Sunday, August 1, 2021

Magic History Recollections from Podcast Ep 69


So this week, we had a couple birthdays in the magic world. One was my old escape mentor Steve Baker. He passed away a few years ago. The last few years of his life were pretty hard because his health had declined rather rapidly. He always had planned to make a comeback, even at his advanced age. I’m sorry that chance never came. In fact, there is a story about it, that I’ll share one day. But I have a different story to share with you instead.

And also this week was the birthday of Jonathan Pendragon. He is still very much alive, thankfully. And I consider him a mentor of Illusion, even though we have never truly met. I did meet him causally at a magic conference once, but I doubt he recalls. And he did send me a very nice note after I wrote about the Pendragons on my blog, the Magic But beyond that we’ve had no contact. The reason I refer to him as a mentor was because of his writings in Genii Magazine. There were a number of Pendragon issues and those were instrumental in getting me started in the world of grand illusion.

Let me begin however with a funny Steve Baker story. Now Steve was an escape artist and he was also a stunt man, which is not as well known. He had lots of Hollywood connections because of his work as a stunt man. One day, in 1986, he gets a call from a buddy of his who is a tech advisor on the new movie Lethal Weapon. The guy remembered a story Steve had told him about his first encounter with a straitjacket.

The story was this. Steve Baker’s mom worked in healthcare. One day Steve asked if she could  borrow a straitjacket from work. She checked with her employer and sure enough they let her borrow one. Steve was just a teenager at the time. And not well read in the methods of escaping a straitjacket. In Steve’s own words, “I was in my garage with my best buddy, Lee, and he proceeded to strap me into this thing. I was wearing a T-shirt which I later learned was a big mistake.

I twisted and turned and bent my body in ways that I didn't even know were possible. Then I had an idea. If I could shift my body within the jacket it might help me to gain slack and get my arm over my head, then I could get out. My solution, run full speed into the garage wall slamming my shoulder against it.WHAMMO! And OUCH! To make a long story short, I did get out, eventually. With plenty of marks and scrapes from only wearing a t-shirt.”

So back to Steve’s friend from the movie. He asks Steve if he can come in and share that story with the crew. So sure enough he goes on the set and shares the story. Mel Gibson, one of the stars of the movie was not on set that day, but the story gets back to him. He asks Steve if it’s true? And Steve assures him it’s exactly what happened. Then he asks, “did it hurt?” Steve says, YES. Mel Gibson apparently loved the story so much, he incorporated it into a scene in the movie. If you have ever watched the film, there is a scene where Mel Gibson’s character is put in a straitjacket and then slams himself into a filing cabinet in order to get slack to get out, ala the young Steve Baker.

Now, I guess I could share some Pendragon stories, but I’d rather save those for another day. Instead I’d like to give you some tidbits from these Genii articles. The first memory of one has stood out ever since I read about it. I believe it’s also from 1986, and the article by Jonathan was called ‘The Magician Versus the Prop”. He begins by relating a story from his youth. It seems that as a teen, another magician moved into his neighborhood, that would be a very young Harry Anderson. One day, Jonathan was visiting Harry and he noticed a very ornately decorated magic prop on a shelf. Harry asked him what he thought of it, and Jonathan replied, “I think it’s beautiful.” Just then Harry Anderson grabs it out of his hands and threw it across the room. He then looked at a stunned Jonathan and said, “Magic is an art, not a craft!”  I’d say that’s a strong lesson. And I can just imagine how it would send a shiver of pain up the spine of those of us who collect props, LOL. The point was of course, is to not let the prop over shadow the performer. He makes one very poignant statement at the end of the article and said, when a concert pianist is taking his bows, he doesn’t turn and point to his or her piano, lol. Good point.

My favorite Pendragon issue was Jan 1992. The Pendragons are on the cover. And the proceeding articles are fantastic, but one stood out above the others to me. It was simply titled, BOOKS. “If I were stranded on a desert island, what books would I want on Grand Illusion?” NONE, I wouldn’t want any books on Grand Illusion, I would want books on Long Distance Swimming In Ten Easy Lessons!”. Then he gives a list of books for anyone really serious about Grand Illusion. Here is the list (with my own commentary underneath)

1. The Jarret Book by Guy Jarret and Jim Steinmeyer.  To date there are three Jarret books. First is the original that Guy Jarret printed himself. Second is the first version that Jim Steinmeyer put out. Then years later who published The Complete Jarret. These are wonderful books by a complex individual (Jarret) and his unusual way to approaching Grand Illusion. It's hard to dismiss anything here because it all makes so much sense. His Bangkok Bungalow is about as unorthodox an illusion I've ever and yet it's a thing of beauty. His 21 Person Cabinet, proved to be another winner. Doug Henning, Harry Blackstone Jr, and Scott Alexander have all used it for great results. It is a must have for an illusionist.

2.  The Harbin Book. This is the only book on the list that I do not have. Of course it's known for being the book that includes how to build the Zig Zag Illusion. That would be the crowning jewel in the book, but there is much more there. There is something called The Upside DownBox that my friend David Bull built, and what a wonderful mystery that was. I did pick up the books, Harbincadabra and The Genuis of Robert Harbin.

3. ILLUSION SHOW by David Bamberg

Wow, this is David Bamberg's autobiography. He shares stories from his entire life...when he started out as Psyco as a youth, until he became FuManchu. Along the way he encounters many  personalities including: Houdini, Raymond, Chang, Eva Peron, Okito, and many others. It's a must read in my opinion. One of the best books of it's kind and quite an eye opener.

4.  Secrets of My Magic by David Devant

In the Genii article by Jonathan Pendragon, he mentions that he likely has spent more time with this book than all of the others. Why? Well, inside you'll find the Mascot Moth, the Artist's Dream, Biff and other incredible Devant creations. I would add another book along with this one at that would be My Magic Life by David Devant. There is some cross over in material, but it gives a great overview of the mind and magic of Devant. By the way, I recall exactly where I found this book, it was at Barry's Magic Shop in Wheaton MD. I was visiting the shop one day when I noticed stacks and stacks of books behind a counter. I asked Suzie, Barry's wife, if I could look through them and she said yes. I was overwhelmed to find Secrets of My Magic among the stack!

5. Hopkins Magic by Albert Hopkins

I will admit this was one of the tougher books to locate on the list. It was published in 1897. Thankfully, it had been republished several times and I was able to find a copy in excellent condition at a very good price. This book I purchased from Denny & Lee's Magic Studio. I think likely half the books on this list came from Dennys. He had the first magic shop I'd ever seen with a massive amount of books

6. Device & Illusion by Jim Steinmeyer

This book was published in 1991. I'm sad to say when I read over the list originally, I did not know who Jim Steinmeyer was. Suffice to say, I would learn very quickly. I don't recall where I got the book, I may have ordered it direct from Jim. Jonathan points out two effects in the book as being his favorites: Lady in a Puzzle and Small Packages. He also mentions that his small apparatus effects are some of the best in the book. I would agree with that. In regards to illusions, my favorites are Lady in a Puzzle, and Perforation. I own Lady in a Puzzle and it's a fantastic illusion. I used to own Through a One Inch Hole, but I never found it be play as strong as it reads. I can tell you one of the most amazing illusions in the book is a little piece called India Rubber. Honestly, I was not impressed when I read the description. But recently I saw a video of it being presented and it fooled me!!!!  Device and Illusion is a great book for the illusionist.

7. Conjurer's Optical Secrets by S.H. Sharpe

Well, I just realized, I do not have this book on hand. I have Conjurer's Mechanical Secrets, which is brilliant. This is part of a set of books including: Conjurers Psychological Secrets, Conjurers Optical Secrets, and I think there are one or two more. Great reference books for the illusionist. I actually have Optical Secrets, it's just not in with the box of books in my house, it may still be in storage.

8. Modern Illusions by Tom Palmer

Another book that I have in storage but not in front of me. If memory serves this book has the Throne Chair that Lance Burton used in his show that was highly effective. I think Doug Henning also used it in the musical MERLIN on Broadway. Quite a few clever, unique and rarely seen illusions contained in this small volume.

9. The Magic Poster Book by Charles Reynolds and Regina Reynolds

Who has not seen this book??? Filled with large format magic posters from the Golden Age of Magic. Clearly a source of inspiration for any illusionist whether starting out or seasoned pro.

10. TIED FOR 10th Place: OUR MAGIC   &   NEO MAGIC

Our Magic by Maskelyne and Devant is a powerhouse volume. The essay on the different levels of Art is fantastic. The entire book is a must read for the magician who is serious about his/her magical education. 

Next is NEO Magic by S.H. Sharpe. A book filled with theory and the philosophy of magic and performance. At the time I purchased this book, it was the most I'd ever paid for a single book. ( If you have a subscription to Genii or you have access to, look up the Jan 1992 issue of Genii and on page 181, you can read Jonathan Pendragon's thoughts on all of the above books)

I would have to agree. In fact, when I read this back in 1992, I set out to find the books, no small task. This was before the days when magic shops were loaded with books. My go to shop was Al’s Magic Shop and though they had books, noe one on this list was to be found there. I did eventually get every book on that list except one, the Harbin book. I did however get other Harbin books, Harbincadabra and the later book The Genius of Robert Harbin. 

And since 1992 there have been quite a few incredible books on Grand Illusion, but this grouping by Jonathan is fantastic.

By the way, one of the stories Jonathan shared in his Genii articles comes to mind. It was when he was working at Hollywood Magic part time. It was the Christmas season, and someone walked into the shop who gave him pause. I should say more accurately he was awed by the gentleman who appeared even bigger in person that he did on the screen, the man was John Wayne. 

Mr. Wayne said he son was interested in magic and could he recommend a stocking stuffer. Jonathan suggested the Cups and Balls and did a demonstration of a simple routine. Wayne was thrilled and said, “I’ll take it, but you have to teach it to me because I don’t want my son fooling me.”  For the next 30 minutes Jonathan taught the Duke how to present the Cups and Balls. I would love to have seen John Wayne present the cups and balls for his family on Christmas morning and then teach it to his son, likely son Ethan. 

But there is more to the story. After John Wayne exited the shop he was walking to his car when

he stopped to let another man pass down the sidewalk in front of him. According to the article, “The other was a young man with long hair tied back  in a pigtail. For a moment the two stood there until the young man gestured for John Wayne to pass first, “Please sir” Wayne dipped his head in a gesture that is familiar to anyone who watches his films. “thank you and Merry Christmas.” Wayne replied. “the same to you Sir.” said the other man who smiled and continued on his way. This was the mid seventies and here were two icons of radically different political beliefs, but this didnt seem to matter much. It was Christmas in Southern California and almost anything can happen.

I like that story because the end reminds me of how divided folks are today and how little kindness and common decency towards each other can go a long way. I”m not getting political it’s just an observation.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Amazing Long Tack Sam


Long Tack Sam was born September 16, 1884 in Northern China. He was born the son of an Imperial Officer in the service of the Emperor (1).

There are conflicting reports of his childhood, so it's hard to know which one is true. One version of the story has a young Sam apprenticing with a Chinese Magician named Wang for six years. After that period of time, Sam had learned two tricks, the Linking Rings and the Rice Bowls. He left there and went out to work as a magician in Shanghai where we eventually joined another performing troupe. Another version of his earlier years has Sam being trained in acrobatic techniques by his brother and Sam eventually running away from home.

Whatever the case, he eventually left China working with a western circus. In time he would become part of The Tan Kwai Troupe and Sam became the director. Later the name would change to ‘The Royal Pekinese Troupe’ but that name was problematic because bookers thought it was a ‘dog act.’ The name of the show would change several times until he finally decided to use Long Tack Sam. Apparently his real name was Lung Te Shan or possibly Lu Te Shen. But he chose Long Tack Sam as his stage name & for his troupe.

His performing troupe was made up of acrobats, jugglers, dancers and he did the magic and also comedy. By all accounts he was a marvelous impressionist and mimic and could apparently copy the dialects of many languages including: Yiddish, French, Italian, German, American, Australian and probably more.

The magic that Sam included in the show consisted of the Burnt & Restored Turban, the Linking Rings, The Needle Swallowing Feat and Rice Bowls. But his stand out trick was one that other 'asian acts' had presented, but not in the dramatic fashion that Sam did. This description is from MAGIC: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theatre by David Price, "Long introduced his amazing bowl production. The trick was performed as part of a flip, sometimes called a somersault in the air, and was performed without touching the hands to the floor. After the flip, he had the bowl of water with fish in his hands".

However, a newspaper from the times describes the act as this, "Instead of making a head-roll over before showing the bowl, Long Tack Sam did a hand-spring, which makes and causes the trick to appear to be much more difficult." So perhaps Sam had multiple ways of presenting the trick, but all included some feat of acrobatics just prior to the producing the bowl and it was more dramatic than anyone else who was presenting a bowl production which is why his stood out above all others.

This bowl production trick was the creation of another Chinese Magician and really the first one on the scene, Ching Ling Foo. But other magicians copied the act, some using a stack of bowls instead of one large bowl. No one however did what Sam did.

Again from the book MAGIC by David Price we find this: “In the Long Tack Sam show, each trick, magical or otherwise, was preceded by the sounding of a gong. In the bowl production, six acrobats would perform the flip when the gong was sounded. The Long Tack Sam performed the flip alone, at the conclusion of which it was seen that he was holding a large fishbowl with live goldfish swimming about.”

Houdini invited Long Tack Sam to be a member of the Magician’s Club in England. Houdini was President and I believe Will Goldston was Vice President. Sometime later upon his return to the US. Houdini apparently patented or copyrighted the Needle Trick, thus stopping everyone else from performing it. 

The Needle Trick had been a staple of Long Tack Sam’s show for years, even before he knew Houdini, and now he was restricted from performing it. (2)  

There is a fun story from the biography of David Bamberg, ILLUSION SHOW. He tells a story of a Chinese man coming up to him after his show. The man first asks if he speaks English? And then he goes on to say that a lot of the material in the show appears to be copies of the tricks of the famed OKITO. Then he says, even your colorful banner, which has your name but OKITOS face….He says that though you are very talented, this is the wrong approach. And David Bamberg replies that he agrees for the most part, except the banner was a gift from OKITO and as for the tricks, his father gave him permission to use them. Long Tack Sam, seeming somewhat confused says, “Your father?”. And David says, “Yes, I am David Bamberg and OKITO is my father” And the two men have a hardy laugh. What I love about the story is the ending. The two men, after proper introductions, talked magic and magicians and then Sam spotted David’s Linking Rings. He asked to borrow them and then proceeded to show David Bamberg the most incredible routine with the Linking Rings. He was stunned!

On Sam's first visit to the U.S. his troupe got to open for the Marx Brothers at the Palace Theatre in NYC. Prior to coming to America, Sam had married a woman named Leapoldi or Poldi, from Austria. And he would soon start a family. As WW1 broke out all over Europe, it made travel to Austria impossible. It also made it impossible for his wife and daughters to come to America.

Sam had two daughters, Mina and Nepoldini, who eventually become part of his act in the later years. They went by the stage names Meena and Neesa. Neesa had a special gift of playing the violin that was incorporated into the show. Daughter Meena danced in the show and assisted Sam during his presentation of the Doll's House Illusion where she magically appears from a tiny Doll's House. In 1932, Sam and his daughters performed at the now famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood California.

It’s said that during his career Sam would open bank accounts in a host of different countries. He figured, if something terrible happened anywhere in the world, he would have sufficient funds to carry on. (3)

Sam apparently had a favorite story he would share about a piece of property he owned in Shanghai. It was a theater, and one day he was standing in front of the theater when a Soldier appeared out of no where. The soldier asked Sam, “WHERE IS THE OWNER?”  Sam told him, “UPSTAIRS!”. As the soldier went upstairs to find the owner, Sam ran in the opposite direction and fled the country abandoning his property. (4)


Long Tack Sam and his troupe were extremely successful and quite popular in America, Australia and China. Sam even invested in theatre property in China and two restaurants in London. Eventually, as age creeped up and life on the road got to be too much, Long Tack Sam retired from show business. The first time he was coaxed out of retirement was in 1940 when he performed at the Majestic Theater in Shanghai. Was this the theater he left behind during the earlier Japanese Invasion? We do not know.  He was talked into coming out of retirement by Herman Hanson in 1952 to appear at the Society of American Magicians Convention in Boston. He was on the bill with Frances Ireland, Silent Mora, Dr, Jaks, Jay Marshall and more. . He performed his fish bowl production and gave a lecture at the conference as well. Silent Mora was present at that lecture and said that he was even more astounding during his lecture than his Friday night performance. And it should be noted his Friday night performance brought the house down! (5)

And a few years later in 1958 he did return to the stage for one last benefit show for the Society of American Magicians in NYC. Sam was the Masters of Ceramonies, he was 73 at the time. A few years later, Sam and Poldi were in a car accident. They moved back to Austria to rest and heal. But rather than heal, Sam had more health issues. He died in Linz Austria on August 7, 1961. He and Poldi are both buried there in Linz.

Just to put Long Tack Sam into perspective, Orsen Welles considered Sam one of his mentors. Sam was friends with Dai Vernon, Max Malini, Nate Leipsig, Silent Mora, Houdini and basically all the popular magicians of his time. The legendary comedian George Burns said of Long Tack Sam, "The Greatest Vaudeville Act I'd ever seen."

On the DVD 'The Greater Magic Video Library Volume 29 with Charlie Miller and Johnny Thompson', Charlie Miller demonstrates the Chinese version of the Cups and Balls that he learned from Long Tack Sam himself. One of the moves appears to be the exact move that makes up one of the key elements to the Roy Benson, Benson Bowl Routine.

Finally, the DVD documentary The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam is a must watch. It's produced, directed, narrated

and stars his great granddaughter Ann Marie Fleming. It is so rich with magic history and yet tells a wonderful story of her family ancestry and contains some elements that are heart breaking and some very joyous moments as well. It's amazing that Ms. Fleming made the documentary when she did because all of the magic people interviewed in the film: John Booth, Elaine Lund, Jay Marshall and Jackie Flosso are all now gone.

I've seen the documentary numerous times and enjoy every viewing. I only wish there were more documentaries like this on our brothers and sisters in the magic world. We owe a huge thank you to Ms. Ann Marie Fleming for the wonderful job she did to bring her Great Grandfathers story back to the masses where it belongs.

BTW, Ann Marie mentions something in the documentary that I am familiar with. She ponders the notion of why his family had forgotten about him, why he was forgotten by the public, whether it was a cultural thing, or what exactly it was. I can’t answer the WHY, but I can tell you the exact same thing happened in my own family. My parents knew nothing about their great grandparents, nothing was ever said. It was a big mystery. And then I began to research the ancestry and found there was a huge side of my family that no one knew existed! It’s as if families just move on, live THEIR lives and don’t look much at the past. I think it was likely the same with Sam and his descendants. Then it takes someone willing to dig, to discover what mysteries were left behind.

For those interested in seeing the documentary, I will put a link in the podcast Episode description.

To hear the podcast

HOW to see the film

  1. Magic - A Pictorial History of Conjuring in the Theatre by David Price pg 529

2.   The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam Documentary by Ann Marie Fleming

3.   The Illustrated History of Magic by Milbourne Christopher

4.   Magic by David Price

5.   Silent Mora by William Rauscher

Parts of this article appeared in a previous blog post from 2012. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

William J. Hilliar Father of The Sphinx & More


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.

In March of 1902, William j. Hilliar begins a new magical publication called The Sphinx. He
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

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.

This is a transcript from Ep 65 of the Magic Detective Podcast.