couple were visiting Mammoth Cave recently, they had one pleasure of giving an entertainment in the bridal chamber of that wonderful cave”

Mammoth Cave is a National Park and Cave in Kentucky. One of the areas is called the Bridal Alter or Bridal Chamber and it was here in 1906 that the Zancigs gave an impromptu performance. 

In a 1906 issue of The Conjurers Monthly magazine, Houdini writes about the Zancigs, “Their act is about the best of it’s kind that we have ever seen, and we have seen almost all!”

In 1907 they were hired to work at the Victoria Roof Garden. They had an extended run that went into 1908 with the amazing salary of $1500 per week, the most ever paid to a mind reading act at the time.  From there they went to the Alhambra for a seven month run, then off to the Wintergarten in Germany.  Then back to America before the year was up.

IN 1910, they were requested to return to England and Buckingham Palace to perform again, this time during the coronation of King George V. They remained in England until 1913, when they finally returned to the US. 

This is just the early part of their career. On The Magic Detective podcast Ep 21, I go over the entire life story of the couple and those performers who joined the show later. Here is the link to episode 21

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)

Monday, January 7, 2019

Minerva Queen of Handcuffs - Guest Post

I first heard of this project from my friend Ron Pearson at a marketing conference we both attended in the fall of 2017. It sounded like a great idea, a play about Minerva, and I think it is! Rather than me talk about it, I'll let Ron tell you about it!

Minerva-Queen of the Handcuffs

The inspiration for the play came from Jim Steinmeyer's book on Jarrett. Jarrett was married to Minerva and tells a harrowing story about her and Houdini. I don't want to give it away here as it is very important to the plot of the play, but if you have the book it's worth taking a look. 

I very much liked the idea of portraying Houdini as the bad guy, as he is traditionally seen as the archetypal hero. It gave me the opportunity to cast him as the symbol for all of the barriers and inequality that women had to endure at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly female performers. 

The play follows Minerva from the beginning of her career, learning the act from her first husband William Vano. I then touch upon certain real life career points, such as the development of her Water Barrel escape, her suing Merryland Amusement Park in Maryland for breech of contract and her European tour.

Being that there is limited information about Minerva's history, I have had to take some liberties here and there. For example, there were three events in her life that I have connected for the narrative of the play. One was her sudden and unexplained cancellation of two weeks of performances. Another was her visitations from a Hypnotist (who later became her second husband and manager). The third was her promotion of an anti-anxiety pill in a newspaper advertisement. 

So, in the play Minerva has consulted a Hypnotist to help her overcome anxiety attacks that have made her cancel her performances. The play is then told through flashbacks that come out of her hypnotic trances.

I am very fortunate that the lead actress in the play, Miranda Allen (yes, while I was writing the names Miranda and Minerva were continuously mixed up!). Miranda is a real life escape artist and street performer, as well as a trained actress. We had performed together at a number of Canadian festivals and she became the.catalyst for me to finally write this play that had been rattling around in my brain for many years. Her partner, Richard Lee Hsi, is also a trained actor and dancer and plays all of the male characters in the show, including Houdini. 

I want to take this opportunity to thank Dean Carnegie and Gary Hunt, who were so kind and giving with their information on Minerva. I absolutely could not have written the play without their help. Thank you gentlemen! 

I hope you will be able to see our show one day. My intention is to tour it, and I will certainly keep Dean in the loop as to where we will be performing. If you are in the Edmonton, Canada area January 15 to 27, please come see us! And please follow Minerva's future exploits on her facebook page at

And if you're interested you can check out my previous article on Minerva called The American Queen of Mystery

Playwright Ron Pearson