THE PUBLISHERS PRINTING CO.
By HARRY HOUDINI
Entered at Stationer’s Hall, London, England
All rights reserved
Composition, Electrotyping and Printing by
The Publishers Printing Company
New York, N.Y., U.S.A.
This Book is affectionately dedicated to the memory of
Rev. M. S. Weiss, Ph.D., LL.D.,
who instilled in me love of study and patience in research
|I.||Significant Events in the Life of Robert-Houdin,||33|
|II.||The Orange-tree Trick,||51|
|III.||The Writing and Drawing Figure,||83|
|IV.||The Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal,||116|
|V.||The Obedient Cards—The Cabalistic Clock—The Trapeze Automaton,||141|
|VI.||The Inexhaustible Bottle,||176|
|VIII.||The Suspension Trick,||222|
|IX.||The Disappearing Handkerchief,||245|
|X.||Robert-Houdin’s Ignorance of Magic as Betrayed by His Own Pen,||264|
|XI.||The Narrowness of Robert-Houdin’s Memoirs,"||295|
THIS book is the natural result of the moulding, dominating influence which the spirit and writings of Robert-Houdin have exerted over my professional career. My interest in conjuring and magic and my enthusiasm for Robert-Houdin came into existence simultaneously. From the moment that I began to study the art, he became my guide and hero. I accepted his writings as my text-book and my gospel. What Blackstone is to the struggling lawyer, Hardee’s “Tactics” to the would-be officer, or Bismarck’s life and writings to the coming statesman, Robert-Houdin’s books were to me.
To my unsophisticated mind, his “Memoirs” gave to the profession a dignity worth attaining at the cost of earnest, life-long effort. When it became necessary for me to take a stage-name, and a fellow-player, possessing a veneer of culture, told me that if I would add the letter “i” to Houdin’s name, it would mean, in the French language, “like Houdin,” I adopted the suggestion with enthusiasm. I asked nothing more of life than to become in my profession “like Robert-Houdin.”
By this time I had re-read his works until I could recite passage after passage from memory. Then, when Fate turned kind and the golden pathway of success led me into broader avenues of work, I determined that my first tour abroad should be dedicated to adding new laurels to the fame of Robert-Houdin. By research and study I would unearth history yet unwritten, and record unsung triumphs of this great inventor and artiste. The pen of his most devoted student and follower would awaken new interest in his history.
Alas for my golden dreams! My investigations brought forth only bitterest disappointment and saddest of disillusionment. Stripped of his self-woven veil of romance, Robert-Houdin stood forth, in the uncompromising light of cold historical facts, a mere pretender, a man who waxed great on the brainwork of others, a mechanician who had boldly filched the inventions of the master craftsmen among his predecessors.
“Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author and Conjurer, Written by Himself,” proved to have been the penwork of a brilliant Parisian journalist, employed by Robert-Houdin to write his so-called autobiography. In the course of his “Memoirs,” Robert-Houdin, over his own signature, claimed credit for the invention of many tricks and automata which may be said to have marked the golden age in magic. My investigations disproved each claim in order. He had announced himself as the first magician to appear in regulation evening clothes, discarding flowing sleeves and heavily draped stage apparatus. The credit for this revolution in conjuring belonged to Wiljalba Frikell. Robert-Houdin’s explanation of tricks performed by other magicians and not included in his repertoire, proved so incorrect and inaccurate as to brand him an ignoramus in certain lines of conjuring. Yet to the great charm of his diction and the romantic development of his personal reminiscences later writers have yielded unquestioningly and have built upon the historically weak foundations of his statements all the later so-called histories of magic.
For a time the disappointment killed all creative power. With no laurel wreath to carve, my tools lay idle. The spirit of investigation languished. Then came the reaction. There was work to be done. Those who had wrought honestly deserved the credit that had been taken from them. In justice to the living as well as the dead the history of the magic must be revised. The book, accepted for more than half a century as an authority on our craft, must stand forth for what it is, a clever romance, a well-written volume of fiction.
That is why to-day I offer to the profession of magic, to the world of laymen readers to whom its history has always appealed, and to the literary savants who dip into it as a recreation, the results of my investigations. These, I believe, will show Robert-Houdin’s true place in the history of magic and give to his predecessors, in a profession which in each generation becomes more serious and more dignified, the credit they deserve.
My investigations cover nearly twenty years of a busy professional career. Every hour which I could spare from my professional work was given over to study in libraries, to interviews with retired magicians and collectors, and to browsing in old bookstores and antique shops where rare collections of programs, newspapers, and prints might be found.
In order to conduct my researches intelligently, I was compelled to pick up a smattering of the language of each country in which I played. The average collector or proprietor of an old bookshop is a canny, suspicious individual who must accept you as a friend before he will uncover his choicest treasures.
As authorities, books on magic and kindred arts are practically worthless. The earliest books, like the magician stories written by Sir John Mandeville in 1356, read like prototypes of to-day’s dime novels. They are thrilling tales of travellers who witnessed magical performances, but they are not authentic records of performers and their work.
One of the oldest books in my collection is “Natural and Unnatural Magic” by Gantziony, dated 1489. It is the author’s script, exquisite in its German chirography, artistic in its illuminated illustrations, but worthless as an historical record, though many of the writer’s descriptions and explanations of old-time tricks are most interesting.
Early in the seventeenth century appeared “Hocus Pocus,” the most widely copied book in the literature of magic. The second edition, dated 1635, I have in my library. I have never been able to find a copy of the first edition or to ascertain the date at which it was published.
A few years later, in 1658, came a very important contribution to the history of magic in “Natural Magick in XX. Bookes,” by John Baptist Porta, a Neapolitan. This has been translated into nearly every language. It was the first really important and exhaustive work on the subject, but, unfortunately, it gives the explanation of tricks, rather than an authentic record of their invention.
In 1682, Simon Witgeest of Amsterdam, Holland, wrote an admirable work, whose title reads “Book of Natural Magic.” This work was translated into German, ran through many an edition, and had an enormous sale in both Holland and Germany.
In 1715, John White, an Englishman, published a work entitled “Art’s Treasury and Hocus Pocus; or a Rich Cabinet of Legerdemain Curiosities.” This is fully as reliable a book as the earlier “Hocus Pocus” books, but it is not so generally known.
Richard Neve, who was a popular English conjurer just before the time of Fawkes, published a book on somewhat similar lines in 1715.
Germany contributed the next notable works on magic. First came Johann Samuel Halle’s “Magic or the Magical Power of Nature,” printed in Berlin, in 1784. One of his compatriots, Johann Christian Wiegleb, wrote eighteen books on “The Natural Magic” and while I shall always contend that the German books are the most complete, yet they cannot be accepted as authorities save that, in describing early tricks, they prove the existence of inventions and working methods claimed later as original by men like Robert-Houdin.
English books on magic were not accepted seriously until the early part of the nineteenth century. In Vol. III. of John Beckmann’s “History of Inventions and Discoveries,” published in 1797, will be found a chapter on “Jugglers” which presents interesting matter regarding magicians and mysterious entertainers. I quote from this book in disproving Robert-Houdin’s claims to the invention of automata and second-sight.
About 1840, J. H. Anderson, a popular magician, brought out a series of inexpensive, paper-bound volumes, entitled “A Shilling’s Worth of Magic,” “Parlor Magic,” etc., which are valuable only as giving a glimpse of the tricks contemporary with his personal successes. In 1859 came Robert-Houdin’s “Memoirs,” magic’s classic. Signor Blitz, in 1872, published his reminiscences, “Fifty Years in the Magic Circle,” but here again we have a purely local and personal history, without general value.
Thomas Frost wrote three books relating to the history of magic, commencing about 1870. This list included “Circus Life and Circus Celebrities,” “The Old Showmen and the Old London Fairs,” and “Lives of the Conjurers.” These were the best books of their kind up to the time of their publication, but they are marked by glaring errors, showing that Frost compiled rather than investigated, or, more properly speaking, that his investigations never went much further than Morley’s “Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair.”
Charles Bertram who wrote “Isn’t it Wonderful?” closed the nineteenth-century list of English writers on magic, but his work is marred by mis-statements which even the humblest of magicians could refute, and, like Frost, he drew heavily on writers who preceded him.
So far, in the twentieth century, the most notable contribution to the literature of magic is Henry Ridgely Evans’ “The Old and the New Magic,” but Mr. Evans falls into the error of his predecessors in accepting as authoritative the history of magic and magicians furnished by Robert-Houdin. He has made no effort whatever to verify or refute the statements made by Robert-Houdin, but has merely compiled and re-written them to suit his twentieth-century readers.
The true historian does not compile. He delves for facts and proofs, and having found these he arrays his indisputable facts, his uncontrovertible proofs, to refute the statements of those who have merely compiled. That is what I have done to prove my case against Robert-Houdin. I have not borrowed from the books of other writers on magic. I have gone to the very fountain head of information, records of contemporary literature, newspapers, programmes and advertisements of magicians who preceded Robert-Houdin, sometimes by a century. It would cost fully a million dollars to forge the collection of evidence now in my hands. Men who lived a hundred years before Robert-Houdin was born did not invent posters or write advertisements in order to refute the claims of those who were to follow in the profession of magic. These programmes, advertisements, newspaper notices, and crude cuts trace the true history of magic as no romancer, no historian of a single generation possibly could. They are the ghosts of dead and gone magicians, rising in this century of research and progress to claim the credit due them.
Often when the bookshops and auction sales did not yield fruit worth plucking, I had the good fortune to meet a private collector or a retired performer whose assistance proved invaluable, and the histories of these meetings read almost like romances, so skilfully did the Fates seem to juggle with my efforts to secure credible proof.
To the late Henry Evans Evanion I am indebted for many of the most important additions to my collection of conjuring curios and my library of magic, recognized by fellow-artistes and litterateurs as the most complete in the world.
Evanion was an Englishman, by profession a parlor magician, by choice and habit a collector and savant. He was an entertainer from 1849 to the year of his death. For fifty years he spent every spare hour at the British Museum collecting data bearing on his marvellous collection, and his interest in the history of magic was shared by his excellent wife who conducted a “sweet shop” near one of London’s public schools.
While playing at the London Hippodrome in 1904 I was confined to my room by orders of my physician. During this illness I was interviewed by a reporter who, noticing the clippings and bills with which my room was strewn, made some reference to my collection in the course of his article. The very day on which this interview appeared, I received from Henry Evanion a mere scrawl stating that he, too, collected programmes, bills, etc., in which I might be interested.
I wrote at once asking him to call at one o’clock the next afternoon, but as the hour passed and he did not appear, I decided that, like many others who asked for interviews, he had felt but a passing whim. That afternoon about four o’clock my physician suggested that, as the day was mild, I walk once around the block. As I stepped from the lift, the hotel porter informed me that since one o’clock an old man had been waiting to see me, but so shabby was his appearance, they had not dared send him up to my room. He pointed to a bent figure, clad in rusty raiment. When I approached the old man he rose and informed me that he had brought some clippings, bills, etc., for me to see. I asked him to be as expeditious as possible, for I was too weak to stand long and my head was a-whirl from the effects of la grippe.
With some hesitancy of speech but the loving touch of a collector he opened his parcel.
“I have brought you, sir, only a few of my treasures, sir, but if you will call—”
I heard no more. I remember only raising my hands before my eyes, as if I had been dazzled by a sudden shower of diamonds. In his trembling hands lay priceless treasures for which I had sought in vain—original programmes and bills of Robert-Houdin, Phillippe, Anderson, Breslaw, Pinetti, Katterfelto, Boaz, in fact all the conjuring celebrities of the eighteenth century, together with lithographs long considered unobtainable, and newspapers to be found only in the files of national libraries. I felt as if the King of England stood before me and I must do him homage.
Physician or no physician, I made an engagement with him for the next morning, when I was bundled into a cab and went as fast as the driver could urge his horse to Evanion’s home, a musty room in the basement of No. 12 Methley Street, Kennington Park Road, S.E.
In the presence of his collection I lost all track of time. Occasionally we paused in our work to drink tea which he made for us on his pathetically small stove. The drops of the first tea which we drank together can yet be found on certain papers in my collection. His wife, a most sympathetic soul, did not offer to disturb us, and it was 3:30 the next morning, or very nearly twenty-four hours after my arrival at his home, when my brother, Theodore Weiss (Hardeen), and a thoroughly disgusted physician appeared on the scene and dragged me, an unwilling victim, back to my hotel and medical care.
Such was the beginning of my friendship with Evanion. In time I learned that some of his collection had been left to him by James Savren, an English barber, who was so interested in magic that at frequent intervals he dropped his trade to work without pay for famous magicians, including Döbler, Anderson, Compars Herrmann, De Liska, Wellington Young, Cornillot, and Gyngell. From these men he had secured a marvellous collection, which was the envy of his friendly rival, Evanion. Savren bequeathed his collection to Evanion, and bit by bit I bought it from the latter, now poverty stricken, too old to work and physically failing. These purchases I made at intervals whenever I played in London, and on June 7th, 1905, while playing at Wigan, I received word that Evanion was dying at Lambeth Infirmary.
After the show, I jumped to London, only to find that cancer of the throat made it almost impossible for him to speak intelligibly. I soon discovered, however, that his chief anxiety was for the future of his wife and then for his own decent burial. When these sad offices had been provided for, he became more peaceful, and when I rose to leave him, knowing that we had met probably for the last time, he drew forth his chiefest treasure, a superb book of Robert-Houdin’s programmes, his one legacy, which is now the central jewel in my collection. Evanion died ten days later, June 17th, and within a short time his good wife followed him into the Great Unknown.
Even more dramatic was my meeting with the widow of Frikell, the great German conjurer.
I had heard that Frikell and not Robert-Houdin was the first magician to discard cumbersome, draped stage apparatus, and to don evening clothes, and I was most anxious to verify this rumor, as well as to interview him regarding equally important data bearing on the history of magic. Having heard that he lived in Kötchenbroda, a suburb of Dresden, I wrote to him from Cologne, asking for an interview. I received in reply a curt note: “Herr verreist,” meaning “The master is on tour.” This, I knew, from his age, could not be true, so I took a week off for personal investigation. I arrived at Kötchenbroda on the morning of April 8th, 1903, at 4 o’clock, and was directed to his home, known as “Villa Frikell.” Having found my bearings and studied well the exterior of the house, I returned to the depot to await daylight. At 8:30 I reappeared at his door, and was told by his wife that Herr Frikell had gone away.
I then sought the police department from which I secured the following information: “Dr.” Wiljalba Frikell was indeed the retired magician whom I was so anxious to meet. He was eighty-seven years old, and in 1884 had celebrated his golden anniversary as a conjurer. Living in the same town was an adopted daughter, but she could not or would not assist me. The venerable magician had suffered from domestic disappointments and had made a vow that he would see no one. In fact he was leading a hermit-like life.
Armed with this information, I employed a photographer, giving him instructions to post himself opposite the house and make a snap shot of the magician, should he appear in the doorway. But I had counted without my host. All morning the photographer lounged across the street and all morning I stood bareheaded before the door of Herr Frikell, pleading with his wife who leaned from the window overhead. With that peculiar fervency which comes only when the heart’s desire is at stake, I begged that the past master of magic would lend a helping hand to one ready to sit at his feet and learn. I urged the debt which he owed to the literature of magic and which he could pay by giving me such direct information as I needed for my book.
Frau Frikell heard my pleadings with tears running down her cheeks, and later I learned that Herr Frikell also listened to them, lying grimly on the other side of the shuttered window.
At length, yielding to physical exhaustion, I went away, but I was still undaunted. I continued to bombard Herr Frikell with letters, press clippings regarding my work, etc., and finally in Russia I received a letter from him. I might send him a package containing a certain brand of Russian tea of which he was particularly fond. You may be sure I lost no time in shipping the little gift, and shortly I was rewarded by the letter for which I longed. Having decided that I cared more for him than did some of his relatives, he would receive me when next I played near Kötchenbroda.
With this interview in prospect, I made the earliest engagement obtainable in Dresden, intending to give every possible moment to my hardly-won acquaintance. But Fate interfered. One business problem after another arose, concerning my forthcoming engagement in England, and I had to postpone my visit to Herr Frikell until the latter part of the week. In the mean time, he had agreed to visit a Dresden photographer, as I wanted an up-to-date photograph of him and he had only pictures taken in his more youthful days. On the day when he came to Dresden for his sitting, he called at the theatre, but the attachés, without informing me, refused to give him the name of the hotel where I was stopping.
After the performance I dropped into the König Kaffe and was much annoyed by the staring and gesticulations of an elderly couple at a distant table. It was Frikell with his wife, but I did not recognize them and, not being certain on his side, he failed to make himself known. That was mid-week, and for Saturday, which fell on October 8th, 1903, I had an engagement to call at the Villa Frikell. On Thursday, the Central Theatre being sold out to Cleo de Merode, who was playing special engagements in Germany with her own company, I made a flying business trip to Berlin, and on my return I passed through Kötchenbroda. As the train pulled into the station I hesitated. Should I drop off and see Herr Frikell, or wait for my appointment on the morrow? Fate turned the wheel by a mere thread and I went on to Dresden. So does she often dash our fondest hopes!
My appointment for Saturday was at 2 P.M., and as my train landed me in Kötchenbroda a trifle too early I walked slowly from the depot to the Villa Frikell, not wishing to disturb my aged host by arriving ahead of time.
I rang the bell. It echoed through the house with peculiar shrillness. The air seemed charged with a quality which I presumed was the intense pleasure of realizing my long cherished hope of meeting the great magician. A lady opened the door and greeted me with the words: “You are being waited for.”
I entered. He was waiting for me indeed, this man who had consented to meet me, after vowing that he would never again look into the face of a stranger. And Fate had forced him to keep that vow. Wiljalba Frikell was dead. The body, clad in the best his wardrobe afforded, all of which had been donned in honor of his expected guest, was not yet cold. Heart failure had come suddenly and unannounced. The day before he had cleaned up his souvenirs in readiness for my coming and arranged a quantity of data for me. On the wall above the silent form were all of his gold medals, photographs taken at various stages of his life, orders presented to him by royalty—all the outward and visible signs of a vigorous, active, and successful life, the life of which he would have told me, had I arrived ahead of Death. And when all these were arranged, he had forgotten his morbid dislike of strangers. The old instincts of hospitality tugged at his heart strings, and his wife said he was almost young and happy once more, when suddenly he grasped at his heart, crying, “My heart! What is the matter with my heart? O——” That was all!
There we stood together, the woman who had loved the dear old wizard for years and the young magician who would have been so willing to love him had he been allowed to know him. His face was still wet from the cologne she had thrown over him in vain hope of reviving the fading soul. On the floor lay the cloths, used so ineffectually to bathe the pulseless face, and now laughing mockingly at one who saw himself defeated after weary months of writing and pleading for the much-desired meeting.
I feel sure that the personal note struck in these reminiscences will be forgiven. In no other way could I prove the authoritativeness of my collection, the thoroughness of my research, and the incontrovertibility of the facts which I desire to set forth in this volume.
THE UNMASKING OF
ROBERT-HOUDIN was born in Blois, France, December 6th, 1805. His real name was Jean-Eugene Robert, and his father was Prosper Robert, a watchmaker in moderate circumstances. His mother’s maiden name was Marie Catherine Guillon. His first wife was Josephe Cecile Eglantine Houdin, whose family name he assumed for business reasons. He was married the second time to Françoise Marguerite Olympe Naconnier. His death, caused by pneumonia, occurred at St. Gervais, France, on June 13th, 1871.
Barring the above facts, which were gleaned from the register of the civil authorities of St. Gervais, all information regarding his life previous to his first public appearance in 1844 must be drawn from his own works, particularly from his autobiography, published in the form of “Memoirs.” Because of his supreme egotism, his obvious desire to make his autobiography picturesque and interesting rather than historically correct, and his utter indifference to dates, exact names of places, theatres, books, etc., it is extremely hard to present logical and consistent statements regarding his life. Such discrepancies arise as the mention of three children in one chapter and four in another, while he does not give the names of either wife, though he admits his obligation to both good women.
According to his autobiography, Jean-Eugene Robert was sent to college at Orleans at the tender age of eleven, and remained there until he was eighteen. He was then placed in a notary’s office to study law, but his mechanical tastes led him back to his father’s trade, watchmaking. While working for his cousin at Blois, he visited a bookshop in search of Berthoud’s “Treatise on Clockmaking,” but by mistake he was given several volumes of an old encyclopædia, one of which contained a dissertation on “Scientific Amusements,” or an exposition of magic. This simple incident, he asserts, changed the entire current of his life. At eighteen, he first turned his attention to magic. At forty, he made his first appearance as an independent magician or public performer.
On page 44 of his “Memoirs,” American edition, Robert-Houdin refers to this book as an encyclopædia, but several times later he calls it “White Magic.” In all probability it was the famous work by Henri Decremps in five volumes, known as “La Magie Banche Dévoilée,” or “White Magic Exposed.” This was written by Decremps to injure Pinetti, and it exposed all the latter’s tricks, including the orange tree, the vaulting trapeze automaton, and in fact the majority of the tricks later claimed by Robert-Houdin as his own inventions.
In 1828, while working for M. Noriet, a watchmaker in Tours, Jean-Eugene Robert was poisoned by improperly prepared food, and in his delirium started for his old home in Blois. He was picked up on the roadside by Torrini, a travelling magician, who nursed him back to health in his portable theatre. Just as young Jean recovered Torrini was injured in an accident, and his erstwhile patient remained to nurse his benefactor and later to help Torrini’s assistant present the programme of magic by which they made their living. His first public appearance as the representative of Torrini was made at Aubusson.
Torrini was an Italian whose real name was Count Edmond de Grisy. He was a contemporary of Pinetti. In all probability, during the long summer of their intimate companionship, Torrini not only initiated his fascinated young guest into his own methods of performingtricks, but also into the secrets of Pinetti’s tricks. In his “Memoirs,” Robert-Houdin makes no secret of the fact that both Comus and Pinetti, together with their tricks, were topics of conversation between himself and Torrini.
When Torrini was able to resume his performances, Jean-Eugene returned to his family in Blois. During the next few years he mixed amateur acting with his daily labor, leaning more and more toward the profession of public entertainer. But his ambitions along this line were nipped in the bud by marriage. Mademoiselle Houdin, whose father was a celebrated watchmaker in Paris, visited old friends in Blois, their native town, and became the fiancée of young Robert. As the new son-in-law was to share the elder Houdin’s business and naturally wished to secure such benefits as might accrue from so celebrated a family of watch and clock makers, he applied to the council of state and secured the right to annex “Houdin” to his name, Jean-Eugene Robert, and thereafter was known only as Robert-Houdin.
His life between 1838 and 1844 was divided between reading every work obtainable on magic, and his duties in his father-in-law’s shop, where he not only made and repaired clocks, but built and repaired automata of various sorts. His family shared with him many financial vicissitudes, and about 1842-43 his first wife died, leaving him with three young children to raise. Earlier in his “Memoirs” he speaks of having four children, so it is more than likely that one died before his wife. He married again soon, and though he gives his second wife great credit as a helpmate he does not state her name.
By this time he had acquired more than passing fame as a repairer of automata, and in 1844 he mended Vaucanson’s marvellous duck, one of the most remarkable automata ever made. Doubtless other automata found their way to his workshop and aided him in his study of a profession which he still hoped to follow. During these discouraging times he was often assisted financially by one Monsieur G——, who either advanced money on his automata or bought them outright. In the same year, 1844, he retired to a suburb of Paris, and there, he asserts, he built his famous writing and drawing figure.
The next year, 1845, he was assisted by Count de L’Escalopier, a devotee of conjuring and automata, who advanced the money to fit up and furnish a small theatre in the Palais Royal. Robert-Houdin went about the work of decorating and furnishing this theatre with a view to securing the most dramatic and brilliant effects, surrounding his simple tricks with a setting that made them vastly different from the same offerings by his predecessors. He was what is called to-day an original producer of old ideas. On June 25th, 1845, he gave his first private performance before a few friends. On July 3d of the same year his theatre of magic was opened formally to the public. The programme of this performance is shown on page 37.
It will be noted that the famous writing and drawing figure was not then included in Robert-Houdin’s répertoire, nor does it ever appear on any of his programmes. He exhibited it at the quinquennial exhibition in 1844, received a silver medal for it, and very soon sold it to the late P. T. Barnum, who exported it to America.
This question naturally arises: If Robert-Houdin built the original writing and drawing figure, why could he not make a duplicate and include it in his programme? Surely it was one of the most remarkable of the automata which he claims as the creations of his brain and hands.
In 1846 he claims to have invented second sight, and at the opening of the season in 1847 he presented as his own creation the suspension trick. During the interim he played an engagement in Brussels which was a financial failure.
In 1848 the Revolution closed the doors of Parisian theatres, Robert-Houdin’s among the rest, and he returned to clockmaking and automata building, until he received from John Mitchell, who had met with great success in managing Ludwig Döbler and Phillippe, an offer to appear in London at the St. James’s Theatre. This engagement was a brilliant success and for the first time in his career Robert-Houdin reaped big financial returns.
Later Robert-Houdin toured the English provinces under his own management and made return trips to London, but his tour under Mitchell was the most notable engagement of his career.
In 1850, while playing in Paris, he decided to retire, and to turn over his theatre and tricks to one Hamilton. A contemporary clipping, taken from an English newspaper of 1848, goes to prove that Hamilton was an Englishman who entered Robert-Houdin’s employ. Hamilton signed a dual contract, agreeing to produce Robert-Houdin’s tricks as his acknowledged successor and to marry Robert-Houdin’s sister, thus keeping the tricks and the theatre in the family. During the next two years Robert-Houdin spent part of his time instructing his brother-in-law in all the mysteries of his art. In July, 1852, he played a few engagements in Germany, including Berlin and various bathing resorts, and then formally retired to his home at St. Gervais. Here he continued to work along mechanical and electrical lines, and in 1855 he again came into public notice, winning awards at the Exhibition for electrical power as applied to mechanical uses. In 1856, according to his autobiography, he was summoned from his retirement by the Government to make a trip to Algeria and there intimidate revolting Arabs by the exhibition of his sleight-of-hand tricks. These were greatly superior to the work of the Marabouts or Arabian magicians, whose influence was often held responsible for revolts. What Robert-Houdin received for performing this service is not set forth in any of his works. He spent the fall of 1856 in Algeria.
From the date of his return to St. Gervais to the time of his death, June 13th, 1871, Robert-Houdin devoted his energies to improving his inventions and writing his books, though, as stated before, it was generally believed by contemporary magicians that in the latter task he entrusted most of the real work to a Parisian journalist whose name was never known.
He was survived by a wife, a son named Emile, and a step-daughter. Emile Houdin managed his father’s theatre until his death in 1883, when the theatre was sold for 35,000 francs. The historic temple of magic still stands under the title of “Théâtre Robert-Houdin,” under the management of M. Melies, a maker of motion picture films.
During my investigations in Paris, I was shocked to find how little the memory of Robert-Houdin was revered and how little was known of France’s greatest magician. In fact, I was more than once informed that Robert-Houdin was still alive and giving performances at the theatre which bears his name.
Contemporary magicians of Robert-Houdin and men of high repute in other walks of life seem to agree that Robert-Houdin was an entertainer of only average merit. Among the men who advanced this theory were the late Henry Evanion of whose deep interest in magic I wrote in the introduction, Sir William Clayton who was Robert-Houdin’s personal friend in London, Ernest Basch who saw Robert-Houdin in Berlin, and T. Bolin of Moscow, Russia, who bought all his tricks in Paris and there saw Robert-Houdin and studied his work as a conjurer.
Robert-Houdin’s contributions to literature, all of which are eulogistic of his own talents, are as follows:
“Confidence et Révélations,” published in Paris in 1858 and translated into English by Lascelles Wraxall, with an introduction by R. Shelton Mackenzie.
“Les Tricheries des Grecs” (Card-Sharping Exposed), published in Paris in 1861.
“Secrets de la Prestidigitation” (Secrets of Magic), published in Paris in 1868.
“Le Prieuré” (The Priory, being an account of his electrically equipped house), published in Paris in 1867.
“Les Radiations Lumineuses,” published in Blois in 1869.
“Exploration de la Rétinue,” published in Blois, 1869.
“Magic et Physique Amusante” (œuvre posthume), published in Paris in 1877, six years after Robert-Houdin’s death.
In his autobiography, Robert-Houdin makes specific claim to the honor of having invented the following tricks: The Orange Tree, Second Sight, Suspension, The Cabalistic Clock, The Inexhaustible Bottle, The Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal, The Vaulting Trapeze Automaton, and the Writing and Drawing Figure.
His fame, which has been sung by writers of magic without number since his death, rests principally on the invention of second sight, suspension, and the writing and drawing automaton. It is my intention to trace the true history of each of these tricks and of all others to which he laid claim as inventor, and show just how small a proportion of the credit was due to Robert-Houdin and how much he owed to magicians who preceded him and whose brain-work he claimed as his own.
ROBERT-HOUDIN, on page 179 of the American edition of his “Memoirs,” thus describes the orange-tree trick, which he claims as his invention: “The next was a mysterious orange-tree, on which flowers and fruit burst into life at the request of the ladies. As the finale, a handkerchief I borrowed was conveyed into an orange purposely left on the tree. This opened and displayed the handkerchief, which two butterflies took by the corners and unfolded before the spectators.”
On page 245 of the same volume he presents the programme given at the first public performance in the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, stating:
“The performance will be composed of entirely novel Experiments invented by M. Robert-Houdin. Among them being The Orange-Tree, etc.”
Now to retrace our steps in the history of magic as set forth in handbills and advertisements of earlier and contemporaneous newspaper clippings describing their inventions.
Under the title of “The Apple-Tree” this mechanical trick appeared on a Fawkes programme dated 1730. This was 115 years before Robert-Houdin claimed it as his invention. In 1732, just before Pinchbeck’s death, it appeared on a programme used by Christopher Pinchbeck, Sr., and the younger Fawkes. In 1784 it was included in the répertoire of the Italian conjurer, Pinetti, in the guise of “Le Bouquet-philosophique.” In 1822 the same trick, but this time called “An Enchanted Garden,” was featured by M. Cornillot, who appeared in England as the pupil and successor of Pinetti.
The trick was first explained in public print by Henri Decremps in 1784 when his famous exposé of Pinetti was published under the title of “La Magie Blanche Dévoilée,” and in 1786-87 both Halle and Wiegleb exposed the trick completely in their respective works on magic.
That Robert-Houdin was an omnivorous reader is proven by his own writings. That he knew the history and tricks of Pinetti is proven by his own words, for in Chapter VI. of his “Memoirs” he devoted fourteen pages to Pinetti and the latter’s relations with Torrini.
Now to prove that the tree tricks offered by Fawkes, Pinchbeck, Pinetti, Cornillot, and Robert-Houdin were practically one and the same, and to tell something of the history of the four magicians who featured the trick before Robert-Houdin had been heard of:
Unquestionably, the real inventor of the mysterious tree was Christopher Pinchbeck, who was England’s leading mechanical genius at the close of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth. He was a man of high repute, whose history is not that of the charlatan, compiled largely from tradition, but it can be corroborated by court records, biographical works, and encyclopædias, as well as by contemporaneous newspaper clippings.
According to Vol. XLV. of the “Dictionary of National Biography,” edited by Sidney Lee and published in 1896 by Smith, Elder & Co., 15 Waterloo Place, London: “Christopher Pinchbeck was born about 1670, possibly in Clerkenwell, London. He was a clockmaker and inventor of the copper and zinc alloy called after his name. He invented and made the famous astronomico-musical clock. In Appleby’s Weekly Journal of July 8th, 1721, it was announced that ‘Christopher Pinchbeck, inventor and maker of the astronomico-musical clock, is removed, from St. George’s Court (now Albion Place) to the sign of the “Astronomico-Musical Clock” in Fleet Street, near the Leg Tavern. He maketh and selleth watches of all sorts and clocks as well for the exact indication of the time only as astronomical, for showing the various motions and phenomena of planets and fixed stars.’ Mention is also made of musical automata in imitation of singing birds and barrel organs for churches, as among Pinchbeck’s manufactures.
“Pinchbeck was in the habit of exhibiting collections of his automata at fairs, sometimes in conjunction with a juggler named Fawkes, and he entitled his stall ‘The Temple of the Muses,’ ‘Grand Theatre of the Muses,’ or ‘Multum in Parvo.’ The Daily Journal of August 27th, 1729, announced that the Prince and Princess of Wales went to the Bartholomew Fair to see his exhibition, and there were brief advertisements in The Daily Post of June 12th, 1729, and the Daily Journal of August 22d and 23d, 1729. There is still a large broadside in the British Museum (1850 c. 10-17) headed ‘Multum in Parvo,’ relating to Pinchbeck’s exhibition, with a blank left for place and date, evidently intended for use as a poster. He died November 18th, 1732; was buried November 21st, in St. Denison’s Church, Fleet Street.
“In a copy of the Gentlemen’s Magazine, printed 1732, page 1083, there is an engraved portrait by I. Faber, after a painting by Isaac Wood, a reproduction of which appears in ‘Britten’s Clock and Watch Maker,’ page 122. His will, dated November 10th, 1732, was proved in London on November 18th.”
During one of his engagements at the Bartholomew Fair, Pinchbeck probably met Fawkes, the cleverest sleight-of-hand performer that magic has ever known, and the two joined forces. Pinchbeck made all the automata and apparatus thereafter used by Fawkes, and, in Fawkes, he had a master-producer of his tricks. Christopher Pinchbeck never appeared on the program used by Fawkes, save as the maker of the automata or apparatus, but directly after the death of the elder Fawkes, and a few months before his own, the elder Pinchbeck appeared with the son of his deceased partner, and was advertised as doing “the Dexterity of Hand” performance. This indicates that he was inducting young Fawkes into all the mysteries of the profession at which the two elder men, as friends and business partners, had done so well.
Christopher Pinchbeck was survived by two sons, Edward and Christopher, Jr. Edward, the elder, succeeded to his father’s shop and regular business. He was born about 1703, and was well along in years when he entered into his patrimony, which he advertised in The Daily Post of November 27th, 1732, as follows: “The toys made of the late Mr. Pinchbeck’s curious metal are now sold only by his son and sole executor, Mr. Edward Pinchbeck.”
This announcement settles forever the oft-disputed question as to whether the alloy of copper and zinc which bears the name of Pinchbeck was invented by Christopher Pinchbeck, Sr., or by his son Christopher, Jr.
All newspaper and magazine descriptions of the automata invented by the elder Pinchbeck indicate that his hand was as cunning as his brain was inventive, for they showed the most delicate mechanism, and included entire landscapes with figures of rare grace in motion.
“Christopher, the second son of Christopher Pinchbeck the elder,” continues the biographical sketch, “was born about 1710 and possessed great mechanical ingenuity. While the elder son, Edward, was made executor and continued his father’s trade in a quiet, conservative fashion, the younger son struck out along new lines and became even more famous as an inventor than his brilliant father had been.
“He was a member and at one time president of the Smeatonian Society, the precursor of the Institution of Civil Engineers. In 1762 he devised a self-acting pneumatic brake for preventing accidents to the men employed in working wheel-cranes. In The Gentlemen’s Magazine for June, 1765, page 296, it is recorded that Messrs. Pinchbeck and Norton had made a complicated astronomical clock for the Queen’s house, some of the calculations of the wheel having been made by James Ferguson, the astronomer. There is no proof that Pinchbeck and Norton were ever in partnership, and there are now two clocks answering to the description at Buckingham Palace, one by Pinchbeck, with four dials and of a very complicated construction, and another by Norton.
“Pinchbeck took out three patents: the first (No. 892), granted 1768, was for an improved candlestick with a spring socket for holding the candle firmly, and an arrangement whereby the candle always occupied an upright position, however the candlestick might be held. In 1768 (patent No. 899) he patented his nocturnal remembrancer, a series of tablets with notches, to serve as guides for writing in the dark. His snuffers (No. 1119) patented 1776, continued to be made in Birmingham until the last forty years or so, when snuffers began to go out of use. In 1774 he presented to the Society of Arts a model of a plough for mending roads. Pinchbeck’s name first appears in the London directory in 1778, when it replaced that of Richard Pinchbeck, toyman, of whom nothing is recorded.
“Christopher Pinchbeck, Jr., was held in considerable esteem by George III., and he figures in Wilkes’ London Museum (ii-33) in 1770 in the list of the party who called themselves the King’s friends. He died March 17th, 1783, aged 73, and was buried in St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. His will, which was very curious, is printed in full in The Horological Journal of November, 1895. One of his daughters married William Hebb, who was described as ‘son-in-law and successor of the late Mr. Pinchbeck at his shop in Cockspur Street’ (imprinted on Pinchbeck’s portrait), whose son Christopher Henry Hebb (1772-1861) practised as a surgeon in Worcester. There is in existence a portrait of Christopher Pinchbeck the younger, by Cunningham, engraved by W. Humphrey.”
The mezzotints of the Pinchbecks, father and son, herewith reproduced, are extremely rare, and when I unearthed them in Berlin I felt myself singularly favored in securing two such treasures of great value to the history of magic. S. Wohl, the antiquarian and dealer from whom they were purchased, acquired them during a tour of old book and print shops in England, and thought them portraits of one and the same person; but by studying the names of the artists and the engravers on the two pictures, it will be seen that they set forth the features of father and son, as indicated by the biographical notes quoted above.
Of the early history of Fawkes, whose brilliant stage performance lent to the Pinchbeck automata a new lustre, little is known. It is practically impossible to trace his family history. His Christian name was never used on his billing nor published in papers or magazines, and after repeated failures I was about to give up the task of discovering it, when in 1904, aided by R. Bennett, the clerk of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Parish Church, Trafalgar Square, London, England, I came upon the record of his burial. This record, which I found after many days’ search among musty, faded parchments, showed that his Christian name was Isaac, and that he died May 25th or 29th, 1731, and was buried in St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Parish Church.
The records further show that he was buried in the church vault, the coffin being carried by six men. Prayers were said in the church, candles were used, and the great bell was tolled. As the fees amounted to £6 12s., a goodly sum for those days, all signs indicate that the funeral was on a scale more costly and impressive than the ordinary.
Fawkes was worth at his death £10,000, which was considered an enormous sum in those days. Every penny of this he made performing at the fairs.
The earliest announcements of Fawkes’ performance in my collection are dated 1702 and include advertisements headed “Fawkes and Powel,” “Fawkes and Phillips,” and “Fawkes and Pinchbeck.” Powel was the famous puppet man, Phillips a famous posture master (known to-day as contortionist), and Pinchbeck was the greatest of mechanicians. Fawkes seems to have possessed a singular gift for picking out desirable partners.
From this mass of evidence I am producing various clippings. By a peculiar coincidence one of these I believe offers the most authentic and earliest record of “two a night” performances in England.
In my collection are a number of other clippings from the press of the same year, in April and May, 1728, but none of them says “twice a night,” therefore I judge that the custom of giving two performances in a night was tried previously to April, 1728, and then abandoned, or after the first of May.
In the London Post of February 7th, 1724, Fawkes announced an exhibition “in the Long Room over the piazza at the Opera House in the Haymarket.” At this time he also advertised the fact that he was about to retire and was exposing all his tricks. The clipping of that date from my collection has the following foot-note: “Likewise he designs to follow this business no longer than this season; so he promises to learn any lady or gentleman his fancies in dexterity of hand for their own diversion.”
When Fawkes was not in partnership with some puppet showman, he always advertised his own puppets as “A court of the richest and largest figures ever shown in England, being as big as men and women!” His admission charges varied, but 12 pence seemed his favorite figure. About six years before his death he had his own theatre in James Street, near the Haymarket, in which he exhibited for months at a time before and after fairs.
I reproduce a clipping from my collection showing Fawkes’ last program. Here it will be seen that his first trick was causing a tree to grow up in a flower-pot on the table, and bear fruit in a minute’s time. In The Gentlemen’s Magazine, that oft-quoted and most reliable periodical, of February 15th, 1731, readers were informed that the Algerian Ambassadors witnessed Fawkes’ performance.
At their request he showed them “a prospect of Algiers, and raised up an apple-tree which bore ripe fruit in less than a minute’s time, which several of the company tasted of.”
Fawkes, too, had a son, and thus the partnership and the friendship which had existed between the elder Fawkes and the elder Pinchbeck were carried on by the second generation. All of the marvellous apparatus made by Pinchbeck the elder, for Fawkes, may have been bequeathed by the latter to his son, but, in 1732, Pinchbeck the elder and Fawkes the younger were in a booth together, and Pinchbeck was advertised as doing “the dexterity of hand” performances. After Christopher Pinchbeck, Sr., died, young Fawkes started out on his own account. In 1746, according to an advertisement in my collection, a Fawkes and a Pinchbeck were together again, so the son of Pinchbeck must have joined the younger Fawkes for exhibition purposes. The accompanying clippings from contemporary publications trace the history of young Fawkes, and prove that the tree which bore fruit in a minute’s time was still on his programme.
For many years it was supposed that only one portrait of Fawkes was in existence, but it now seems that three were made. I publish them all, something which no one has ever before been able to do. One was taken from a Setchels fan published about 1728, although some authorities say 1721. It appeared in Hone’s “Every-Day Book,” page 1226. Another, I believe, was engraved by Sutton Nicols, as Hone mentions it in his description of Fawkes. In the fan engraving, it will be noticed that there appears a man wearing a star on his left breast. It is said that this is Sir Robert Walpole, who was Prime Minister while Fawkes was at the height of his success, and who was one of the conjurer’s great admirers. Hogarth also placed Fawkes in one of his engravings as the frontispiece of a most diverting brochure on “Taste,” in which he belittles Burlington Gate. This makes the third portrait from my collection herewith reproduced.
According to an article contributed by Mons. E. Raynaly in the Illusionniste of June, 1903, the orange tree next appeared in the répertoire of a remarkable peasant conjurer, whose billing Mons. Raynaly found among “Affiches de Paris.” This performer was billed as the Peasant of North Holland, and gave hourly performances at the yearly fairs at Saint-Germain.
It is more than possible that he purchased this trick from Fawkes or Pinchbeck, having seen it at the Bartholomew Fair in England.
He featured the orange tree as follows: “He has a Philosophical Flower Pot, in which he causes to grow on a table in the presence of the spectators trees which flower, and then the flowers fall, and fruit appears absolutely ripe and ready to be eaten.”
His posters are dated 1746-47 and 1751.
The next programme on which the mysterious tree appears is a Pinetti handbill, dated in London, 1784, when the following announcement was made:
“Signore Pinetti will afterwards present the assembly with a Tree called Le Bouquet-philosophique composed of small branches of an orange-tree, the leaves appearing green and natural. He will put it under a bottle, and at some distance, by throwing some drops of water of his own composition, the leaves will begin to change and the bouquet will produce natural flowers and various fruits.”
Pinetti is one of the most fascinating and picturesque figures in the history of magic. His full name was Joseph Pinetti de Willedal, and, like Pinchbeck and Fawkes, he was a man of parts and readily made friends with the nobility. In fact, there is some question as to whether he did not come of a noble family.
He was born in 1750 in Orbitelle, a fortified town once claimed by Tuscany. What can be gleaned regarding his early history goes to prove that his family connections were excellent and his education of the best. One of his portraits, reproduced herewith, shows a half-crown of laurel decorating the frame, and on one side of the bust is a globe, while in the rear of the picture is a stack of books. This would establish his claim that he was once a professor of physics and geography. In fact, the legend beneath the portrait, being translated from the French, runs:
“I. I. Pinetti Willedal de Merci, Professor and Demonstrator of Physics, Chevalier of the Order of St. Philipe, Geographical Engineer, Financial Counselor of H.R.H. Prince of Linbourg Holstein, Born in Orbitelle in 1750.”
As it has so often happened in the history of savants and students, there ran in Pinetti’s blood a love of the mysterious with that peculiar strain of charalatanism which went to make up the clever performer in old-time magic. Evidently he resigned his duties as a professor for the more picturesque life of the travelling magician, and he is first heard from in this capacity in the French provinces in 1783. His fame quickly carried him to Paris, where in 1784 he appeared before the court of Louis XVI. His arrival was most opportune, for just then all Paris and, for that matter, all Europe had been aroused to a new interest in magic by the brilliant Cagliostro.
From Paris he went to London, playing at the Haymarket and creating a sensation equal to that which he made in France. Later he toured Germany, playing in Berlin and Hamburg. Next he went back to his native land, Italy, but later returned to Germany for a second engagement. In 1789 he appeared in Russia and never left that country. There he married a Russian girl, daughter of a carriage manufacturer. They had two children. Pinetti would have left enormous wealth, but in his later years he became interested in ballooning, the sensation of the hour, and spent his entire fortune on balloon experiments. He died in Bartichoff, Volhinie, aged fifty years.
Pinetti was a man of rare inventive genius and almost reconstructed the art of conjuring, so numerous were his inventions. For half a century after his death his successors drew upon Pinetti’s inventions and répertoire for their programmes. Naturally such ability aroused bitter jealousies, especially as Pinetti made no attempt to conciliate his contemporaries, either magicians or writers on magic. He issued one book, whose title-page reads:
“Amusements Physiques et Differentes Expériences Divertissements, Composées et Executées, tant à Paris que dans les diverses Courts de l’Europe. Par M. Joseph Pinetti de Willedal, Romain, Chevalier de l’Ordre Mérite de Saint-Phillipe, Professeur de Mathématiques et de Physiques, Protégé par toute la Maison Royale de France, Pensionnaire de la Cour de Prusse, etc., 1785.”
The work, however, was not a clear and lucid explanation of his methods and tricks. In fact some of his contemporaries claimed that he deliberately misrepresented his methods of performing tricks. Among these writers was Henri Decremps, a brilliant professor of mathematics and physics in Paris, who proceeded to expose all of Pinetti’s tricks in the book referred to in the preceding chapter, “La Magie Blanche Dévoilée.” This work was in five volumes and was so popular in its day that it was translated into nearly every modern language. The following explanation of the trick is taken from page 56 of the English translation, entitled “The Conjurer Unmasked":
“The branches of the tree may be made of tin or paper, so as to be hollow from one end to the other in order that the air which enters at the bottom may find its exit at the top of the branch. These branches are so adjusted that at intervals there appear twigs made from brass wire, but the whole so decorated with leaves made from parchment that the ensemble closely resembles nature.
“The end of each branch is dilated to contain small pieces of gummed silk or very fine gold-beater’s skin, which are to catch the figures of the flowers and fruit when the latter expand by the air driven through the branches to which they were fastened by a silk thread.
“The tree or nosegay is then placed on a table, through which runs a glass tube to supply air from beneath the stage, where a confederate works this end of the trick, and causes the tree to ‘grow’ at the prearranged signal.”
Later it was described as being accomplished entirely by springs, and real oranges were first stuck on the tree by means of pegs or pins, and the leaves were so secured around them that at first appearance they could not be seen. Then a piston was used to spread all the leaves, another that forced the blossom up through the hollow branches, etc.
Pinetti’s personality was almost as extraordinary as his talents. A handsome man who knew how to carry himself, acquiring the graces and the dress of the nobility, he became rather haughty, if not arrogant, in his bearing. He so antagonized his contemporaries in the fields of magic and literature that he was advertised as much by his bitter enemies as by his loving friends. Many of his methods of attracting attention to himself were singularly like those employed by modern press agents of theatrical stars. He never trusted to his performances in theatres and drawing-rooms to advertise his abilities, but demonstrated his art wherever he appeared, from barber-shops to cafés.
Perhaps the best pen pictures of Pinetti and his methods are furnished by E. G. Robertson in his “Memoirs.” Robertson was a contemporary of Pinetti, and, like him, a pioneer in ballooning. His “Memoirs,” written in the French language, were published in 1831. The following extracts from this interesting book tell much of Pinetti’s life in Russia and of his professional history as tradition and actual acquaintance had presented it to M. Robertson:
“Pinetti had travelled a great deal and for a long time had enjoyed a great European reputation. He had done everything to attain it. There was never a man that carried further the art of the ‘charlatisme.’ When he arrived in a town where he intended to give a show, he took good care to prepare his public by speeches, which would keep it in suspense. In St. Petersburg great and incredible examples of mystification and of prestidigitation were told about him.
“One day he went to a barber-shop to get shaved, sat down in the chair, had the towel tied around his neck, and laid his head back ready for the lather. The barber left him in this position to get hot water, and when he returned, guided by force of habit, he applied the lather where the chin should be, but he found feet, arms, hands, and body in a coat, but no head! Such lamentations! No more head! What could it mean? He opened the door, and, frightened to death, ran away. Pinetti then went to the window and called the barber back. He had put his head in his coat in such a clever way, covering it with his handkerchief, that the surprise and the fright of the barber were quite natural. Of course this barber did not fail to spread over the whole town that he had shaved a man who could take his head off and on to his wish.
“Pinetti met in a summer-garden a young Russian who sold small cakes. He bought a few cakes, bit into them, and complained of finding a hard substance. The youth protested, but Pinetti opened the cake before him and found inside a gold piece. The magician pocketed the gold piece, bought another cake, then a third cake, and in each case found a new gold piece inside. He tried to buy the rest of the cakes. The passers-by had in the mean time come round the seller, and everybody wanted to buy as well. The market seemed to be all right, a ducat for a kopeck! Twelve francs for a cent! The young man refused to sell any more, hurried away, and when alone opened the cakes that were left. He found only the substances of which the cakes were made—nothing else. He had two left, so he hurried back to offer these to Pinetti. Pinetti bought them from him, opened them and showed in each one the gold piece, which the young man could not find in the two dozen cakes which he had spoilt. The poor boy bit his lips and looked at Pinetti with wondering, frightened eyes. This little adventure was advertised here, there, and everywhere, and was told in the clubs and in the society gatherings, and very soon the name of Pinetti gave the key to the enigma, and Pinetti was in demand by everybody.
“When Pinetti came on the stage, he had the knack of attracting members of the nobility around his table, by letting them learn some small secrets. This would render them confederates in working his tricks. He would appear in rich suits, embroidered in gold, which he changed three and four times in the evening. He would not hesitate to deck himself in a quantity of foreign decorations. In Berlin it was told how Pinetti would go through the streets, in a carriage drawn by four white horses. He was clad in fine embroidery and decorated with medals of all nations. Several times it happened that, as he passed by, the soldiers would call arms and salute, taking him for a prince. One day the King of Prussia rode out in his modest carriage drawn by two horses. Ahead of him drove the supposed prince. When the King witnessed the mistake made by his soldiers, he made inquiries as to the rank of this man to whom his men were paying such honor, then gave the Cavalier Pinetti twenty-four hours to get beyond Prussia’s borders.”
Whatever may be said of Pinetti’s charlatanism, it must be admitted that he gave to the art of conjuring a great impetus which was felt for several generations. It is not remarkable, therefore, that when the French magician Cornillot appeared in London in 1822 he announced himself as the pupil and successor of Pinetti. This was when Robert-Houdin was seventeen years of age, twenty-three years before he made his professional début, and on Cornillot’s programme we find another version of the now famous and almost familiar tree trick. As will be seen from the accompanying reproduction of a Cornillot handbill, the tree now appears as “An Enchanted Garden,” and, if the wording of the bill is to be believed, Cornillot had improved the trick and was using more than one tree or plant.
Cornillot remained in England for some time and is classed among the conjurers of good repute. Another bill in my collection shows that he played at the Theatre of Variety, Catherine Street, Strand, in October, 1823. He was then assisted by several singers and dancers, including the famous Misses Hamilton and Howe, pupils of M. Corri. In his company was also an Anglo-Chinese juggler, who, in addition to feats of juggling, “swallows an egg, a sword, and a stone, a la Ramo Samee.”
To sum up the evidence against Robert-Houdin in this particular trick: Four magicians of high repute gave public performances before Robert-Houdin knew and operated the orange-tree trick. Three eminent writers exposed it clearly and accurately. Robert-Houdin, as an indefatigable student of the history of magic, must have known of the trick and its modus operandum. He may have purchased it from Cornillot, or as a clever mechanician he had only to reproduce the trick invented by his predecessors, train his confederate in its operation—and—by his cleverly written autobiography—attempt to establish his claim to its invention.
IN his “Memoirs” Robert-Houdin eulogizes the various automata which he claims to have invented. The picturesque fashion in which he describes the tremendous effort put forth ere success crowned his labors would render his arguments most convincing—if stern historical facts did not contradict his every statement.
One of the most extraordinary mechanical figures which he exploits as his invention was the writing and drawing figure, which he exhibited at the Quinquennial Exhibition in 1844, but never used in his public performances, though he asserts that he planned to exhibit it between performances at his own theatre. This automaton, he says, laid the foundation of his financial success and opened the way to realizing his dream of appearing as a magician.
On page 196 of his “Memoirs,” American edition, he starts his romantic description of its conception and manufacture. According to this he had just planned what promised to be the most brilliant of his mechanical inventions when financial difficulties intervened. He was obliged to raise two thousand francs to meet a pressing debt. He applied to the ever-convenient Monsieur G——, who had bought automata from him before. He described the writing and drawing figure minutely to his patron, who immediately agreed to advance two thousand five hundred francs, and if the figure was completed in eighteen months, two thousand five hundred francs more were to be paid for it, making five thousand francs in all. If the figure was never completed, then Monsieur G—— was to reimburse himself for the amount advanced by selecting automatic toys from Robert-Houdin’s regular stock.
After liquidating his debt, Robert-Houdin retired to Belleville, a suburb of Paris, where for eighteen months he worked upon the figure, seeing his family only twice a week, and living in the most frugal fashion.
He employed a wood-carver to make the head, but the result was so unsatisfactory that in the end he was obliged, not only to make all the complicated machinery which operated the figure, but to carve the head itself, which, he adds, in some miraculous fashion, resembled himself. This resemblance, however, cannot be traced in existing cuts of the figure.
The chapter devoted to this particular automaton is so diverting that I quote literally from its pages, thus giving my readers an opportunity to take the true measure of the writer and the literary style of his “Memoirs.” Here is his description of his moment of triumph:
“I had only to press a spring in order to enjoy the long-waited-for result. My heart beat violently, and though I was alone I trembled at the mere thought of this imposing trial. I had just laid the first sheet of paper before my writer and asked him this question: ‘Who is the author of your being?’ I pressed the spring, and the clockwork started—began acting. I dared hardly breathe through fear of disturbing the operations. The automaton bowed to me, and I could not refrain from smiling on it as on my own son. But when I saw the eyes fix an attentive glance on the paper—when the arm, a few seconds before numb and lifeless, began to move and trace my signature in a firm hand—the tears started in my eyes and I fervently thanked Heaven for granting me success. And it was not alone the satisfaction I experienced as an inventor, but the certainty I had of being able to restore some degree of comfort to my family, that caused my deep feeling of gratitude.
“After making my Sosia repeat my signature a thousand times, I gave it this question: ‘What o’clock is it?’ The automaton, acting in obedience to the clock, wrote, ‘It is two in the morning.’ This was a timely warning. I profited by it and went straight to bed.”
Robert-Houdin injects a little humor into this chapter, for he relates that as Molière and J. J. Rousseau consulted their servants, he decided to do likewise; so early the next morning he invited his portress and her husband, Auguste, a stone-mason, to be present at the first performance of the figure. The mason’s wife chose the question, “What is the emblem of fidelity?” The automaton replied by drawing a pretty little greyhound, lying on a cushion. The stone-mason wished to see the works, saying: “I understand about that sort of thing, for I have always greased the vane on the church steeple, and have even taken it down twice.”
When the work was completed, according to page 208 of the American edition of his “Memoirs,” he returned to Paris, collected the remaining two thousand five hundred francs due him from Monsieur G——, to whom he delivered the figure, and two thousand francs more on an automatic nightingale made for a rich merchant of St. Petersburg. Incidentally he mentions that during his absence his business had prospered, but he fails to state who managed it for him, and here is where I believe credit should be given Opre, the Dutch inventor, who was unquestionably Robert-Houdin’s assistant for years.
In 1844 he claims to have borrowed the writing and drawing figure from the obliging Monsieur G—— to exhibit it at the Quinquennial Exposition, where it attracted the attention of Louis Philippe and his court, thus insuring its exhibitor the silver medal.
At this point Robert-Houdin deliberately drops the writing and drawing figure, leaving his readers to believe that it was returned to its rightful owner, Monsieur G——, but, unfortunately for his claims, another historian steps in here to cast reflections on Monsieur G—— ‘s ownership of the figure. This writer is the world’s greatest showman, the late P. T. Barnum, who purchased the figure at this same exposition of 1844, paying for it a goodly sum, and this incident is one of the significant omissions of the Robert-Houdin “Memoirs.” Either Robert-Houdin sold the figure to Mr. Barnum for Monsieur G——, or such a person as Monsieur G—— never existed, for in his own book Mr. Barnum writes:
“When I was abroad in 1844 I went to Paris expressly to attend the ‘Quinquennial Exposition’—an exhibition then held every five years. I met and became well acquainted with a celebrated conjurer, as he called himself, Robert-Houdin, but who was not only a prestidigitateur and legerdemain performer, but a mechanic of absolute genius. I bought at the exposition the best automaton he exhibited and for which he obtained a gold medal. I paid a round price for this most ingenious little figure, which was an automaton writer and artist. It sat on a small table, pencil in hand; and, if asked, for instance, for an emblem of ‘fidelity,’ it would instantly draw the picture of a handsome dog; if love was wanted, a cupid was exquisitely pencilled. The automaton would also answer many questions in writing. I took this curiosity to London, where it was exhibited for some time at the Royal Adelaide Gallery, and then I sent it across the Atlantic to my American Museum, where it attracted great attention from the people and the press. During my visit, Houdin was giving evening legerdemain performances, and by his pressing invitation I frequently was present. He took great pains, too, to introduce me to other inventors and exhibitors of moving figures, which I liberally purchased, making them prominent features in the attractions of the American Museum.”
Barnum then continued to describe Robert-Houdin’s greatness and his cleverness in the use of electricity. The showman was always a welcome guest at the magician’s house, and he relates how, at luncheon time, Robert-Houdin would touch a knob and through the floor would rise a table, laden with inviting viands. These details in the Barnum book make it all the more inexplicable that Robert-Houdin should omit all mention of the great showman’s name in his “Memoirs.”
Just at this time the amusement-seeking public seemed greatly interested in automata, so it was only natural that Barnum, great showman that he was, should scour Europe for mechanical figures. Soon after he purchased the writing and drawing figure claimed by Robert-Houdin, he brought to America a talking figure invented by Professor Faber of Vienna, to which he refers most entertainingly in his address to the public dated 1873:
“The Museum department contains 100,000 curiosities, including Professor Faber’s wonderful talking machine, costing me $20,000 for its use for six months; also the National Portrait Gallery of one hundred life-size paintings, including all the Presidents of the United States, etc.; John Rogers’ groups of historic statuary; almost an endless variety of curiosities, including numberless automaton musicians, mechanicians, and moving scenes, etc., etc., made in Paris and Geneva.”
It can be imagined how wonderful this talking machine must have been when Barnum gave it special emphasis, selecting it from the hundreds of curios he had on exhibition. As this talking machine is probably forgotten, I will reproduce the bill used at the time of its appearance in London, England.
When Barnum was in London in 1844, with Gen. Tom Thumb, who was then performing at the Egyptian Hall, he first saw the automatic talking machine and engaged it to strengthen his show. Thirty years later Prof. Faber’s nephew was the lecturer who explained to the American public the automaton’s mechanism and also the performer who manipulated the machine.
Barnum always speaks of the talking automaton as being a life-size figure, but the pictures used for advertising purposes show that it was only a head.
The fate of both the talking automaton and the writing and drawing figure is shrouded in mystery. If they were in the Barnum Museum when the latter was swept by fire in 1865, they were destroyed. If they had been taken back to Europe, they may now be lying in some cellar or loft, moth-eaten and dust-covered, ignominious end for such ingenious brain-work and handicraft.
So much for the claims of Robert-Houdin. Now to disprove them.
The earliest record of a writing figure I have found is in the “Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines,” compiled by Andrew Ure, M.D., and published in New York in 1842 by Le Roy Sunderland, 126 Fulton Street. On page 83, under the heading of “Automaton,” is this statement:
“Frederick Von Knauss completed a writing machine at Vienna in the year 1760. It is now in the model cabinet of the Polytechnic Institute, and consists of a globe two feet in diameter, containing the mechanism, upon which sits a figure seven inches high and writes, upon a sheet of paper fixed to a frame, whatever has been placed beforehand upon a regulating cylinder. At the end of each line it raises and moves its hand sideways, in order to begin a new line.”
This does not answer the description of the figure which Robert-Houdin claims, but it is interesting as showing that mechanical genius ran along such lines almost a hundred years before Robert-Houdin claims to have invented the famous automaton.
The writing and drawing figure claimed by Robert-Houdin as his original invention can be traced back directly to the shop door of Switzerland’s most noted inventor, Pierre Jacquet-Droz, who with his son, Henri-Louis, laid the foundation of the famous Swiss watch-and music-box industry.
In the latter part of the eighteenth century, probably about 1770, the Jacquet-Drozes turned out a drawing figure which also inscribed a few set phrases or titles of the drawings. In mechanism, appearance, and results it tallies almost exactly with the automaton claimed by Robert-Houdin as originating in his brain. The Jacquet-Droz figure showed a child clad in quaint, flowing garments, seated at a desk. The Robert-Houdin figure was modernized, and showed a court youth in knee breeches and powdered peruque, seated at a desk. The Jacquet-Droz figure drew a dog, a cupid, and the heads of reigning monarchs. The Robert-Houdin figure, made seventy-five years later, by some inexplicable coincidence drew a dog as the symbol of fidelity, a cupid as the emblem of love, and the heads of reigning monarchs.
The history of the Jacquet-Drozes is written in the annals of Switzerland as well as the equally reputable annals of scientific inventions, and cannot be refuted.
Pierre Jacquet-Droz was born July 28th, 1721, in a small village, La-Chaux-de-Fonds, near Neuchâtel, Switzerland. According to some authorities, his father was a clock-maker, but the brochure issued by “Société d’Histoire et d’Archéologie” of the city of Neuchâtel, which has recently acquired many of the Jacquet-Droz automata, states that he was the son of a farmer and was sent to a theological seminary at Basle. Here the youth’s natural talent for mechanics overbalanced his interest in “isms” and “ologies,” and he spent every spare moment at work with his tools. On his return to his native town he turned his attention seriously to clock- and watch-making, constructing a marvellous clock with two peculiar hands which, in passing each other, touched the dial and rewound the clock.
At this time his work attracted the attention of Lord Keith, Governor of Neuchâtel, then a province of Prussia, who induced the young inventor to visit the court of Ferdinand VI. of Spain, providing the necessary introductions. Pierre Jacquet-Droz remained for some time in Madrid and made a clock of most complicated pattern. This was a perpetual calendar. For hands, he utilized artificial sunbeams, shooting out from the sun’s face which formed the dial, to denote the hours, days, etc. With the money received from the Spanish monarch he returned to Switzerland to find that his son, Henri-Louis, had inherited his remarkable inventive gifts. He sent his boy to Nancy to study music, drawing, mechanics, and physics. During his son’s absence in all probability he produced the first of the marvellous automata which made the Jacquet-Drozes famous the modern world over, namely, the writing figure.
With the return of Henri-Louis Jacquet-Droz from college commenced what may be termed the golden age of mechanics in Switzerland. Associated with father and son were the former’s pupils or apprentices, Jean-Frédéric Leschot, Jean-David Maillardet, and Jean Pierre Droz, a blood relation who afterward became director of the mint at Paris and a mechanician of rare talent. Jean Pierre Droz is credited with having invented a machine for cutting, stamping, and embossing medals on the face and on the edges at one insertion.
The output of this shop and its staff of gifted workers included the first Swiss music box, the singing birds which sprang from watches and jewel caskets, the drawing figure which was an improvement on the writing figure, the spinet player, and the grotto with its many automatic animals of diminutive size but exquisite workmanship. Years were spent in perfecting the various automata, and none of them have been equalled or even approached by later mechanicians and inventors.
Henri-Louis Jacquet-Droz was conceded to be the superior of his father, Pierre Jacquet-Droz. In a German encyclopædia which I found at the King’s Library, Munich, it is stated that when Vaucanson, celebrated as the inventor of “The Flute Player,” “The Mechanical Duck,” “The Talking Machine,” etc., saw the work of the younger Droz, he cried loudly, “Why, that boy commences where I left off!”
According to the brochure issued by the Society of History and Archæology, Canton of Neuchâtel, and an article contributed by Dr. Alfred Gradenwits to The Scientific American of June 22d, 1907, the writing and drawing figures are made and operated as follows:
“The writer represented a child of about four years of age, sitting at his little table, patiently waiting with the pen in his hand until the clockwork is started. He then sets to work and, after looking at the sheet of paper before him, lifts his hand and moves it toward the ink-stand, in which he dips the pen. The little fellow then throws off an excess of ink and slowly and calmly, like an industrious child, begins writing on the paper the prescribed sentence. His handwriting is careful, conscientiously distinguishing between hair strokes and ground strokes, always observing the proper intervals between letters and words and generally showing the sober and determined character of the handwriting usual at the time in the country of Neuchâtel. In order, for instance, to write a T, the writer begins tracing the letter at the top, and after slightly lifting his hand halfway, swiftly traces the transversal dash, and continues writing the original ground stroke.
“How complicated a mechanism is required for insuring these effects will be inferred from the illustration, in which the automaton is shown with its back opened. In the first place a vertical disk will be noticed having at its circumference as many notches as there are letters and signs. Behind this will be seen whole columns of cam-wheels, each of a special shape, placed one above another, and all together forming a sort of spinal column for the automaton.
“Whenever the little writer is to write a given letter, a pawl is introduced into the corresponding notch of the disk, thus lifting the wheel column and transmitting to the hand, by the aid of a complicated lever system and Cardan joints arranged in the elbow, the requisite movements for tracing the letter in question. The mechanism comprises five centres of motion connected together by chains.
“In the ‘Draftsman,’ the mechanism is likewise arranged in the body itself, as in the case of the ‘Writer.’ The broad chest thus entailed also required a large head, which accounts for the somewhat bulky appearance of the two automatons. With the paper in position and a pencil in hand, the ‘Draftsman’ at first traces a few dashes and then swiftly marks the shadows, and a dog appears on the paper. The little artist knowingly examines his work, and after blowing away the dust and putting in a few last touches, stops a moment and then quickly signs, ‘Mon Toutou’ (My pet dog). The motions of the automaton are quite natural, and the outlines of his drawings extremely sharp. The automaton when desired willingly draws certain crowned heads now belonging to history; for example, a portrait of Louis XV., of Louis XVI., and of Marie Antoinette.”
The automata made by the Jacquet-Drozes and their confrères were exhibited in all the large cities of Great Britain and Continental Europe. According to the programmes and newspaper notices in my collection, Henri-Louis Jacquet-Droz acted as their first exhibitor. As proof I am reproducing a Droz programme from the London Post, dated 1776.
In support of this advertisement, note what the same paper says in what is probably a criticism of current amusements:
“This entertainment consists of three capital mechanical figures and a pastoral scene, with figures of an inferior size. The figure on the left-hand side, a beautiful boy as large as life, writes anything that is dictated to him, in a very fine hand. The second on the right hand, of the same size, draws various landscapes, etc., etc., which he finishes in a most accurate and masterly style. The third figure is a beautiful young lady who plays several elegant airs on the harpsichord, with all the bass accompaniments; her head gracefully moving to the tune, and her bosom discovering a delicate respiration. During her performance, the pastoral scene in the centre discovers a variety of mechanical figures admirably grouped, all of which seem endued, as it were, with animal life, to the admiration of the spectator. The last curiosity is a canary bird in a cage, which whistles two or three airs in the most natural manner imaginable. Upon the whole, the united collection strikes us as the most wonderful exertion of art which ever trod before so close on the heels of nature. The ingenious artist is a young man, a native of Switzerland.”
The inventory of Jacquet-Droz, Jr., dated 1786, quotes the “Piano Player” as valued at 4,800 livres, the “Drawing Figure” at 7,200 livres, while the “Writer” had been ceded to him by his father for 4,800 livres, in consideration of certain improvements and modifications which Henri-Louis Jacquet-Droz made in the original invention. This shows that while the elder Droz did not die until 1790, his son controlled the automata previous to this date, for exhibition and other purposes.
During his later years Henri-Louis Jacquet-Droz was induced to take the automata to Spain. His tour was under the direction of an English manager, who, possibly for the purpose of securing greater advertisement, announced the figures as possessed of supernatural power. This brought them under the ban of the Inquisition, and Jacquet-Droz was thrown into prison. Eventually he managed to secure his freedom, and, breathing free air once more, like the proverbial Arab, he silently folded his tent and stole away, leaving the automata to their fate. Henri-Louis Jacquet-Droz died in Naples, Italy, in 1791, a year after his father’s death.
The English manager, however, tarried in Spain. The figures were “tried” and as they proved motionless the case was dropped. The Englishman then claimed the automata as his property and sold them to a French nobleman. Their owner did not know how to operate them, so their great value was never realized by his family. After his death, during a voyage to America, they lay neglected in the castle of Mattignon, near Bayonne. After changing hands many times, about 1803 they passed into the hands of an inventor named Martin, and were controlled by his descendants for nearly a hundred years. One of his family, Henri Martin, of Dresden, Germany, exhibited them in many large cities, and advertised them for sale at 15,000 marks in the Muenchener Blaetter of May 13th, 1883. After Martin’s death, his widow succeeded in disposing of them to Herr Marfels, of Berlin, who had them repaired with such good results that in the fall of 1906 he sold them for 75,000 francs, or about $15,000, to the Historical Society of Neuchâtel. In April, 1907, the writing figure, the drawing figure, and the spinet player were on exhibition in Le Locle, Chaux-de-Fonds, and Neuchâtel.
So far we have traced only the original writing and drawing figure. This has been done purely to show that even if Robert-Houdin had been capable of building such an automaton, he would not have been its real inventor, but would merely have copied the marvellous work of the Jacquet-Drozes. Now to trace the figure which in 1844 he claimed as his invention.
With the fame of the Neuchâtel shop spreading and the demand for Swiss watches increasing, Maillardet and Jean Pierre Droz, apprentices or perhaps partners of Pierre Jacquet-Droz and Henri-Louis Jacquet-Droz, removed to London and there set up a watch factory. About this time Maillardet invented a combination writing and drawing figure which was pronounced by experts of the day slightly inferior to the work of the two Jacquet-Drozes. However, it must have been worthy of exhibition, for it appeared at intervals for the next fifty years in the amusement world, particularly in London. At first Maillardet was not its exhibitor nor was his name ever mentioned on the programmes and newspaper notices, but later his name appeared as part owner and exhibitor. As the Swiss watches had created a veritable sensation and were snatched up as fast as produced, it is quite likely that he had no time to play the rôle of showman.
The figure first appeared in London in 1796, when the London Telegraph of January 2nd carried the advertisement reproduced on the next page.
In quite a few works on automata, notably Sir David Brewster’s “Letters on Natural Magic,” Collinson is quoted as having interviewed Maillardet as the inventor of the combination writing and drawing figure. The Franklin Journal of June, 1827, published in Philadelphia, Pa., credits this figure to Maillardet and gives the following description: “It was the figure of a boy kneeling on one knee, holding a pencil in his hand, with which he executed not only writing but drawings equal to those of the masters. When the figure began to work, an attendant dipped the pencil in ink, and fixed the paper, when, on touching a spring, the figure wrote a line, carefully dotting and stroking the letters.”
The Robert-Houdin figure did not kneel, but this change could be made by a mechanician of ordinary ability.
The writing and drawing figure does not reappear on amusement programmes in my collection until 1812, when it was featured by De Philipsthal, the inventor of “Phantasmagoria.”[ The nature of the inventions grouped under this title can best be judged from the reproduction of a De Philipsthal programme, dated 1803-04, and reproduced in the course of this chapter. All evidence goes to prove, however, that De Philipsthal did not control the writing and drawing figure exclusively, but that it was the joint property of himself and his partner, Maillardet. One of their joint programmes is also reproduced. Wherever De Philipsthal appears as an independent entertainer, the writing and drawing figure is missing from his billing. Later the writing and drawing automaton came into the possession of a Mr. Louis, who, as it will be seen from the billing, acted as assistant engineer to De Philipsthal and Maillardet. Louis evidently controlled the wonderful little automaton in the years 1814-15.
The last De Philipsthal programme in my possession is dated Summer Theatre, Hull, September 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th, 1828, when he advertises only “rope dancers and mechanical peacock,” and features “special uniting fire and water” and “firework experiments.” He must have died between that date and April, 1829, for a programme dated at the latter time announces a benefit at the Théâtre Wakefield for the widow and children of De Philipsthal, “the late proprietor of the Royal Mechanical and Optical Museum.” This benefit programme contains no allusion to the writing and drawing figure, which goes to prove that it had not been his property, or it would have been handed down to his estate.
In May, 1826, an automaton was exhibited at 161 Strand, a bill regarding which is reproduced. This mechanical figure, however, should not be confounded with the original and genuine writing and drawing figure. It seems to have lacked legitimacy and, from what I can learn from newspaper clippings, was worked like “Zoe,” with a concealed confederate, or, like the famous “Psycho” featured by Maskelyne, it was worked by compressed air. This bill is interesting solely because I believe that this fake automaton exhibited at 161 Strand was the first figure of the sort foisted on the public after the Baron Von Kemplen chess-player, which is described in Halle’s work on magic, published in 1784.
In 1901, while in Germany, I saw a number of these automaton artists, all frauds. The figure sat in a small chair before an easel, ready to draw portraits in short order. The figure was shown to the audience, then replaced on the chair, whereupon a man under the platform would thrust his arm through the figure and draw all that was required of the automaton. The fake was short-lived, even at the yearly fairs, and now has sunk too low for them.
During this interim, that is between 1821 and 1833, the famous little figure seems to have been in the possession of one Schmidt, who, according to the programmes in my collection, exhibited it regularly.
In 1833 Schmidt is programmed in London, playing at the Surrey Theatre, when the writing and drawing figure is one of twenty-four automatic devices. A program, which, judging from its printing, is of a still later date, announces Mr. Schmidt and the famous figure at New Gothic Hall, 7 Haymarket, for a short period previous to the removal of the exhibit to St. Petersburg. The dates of other programmes in my collection can be judged only from the style of printing which changed at different periods of the art’s development. Some of these indicate that the writing and drawing figure was on exhibition during the early 40’s in London at Paul’s Head Assembly Rooms, Argyle Rooms, Regent Street, etc.
It is more than likely, according to Robert-Houdin’s own admission regarding his study of automata and his opportunities to repair those left at his shop, that at some time the writing and drawing figure was brought to Paris to be exhibited, needed repairing, and thus reached his shop. Whether it was bought by Monsieur G——, whose interest in automata is featured in Robert-Houdin’s “Memoirs,” and brought to Robert-Houdin to repair, or whether Robert-Houdin bought it for a song, and repaired it to sell to advantage to his wealthy patron, cannot be stated, but I am morally certain that Robert-Houdin never constructed, in eighteen months, a complicated mechanism on which the Jacquet-Drozes spent six years of their inventive genius and efforts. Modern mechanicians agree that such a performance would have been a physical impossibility, even had Robert-Houdin been the expert mechanician he pictured himself.
To sum up the evidence: The writing and drawing figure as turned out by the Jacquet-Drozes was known all over Europe. It is not possible that a man so well read and posted in magic and automata as Robert-Houdin did not know of its existence and mechanism. And if Robert-Houdin had invented the same mechanism it is hardly possible that his design would have run in precisely the same channel as that of Jacquet-Droz and Maillardet, in having the figure draw the dog, the cupid, and the heads of monarchs.
In those days humble mechanicians, however well they were known in their own trade, were not exploited by the public press. Nor did they employ clever journalists to write memoirs lauding their achievements. And so it happened that for years the names of Jacquet-Droz and Maillardet were unsung; their brainwork and handicraft were claimed by Robert-Houdin, who had mastered the art of self-exploitation. To-day, after a century and a half of neglect, the laurel wreath has been lifted from the brow of Robert-Houdin, where it never should have been placed, and has been laid on the graves of the real inventors of the writing and drawing figure, Pierre Jacquet-Droz and Henri-Louis Jacquet-Droz and Jean-David Maillardet.
CONCERNING this trick, which Robert-Houdin claims as his invention, he writes on page 79 of his “Memoirs,” American edition: “The first was a small pastry cook, issuing from his shop door at the word of command, and bringing, according to the spectator’s request, patties and refreshments of every description. At the side of the shop, assistant pastry cooks might be seen rolling paste and putting it in the oven.”
By means of handbills, programmes, and newspaper notices of magical and mechanical performances, this trick in various guises can be traced back as far as 1796. Nine reputable magicians offered it as part of their repertoire, and at times two men presented it simultaneously, showing that more than one such automaton existed. The dates of the most notable programmes or handbills selected from my collection are as follows:
1, Haddock, 1797. 2, Garnerin, 1815. 3, Gyngell, 1816 and 1823. 4, Bologna, 1820. 5, Henry, 1822. 6, Schmidt, 1827. 7, Rovere, 1828. 8, Charles, 1829. 9, Phillippe, 1841.
In 1827 Schmidt and Gyngell joined forces, yet both before and after this date each performer had the wonderful little piece of mechanism on his programme. In 1841, four years before Robert-Houdin appeared as a public performer, Phillippe created a sensation in Paris, presenting among other automata “Le Confiseur Galant.” In 1845, when Robert-Houdin included “The Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal” in his initial programme at his own theatre in Paris, Phillippe was presenting precisely the same trick at the St. James Theatre, London.
Of this goodly company, however, Rovere and Phillippe deserve more than passing notice, as both were the contemporaries of Robert-Houdin, and Rovere was his personal friend. Both also appear in Robert-Houdin’s “Memoirs.”
The trick appears first, not as a confectioner’s shop with small figures at work, but as a fruitery, then again as a Dutch Coffee-House and a Russian Inn, from which ten sorts of liquor are served. Finally, in 1823, it is featured under the name that later made it famous, the Confectioner’s Shop.
Haddock, the Englishman who had the writing and drawing figure in his possession for some time, featured the fruitery on his programmes dated 1796. One of his advertisements from the London Telegraph is reproduced on page 106, in connection with the history of the writing and drawing figure, but for convenience I am quoting here Haddock’s own description of the fruitery trick, which was even more complicated than the famous Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal:
“A model of the neat rural mansion, and contains the following figures: First, the porter, which stands at the gate, and on being addressed, rings the bell, when the door opens, the fruiteress comes out, and any lady or gentleman may call for whatever fruit they please, and the figure will return and bring the kind required, which may be repeated and the fruit varied as often as the company orders: it will likewise receive flowers, or any small article, carry them in, and produce them again as called for. As the fruits are brought out, they will be given in charge of a watch-dog, which sits in front of the house, and on any person taking or touching them will begin to bark, and continue to do so until they are returned. The next figure belonging to this piece is the little chimney-sweeper, which will be seen coming from behind the house, will enter the door, appear at the top of the chimney, and give the usual cry of ‘Sweep’ several times, descend the chimney, and come out with his bag full of soot.”
In 1820, Haddock’s programme, including the fruitery, appears with only a few minor changes as the répertoire of Bologna, a very clever conjurer who afterward became the assistant of Anderson, the Wizard of the North, and who made most of the latter’s apparatus. On the Bologna programme, for a performance to be given at the Great Assembly Room, Three Tuns Tavern, the shop trick is described thus: “A curious Mechanical Fruiterer and Confectioner’s Shop, kept by Kitty Comfit, who will produce at Command such Variety of Fruit and Sweetmeats as may be asked for.”
The marvellous little shop does not appear again on programmes of magic until 1815, when Garnerin features it as “The Dutch Coffee-House.” On the programme used by Garnerin in that year for a benefit which he gave for the General Hospital at Birmingham, England, it is featured as No. 10: “A Dutch Coffee-House, a very surprising mechanical piece, in which there is the figure of a Girl, six inches high, which presents, at the Command of the Spectators, ten different sorts of Liquors.”
This programme is of such historical value that I reproduce it in full. It will show that this particular mechanical trick is by no means the most important feature of Garnerin’s répertoire. In fact his fame is based on his ballooning, and he is said to have been the inventor of the parachute. The ascension of the nocturnal balloon, also scheduled on this programme, is an imitation of the one which Garnerin arranged in honor of Bonaparte’s coronation in 1805. On that occasion the balloon started at Paris and descended in Rome, a distance of five hundred miles which was covered in twenty-two hours.
Garnerin was a contemporary of both Pinetti and Robertson and was with them in Russia when Pinetti dissipated his fortune in balloon experiments. In their correspondence, both Pinetti and Robertson spoke slightingly of Garnerin, but the Frenchman’s programmes all indicate that he was not only a successful aëronaut, but a magician who could present a diverting entertainment.
In 1816 the elder Gyngell featured the trick on his programmes as “The Russian Inn,” and in 1823 he changed it to “The Confectioner’s Shop.” These programmes are reproduced as the most convincing evidence against the claims of Robert-Houdin.
The Gyngell family is one of the most interesting in the history of magic. The Christian name of the founder of the family I have never been able to ascertain, though programmes give the initial as G. He was celebrated as a Bartholomew Fair conjurer. His career started about 1788, and his contemporaries were Lane, Boaz, Ball, Jonas, Breslaw, and Flocton. At one time Gyngell and Flocton worked together, and Thomas Frost in his book, “The Lives of Conjurers,” claims that at Flocton’s death Gyngell received a portion of the former’s wealth.
Associated with him in his performances were his brother, two sons, and a daughter. The latter was not only a clever rope-dancer but a musician of more than ordinary ability and she often constituted the entire “orchestra.”
On Gyngell’s programme offered in 1827 he proves himself a great showman, for he features Herr Schmidt’s “Mechanical Automatons, Phantasmagoria, a laughing sketch entitled Wholesale Blunders, his son on the flying wire, during which he would throw a somersault through a balloon of real fire, a broadsword dance by Miss Louise and Master Gyngell, and Miss Louise’s performance on the tight rope, clowned by Master Lionel.”
On a programme used in Hull, October 29th, 1827, a lottery was featured as follows: “On which occasion the first hundred persons paying for the gallery will be entitled by ticket to a chance of a Fat Goose, and the same number in the pit to have the same chance for a fat turkey. To be drawn for on the stage, in the same manner as the State Lottery.”
According to Thomas Frost, Gyngell died in 1833 and was buried in the Parish Church, Camberwell. His children, however, continued the work so excellently planned by their father.
Dover, February 10th, 1867.
Dear Sir—Yours of the 5th inst. I received just as I was leaving Folkestown, and it was forwarded from Guilford.
I am sorry I have not one of my old bills with me, neither do I think any of my family could find one at home. I may have some among my old conjuring things, and when I return to Guilford I will look them over and send you what I can find. I was sorry I was not at home when you were in Guilford, for I feel much pleasure in meeting a responsible professional. I am not certain when I shall return, but most likely not for six weeks. I will keep your address; so should you change your residence, write to me about that time.
I was looking over some old papers some time last summer, and found a bill of my father’s, nearly 60 years ago, when his great trick was cutting off the cock’s head and restoring it to life again. And a great wonder it was considered and brought crowded rooms.
I was Master Gyngell, the wonderful performer on the slack wire; and now in my 71st year I am lecturer, pyrotechnist, and high-rope walker, for I did that last summer. My life has been a simple one of ups and downs.
I am, dear sir, yours truly,
J. D. G. Gyngell.
The signature of this letter, “J. D. G. Gyngell,” clears up considerable uncertainty regarding the names of the two Gyngell sons. At times the clever young tight-rope performer has been spoken of as Joseph, and at others as Gellini. It is quite probable that the two names were really part of one, and the full baptismal name was “Joseph D. Gellini.” It was as Gellini Gyngell that he met Henry Evanion at Deal, February 20th, 1862, when the latter was performing as a magician at the Deal and Walmer Institute, while Gellini Gyngell gave an exhibition of fireworks and a magic-lantern display on the South Esplanade. A fine notice of both performances was published in the Deal Telegram of February 23d, when the hope was expressed that Gyngell’s collection, taken among those who enjoyed his outdoor performance, repaid him for his admirable entertainment. Gyngell was landlord of the Bowling Green Tavern at this time, and travelled as an entertainer only at intervals.
The next appearance of the trick is in a book published by M. Henry, a ventriloquist, who played London and the provinces from 1820 to 1828. During an engagement at the Adelphia Theatre, London, which according to the programme was about 1822, Henry published a book entitled “Conversazione; or, Mirth and Marvels,” in which he interspersed witty conversation with descriptions of his various tricks. On page 11 he thus describes the automaton under consideration:
“Illusion Third. A curious mechanical trick; an inn, from which issues the hostess for orders, upon receiving which, she returns into the inn and brings out the various liquors as called for by the audience, and at last waiting for the money, which, having received, goes in and shuts the door. Mr. Henry says he has produced the inn in preference to palaces, though more stupendous and magnificent, thinking, as a certain author wrote, the heartiest welcome is to be found at the inn.”
In the same year Henry issued a challenge open to the whole world, defying any performer to equal his manipulation of the cup and ball trick. He also employed as an adjunct of his conjuring performances Signor de Fedori of Rome, an armless wonder, who used his feet to play the drum, violin, and triangle.
A contemporary of Henry was Charles, the great ventriloquist, who varied his performance as did all ventriloquists of his day, by presenting “Philosophical and Mechanical Experiments” to make up a two-hour-and-a-half performance. Charles made several tours of the English provinces, and played in London at intervals. On a London programme which is undated, but which announces M. Charles as playing at Mr. Wigley’s Large Room, Spring Gardens, the second automaton on his list is described as “The Russian Inn, out of which comes a little Woman and brings the Liquor demanded for.” Two of his programmes dated Theatre Royal, Hull, April, 1829, now in my collection, carry a pathetic foot-note written in the handwriting of the collector through whom they came into my possession: “The audiences on both the evenings were extremely small, and the money was refunded.”
By referring to the chapter on the writing and drawing figure, Chapter III, Page 113, a Schmidt programme of 1827 will be found, in which he features “The Enchanted Dutch Coffee-House, an elegant little building. On the traveller ringing the bell, the door opens, the hostess attends and provides him with any liquor he may call for.”
Schmidt seems to have confined his exhibitions to London and the provinces and was often connected with other magicians, including Gyngell and Buck. The latter was an English conjurer, best known as the man who was horribly injured when presenting “The Gun Delusion.” This consisted of having a marked bullet shot at the performer, who caught it between his teeth on a plate, or on the point of a needle or knife. Some miscreant loaded the gun with metal after Buck had it prepared for the trick, and the unfortunate performer’s right cheek was literally shot away.
In 1828 Jules de Rovere, a French conjurer, whose fame rests principally on the fact that he coined the new title “prestidigitator,” appeared at the Haymarket Theatre, London, and also toured the English provinces. A clipping from the Oxford Herald of that year includes this description of his automaton: “One of the clowns vanishes from the box, and instantly at the top of the hall a little lady, in a little hotel brilliantly illuminated, gives out wines and liquors to them who ask for them, without any apparent communication with the artiste, and yet the lady is only six inches high.”
In the late 30’s Rovere made his headquarters in Paris, and there he and Robert-Houdin met. The latter refers to this meeting on page 153 of his “Memoirs,” when writing of the misfortunes which had overtaken Father Roujol, whose shop had once been headquarters for conjurers: “Still I had the luck to form here the acquaintance of Jules de Rovere, the first to employ a title now generally given to fashionable conjurers.”
And after Rovere, Phillippe, who is by far the most important presenter of the Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal, as bearing upon Robert-Houdin’s claims.
For Phillippe’s early history we must depend largely upon Robert-Houdin’s “Memoirs.” According to these, Phillippe started life as a confectioner or maker of sweets, and his real name was Phillippe Talon. According to an article published in L’Illusionniste in January, 1902, he was born in Alias, near Nîmes, December 25th, 1802, and died in Bokhara, Turkey, June 27th, 1878.
Like many a genius and successful man, his early history was written in a minor key. According to Robert-Houdin his sweets did not catch the Parisian fancy, and he went to London, where at that time French bonbons were in high favor. But for some reason he failed in London, and went on to Aberdeen, Scotland, where he was very soon reduced to sore straits. In his hour of extremity his cleverness saved the day. In Aberdeen at the same time was a company of actors almost as unfortunate as himself. They were presenting a pantomime which the public refused to patronize. The young confectioner approached the manager of the pantomime and suggested that they join forces. In addition to the regular admission to the pantomime each patron was to pay sixpence and receive in return a paper of mixed sugar plums and a lottery ticket by which he might gain the first prize of the value of five pounds. In addition, Talon promised not only to provide the sweets free of cost to the management, but to present a new and startling feature at the close of the performance.
The novel announcement crowded the house, the pantomime and the bonbons alike found favor, but the significant feature of the performance was young Talon’s appearance in the finale in the rôle of “Punch,” for which he was admirably made up. He executed an eccentric dance, at the finish of which he pretended to fall and injure himself. In a faint voice he demanded pills to relieve his pain, and a fellow-actor brought on pills of such enormous size that the audience stopped sympathizing with the actor and began to laugh. But the pills all disappeared down the dancer’s throat, for Talon was not only an able confectioner and an agile dancer, but a sleight-of-hand performer. From that hour he exchanged the spoon of the confectioner for the wand of the magician. The fortunes of both the pantomime and Phillippe, as he now called himself, improved. Quite probably he remained with the pantomime company until the close of the season and then struck out as an independent performer.
Another story which is gleaned from a biography of John Henry Anderson, the Wizard of the North, tells how Phillippe started his career as a pastry cook in the household of one Lord Panmure, and I quote this literally from the Anderson book, because I believe it to be truthful, as material gathered from Anderson literature has proved to be:
“It was at this time that he came in contact with a person who afterward, under the designation of M. Phillippe, became celebrated in France as a magician. Phillipee (for so was he named in Scotland) was originally a cook in the services of the late Lord Panmure. Leaving that employment, he settled down and remained for a number of years in Aberdeen. He heard of the fame of the youthful magician, was induced to visit his ‘temple,’ and was struck with his performances; and having made the acquaintance of Mr. Anderson, he solicited from him and obtained an insight into his profession, and fac-similes of his then humble apparatus. Phillippe improved to such a degree upon the knowledge he thus acquired that, leaving England for France, he earned the reputation of being one of the most accomplished magicians ever seen in the country.”
The date of his initial performance is not known, but he must have remained in Scotland, perfecting his act, for the earliest Phillippe programme in my collection is dated February 3d, 1837, when he opened at Waterloo Rooms, Edinburgh, and announced:
“The high character which Mons. Phillippe has obtained from the Aberdeen, Glasgow, Greenock and Paisley Press, being the only four towns in Britain where he has made his appearance, is a sufficient guarantee to procure him a visit from the inhabitants of this enlightened Metropolis, where talent had always been supported when actually deserved.”
Evidently, however, Phillippe made rapid progress, for a programme dated Saturday, April 21st, 1838, shows that his last daytime or matinée performance in Waterloo Rooms was given under the patronage of such members of the nobility as the Right Honorable Lady Gifford, the Right Honorable Lady H. Stuart Forbes, etc. In an Edinburgh programme, dated probably 1837, he is shown as performing his tricks, clad in peculiar evening clothes, knickerbockers and waistcoat matching, with a mere suggestion of the swallow-tail coat. In his 1838 bill he is shown clad in the flowing robes of the old-time magician, and he advertises the Chinese tricks, notably the gold-fish trick, which demanded voluminous draperies.
According to Robert-Houdin, Phillippe built a small wooden theatre in Glasgow. Humble as this building was, however, it brought a significant factor into Phillippe’s life. This was a young bricklayer named Andrew Macallister who had a natural genius for tricks and models, and who became Phillippe’s apprentice, later appearing as Domingo, his assistant on the stage, wearing black make-up.
In either Edinburgh or Dublin Phillippe met the Chinese juggler or conjurer who taught him the gold-fish trick and the secret of the Chinese rings.
Armed with these two striking tricks, Phillippe determined to satisfy his yearning to return to his native land, and in 1841 he appeared at the Salle Montesquieu, Paris. Later, the Bonne-Nouvelle, a temple of magic, was opened for Phillippe in Paris, and there he enjoyed the brilliant run to which Robert-Houdin refers in his “Memoirs.”
Phillippe was an indefatigable worker and traveller, and one brilliant engagement followed another. During the 40’s he appeared, according to my collection of programmes, all over Continental Europe, and in most of his programmes this paragraph is featured:
“An unexpected present at once gratuitous and laughable, composed of twelve prizes, nine lucky and three unfortunate, in which the general public will participate.”
He also continued to distribute bonbons from an inexhaustible source, probably a cornucopia, calling this trick “a new system of making sweetmeats, or Le Confiseur Moderne.”
During his first engagement in Vienna he had painted for advertising purposes a pastel portrait, showing him clad in his magician’s robes at the finale of the gold-fish trick. From this picture his later cuts were made. By some mistake he left the original pastel in Vienna, where I bought it at a special sale for my collection. It remains an exquisite piece of color work, even at this day. So far it is the only real likeness of Phillippe I have been able to unearth.
In 1845-46 he was at the height of his popularity in London, where he had a tremendous run. In June, 1845, we find him playing at the St. James Theatre, under Mitchell’s direction, and on September 29th, under his own management, he moves to the Strand, where he is still found in January of 1846. During all this time he featured The Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal under the title of “Le Confiseur Galant.”
As proofs that Phillippe used the pastry-cook trick both before and during Robert-Houdin’s career as a magician, I offer several programmes containing accurate descriptions of the automaton, and also a page illustration from a current publication dated Paris, 1843, which shows the confectioner or pastry-cook standing in the doorway of his house, while the key explaining the various tricks reads: “No. 9. Le Confiseur galant et le Liquoriste impromptu.”
Robert-Houdin devotes nearly an entire chapter to the history of Phillippe and a description of his tricks and automata, yet curiously forgets to mention the pastry cook, which he later claims as his own invention.
Ernest Basch, formerly of Basch Brothers, conjurers, and the richest manufacturer of illusions in the world, claims that the original trick is now in his possession. Herr Basch is located in Hanover, Germany, where he builds large illusions only. The wonderful mechanical house passed to Basch by a bequest on the death of Baron von Sandhovel, a wealthy resident of Amsterdam, Holland. Von Sandhovel had bought the trick from the heirs of Robert-Houdin on the death of the latter, because he believed it to be the brain and handwork of Opre, a Dutch mechanician of great talent. Ernest Basch shares this belief, and with other well-read conjurers thinks that Opre was Robert-Houdin’s assistant and built most of his automata, including The Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal, The Windmill or Dutch Inn, Auriel and Debureau, The French Gymnasts, The Harlequin, and The Chausseur.
Opre was a man of ability, but lacked presence and personality properly to present his inventions. So far I have found his name in three places only: On the frontispiece of a Dutch book on magic, published in Amsterdam; in Ernest Basch’s correspondence about conjurers; and on page 77 of Robert-Houdin’s “Memoirs,” when he speaks of Opre as the maker of the Harlequin figure which Torrini asked Robert-Houdin to repair during their travels.
With such convincing proof, some of which was contemporary, that other men had exhibited The Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal in its identical or slightly different guise, it was daring indeed of Robert-Houdin to claim it as his own invention.
The most direct information regarding Opre comes through that eminent family of conjurers known as the Bambergs of Holland. At this writing, “Papa” (David) Bamberg, of the fourth generation, is prominent on the Dutch stage, and his son Tobias David, known as Okito, of the fifth generation, is a cosmopolitan magician, presenting a Chinese act.
According to the family history, traceable by means of handbills, programmes, and personal correspondence, the original Bamberg (Eliazar) had a vaulting figure in his collection of automata in 1790, fifty years before Robert-Houdin became a professional entertainer. This figure was made by Opre, to whom all conjurers of that time looked for automata and apparatus. David Leendert Bamberg, of the second generation, who also had the vaulting figure, was the intimate friend and confidant of Opre and was authority for the statement that Opre’s son sold in Paris the various automata made by his father, which later Robert-Houdin claimed as his own invention. It may be noted that Robert-Houdin never invented a single automaton after he went on the stage in 1845, and as Opre died in 1846, the coincidence is nothing if not significant.
TO trace here the history of three very common tricks claimed by Robert-Houdin as his own inventions would be sheer waste of time, if the exposure did not prove beyond doubt that in announcing the various tricks of his répertoire as the output of his own brain he was not only flagrant and unscrupulous, but he did not even give his readers credit for enough intelligence to recognize tricks performed repeatedly by his predecessors whom they had seen. Not satisfied with purloining tricks so important that one or two would have been sufficient to establish the reputation of any conjurer or inventor, he must needs lay claim to having invented tricks long the property of mountebanks as well as reputable magicians.
The tricks referred to are the obedient card, the cabalistic clock, and the automaton known as Diavolo Antonio or Le Voltigeur au Trapèze.
The obedient-card trick, mentioned on page 245 of the American edition of his “Memoirs,” as “a novel experiment invented by M. Robert-Houdin,” can be found on the programme of every magician who ever laid claim to dexterity of hand. Whether they accomplished the effect by clock-work or with a black silk thread or a human hair, the result was one and the same. It has also been worked by using a fine thread with a piece of wax at the end. The wax is fastened to the card, and the thread draws it up. The simplest method of all is to place the thread over and under the cards, weaving it in and out as it were, and then, by pulling the thread, to bring the different cards selected into view.
So common was the trick that its description was written in every work on magic published from 1784 to the date of Robert-Houdin’s first appearance, and in at least one volume printed as early as 1635. The majority of French encyclopædias described the trick and exposed it according to one method or another, and Robert-Houdin admits having been a great reader of encyclopædias.
The trick first appears in print in various editions of “Hocus Pocus,” twenty in all, starting with 1635. The majority contain feats with cards, showing how to bring them up or out of a pack with a black thread, a hair spring, or an elastic.
In 1772 the rising-card trick was shown in Guyot’s “Physical and Mathematical Recreations,” also in the Dutch or Holland translations of the same work. In 1791 it was minutely explained by Hofrath von Eckartshausen, who wrote five different books on the subject of magic. The fourth, being devoted principally to the art of the conjurer, was entitled “Die Gauckeltasche, oder vollständiger Unterricht in Taschenspieler u. s. w.,” which translated means “The Conjurer’s Pocket or Thorough Instructions in the Art of Conjuring.” The title was due to the fact that in olden days conjurers worked with the aid of a large outside pocket. The five books, published under the general title of “Aufschlüsse zur Magie,” bear date of Munich, Germany.
On page 138 of the third edition of Gale’s “Cabinet of Knowledge,” published in London in 1800, will be found a description of the rising-card trick as done with pin and thread, and the same book shows how it is accomplished with wax and a hair. This book seems to have been compiled from Philip Breslaw’s work on magic, “The Last Legacy,” published in 1782. Benton, who published the English edition of Decremps’ famous work on magic, exposing Pinetti’s répertoire, also described the trick. “Natural Magic,” by Astley, the circus man, and Hooper’s “Recreations,” in four volumes, published in 1784, expose the same trick.
As to magicians who performed the trick, their names are legion, and only a few of the most prominent conjurers will be mentioned in this connection.
The man who obtained the best effects with this trick was John Henry Anderson, who startled the world of magic and amusements by his audacity, in 1836, nine years before Robert-Houdin trod the stage as a professional entertainer.
Anderson was born in Kincardine, Scotland, in 1814, and started his professional career as an actor. He must have been a very poor one, too, for he states that he was once complimented by a manager for having brought bad acting to the height of perfection.
Anderson was first known as the Caledonian magician, then assumed the title of the Wizard of the North, which he said was bestowed on him by Sir Walter Scott. Thomas Frost belittles this statement, on the grounds that Scott was stricken with paralysis in 1830. However, Anderson became famous in 1829, so he should be given the benefit of the doubt. He was the greatest advertiser that the world of magic has ever known, and he left nothing undone that might boom attendance at his performances. He started newspapers, gave masked balls, and donated thousands of dollars to charities. He was known in every city of the world, and, when so inclined, built his own theatres. He sold books on magic during his own performances, and would sell any trick he presented for a nominal sum. His most unique advertising dodge was to offer $500 in gold as prizes for the best conundrums written by spectators during his performances. To make this scheme more effective, he carried with him his own printing-press and set it up back of the scenes. While the performance was under way, the conundrums handed in by the spectators were printed, and, after the performance, any one might buy a sheet of the questions and puns at the door. As every one naturally wanted to see his conundrum in print, Anderson sold millions of these bits of paper. In 1852, while playing at Metropolitan Hall, New York City, he advertised his conundrum contest and sold his book of tricks, etc., and such notables as Jenny Lind and General Kossuth entered conundrums.
He was among the first performers to expose the Davenport Brothers, whose spiritualistic tricks and rope-tying had astonished America. Directly on witnessing a performance and solving their methods, Anderson hurried back to England and exposed the tricks.
To sum up his history, he stands unique in the annals of magic as a doer of daring things. He rushed into print on the slightest pretext, was a hard fighter with his rivals and aired his quarrels in the press, and he was a game loser when trouble came his way. Not a brilliant actor or performer, he yet had the gift of securing excellent effects in his mise en scène. He made and lost several fortunes, generally recouping as quickly as he lost. He was burned out several times, the most notable fire being that of Covent Garden, London, in 1856. He was liked in spite of his eccentricities, but when he died, February 3d, 1874, his fortune was small.
Anderson had numerous imitators, including M. Jacobs, “Barney” Eagle, and E. W. Young, all of whom used the rising-or obedient-card trick. They copied not only his tricks, but the very names he had used and the style of his billing. All three of these men were professional magicians before Robert-Houdin appeared, and Anderson was his very active contemporary.
A Jacobs bill is here reproduced, showing the card trick featured among other attractions. The lithograph of Jacobs used in this connection is an actual likeness and I believe it to be as rare as it is timely.
Young’s name has been handed down in history because he made money on Anderson’s reputation, by the boldest of imitations, assuming the title of Wizard of the North with his own name in small type. One of his bills is also reproduced.
Barnedo or “Barney” Eagle is the man of the trio of the imitators who deserves more than passing notice. He became Anderson’s bitterest enemy, and their rivalry made money for the printers.
Eagle could neither read nor write, but having a quick brain he hired a clever writer to indite his speeches and duplicated Anderson’s show so closely that Anderson’s pride was hurt. He therefore decided to expose Eagle, and thousands of bills, constituting a virulent attack upon his imitator, were distributed. One of these is reproduced. It is so rare that I doubt whether another is in existence.
As Eagle had advertised that he was patronized by royalty, Anderson had another bill printed, showing Eagle playing before the King at the Ascot race-track, and an assistant passing the hat in mountebank fashion. In revenge, Eagle had a book published, in which he exposed Anderson’s best drawing trick, The Gun Delusion, in which the magician allowed any one from the audience to shoot a gun at him using marked bullets. These bullets were caught in his mouth or on the point of a knife. This trick became as common as the obedient-card trick.
The Cabalistic or Obedient
There might be said to exist a very reasonable doubt as to the exact date at which Robert-Houdin produced the cabalistic clock which he included among his other doubtful claims to inventions.
On page 250 of the American edition of his “Memoirs” he has the Cabalistic Clock on his opening programme for July 3d, 1845, but in the appendix of the French edition he states that the clock first made its appearance at the opening of the season of 1847. In nearly all his statements he is equally inaccurate.
The mysterious clock might be termed the obedient clock, for the trick consists in causing the hand or hands to obey the will of the conjurer or the wishes of the audience.
The mysterious clock is a trick as old as the obedient-card trick, if not older. It was explained according to various methods in books before Robert-Houdin’s appearance on the stage. In fact, the majority of old-time conjuring books explain mysterious clocks carefully.
Before electricity was introduced, magnets were employed, but the earliest method was to make use of thread wound about the spindle of the clock hand, and that method is still the very best used to-day, owing to its simplicity. The clock, on being presented to the audience, may be hung or placed in the position best suited to the particular method by which it is being “worked.”
It shows a transparent clock face, such as you see in any jewelry shop. Some magicians utilize only one hand, which permits the easy use of electricity or magnet, while others employ two and even three hands. When more than one hand is used the hours and minutes are indicated simultaneously and, if cards are pasted on the clock face, the largest hand is used to find the chosen cards.
The clock may be placed on a pedestal, in an upright position, or hung in midair on two ribbons or strings. It can be hung on a stand made expressly for the purpose, on the style of a music stand, or it can be swung in a frame. In fact, as stated before, it is usually placed so as to facilitate the method of working.
When the cabalistic clock is taken off the hook or the stand on which it is placed, and handed to one of the spectators to hold, the latter places the hand on the pin in the centre of the glass face, and revolves it. The arrow or hand is worked by a counterweight, controlled by the performer, who has it fixed before he hands it to the innocent spectator. The clock can be purchased from any reliable dealer of conjuring apparatus, in almost any part of the world.
For a clock worked by counterweight the hand of thin brass is prepared in the centre, where there is a weight of peculiar shape which has at the thin or tapering end a small pin. This pin is fixed permanently to the weight and can be revolved about the small plate on which it is riveted. Through this plate there is a hole, exactly in the centre. This hand has all this covered with a brass cap, and, to make the arrow point to any given number, you simply move the weight with your thumb. The pin clicks and allows you to feel it as it moves from one hole to another. With very little practice you can move this weight, while in the act of handing it to some one to place it on the centre of the clock face; and when spun, the weight, of its own accord, will land on the bottom, causing the hand to point where it is forced by the law of gravity. The plate on which the weight is fastened is grooved or milled, so that it answers to the slightest movement of your thumb.
When the clock is on the stage and the hand moves simply by the command of the performer or audience, it is manipulated by an assistant behind the scenes, either by the aid of electricity or by an endless thread which is wrapped about the spindle and runs through the two ribbons or strings that hold the clock in midair. Some conjurers work the clock so arranged as to make a combination trick; first by having it worked by the concealed confederate; then, taking the clock off the stand and bringing it down in the midst of the audience. But for this trick you can use only one hand.
Years ago when I introduced this trick in my performance, I called a young man on my stage and asked him to place the hand on the spindle. It would then revolve and stop at any number named. But first I made him inform the audience the number he had chosen, which gave me time to fix the weight with my thumb. I then gave him the hand, but he was a skilled mechanic, and possibly knew the trick. Instead of holding the clock by the ring at the top, which was there for that purpose, he grasped the dial at the bottom, causing the number 6 instead of 12 to be on top. When the hand started to turn, of course it would have stopped at the wrong number. I managed to escape humiliation by pretending I was afraid he would break the clock by letting it fall, so took it away from him, holding it myself.
The mechanic walked off the stage winking at me in the most roguish manner.
Robert-Houdin worked The Mystic Bell trick in connection with The Clock. This was manipulated in the same way. The bell was worked with thread, pulling a small pin, which in turn caused the handle to fall against the glass bell. Naturally, having electricity at his command at that time, he made use of that force whenever it suited his fancy.
I am positive that Robert-Houdin presented the electrical clock, because T. Bolin, of Moscow, visited Paris and bought the trick from Voisin, the French manufacturer of conjuring apparatus. The trick which Robert-Houdin presented, according to his claims, was with the clock hanging in midair to prove that it was not electrically connected, but the truth of the matter is that the strings which held the clock suspended in midair concealed the wires through which his electrical current ran.
In my library of old conjuring books the thread method is ably described by Hofrath von Eckartshausen, mentioned earlier in this chapter. In fact in the pictorial appendix of this work he gives this trick prominence by minutely illustrating the same. He makes use of two hands, and to make the trick infallible he explains that the best way would be to use two glass disks, have them held together by a brass rim, and your threads will work with absolute certainty. The spectators imagine that they are seeing only one glass clock.
I am reproducing herewith a number of programmes describing the effect of the trick and proving that it was no novelty when Robert-Houdin “invented” it. In fact the trick was so common that only the supreme egotism of the man can explain his having introduced it into the pages of his book as an original trick. The mysterious clock worked by the counterweight, which has been described, is credited as having been the invention of Johann Nep. Hofzinser.
In an advertisement, published in the London Post of May 23d, 1778, included in my collection, this announcement, among others of much interest, will be found:
“Part II.—Breslaw will exhibit many of his newly invented deceptions with a grand apparatus and experiments and particularly the Magic Clock, Sympathetic Bell, and Pyramidical Glasses in a manner entirely new.”
In 1781, while showing at Greenwood’s Rooms, Haymarket, London, Breslaw heavily advertised, “Particularly an experiment on a newly invented mechanical clock will be displayed, under the direction of Sieur Castinia, just arrived from Naples, the like never attempted before in this metropolis.”
There is every reason to believe that Katterfelto, the greatest of bombastic conjurers, used the electrical clock in his performances, as he made a feature of the various late discoveries, and in his programme of 1782 he advertises “feats and experiments in Magnetical, Electrical, Optical, Chymical, Philosophical, Mathematical, etc., etc.” Among implements and instruments or articles mentioned I found Watches, Caskets, Dice, Cards, Mechanical Clocks, Pyramidical Glasses, etc., etc.
Gyngell, Sr., the celebrated Bartholomew Fair conjurer, whose career started about 1788, had on his early programmes, “A Pedestal Clock, so singularly constructed that it is obedient to the word of command.” On the same programme (Catherine Street Theatre, London, February 15th, 1816) I find “The Russian Inn,” “The Confectioner’s Shop,” and “The Automaton Rope Vaulter.” This programme is reproduced in full in Chapter IV.
Without devoting further space to Robert-Houdin’s absurd claim to having invented this clock, we will proceed to discuss his claims to the automaton rope walker, which he called a trapeze performer.
The Trapeze Automaton
Though “Diavolo Antonio” or “Le Voltigeur Trapeze” was not a simple trick, but a cleverly constructed automaton, worked by a concealed confederate, it was a common feature on programmes long before Robert-Houdin claimed it as his invention. Yet with the daring of one who believes that all proof has been destroyed, he announces on page 312 of the American edition of his “Memoirs” that he invented “The Trapeze Performer” for his season of 1848. In the illustrated appendix of his French edition he states that the figure made its first appearance at his Paris theatre, October 1st, 1849. He thus describes the automaton:
“The figure is the size of an infant, and I carry the little artist on my arm in a box. I put him on the trapeze and ask him questions, which he answers by moving his head. Then he bows gracefully to the audience, turning first this way, then that; suspends himself by his hands and draws himself up in time to the music. He also goes through the motions of a strong man, hangs by his head, hands, and feet, and with his legs making the motions of aërial telegraphy.”
Decremps in his exposé, “The Conjurer Unmasked,” published in 1784, thus describes the automaton and its work: “Our attention was next called to observe an automaton figure, that vaulted upon a rope, performing all the postures and evolutions of the most expert tumblers, keeping exact time to music. By seeing Mr. Van Estin wind up the figures, and being shown the wheels and levers contained in the body of the automaton, caused us to believe it moved by its own springs, when Mr. Van Estin thus explained the deception: ‘To make a figure of this kind depends a great deal on the proportion and the materials with which it is composed: The legs and thighs are formed out of heavy wood, such as ash or oak; the body of birch or willow, and made hollow, and the head, for lightness, of papier-maché. The figure is joined by its hands to a bar of iron, that passes through a partition, and is turned by a confederate; the arms are inflexible at the elbows, but move freely at the shoulders by means of a bolt that goes through the body; and the thighs and legs move in the same manner at the hips and knees, and are stayed by pieces of leather to prevent them from bending in the wrong way. The bar is covered with hollow twisted tubes, and ornamented with artificial flowers, so as no part of it can be seen to turn; the confederate by giving the handle a quarter of a turn to the left, the automaton, whose arms are parallel to the horizon, lift themselves by little and little, till they become vertical and parallel to the rest of the body; if in following the same direction, the other part of the body moves forward; and by watching the motions through a hole, he seizes the instant that a leg passes before the bar, to leave the automaton astride; afterward he balances it by jerks, and causes it to take a turn around, keeping time with the music as if it was sensible of harmony.
“N.B.—Three circumstances concur here to favor the illusion: First, by the assistance of a wire, the confederate can separate the bar from the automaton, which, falling to the ground, persuades one it loses itself by real machinery. Secondly, in winding up the levers shown in the body, confirms the spectators in the idea that there is no need of a confederate. Thirdly, the tubes that are twisted around the bar, except where the automaton is joined to it, seem to be the rope itself, and being without motion, as is seen by the garlands which surround them, it cannot be suspected that the bar turns in the inside, from whence it is concluded that the figure moves by its own machinery.”
According to one of de Philipsthal’s advertisements, page 103, the trapeze automaton which he featured was six feet in height. But Pinetti programmes show that he had a smaller figure known as the rope vaulter. This is probably the trick exposed in Decremps’ book.
“Two Elegant Automata
As large as nature, the one representing a beautiful Polonnese, the other a little boy.
Nothing can surpass the admirable construction of these Pieces. The large figure seems almost endowed with human Faculties, exhibiting the usual feats of a Rope-Dancer, in the fullest imitation of life. The small Figure is invested with equally astonishing powers of action. To such ladies as are spectators it must be a very pleasing circumstance that these exertions do not excite those disagreeable sensations which arise from the sight of Figures fraught with life, performing feats attended with so much danger.”
By referring to page 113 the reader will find a Schmidt programme, dated 1827, on which the figure is featured as follows:
“The Rope Dancer,
Whose surprising performances surpass, in agility, attitudes, and evolutions, every Professor of the art, keeping correct time to the music of the machinery.”
A Gyngell programme, dated 1823, which is reproduced in the chapter devoted to “The Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal,” page 125, reads as follows: “Two automatons, one of which will execute wonderful feats on the tight rope, and the other dance a characteristic hornpipe.”
As Gyngell figured in the amusement world from 1788 to 1844, the little figure must have been tolerably well known to the magic-loving public of England by the time Robert-Houdin appeared in London in 1848.
A magician named York, who appeared in London in 1844, the year before Robert-Houdin made his professional début, featured under date of January 29th “two automatons, one of which will execute wonderful feats on the Tight Rope, and the other dance a characteristic Hornpipe.”
Bologna announced for his performance at the Sans Pareil Theatre, Strand, London, under date of March 18th, 1812, “The Two Automaton Rope Dancers from St. Petersburg, whose Feats of Agility were never equalled, and cannot be surpassed, will perform together in a style of Excellence hitherto unknown in this country.”
De Philipsthal also featured a pair of automatic tight-rope performers from 1804 until his death; and in the early 30’s the figures were exhibited by his widow. By referring to Chapter III. a De-Philipsthal programme of 1806 is reproduced as evidence.
From 1825 to 1855 J. F. Thiodon played London and the provinces, advertising on his programmes:
“Fourth Piece.—The Wonderful and Unrivalled Automaton on the Flying Rope. The only one of this construction in the Kingdom; and forms a more extraordinary Novelty from the circumstances of its not being fastened on the Rope by the Hands, like others hitherto exhibited. The Rope will be in continual Motion, and the Figure will sit perfectly easy and in a graceful attitude while on the Swing, and perform the most surprising Evolutions, scarcely to be distinguished from a Living Performer, as it moves with the utmost Correctness, without any apparent Machinery.”
From this overwhelming evidence it can be argued beyond doubt that if Robert-Houdin even constructed the automaton he merely copied figures presented by both his predecessors and his contemporaries, and he was fully aware of the existence of several such automata when he advertised his as an original invention. They were made by many mechanicians.
In the illustrated appendix of the French edition of his “Memoirs” he goes further; he deliberately misrepresents the mechanism of the figure and insinuates that the automaton is a self-working one. This is not true, as it was worked by a concealed confederate, as described above by Decremps.
WHILE Robert-Houdin claims to have invented “The Inexhaustible Bottle” for a special programme designed to create a sensation at the opening of his season of 1848, in the illustrated appendix of the original French edition of his “Memoirs” he states that it had its premier presentation December 1st, 1847. These discrepancies occur with such frequency that it is difficult to refute his claims in chronological order. Perhaps he adopted this method intentionally, to confuse future historians of magic, particularly concerning his own achievements.
In order to emphasize the brilliancy of this trick, Robert-Houdin turned boastful in describing it. On page 348 of the American edition of his “Memoirs,” he states that the trick had created such a sensation and was so much exploited in the London newspapers that the fame of his inexhaustible bottle spread to the provinces, and on his appearance in Manchester with the bottle in his hand the workmen who made up the audience nearly mobbed him. In fact, the description of this scene is the most dramatic pen-picture in his “Memoirs.”
The truth, sad to state, is that the bottle trick did not create the sensation he claims for it in London, nor did the press eulogize it. It was classed with other ordinary tricks, and twenty London papers bear mute testimony to this fact. In a complete collection of press clippings regarding his first London appearance, only four of the London papers mention the trick. The Times, the great conservative English paper, in reviewing Robert-Houdin’s performance in its issue of May 3d, 1847, ignored the trick entirely. The four London papers which made mention of the bottle trick, and then only in a passing comment, were The Chronicle, The Globe, The Lady’s Newspaper, and The Court Journal. Any one acquainted with the two last-named periodicals will know that they rarely reach the hands of the humble artisans in Manchester. Punch, London’s great comic paper, gave the trick some space, however.
The trick of pouring several sorts of liquors from the same bottle has been presented in various forms and under different names. To prove the futility of Robert-Houdin’s claims I will explain the mystery of this trick, which is of an interesting nature.
To all intents and purposes the bottle used looks like glass; but it is invariably made of tin, heavily japanned. Ranged around the central space, which is free from deception, are five compartments, each tapering to a narrow-mouthed tube which terminates about an inch or an inch and a half from within the neck of the bottle. A small pinhole is drilled through the outer surface of the bottle into each compartment, the holes being so placed that when the bottle is grasped with the hand in the ordinary way, the performer covers all but one of the pinholes with his fingers and thumb. The centre section is left empty, but the other compartments are filled with a funnel which has a tapering nozzle made specially for this purpose.
The trick is generally started by proving to the audience that the bottle is empty. It is then filled with water, which is immediately poured out again, all this time the five pinholes being covered tightly with the hand or fingers which are holding the bottle. When a liquor is called for, the performer raises the finger over the air-hole above that particular liquor, and the liquor will flow out. When a large number of liquors may be called for, the performer has one compartment filled with a perfectly colorless liquor, which he pours into glasses previously flavored with strong essences. Certain gins and cordials can be simulated in this fashion.
Various improvements have been made in this bottle trick. For instance, after the bottle has yielded its various sorts of liquors, it is broken, and from the bottle the performer produces some borrowed article which has been “vanished” in a previous trick and then apparently forgotten. This may have been a ring, glove, or handkerchief, which will be discovered tied around the neck of a small guinea-pig or dove taken from the broken bottle.
This is accomplished by having the bottle especially constructed. Its compartments end a few inches above the bottom of the bottle and the portion below having a wavy or cracked appearance, is made to slip on and off. The conjurer goes through the motions of actually breaking the bottle by tapping it near the bottom with a small hammer or wand, and the appearance of the guinea-pig or lost article causes surprise, so that the pretended breaking of the bottle passes unnoticed.
Again, this bottle can be genuine, with no loose bottom at all, and a small article can be inserted, but this makes a great deal of trouble, and the effect is not greatly increased. In doing the trick thus, I was always compelled to have an optician cut the bottom from the bottle, and then at times even he would break it.
To explain further how the article is “loaded” into the bottle, the performer borrows several articles, for example a ring and two watches. He will place the ring and watches into a funnel at the end of a large horse-pistol, and shoot them at the target. The two watches appear on the target or in a frame or any place that he may choose. In obtaining the articles, he may have wrapped them up in a handkerchief which he has hidden in the front of his vest. Alexander Herrmann was exceptionally clever in making this exchange, his iron nerve and perpetual smile being great aids in the trick.
The performer now places the duplicate handkerchief on the table in full view of the audience, and walks to another table for a gun. While reaching for this gun, he places the original articles which he borrowed behind his table on a servante, so that his hidden assistant may reach for them, place the two watches on the “turn-about target,” tie the ring on the neck of the guinea-pig, shove him into the bottle, and insert the false bottom. The trick is then ready in its entirety.
The magician calls for something to use as a target, and the assistant responds with the revolving target or frame. When the conjurer shoots, the two watches appear on the target or in the frame. This part of the trick is accomplished by having the centre of the target revolve, or, if the frame is used, by having a black velvet curtain pulled up by rapid springs or strong rubbers.
While all this is going on, some one has brought on the stage the loaded bottle, and as no attention is called to this, by the time the watches have been restored to the owners the conjurer introduces the bottle trick, pours out the various liquors, and eventually breaks the bottle and reproduces the borrowed article tied about the neck of the guinea-pig or dove.
Many names have been given to this trick. The old-time magicians who remained for months in one theatre had to change their programmes frequently, so for one night they would present the bottle without breaking it, and on the next they would break the bottle, so as to vary the trick.
This bottle trick originated in “The Inexhaustible Barrel.” The first trace that I can find of this wonderful barrel is in “Hocus Pocus, Jr., The Anatomie of Legerdemain,” written by Henry Dean in 1635 (Second Edition). On page 21 is described a barrel with a single spout, from which can be drawn three different kinds of liquors. This was worked precisely on the same principle as was the inexhaustible bottle trick centuries later, by shutting up the air-holes of compartments from which liquors were not flowing.
Its first public appearance, according to the data in my collection, clipped from London papers of 1707 and 1712, was when the “famous water-works of the late ingenious Mr. Henry Winstanly” were exhibited by his servants for the benefit of his widow; and the exhibition included a view of “the Barrel that plays so many Liquors and is broke in pieces before the Spectators.”
In 1780 Dr. Desaguliers presented in London a performance entitled “A Course of Experimental Philosophy wherein the Principles of Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, and Optics are proved and demonstrated by more than 300 Experiments.”
In the course of these lectures he produced a sort of barrel, worked by holding the fingers over the air-holes. He also exposed the real source of strength of the notorious strong man of his day, John Carl von Eckeberg, who allowed horses to pull against him, permitted heavy stones to be broken on his bare chest, and who broke heavy ropes simply by stretching or straightening his knees. These lectures and exposés made Dr. Desaguliers so famous that he has been given considerable space in Sir David Brewster’s “Letters on Natural Magic,” published in London in 1851, in which book the various deceptions used by strong men are fully described. In fact the book is one that should be in every conjurer’s library.
The old Dutch books explain the barrel trick, and in 1803 Charles Hutton, professor of Woolwich Royal Academy, translated four books from Ozanam and Montucla, exposing quite a number of old conjuring tricks. The barrel trick will be found on page 94 of Volume II.
The first use of “The Inexhaustible Bottle” by modern conjurers I found in an announcement of Herr Schmidt, a German performer, who for a time controlled the original writing and drawing figure, as will be found by reference to Chapter III., which is devoted to the history of that automaton. The programme published in that chapter is dated 1827, and does not include the famous bottle, because it was no longer a novelty in Herr Schmidt’s répertoire; but the advertisement reproduced herewith, dated 1821, schedules the bottle trick thus: “The Bottle of Sobriety and Inebriety, proving the inutility of a set of decanters, when various liquors can be produced by one.” Thus Schmidt antedated Houdin’s offering of the trick by more than a quarter of a century.
Next the bottle turned up in 1835 in London, where it was presented by a German who styled himself “Falck of Koenigsberg, Pupil of the celebrated Chevalier Pinnetty,” and who introduced the programme with which Döbler made such a sensation in 1842.
Mr. Falck opened at the Queen’s Bazaar, Oxford Street, London, November 8th, 1835. Before opening, however, he gave a private performance for the press, and received quite a number of notices. A half-column clipping in my collection, dated November 4th, 1835, which I think is cut from The Chronicle or The Globe, mentions the trick among other effects like “Flora’s Gift,” “The Card in the Pocket,” etc., and adds that the “exchange of wine was so that if once in Mr. Falck’s company, we should not wish to exchange it, for he poured three sorts of wine, Port, Sherry, and Champagne, out of one bottle. Then he put them together, and from such a mixture produced sherry in one glass, and port in another.”
From this notice it will be seen that Falck had “The Inexhaustible Bottle,” and had some method of returning all the liquors not drunk back into the bottle and then pouring out two different kinds of liquor.
Perhaps he resorted to chemicals, but one thing is evident—the bottle was used for six different kinds of liquors at one and the same time.
Phillippe from 1836 to 1838 featured “An Infernal Bottle” trick, also “The Inexhaustible Bottle” trick. The trick also was seen on programmes used by John Henry Anderson, the Wizard of the North, in the same years. According to these programmes Phillippe and Anderson showed the bottle empty, filled it with water, and then served five different liquors.
On April 30th, 1838, Anderson thus announced the trick on a programme used at Victoria Rooms, Hull:
“Handkerchiefs will be borrowed from three gentlemen; the magician will load his mystic gun, in which he will place the handkerchiefs; he will fire a bottle containing wine, the bottle will be broken and the handkerchiefs will appear.”
Programmes in my collection show that Anderson presented the trick, serving various sorts of liquors, when he played London in 1840, but little attention was drawn to the wonderful bottle. In 1842 Ludwig Döbler, Germany’s best-beloved magician, came to London and featured what he termed “The Travelling Bottle.”
Ludwig Leopold Döbler was born in Vienna in 1801. He was the best-beloved magician who ever trod the stage. He started life as an engraver of metals, but his fancy turned to necromancy. He gave his best performances in his native city. In 1841 he was touring Holland, and in a letter now in my possession, which he wrote to a director and editor in Vienna under date of March 15th, 1842, he informs his friend that he has sent all his baggage to London from Amsterdam, and is on a visit to Paris. He regrets that he has not all of his apparatus with him, but has given several performances, and mentions the fact that “to-morrow I am engaged to give a performance in the private parlor of Rothschild and then by the Count Montaliset, minister of the King’s mansions.” He also informs his friend that he expects to visit Paris the next season and build his own theatre. He states a fact most interesting to all magicians, namely, that he has rented the St. James Theatre in London for two thousand francs ($400) a night, or more than $2,400 rent for one week. Döbler drew such big audiences and made so much money that he refused to give private performances, only breaking this rule when presenting his show before H. M. Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort.
He played the provinces, then went over to Dublin, where, although unable to speak English, he was a veritable sensation. In 1844 Döbler played a return date at the St. James Theatre, London, and this time he had Anderson as a rival at the Théâtre Royal Adelphia.
Döbler amassed a fortune very rapidly; in fact he retired in 1847, and never again appeared on the stage. He always explained his early retirement by saying: “The public loves me, and I want it to always love me. I may return and be a failure, so it is best to know just when to stop.” He died in a little village near Tunitz, on April 17th, 1864, when one of God’s noblemen was laid to rest.
“The Travelling Bottle” alluded to by Döbler in his programmes was nothing more or less than “The Inexhaustible Bottle.” The following excerpt from the London Chronicle during Döbler’s engagement at the St. James Theatre, April, 1842, is illuminating:
“Döbler—St. James Theatre.—Among the illusions that more particularly struck our fancy was one entitled ‘The Travelling Bottle,’ where Herr Döbler, filling a common bottle with water, transformed this water into a collection of wines of all countries, amicably assembled together in one receptacle, and he fills out first a glass of sherry, then one of port, then one of champagne, and so on.”
The critic then describes how the bottle was broken, and the borrowed handkerchief was found inside the bottle.
Probably because of the prominence which Herr Döbler gave to this trick it attracted more attention when Anderson presented it during his London run of 1843. He announced it as “Water vs. Wine, or Changing Water into Different Liquids—Sherry, Port, Champagne, Gin, Milk, Rum, and Water.”
The London Sun of April 18th, 1843, says:
“Mr. Anderson, besides the feats by which his reputation was established in his former exhibitions in the metropolis, performed with perfect ease and success some of greater difficulty than those by which Herr Döbler astonished the world, such as serving several kinds of wines from the same bottle.”
The Morning Advertiser (London) of the same date said:
“With the utmost ease he produced from an empty bottle wine, water, port, sherry, and champagne, and immediately afterward, under a blaze of wax and gas, he broke the same bottle and produced from it half a dozen cambric handkerchiefs, which had previously been deposited under lock and key at a considerable distance.”
Macallister, the Scotch brick-mason, who became the pupil and assistant of Phillippe, as described in the chapter on “The Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal,” also claimed the bottle trick as his invention. I have been unable to obtain any of the early programmes used by Macallister, but I am reproducing the one he utilized during his engagement at the Bowery Theatre, New York City, in 1852. This was not his first appearance in New York, however. In December, 1848, and January, 1849, he played at the same theatre, and announced that he had just concluded a successful engagement at the Grand Theatre Tacon, Havana, Cuba.
Although Macallister claims to have invented “The Inexhaustible Bottle” trick, it is more likely that, having been connected so long with Phillippe, he knew the secret several years before Robert-Houdin appeared in public. But as Macallister also claimed to have invented the peacock and the harlequin automata, both of which are recognized as the inventions of his predecessors, his claim cannot be given serious consideration.
He advertised to produce twenty-two kinds of liquors from one bottle, and therefore he must have utilized the essence glasses in connection with the bottle.
What must have been Robert-Houdin’s feeling when, on arriving in London in 1848, he found another magician, Compars Herrmann, heavily advertised at the Théâtre Royal, and already offering each and every trick included by the Frenchman in his répertoire. Even the much-vaunted bottle was in Herrmann’s list of tricks. No one seems able to tell where Compars Herrmann obtained the tricks he used, but he must be given credit for never advertising them as his own inventions. His record in this respect was clean throughout his life as a mysterious entertainer.
The programme presented by Herrmann at the Théâtre Royal during Robert-Houdin’s opening week at the St. James Theatre is herewith reproduced. Herrmann remained some time in London, playing at the Adelphia, then at the Royal Princess, and finally at the Surrey Theatre. A bill used by Herrmann at the Princess is reproduced on page 232. It evidently proved satisfactory to the public and he used it without change for many years.
Robin, whose right name was Dunkell, was of Holland birth and died in Paris in 1874. He was at his prime about 1839-40, when he toured the Continent. He was popular in London, Paris, and both the English and French provinces. A polished man, famous for the elegance of his speech and manners, he conducted his performance and all his business in a quiet, conservative fashion. In both Paris and London, he had playhouses named temporarily in his honor, Salle de Robin, and at one time in London he also appeared at the Egyptian Hall. He published his own magazine, L’Almanach d’Cagliostro, an illustrated periodical which was quite pretentious.
Robin presented all the tricks and automata that Robert-Houdin claimed as his original inventions, and in the famous controversy, Robert-Houdin came out second best. Robin proved that he had used the bottle trick before Robert-Houdin did, by showing back numbers of his magazine, whose illustrations pictured Robin performing the trick at his theatre in Milan, Italy, July 6th, 1844, or three years before Robert-Houdin presented it in Paris.
Robin, however, never wrote an autobiography nor any exhaustive work dealing with the history of magic, while Robert-Houdin did. The latter set forth his claims over other magicians so skilfully that for more than half a century the intelligent and thoughtful reading public has been deceived and has accepted his statements as authoritative. According to an article published in L’Illusionniste, scientists to this day, in explaining the law of physics as operated by the use of air-holes in the inexhaustible bottle, refer to it as the “Robert-Houdin bottle,” when in reality the honor of its invention belongs to some obscure mechanic or magician whose name must remain forever unsung by writers on magic.
EVIDENTLY second sight was the foundation-stone of Robert-Houdin’s success. Reading between the lines of his autobiography, one finds that this was the trick which carried him into the salons of fashion and royalty. Before he introduced second sight into his répertoire, his tricks were so commonplace that they did not arouse the interest of the court circle, whose approval furnished the seal of success.
This trick of second sight he claims body and soul, as the favorite child of his brain. He even goes as far as to relate a story to prove that the trick came to him in the form of an inspiration. I quote directly from the American edition of his “Memoirs,” page 255:
“My two children were playing one day in the drawing-room at a game they had invented for their own amusement; the younger had bandaged his elder brother’s eyes and made him guess the objects that he touched, and when the latter happened to guess right they changed places. This simple game suggested to me the most complicated idea that ever crossed my mind. Pursued by the notion, I ran and shut myself in my workshop, and was fortunately in that happy state when the mind follows easily the combinations traced by fancy. I rested my head in my hands, and in my excitement laid down the first principles of second sight.”
Then, picking up the long idle quill of Baron Munchausen, he proceeds to explain the methods by which he perfected the trick and trained his son. To the layman these methods read most entertainingly. To the experienced conjurer or his humblest assistant they appeal as absurd and impossible, a sheer waste of time, of which a man who reproduced the tricks of his predecessors as rapidly as Robert-Houdin did, would not be guilty.
He claims to have trained the eye and memory of his son, by leading the latter past shop windows, and after allowing him one glance, demanding the names of articles seen at this single glance. When the boy could mention forty things after passing the window, his education was pronounced good. Robert-Houdin also tells in his “Memoirs” of spending hours with his son in poring over an enormous collection of coins, medals, etc., which severe lesson helped them both in future performances. To the conjurer, this tale is farcical. Not only was there no need of forcing the boy to become a coin expert, but the task was one which could not be accomplished in the brief time which Robert-Houdin allowed himself for perfecting the trick.
The only knowledge required about coins is to recognize a coin when you see it. Some one may hand a coin of peculiar stamp, and the operator must signal to his medium the metal and all he knows about it. Of course, if both know the various coins, then they can understand each other with less signaling than if the coins were unfamiliar to either.
Inaudi, the French calculator, can look at a blackboard filled with numbers for a few seconds, then turn his back upon them and add the entire amount that he has just seen and memorized. But let the reader understand that Inaudi is peculiarly gifted by nature, while second sight is a trick in which the person on the stage known as the medium is assisted by words, signs, prearranged movements, or articles or figures in rotation, which to the layman have the appearance of being unprepared. At a familiar cue, however, the operator touches articles that have been memorized, a ring, a watch, a scarf-pin, a lady’s fan, an opera glass, all in rotation. At a snap of the fingers the medium will know that the articles are to be named in consecutive order, and only after the snap of the fingers or another cue agreed upon.
Robert-Houdin presented the trick for the first time at his own theatre, February 12th, 1846. Unquestionably at this time he employed the speaking code, wherein the answer is contained in the question asked of the medium by the performer. As he describes scene after scene in which he and his son participated, it is almost possible for a conjurer or any one interested in magic to follow his code. Apparently the amusement-loving public became familiar with his speaking code, for three years later, according to the illustrated appendix of the French edition of his “Memoirs,” he adopted a code of signals, which he states was especially arranged to confuse those whom he terms his “fearless discoverers.”
A mysterious bell was used in this connection, but he admits that it mattered not whether the bell struck or was silent, his son could name the object under consideration or answer the question. While Robert-Houdin asserts that he did not employ electricity for working his silent code, investigations make it almost certain that this was the method used. It is known throughout the world of conjuring that in 1850-51 Robert Heller (William Henry Palmer) reproduced Robert-Houdin’s entire répertoire of tricks, with the exception of the suspension, and all worked precisely by Robert-Houdin’s methods. In the second-sight trick, which he first presented with a young man as the medium, then later with Miss Haidee Heller, the medium was seated on a sofa fully equipped with wires and electric batteries. Heller’s second sight was worked with both the speaking and silent codes. His confederate was concealed behind the scenes watching Heller through a peep-hole, or possibly he used another, seated in the audience, and had the wires strung under his chair, arranging the signal button so that it could be easily reached on the arm or front part of the seat. The receiving instrument was attached to the sofa on which the medium was seated. The latter would be silently informed as to what was being shown and would answer all questions. As proof that these statements are not mere hearsay, the Heller sofa can now be seen in the possession of Mr. Francis J. Martinka, of New York; and Dr. W. Golden Mortimer, who once presented “Mortimer’s Mysteries,” a show on the style of Heller’s performance, furnishes the information that when Heller died in Philadelphia, November 28th, 1878, he engaged the dead magician’s chief assistant, an expert electrician named E. J. Dale, who had acted as secret confederate, assisting the medium.
After travelling with Mortimer some time, Dale eventually returned to England, and retired from the profession. He opened a large shop in London under the firm name of H. & E. J. Dale, Manufacturing Electricians, 4 Little Britain, E. C., in October, 1882.
It was the easiest thing imaginable for Robert-Houdin to have his theatre arranged with secret confederates and wires back of the scenes, where a man with powerful opera-glasses could stand. The place being small, he could look all over the room and see the minutest article.
When not making use of the talking code, the simplest method employed by second-sight artists is to have a confederate in the audience, with either an electrical push button or a pneumatic bulb, who gives the medium the signal. This is received by a miniature piston, which requires only a small hole in the stage, while the medium has a matching hole in the sole of his shoe. This allows the piston to touch the sole of the foot whenever the confederate presses the bulb or pushes the button.
From this array of facts it will be seen that second sight is and always has been a matter of well-drilled phrases or signals, prearranged rotation of articles, well-built apparatus or well-trained confederates, but never a feat of actual thought-transferrence.
Some of Robert-Houdin’s ardent supporters insist that in claiming the invention or discovery of second sight, the French conjurer was merely an unconscious plagiarist, having stumbled upon, quite by accident, a trick which he did not know that others had offered before him.
Such a statement is illogical and absurd. Books of magic to which Robert-Houdin had access and which he admits having read describe the trick in a more or less crude form. Pinetti, whose tricks were fully described to Robert-Houdin by his old friend Torrini, used the second-sight mystification with excellent effect. Robert-Houdin could not have been ignorant of its existence as a trick. In making the claim to its discovery in his “Memoirs” he simply trusted to the ignorance of the reading public in the history of magic.
According to programmes and newspaper clippings in my collection, Philip Breslaw was the first conjurer to feature second sight in his performance. Breslaw was a clever German who so established himself in the hearts of amusement-loving Englishmen that he remained in England for forty years, dying in Liverpool in 1803. In 1781, while playing at Greenwood’s Rooms, Haymarket, London, he announced as Part One of his entertainment:
“Mr. Breslaw will exhibit his new magical deceptions, Letters, Medals, Dice, Pocket pieces, Rings, etc., etc., and particularly communicate the thoughts of any person to another without the assistance of speech or writing.”
Pinetti comes next as an eminent presenter of second sight. Between these two well-known conjurers there may have been various unimportant, unchronicled performers who made use of Breslaw’s trick, but they have no place in the history of magic.
The talking code employed by Pinetti was not original with him, as it dates back to the automaton worked by a concealed confederate who controlled the piston for the mechanical figure or pulled the strings to manipulate the dancing coins or moving head. It was novel only in its application to the supposed thought-transferrence by a human being instead of an automaton.
This code is described by various reliable authors. On page 388, Volume III. of Hooper’s “Recreations,” edition 1782, it is stated that the confederate worked the apparatus from another room. “By certain words, previously agreed on, make it known to the confederate,” is the advice given to would-be conjurers.
Beckman in his “History of Inventions” relates that he knew an exhibitor of a “talking figure” whose concealed confederate was cued to answer certain questions, the answers being given in the manner of putting the question, also by different signs. These instructions will be found on page 311 of Volume II., edition of 1817.
Decremps undertook to expose Pinetti’s method of working the second-sight trick in his famous book, but in this attempt he scored one of the few failures which marked the bitter fight he waged against Pinetti. In his book “La Magie Blanche Dévoilée” (White Magic Exposed), first edition, 1784, he offers on page 40 “Les Cartes dévinées, les yeux bandés” (The Divination of Cards with the Eyes Blindfolded). In this feat Decremps explains that Pinetti would allow cards to be drawn, then a lady (Signora Pinetti) would appear on the stage, would be blindfolded, and would name all the cards that were drawn. Decremps explains the prearranged pack of cards for this trick, also outlining the manner of giving the medium the cue for certain phrases. For instance, while explaining to the audience that he will not speak at all, in the very sentences addressed to the spectators he informs the medium which cards have been selected.
Pinetti’s code must have been clever, as Decremps was unable to explain the entire second-sight act. He has omitted the principal part of the mystification, that is, naming the articles held up for the performer to see.
That the card trick was only one test of his second-sight performance, and that Pinetti’s medium did not retire after naming the cards, are facts shown by the following clipping from one of his announcements:
“Signora Pinetti will have the special honor and satisfaction of exhibiting various experiments of new discovery, no less curious than seemingly incredible, particularly that of her being seated in one of the front boxes with an handkerchief over her eyes, and guess at everything imagined and proposed to her by any person in the company.”
Third on the list of second-sight performers, according to the data in my collection, was Louis Gordon M‘Kean, who created a sensation at the Egyptian Hall Bazaar, Piccadilly, London, in 1831, or fifteen years before Robert-Houdin, according to his claims, “discovered” second sight. Young M‘Kean was featured as possessing double, not second, sight, and one of his bills is reproduced on page 212.
Another programme in my collection, dated the Théâtre Scarboro, Friday evening, August 4th, 1837, announces “For a limited engagement of three nights the Three Talented Highlanders and most extraordinary Second-Sighted Young Highlanders.”
These lads, I believe, were three brothers, one the original M‘Kean, or the latter working in conjunction with two other boys trained to the tricks in order to secure more impressive results. The trio appeared eight years before Robert-Houdin became a professional entertainer.
Holland also contributed a successful performer of second-sight tricks, the medium in this case being a Dutchwoman who created a profound sensation while touring Germany in the early part of the eighteenth century. The billing used at the yearly fairs is an enormous poster which would be unintelligible if reduced to a size suitable for reproduction.
It is now a part of my collection and reads as follows:
“The Holland Maid, Twenty Years of Age, from Amsterdam, whose powers, both in her residence there and in all other places to which she has gone, have excited great astonishment and much applause, and she will also in this place endeavor to obtain the same tribute of public applause. She will after the exhibition place herself before the eyes of all the spectators on the outside and gravely stand thereon and at all times give an answer of assurance to any one present to whom her judgment in all questions gives the most accurate response. She contrives also by her acuteness to discover and reply to the least thought, not until then explored. She guesses the age of every one, whether they be married or not; how many children they have, of what sex, and whether they be living or dead at the present time, etc. She does the like for any one having a chance in the lottery, as to what is its number, and what will be its share of gains. She also guesses at every one of the most different sorts of coin, and even at the year with which they were stamped. She guesses at every number which any one shall secretly set down, even though it amount to upward a million. She moreover tells exactly whether any one be in the Army, under how many Monarchs he has served, in how many battles he has been engaged, and whether he has ever been wounded and how many wounds he has received. By throwing the Dice, she will every time exactly tell the very number of spots which may have been determined on.”
This wordy announcement is signed by W. Sahm, of Holland.
In my collection there is also an interesting handbill advertising the tour of “The Mysterious Lady” who offered second-sight tricks in the eastern part of the United States in 1842-43. Her name was never stated on the programmes, but the latter, together with a clipping dated Boston, February 20th, 1843, will suffice to prove my claim that she was offering second-sight before Robert-Houdin did, and therefore could not be copying his trick. She also appeared in England fully a year before Robert-Houdin “discovered” second sight.
Henri Robin and his wife featured second sight in Italy just when Robert-Houdin first offered it in Paris. It is barely possible that they antedated Robert-Houdin in the production of this trick, for I have in my collection a brochure entitled “Album des Soirées de M. et Mme. Robin,” which contains an engraving of the couple offering second-sight, a short poem in honor of Mme. Robin’s remarkable gifts as a second-sight artist, and a poem generally eulogistic of M. Robin’s talents dated distinctly February 7th, 1846. Robert-Houdin presented second-sight for the first time, according to his own “Memoirs,” on February 12th, 1846.
To prove the utter folly of Robert-Houdin’s claims to having trained his son’s eye and memory by patient effort so as to have a mutual transferrence of thought, I will next show that animals had been trained for years to do tricks by secret signals before the alleged “discovery” of second sight.
Two rare old bills in my collection advertise the marvellous “mind-reading” performances of a goose and a blindfolded dog respectively. The first, dated 1789, announces that a Mr. Beckett, a trunk-maker of No. 31 Haymarket, is exhibiting “a Learned Goose, just lately arrived from abroad.
“It performs the following tricks: performing upon cards, money, and watches, telling the time of the month, year, and date, also the value of any piece either English or foreign, distinguishing all sorts of colors and (most prodigiously and certainly unbelieving to those who know the intellects of a goose) she tells the number of ladies and gentlemen in the company or any person’s thoughts; any lady or gentleman drawing a card out of the pack, though ever so secret, the Goose, blindfolded at the same time, will find out the card they drew. Admittance two shillings each person.”
The second bill features Don Carlo, the Double-Sighted dog, which gave an exhibition of his mysterious skill at the Pavillion by special command, before King William and the royal family on December 17th, 1831. This dog was blindfolded and could present almost in duplicate the second-sight tests offered by the Highland lad who five days later gave a similar exhibition before the royal family at the same place.
This proof regarding the use of animals as “mediums” is offered not to belittle the human mediums, but to prove that from start to finish, from the day that Breslaw offered the trick to the present moment, when a number of skilful so-called mind-readers still mystify the public, some sort of speaking or signal code has been used. Robert-Houdin used both the speaking and the signal code, but so did Breslaw, and all evidence points to the fact that Robert-Houdin merely improved upon the trick employed by Breslaw, Pinetti, and others among his predecessors in magic, by utilizing the newly found assistant to the magician, electricity. In his tiny theatre it would have been entirely feasible to have had electric wires run from all points of the auditorium to the stage, thus doing away with both the speaking and ordinary signal codes, even the pneumatic tube. For this improvement, and this alone, should Robert-Houdin be given credit. Nearly all magicians improve or redress tricks or apparatus handed down to them by their predecessors, but Robert-Houdin was not willing to admit that he owed anything to his predecessors.
IN chapters XVI. and XVII. of the American edition of his “Memoirs,” Robert-Houdin states that he closed his theatre during the months of July, August, and September, 1847, and devoted his time to producing new tricks for the coming season. He chronicles as the result of these labors the following additions to his répertoire: “The Crystal Box,” “The Fantastic Portfolio,” “The Trapeze Tumbler,” “The Garde Française,” “The Origin of Flowers,” “The Crystal Balls,” “The Inexhaustible Bottle,” “The Ethereal Suspension,” etc.
Had these inventions really been original with the man who claimed them as the result of his own brain-work and handicraft, three years would not have sufficed to bring them to the perfection in which they were presented at that time. It is not always the actual work that makes a trick a success, nor the material from which it is constructed, but it takes time to plan a new trick; and then after you have worked out the idea, it takes more time to make it practical. The same piece of apparatus may have to be made dozens of times, in as many shapes, before it is presentable. Therefore, when Robert-Houdin claims to have invented and built with his own hands the tricks mentioned in the list given above, it is time to prove the improbability and falsity of his statements.
Inventions are a matter of evolution, but as the tricks which Robert-Houdin presented in his new répertoire were not new, he was able to offer them as the result of three months’ work. To the expert mechanician or builder of conjuring apparatus his claim is farcical. The majority of the tricks mentioned require skilled hands and infinite patience, if they work in a way that will completely deceive the public. Particularly is this true of the first suspension apparatus such as Robert-Houdin must have used. This included a steel corset or frame for the subject, and both the corset and the supporting rods had to be strong, invisible to the audience, and still be perfect in mechanism.
Robert-Houdin, with characteristic ambiguity, does not refer to a complicated mechanism, but lays stress on his ability to keep his tricks up-to-date and in line with popular movements of the hour. In writing of the suspension trick, he gives the impression that but for the sensation created by the use of ether as an anæsthetic he would never have thought out the new trick. His own words as presented on page 312 of the American edition of his “Memoirs” are reproduced in this connection:
“It will be remembered that in 1847 the insensibility produced by inhaling ether began to be applied to surgical operations; all the world talked about the marvellous effect of this anæsthetic and its extraordinary results. In the eyes of the people it seemed much akin to magic. Seeing that the surgeons had invaded my domain, I asked myself if this did not allow me to make reprisals. I did so by inventing my ethereal suspension, which I believe was far more surprising than any result obtained by my surgical brethren. This trick was much applauded, and I am bound to say that my arrangements were excellently made. This was the first time that I tried to direct the surprise of my spectators by gradually heightening it up to the next moment, when, so to speak, it exploded.”
While Robert-Houdin, in his “Memoirs,” claims to have invented the trick for the season of 1847-48, in the illustrated appendix of the French edition he states that the first production of the trick, with improvements, was in October, 1849. The improvement consisted of working the trick with a stool upon a platform, when, previous to this date, he had used only the ordinary platform and rod.
During the course of researches covering many years, during which I visited national libraries in various countries, the first trace of the suspension trick was discovered in the writings of Ian Batuta, who flourished about the thirteenth century. He mentions two conjurers who performed before the court of the Mogul in Delhi. One of the men assumed the form of a cube and rose into the air, where he remained suspended. The other man then took off his shoe, struck it against a rock, and it also rose and hung in midair, close to the suspended conjurer or human cube. On being touched on the neck, the cube descended to the ground, and the conjurer resumed his natural form.
The historical verity of this tale cannot be determined, and it may be classed with the familiar story which crops up periodically, describing the ball of cord thrown into the air for a youth to climb into the clouds. Once out of sight, the youth is said to draw the cord up after him; then presently a leg falls from the unseen heights, then another, followed by an arm, a rib or two, and so on until the entire body is scattered upon the ground, the head coming last with the neck standing upward. At the command of the magician, the body seems to crawl together, so runs the tale, and eventually the youth stands up to be examined by the astonished populace.
These stories belong in the very first of the travellers’ tales. In 1356 Sir John Mandeville, called by some authorities “the Father of English Prose,” after travelling thirty-four years, published a book detailing some of his marvellous “witnessings.” Though many of his stories are absolutely impossible, yet so popular did his works become that, barring the Scriptures, more copies and manuscripts of the books containing his various “Magician Stories” have been handed down to posterity and exist to-day than any works of his contemporaries. Still, Mandeville did not mention this suspension trick, which is sometimes attributed to the Chinese and sometimes to the Hindoos.
In Cologne, Germany, I purchased an encyclopædia, published in 1684, from which I reproduce a double-page engraving, which shows the Chinese magicians doing the tricks previously accredited, in the stories of travellers, to Hindoo conjurers.
In “Lives of the Conjurers,” Thomas Frost describes the suspension trick as offered about 1828 or 1829 at Madras by an old Brahmin with no better apparatus than a piece of plank with four legs. This he had formed into a stool, and upon it, in a little brass socket, he placed a hollow bamboo stick in a perpendicular position. Projecting from the stick was a kind of crutch, covered with a piece of common hide. These properties he carried with him in a bag, which was shown to all those who desired to witness his exhibition. The servants of the household then held a blanket before him, and, when it was withdrawn, he was discovered poised in midair about four feet from the ground, in a sitting posture, with the outer edge of one hand merely touching the crutch, while the fingers deliberately counted beads, and the other hand and arm were held in an upright position. The blanket was again held up before him, and the spectators caught a gurgling sound, like that occasioned by wind escaping from a bladder or tube. When the screen or blanket was again withdrawn, the conjurer was standing on the ground.
The mystery was supposed to have been solved when Sheshal, commonly known as “the Brahmin of the Air,” exhibited the trick in 1832 in Madras. It was observed that his stool was ornamented with two inlaid stars, and it was suggested that one of these might conceal a socket for a steel rod, passing through the bamboo, and that another rod, screwed to the perpendicular one and concealed by the piece of hide, might be connected with a mechanism of the same metal, passing up the sleeve and down the back, and forming a circular seat. This conjecture probably was not far from the truth, for while Frost is by no means the greatest of authorities on magic and magicians, in this particular instance I believe that his explanation of the trick is correct.
The next authentic early information I have gathered regarding suspension concerns that wonderful performer who called himself Ching Lau Lauro. Presumably he was a Chinaman, and from the programmes in my collection he evidently appeared first in England, in 1828, when he was engaged to perform between scenes of various plays, including “Tom and Jerry,” at the Coburg. I reproduce on page 231 one of Ching Lau Lauro’s programmes.
About 1833, or possibly a year earlier, he cut out some of his singing, and introduced the suspension with which he closed his performance. At this time he gave the entire programme. According to his programmes, in some places he excluded the public from the gallery, so I judge that his suspension was accomplished by the use of the iron rod from the back, which would have been in plain sight from the gallery. The stage would not permit the suspension to be worked out of range of the gallery gods.
When Robert-Houdin went to London in 1848 he found in the field of magic a clever rival, Compars Herrmann; a few months later came John Henry Anderson, the Wizard of the North. Both of these men presented the suspension trick in precisely the same manner claimed by Robert-Houdin as his original invention of 1847. Neither Anderson nor Herrmann claimed the honor of having invented the trick, and it is more than likely that the mechanician who made their apparatus for the suspension trick made the one used by Robert-Houdin also. Herrmann, like Robert-Houdin, called the trick ethereal suspension. Anderson gave it the title of “Chloriforeene Suspension,” as the reproduction of an Anderson lithograph on page 234 will prove.
During precisely the same period of time a brilliantly successful German conjurer, Alexander, was presenting the same trick in America, where he remained as a professional entertainer for ten years. In my collection, together with corroborative handbills and programmes, there will be found this statement from Alexander:
“The suspension was at first produced by me in 1845 or 1846, after reading in an Oriental annual, edited by several officers of the Indian Army, the trick of a fakir who made a companion sit in the air by using a bamboo stick. My trick had no success, because the sitting was too near the ground. I then made him stand in the air, and the effect was marvellous.”
My meeting with Alexander, of which this correspondence was the result, marked an era in my search for material for this volume. Having read in a small book on magic, dated 1896, that a man named Heimburger, who had travelled in America as “Alexander the Conjurer,” was living in his native town of Münster, in Westphalia, I determined to secure an interview with him if possible.
On March 17th, 1903, while playing in Cologne, I boarded an express train and arrived in Münster bright and early. From the city directory I learned that one Heimburger resided in Krumpentippen, 16. Hailing a passing droschke I was soon carried to my destination, where a bright-faced German girl opened the door and ushered me, without formality, into the presence of the man to whom I desired to pay my respects.
An old man, bent with years, snow-white of beard and gray of head, came forward slowly to greet me. Finding that he was quite deaf, I raised my voice and fairly trumpeted my mission, adding that I felt especially honored to stand in the presence of the only magician who, up to that date, had ever appeared at the White House, Washington, by request of the President of the United States, my native land. Alexander had been asked to entertain President Polk and his guests on several occasions, and the fact that I knew this seemed to please the old conjurer and pave the way to a pleasant and profitable interview.
In a few moments we were sitting side by side, and he was adding to my store of information by relating the most fascinating experiences, stories of fellow-magicians long since dead, and tales which he could corroborate by his own collection of bills, programmes, etc., his diary, and his personal correspondence. He had known Robert-Houdin, Frikell, Bosco, Count Pererilli, John Henry Anderson, Blitz, the original Bamberg of Amsterdam, Compars Herrmann, and many lesser lights among the old-time magicians. Robert-Houdin had told him personally that being pressed for time he had entrusted the writing of his “Memoirs” to a Parisian journalist.
As he warmed up to these reminiscences, he held me spellbound. Had he risen from the grave to tell of his contemporaries, he could not have riveted my attention more securely.
Here was a man of eighty-four, whose memory quickened at the coming of one interested in his beloved art, whose eye brightened with each fresh detail of a long and successful professional life, and who, in fifty years of retirement, had not only written a book, but had kept in touch with the world of magic, giving me information which the most exhaustive encyclopædia could not yield, answering questions on topics never yet discussed in dusty parchments and fading scripts. It was like having the history of magic unrolled before my eager eyes, in a living, palpitating, human scroll.
It had been my intention to remain but a few hours in Münster, but the old master held me as if hypnotized and the hours fairly drifted past. Letter after letter, clipping after clipping, token after token, he spread before my fascinated eyes; and I allowed him to speak without question or interruption of any sort. Early in our interview he had remarked that he was beginning to feel old and that only the impetus of my presence was responsible for his unusual strength of speech. For over seventy years he had been collecting books on conjuring and kindred topics, which he was able to read in English, French, Spanish, and German.
The dinner hour found us still engrossed in conversation, and Frau Heimburger extended a most hospitable and cordial invitation for me to join the family circle. But my hunger was purely mental, and the true savor of the meal was the reminiscent chat of Herr Heimburger, who, from his post at the head of his household, looked as hale and hearty as if he had found the Elixir of Life which so many of his charlatan predecessors claimed to have “discovered.”
In 1904 I paid the old master a second visit. To his professions of pleasure at meeting me once more, he added the gift of several rare programmes now in my collection, and when our hands met in a farewell clasp he told me that he had set all things in order and was ready for the coming of the Grim Reaper. Soon after that visit, however, I received a card with the following melancholy message:
My Dear Friend—Have not been very well of late, and have been expecting my last days. All preparations have been made and Death the Visitor arrived, but instead of calling for me, he has taken away my beloved wife. I am not capable of writing more. God be with you. From your old friend,
Alexander Heimburger or, as he was billed, Alexander the Conjurer, was born December 4th, 1818. From 1844 to 1854 he toured North and South America, returning to his native country with the intention of there following his calling as a professional entertainer. But his fame had preceded him, and, as his fortune was large, his souvenirs and tales of travel many and interesting, he was taken up by the world of fashion and lionized. This practically closed his career as a conjurer, for in those days magicians occupied no such reputable position in the professional world as they do to-day, and to have returned to his stage work would have closed the doors of aristocracy to him. He married one of Münster’s prettiest girls, who bore him six children, two sons and four daughters. So he passed the remainder of his days, living modestly but comfortably on the money he had amassed in America, entertained by a large circle of appreciative friends, and well content to live thus, far from the madding crowd in which the professional entertainer must move.
While the recollections of his public career and his meetings with other magicians, as well as notable men in other walks of life, were fresh, he wrote his book, “Der Moderne Zauberer” (The Modern Magician), which he claims, with much justice, is rated as one of the gems of German literature, as well as the best book ever written by a conjurer. It is built from extracts from his diary and is on the style of Sig. Blitz’s book, but is far more diversified and interesting.
His scrap-book also told a most romantic tale of vicissitudes. A half-page article in the New York Tribune, dated October, 1845, showed Alexander arrayed in a Chinese costume, and producing huge bowls of water, flowers, and various sorts of heavy articles. This proves conclusively that Ching Ling Foo was not the first conjurer to offer this Chinese trick in America, as it is generally supposed. Alexander added that all the old-timers would change their programmes by introducing the Chinese tricks, and, to verify his statement, readers need only to see the following files in Astor Library, New York City: New York Herald, New York Tribune, and New York Evening Gazette of November 6th, 1845.
Herr Alexander had arrived in New York almost penniless, after a disastrous tour of other American cities. He tried to hire Niblo’s Garden, but was informed that the auditorium was never opened in winter. Through the intercession of Mrs. Niblo, however, he finally secured it at a rental of twenty dollars per night. He opened to a small house and for three nights did not even pay expenses, but the fourth night witnessed a change in his fortunes and for three months he played literally to standing room. Then because he had no new tricks to offer, and his pride forbade his presenting his old répertoire until receipts grew lighter, he closed his New York season.
While playing in Saratoga, Alexander was approached by the late P. T. Barnum, who was accompanied by Gen. Tom Thumb. Alexander declined Mr. Barnum’s offer because he thought to join the Barnum staff of entertainers would injure his professional rating. Barnum’s admission fee was 25 cents, while Alexander charged 50 cents and $1.
About this time the fame of Alexander attracted the attention of no less a personage than S. F. B. Morse, of telegraphic fame; and Alexander had on his programme one trick which mystified Morse, who honestly believed that the conjurer had discovered some new law of nature that might be of service to scientists.
Alexander called this trick “The Spirit Bell,” and, worked by one method or another, it has been used by many magicians. Some employ a thread and hook, causing the clapper to strike by pulling the thread which runs through an innocent-looking ribbon on which the bell hangs. Others use an electric magnet. Herr Alexander placed his bell on top of a fancy case which he could set anywhere, and the bell would ring at command. The secret was a small bird, trained to jump from one rung of a tiny ladder to another, at word of command or the waving of a stick or wand which the bird could see from its point of imprisonment. Every time that it jumped from one rung to another, it would pull down a step which was so arranged that by the smallest overweight it would release a catch, which in turn would throw the hammer against the glass. When the bird stepped off, the hammer would again come back to its original position and be ready for the second blow. This bird he bought from a street fortune-teller, who had trained it to go up different steps of a ladder and select envelopes containing variously printed fortunes.
Alexander enjoyed personal acquaintance with President Polk, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Calhoun, and their fellow-statesmen in the United States. Through his friendship with President Polk he carried to the West Indies and Brazil letters so influential that the aristocracy in these countries opened its doors to him. He was welcomed at the palace of Dom Pedro, and has in his possession letters from both the King and his consort, dated 1850.
So much for the history of a man who was brave enough to admit that he developed the suspension trick from principles laid down by humble Indian fakirs.
The crudest method used for accomplishing the suspension trick consisted of a steel corset, an iron rod painted to resemble wood, and a platform. The steel rod was fitted into a special place in the corset, also in the platform. This method was improved, first to make it a self-raising suspension, then eventually with a steel rod from the back of the stage, eliminating the use of both rods under the arms.
Spectators and reviewers commented on the rigid, almost painful, carriage of Robert-Houdin’s son during the performance, which they laid to the effect of ether. Unquestionably Robert-Houdin used this crude corset-and-rod method of working the trick.
The fumes of ether which reached the audience, he admits, were caused by pouring a little ether over hot irons in the wings.
But whatever the method employed by Robert-Houdin to secure the effects of “suspension éthéréenne,” he was merely introducing a century-old trick, which other contemporary magicians were also exhibiting. The name of the real maker of the apparatus may never be known, but some clever mechanician supplied Robert-Houdin, Compars Herrmann, and John Henry Anderson with precisely the same method of working the trick, at precisely the same time. Robert-Houdin alone was audacious enough to claim the invention as his own.
SUPREME egotism and utter disregard for the truth may be traced in all of Robert-Houdin’s writings, but they reached a veritable climax when he indited chapter XVI. of his “Memoirs.” During the course of this chapter he described the so-called invention and first production of the disappearing-handkerchief trick.
According to the American edition of his “Memoirs,” page 303, he received a command to appear before Louis Philippe and his family at St. Cloud in November, 1846. During the six days intervening between the official invitation and his appearance before the royal family, he arranged a trick from which, he states, he had every reason to expect excellent results. On page 305 he goes even further in his claims and announces:
“All my tricks were favorably received, and the one I had invented for the occasion gained me unbounded applause.”
He then gives the following description of the trick and its performance:
“I borrowed from my noble spectators several handkerchiefs, which I made into a parcel, and laid on the table. Then, at my request, different persons wrote on the cards the names of places whither they desired their handkerchiefs to be invisibly transported.
“‘Let us see,’ Louis Philippe said, ‘what this one says: “I desire the handkerchiefs to be found beneath one of the candelabra on the mantelpiece.” That is too easy for a sorcerer; so we will pass to the next card: “The handkerchiefs are to be transported to the dome of the Invalides.” That would suit me, but it is much too far, not for the handkerchiefs, but for us. Ah, ah!’ the King added, looking at the last card, ‘I am afraid, M. Robert-Houdin, I am about to embarrass you. Do you know what this card proposes?’
“‘Will your Majesty deign to inform me?’
“‘It is desired that you should send the handkerchiefs into the chest of the last orange-tree on the right of the avenue.’
“‘Only that, Sire? Deign to order, and I shall obey.’
“‘Very good, then; I should like to see such a magic act: I, therefore, choose the orange-tree chest.’
“The King gave some orders in a low voice, and I directly saw several persons run to the orange-tree, in order to watch it and prevent any fraud.
“I was delighted at this precaution, which must add to the effect of my experiment, for the trick was already arranged, and the precaution hence too late.
“I had now to send the handkerchiefs on their travels, so I placed them beneath a bell of opaque glass, and, taking my wand, I ordered my invisible travellers to proceed to the spot the King had chosen.
“The King then walked quickly to the door, whence he looked in the direction of the orange-tree, to assure himself that the guards were at their post; when this was done, he began to smile and shrug his shoulders.
“‘Ah! M. Robert-Houdin,’ he said, somewhat ironically, ‘I much fear for the virtue of your magic staff.’ Then he added, as he returned to the end of the room, where several servants were standing, ‘Tell William to open immediately the last chest at the end of the avenue, and bring me carefully what he finds there—if he does find anything.’
“William soon proceeded to the orange-tree, and, though much astonished at the orders given him, he began to carry them out.
“He carefully removed one of the sides of the chest, thrust his hand in, and almost touched the roots of the tree before he found anything. All at once he uttered a cry of surprise as he drew out a small iron coffer eaten by the rust.
“This curious find, after having been cleaned from the mould, was brought in and placed on a small ottoman by the King’s side.
“‘Well, M. Robert-Houdin,’ Louis Philippe said to me, with a movement of impatient curiosity, ‘here is a box; am I to conclude it contains the handkerchiefs?’
“‘Yes, Sire,’ I replied with assurance, ‘and they have been there, too, for a long period.’
“‘How can that be? The handkerchiefs were lent you scarce a quarter of an hour ago.’
“‘I cannot deny it, Sire; but what would my magic powers avail me if I could not perform incomprehensible tricks? Your Majesty will doubtless be still more surprised when I prove to your satisfaction that this coffer as well as its contents was deposited in the chest of the orange-tree sixty years ago.’
“‘If your Majesty will be kind enough to open this casket they will be supplied.’
“‘Certainly; but I shall require a key for that.’
“‘It only depends on yourself, Sire, to have one. Deign to remove it from the neck of this turtle dove, which has just brought it to you.’
“Louis Philippe unfastened a ribbon that held a small rusty key with which he hastened to unlock the coffer. The first thing that caught the King’s eye was a parchment, on which he read the following statements:
“‘This day, the sixth of June, 1786, this iron box, containing six handkerchiefs, was placed among the roots of an orange tree by me, Balsamo, Count of Cagliostro, to serve in performing an act of magic which will be executed on the same day sixty years hence before Louis Philippe of Orléans and his family.’
“‘There is, decidedly, witchcraft about this,’ the King said, more and more amazed. ‘Nothing is wanting, for the seal and signature of the celebrated sorcerer are placed at the foot of this statement, which, Heaven pardon me, smells strongly of sulphur.’
“At this jest the audience began to laugh.
“‘But,’ the King added, taking out of the box a carefully sealed packet, ‘can the handkerchiefs, by possibility, be in this?’
“‘Indeed, Sire, they are; but, before opening the parcel, I would request your Majesty to notice that it, also, bears the impression of Cagliostro’s seal.’
“‘It is certainly the same,’ my royal spectator answered, after comparing the two seals. Still, in his impatience to learn the contents of the parcel, the King quickly tore open the envelope, and soon displayed before the astonished spectators the six handkerchiefs, which, a few moments before, were still on my table.”
While the use of the Cagliostro seal really formed no part of the trick, its possession by Robert-Houdin goes to show how indefatigably he collected conjuring curios and how quick he was to utilize any part of his collection, and score thereby a brilliant showing.
Cagliostro seals were by no means rare. This prince of charlatans had seals, like adventures, in great variety; and in this connection, it is not out of place to tell something of Cagliostro and thus explain why the parchment bearing his seal created such a sensation at St. Cloud.
Cagliostro has no match in the annals of magic. Not a conjurer in the sense of being a public entertainer, he yet mystified and bewitched his thousands. Something of a physician, more of an alchemist, and altogether a charlatan, he left behind him a trail of brilliant chicanery, daring adventure, and ignominious failure and undoing unequalled in the history of Europe.
Cagliostro was born Joseph Balsamo, in Palermo, Italy, June 8th, 1743. His parents were in humble circumstances and he started his career as a novice in the Convent of Benfratelli, from which he was expelled for incorrigibility. Then he plunged into a life of dissipation and cleverly planned, ofttimes brilliantly executed crimes. He fled Palermo after forging theatre tickets and a will, and duping a goldsmith out of sixty pieces of gold. At Messina he fell in with an alchemist named Althotas, a man of some learning who spoke a variety of languages. These two adventurers travelled in Egypt, and when Althotas died Cagliostro went to Naples and Rome, where he married a beautiful girdle-maker named Seraphinia Feliciani. This woman shared both his triumphs and his disgrace. In 1776 they arrived in London, where he announced himself as the Count di Cagliostro. The title was assumed, the name was borrowed from his mother’s side of the house. Here for the first time Cagliostro announced himself also a worker of miracles or wonders.
He exhibited two mysterious substances, “Materia Prima,” with which he transmuted all baser metals into gold, and “Egyptian Wine,” with which he claimed to prolong life. His wife, who was just past twenty, he declared was more than sixty, her youthful appearance being due to the use of his elixir. He founded a spurious Egyptian rite in connection with the Masonic order which has been recognized as a blot upon Masonic history, and he claimed thousands of Masonic dupes. All over the Continent he and his beautiful wife travelled, now healing the poor for nothing, now duping the rich, but always living in a most picturesque, voluptuous fashion. He dipped into spiritualism and mesmerism, but wherever he went his converts followed after.
In 1789, while in Rome, he was seized by that invincible power, the Holy Inquisition, and was condemned to death. Later Pope Pius VI. changed the sentence to life imprisonment. Confinement made him more daring than ever. He asked for a confessor, and when a Capuchin monk was permitted to enter his cell in this capacity Cagliostro endeavored to choke him and escape in his robes. The monk fought for his life so effectually that it was he, and not Cagliostro, who escaped. Cagliostro was literally buried alive in a subterranean dungeon, as punishment for his final offence, and his wife immured herself in a Roman convent, where she died in 1794.
In Paris, perhaps, Cagliostro enjoyed his greatest triumphs of charlatanism, and it is not remarkable that the appearance of his seal in the midst of Robert-Houdin’s trick should seem almost uncanny to the royal family.
But to return to the disappearing-handkerchief trick. Robert-Houdin did not invent this trick. It was presented by a number of conjurers before Robert-Houdin was known in the world of magic. Robert-Houdin simply employed the trick familiar to both his predecessors and contemporaries and redressed it to tickle the fancy of his royal patron.
In England this trick was known among old conjurers as “The Ne Plus Ultra of the Cabalistic Art.” In 1826 one M. Félix Testot, who claimed to be a compatriot of Robert-Houdin, presented the trick in the British provinces, and one of his bills I am reproducing because it shows that the trick he offered the provincial Britons and the trick which Robert-Houdin offered the royal family at St. Cloud were identical. It also proves that London had seen the trick; and what London had seen, Paris, including Robert-Houdin, had heard of.
A programme used by “The Celebrated Mr. Marriot, Professor of Recreative Philosophy,” in 1831, contains word for word the announcement of the trick used on Testot’s bill, which goes to show that a popular test was to have articles passed from the Adelphia Theatre to the gun which was being watched by a sentinel.
February 22d, 1833, found a Mr. Jefferini at the Royal Clarence Theatre, Liverpool Street, King’s Cross, Liverpool. He agreed to make “an article fly at the rate of five hundred miles an hour, from King’s Cross to the Centre of Greece.”
The original Buck featured on his programme a similar trick which he called “The Loaf Trick.” On a bill dated October 26th, 1840, it is announced as follows: “Watch in a loaf. The magician will command any gentleman’s watch to disappear. It will be found in a loaf at any baker’s shop in Town.” The senior Ingleby changed the trick somewhat, sending out to any market for a shoulder of mutton, which, on being cut, would yield up a card previously drawn by some spectator. He thus describes his trick in his book “Whole Art of Legerdemain,” published in London in 1815:
“To cut out of a Shoulder of Mutton a Card which one of the Company had previously drawn out of the Pack.
“Having desired a person to draw a Card out of several which you hold to him, and to remember it, which he promises to do, you tell him it shall be in a shoulder of mutton which you will send for.
“Accordingly you desire a servant to go to the butcher’s and bring one. When brought, it is examined, and then ordered to be put down to roast. After performing some tricks, you recollect the shoulder of mutton, which is immediately brought half-roasted, and after cutting it for some time you at length find the card, and produce it.
“Having forced a card on one of the company, your confederate has an opportunity, when the mutton is sent to be roasted, of conveying a thin duplicate of that card folded into a narrow compass into the fleshy part near the shank, which can be easily done by means of a sharp penknife.
The method of performing the trick was so familiar to conjurers of Robert-Houdin’s time and earlier that Henry Evans Evanion was able to describe it to me from actual witnessings. Acting on his explanation, on my return to America I offered the trick, without any great amount of preparation and without a hitch, at a matinée entertainment given by a secret organization. I will describe precisely how this was done, and allow my readers to judge of the similarity of the trick offered years ago by humble travelling magicians whose names have been written most faintly in the annals of conjuring, and the much-vaunted trick “invented” by Robert-Houdin for the entertainment of his sovereign.
The hall in which the matinée was given was located in Harlem, Borough of Manhattan, New York City, and I had decided that the handkerchiefs which were to make the flying journey should be “desired” by some one present to appear under the top step of the winding staircase in the Statue of Liberty, which is located in New York Harbor. This meant a half-hour ride from the hall to the boat in a Subway train; then a run across New York Harbor to the Statue. These boats left the dock on the hour and the half-hour, so I timed my performance to fill just half an hour, starting with some sleight-of-hand, the egg-bag trick, and swallowing a package of needles and bringing them up threaded, which latter trick was introduced into magical performances in Europe by K. K. Kraus in 1816.
Just before 3:30 o’clock I borrowed three handkerchiefs and tied them together for easier handling. I had three handkerchiefs, similarly tied together, under my vest, and just at 3:30, I switched the two sets of handkerchiefs, so that the handkerchiefs furnished by the spectators were under my vest and the bogus handkerchiefs in my hand. First I dropped the bogus handkerchiefs on the table-trap, picking up the opaque glass cover with which they were to be hidden, and, by a carefully rehearsed bit of carelessness, dropped and broke it. Then, leaving the bogus handkerchiefs on the table trap, I stepped toward the wings, apparently to secure another glass bell or cover. To all intents and purposes, I did not pass from the view of the audience, for fully half of my body was on the stage, but as my assistant handed me a new glass cover, he deftly extracted the real handkerchiefs from under my vest. Then, while I returned to the stage with my patter and description of the flight the handkerchiefs were about to make, my assistant, with the handkerchiefs in his pocket, walked unnoticed from the door, and, once out of sight, ran madly to the Subway station. There he boarded an express and reached the boat landing just in time to catch the 4 o’clock boat. At the Statue, my brother and a tinsmith were waiting for him. The handkerchiefs were placed in the tin box, securely soldered, and then this box was placed inside a second iron box, which was locked. The “plant” was then taken upstairs and hidden under the top step.
In the mean time, with my thoughts following my assistant every step of his trip, I was playing out my end of the game. The audience was supplied with blank cards on which they might write the name of the place where the handkerchiefs should reappear. This, of course, took some time, and when the cards, each folded to hide the writing thereon, were collected in a hat, I shook them up thoroughly, and then turned them out upon a plate, deftly adding, on the top, three cards which I had concealed in my hand. This was sleight-of-hand purely, and I next picked out those three prepared cards on each of which was written “Can you send the handkerchiefs under the top step of the Statue of Liberty?” Explaining that I had in my hand three cards chosen at haphazard, I wished the final choice to be made by a disinterested party. A baby was finally chosen to select the card. Naturally, I refused even to take the slip of paper from the baby’s hand, and one of the lodge members read the question.
Murmurs of surprise and incredulity echoed from all over the hall. The test was too difficult! I then announced that if the audience would select its own committee, making sure to pick out men who could not be bribed, I would accompany them, and we would surely return with the handkerchiefs, sealed in double boxes, as found under the famous stairway. As an elaborate course luncheon was to be served, the committee had time to act, and away we went, leaving the lodge to its feast. So much time had been lost in selecting the committee that we reached the wharf just in time to catch the 5 o’clock boat. On landing I received a prearranged signal from my assistants that all was well, and as I watched my committee dash up the stairs I knew that their quest would be rewarded.
When the committee and the writer returned to the lodge-room, a mechanic was required to pry open the box. There lay the identical handkerchiefs furnished by my spectators, who could hardly believe their eyes.
On other occasions I have asked my audience to select a spokesman, who in a loud voice would announce the point at which the handkerchiefs would be found, and then my man, waiting just outside the door, would mount his bicycle and pedal like mad for the hiding-place, naturally outstripping any committee appointed. But the first method, that of selecting the place beforehand and having all arrangements made, even to the three prepared cards, is safest and is probably the one used by Robert-Houdin to deceive the French monarch. I doubt if he even had three different cards prepared, as he claims. I believe he exaggerated his feat, for that would have been taking long chances.
For this trick I claim not an iota of originality. I simply fitted it to the time, the place, and the audience, and that I believe is all Robert-Houdin did when he “invented” the disappearing handkerchief trick for the amusement of his sovereign.
STATEMENTS in Robert-Houdin’s various works on the conjurer’s art corroborate my claim that he was not a master-magician, but a clever purloiner and adapter of the tricks invented and used by his predecessors and contemporaries. Whenever, in these books, he attempts to explain or expose a trick which was not part of his répertoire, he betrays an ignorance which would be impossible in a conjurer versed in the finer and more subtle branches of his art. Neither do these explanations show that he was clever enough as a mechanic to have invented the apparatus which he claimed as his handiwork. He states that practice and still more practice are essential, yet no intelligent performer, amateur or professional, can study my collection of Robert-Houdin programmes, handbills, and press notices without realizing that his répertoire contained little or no trace of what should be the foundation of successful conjuring, sleight-of-hand. Changing his fingers over the various air-holes of the inexhaustible bottle was as near as he ever came to sleight-of-hand, even when he was in the height of his success.
According to the press notices he had a pleasing stage presence, and also dressed and set forth his tricks richly, but it must be borne in mind that then, as often to-day, the man sent by an editor to criticise a conjurer’s performance knew little or nothing about the art and could not institute comparisons between different magicians. To-day Robert-Houdin would shine as an exhibitor of illusions or mechanical toys. A pistol shot, a puff of smoke—and his confederate or assistant has done the real work behind the scenes.
His lack of finesse as a sleight-of-hand performer is nowhere more clearly shown than in his own writings. On page 37 of his French exposé of the secrets of magic, entitled “Comment on Devient Sorcier” (page 51 of the English translation by Professor Hoffmann, “The Secrets of Conjuring and Magic"), he thus naïvely describes his masterpiece of coin-palming:
“I myself practised palming long and perseveringly, and acquired thereat a very considerable degree of skill. I used to be able to palm two five-franc pieces at once, the hand, nevertheless, remaining as freely open as though it held nothing whatever.”
An amateur of his own day would have blushed to admit that he could palm but two coins. Men like T. Nelson Downs, “The Koin King,” think nothing of palming twenty five-franc or silver dollars, or forty half-dollars, and even this record has been broken.
Even two writers who contributed to the translation and editing of his works, R. Shelton Mackenzie and Professor Hoffmann (Angelo J. Lewis), and who have drawn rich royalties for the same, apologize for his flagrant mis-statements, which, they realize, any man or woman with but a slight knowledge of conjuring must recognize.
His first contribution to the history of magic was his “Memoirs"; and while he does not feature exposures of tricks in this work, he offers, in passing, explanations of tricks and automata presented by other magicians. For the most part these explanations are obviously incorrect, and so prove that he was ignorant of certain fundamental principles of the art in which he claimed to have shone.
In the introduction of the American edition, published in 1850, Mr. Mackenzie, the editor, thus apologizes for one of Robert-Houdin’s most flagrant mistakes in tracing the history of magic:
“One error which M. Houdin makes must not be passed over. His account of M. de Kempelen’s celebrated automaton chess-player (afterward Maëlzel’s) is entirely wrong. This remarkable piece of mechanism was constructed in 1769, and not in 1796; it was the Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria who played with it, and not Catherine II. of Russia; it was in 1783 that it first visited Paris, where it played at the Café de la Regence; it was not taken to London until 1784, and again in 1819; it was brought to America in 1825, by M. Maëlzel, and visited our principal cities, its chief resting-place being Philadelphia; M. Maëlzel’s death was in 1838, on the voyage from Cuba to the United States, and not, as M. Houdin says, on his return to France; and the automaton, so far from being taken back to France, was sold by auction here, finally purchased by the late Dr. J. K. Mitchell, of Philadelphia, reconstructed by him, and finally deposited in the Chinese Museum (formerly Peale’s), where it was consumed in the great fire which destroyed the National Theatre (now the site of the Continental Hotel, corner of Ninth and Chestnut Streets), and, extending to the Chinese Museum, burnt it down on July 5th, 1854. An interesting account of the Automaton Chess-Player, written by Prof. George Allen, of this city, will be found in ‘The Book of the First American Chess Congress,’ recently published in New York.”
Signor Blitz, in his book “Fifty Years in the Magic Circle,” corroborates the Mackenzie correction, by telling how he saw Maëlzel in Havana, Cuba, where the famous German met his professional Waterloo, first in small audiences, then in the death of his faithful confederate, Schlomberg. Finally, broken in health and spirit, Maëlzel sailed from Havana for Philadelphia, but death overtook him at sea. His body was consigned to the ocean’s depths, and his few effects were sold to liquidate the cost of passage and other debts.
That Robert-Houdin should make an error concerning a world-famous automaton the history of which could be traced through contemporary periodicals and libraries, is almost inconceivable and proves the carelessness with which he gathered and presented facts.
His inability to grasp the principles on which other performers built their tricks is shown most clearly when he attempts to describe and explain the performances of the Arabian mountebanks whom he saw during his stay in Algiers. These tricks have been handed down from one generation to another, and now that Arabian conjurers and acrobats are imported for hippodrome and vaudeville performances in all civilized countries, the tricks described by Robert-Houdin are familiar to the general public. They are also copied by performers of other nationalities, and can be seen in circus side-shows and at fairs, as well as in the better grade of houses. Having worked on the same bill with genuine Arabian performers, I know just how the tricks are accomplished.
Robert-Houdin undertakes to explain these tricks in chapter XXII. of the American edition of his “Memoirs.” So long as he quotes reliable authorities like the Journal des Sciences, the explanations are correct. Directly he attempts an independent exposure, he strikes far from the correct explanation.
On page 424 he states:
“In the following experiment, two Arabs held a sabre, one by the hilt, the other by the point; a third then came forward, and after raising his clothes so as to leave the abdomen quite bare, laid himself flat on the edge of the blade, while a fourth mounted on his back, and seemed to press the whole weight of his body on him.
“This trick may be easily explained.
“Nothing proves to the audience that the sabre is really sharpened, or that the edge is more cutting than the back, although the Arab who holds it by the point is careful to wrap it up in a handkerchief—in this, imitating the jugglers who pretend they have cut their fingers with one of the daggers they use in their tricks.
“Besides, in performing this trick, the invulnerable turned his back on the audience. He knew the advantage to be derived from this circumstance; hence, at the moment when about to lay himself on the sabre, he very adroitly pulled back over his stomach that portion of his clothing he had raised. Lastly, when the fourth actor mounted on his back, he rested his hands on the shoulders of the Arabs who held the sabre. The latter apparently maintained his balance, but, in reality, they supported the whole weight of his body. Hence, the only requirement for this trick is to have the stomach more or less pressed in, and I will explain presently that this can be effected without any danger or injury.”
In this explanation Robert-Houdin is entirely wrong. The real secret of lying on top of a sharp-edged razor, sword, or sabre rests on the fact that the performer does actually lie upon it in a perfectly motionless position. Were he to move but the width of a hair, backward or forward or sidewise, the weapon would slice his body, resulting in instant death or horrible mutilation. I have watched cheap performers of this class of work, in dime museums or fairs, walk up a ladder of sharp swords which I had previously held in my hand. They would place the foot down with infinite precision and then press it into place. This position will not result in cutting, but let the performer slip or slide and the flesh would be cut instantly. I have also seen an acrobat, working in a circus, select two razors in first-class condition, place them on a socket with the edges of the razors uppermost, and with his bare hands he would do what is known as a hand-stand on the keen edges of the blades. This trick of absolute balance is acquired by persistent practice from youth up.
Again Robert-Houdin errs wofully in comparing the sabre-swallower to the swallower of broken bottle-heels and stones. Sabre-swallowing is one trick, swallowing pebbles and broken glass belongs in quite a different class. And when I say this I do not mean powdered glass, but pieces of glass first broken, then chewed, and finally swallowed.
On page 426 Robert-Houdin puts the two tricks in the same class, as follows:
“When the trick of swallowing bottle-heels and pebbles was to be done, the Aïssaoua really put them in his mouth, but I believe, I may say certainly, that he removed them at the moment when he placed his head in the folds of the Mokadem’s burnous. However, had he swallowed them, there would have been nothing wonderful about this, when we compare it with what was done some thirty years back in France by a mountebank called ‘the Sabre-Swallower.’
“This man, who performed in the streets, threw back his head so as to form a straight line with his throat, and really thrust down his gullet a sabre, of which only the hilt remained outside his mouth.
“He also swallowed an egg without cracking it, or even nails and pebbles, which he caused to resound, by striking his stomach with his fist.
“These tricks were the result of a peculiar formation in the mountebank’s throat, but, if he had lived among the Aïssaoua, he would have assuredly been the leading man of the company.”
The sabre-swallower never releases his hold on the weapon. The pebble and bottle-heel swallower does—but brings them up again, by a system of retching which results from long practice. The Japanese have an egg-swallowing trick in which they swallow either small-sized ivory balls or eggs, and reproduce them by a retching so unnoticeable that they could easily show the mouth empty.
This trick dates back to the offerings of that celebrated water-spouter, Blaise Manfrede, or de Manfre, who travelled all over Europe. This man could swallow huge quantities of water and then eject it in streams or in small quantities or fill all sorts of glasses. In fact this one trick made him famous. The European Magazine, London, March, 1765, pages 194-5, gives a most diverting description of his trick, taken from an old letter, and here quoted:
“I have seen, at the September fair in Francfort, a man who professed drinking fifty quarts of water in a day, and indeed proved that he was capable of executing what he pretended to. I saw him perform frequently, and remember it as well as if it was but yesterday. He said he was an Italian; he was short and squat, his chest, face, forehead, eyes, and mouth very large. He pretended to be fifty years old, though he did not seem forty.
“He was called the famous Blaise Manfrede, a native of Malta. At Francfort he frequently performed three times a day: for, besides his performances twice a day on the public stage (which nobody approached without paying), he attended private houses when called upon by great people.
“He called for a large bucket of fair warm water, and twenty little glass bottles, flat like cupping glasses, so that they could stand topside turvy. Some of these he filled with water, plunging them into the bucket with a good deal of ceremony, and usually swallowed two or three to wash his mouth and gargle his throat. He threw up the water again immediately, to shew the spectators that he had no drugs between his teeth, whence he could be suspected to derive any advantage.
“After this plausible prelude, he made an Italian harangue, which I cannot acquaint you with the merits of, because I am a stranger to the language.... After his harangue he usually took off two dozen of his little bottles, which he filled from the bucket, and a moment afterwards returned the liquor through his mouth. But what is most extraordinary is that this water, which he threw out with violence, appeared red like wine. And when he had discharged it into two different bottles, it was red in one and russet like beer in the other; as soon as he shifted the bottles to the contrary sides, they changed their complexion respectively to that of wine or beer, and so successively so long as he continued vomiting; in the mean time, I observed that the water grew less discolored in proportion as he continued to discharge. This was the first act. Then he ranged his two dozen of bottles opposite to him on a table, and exposed to everybody’s view. Then he took an equal number of bottles, plunged them anew into the bucket, swallowed them too, and returned them in water very transparent, rose-water, orange-flower-water, and brandy.
“I have smelt the several odours of his liquors; nay, I have seen him set fire to a handkerchief dipt in that which smelt like brandy, and it burnt blue like spirituous liquors.... Nay, he frequently promised at Venice to give the water back again in milk and oil. But I think he did not keep his word. In short, he concluded this scene with swallowing successfully thirty or forty glasses of water, always from the same bucket, and after having given notice to the company by his man (who served as an interpreter) that he was going to disembogue, he threw his head back, and spouting out the fair water, he made it spring up with an impetuosity like that of the strongest jet d’eau. This last feat delighted the people infinitely more than all the rest, and during the month he was at Francfort numbers from all parts came to see this slovenly exercise. Though he repeated it more than once a day he had more than four hundred spectators at a time. Some threw their handkerchiefs, and some their gloves upon the stage, that he might wet them with the water he had cast up, and he returned them differently perfumed, sometimes with rose-water, sometimes with orange-flower-water, and sometimes with brandy.”
Another famous juggler and water-spouter was Floram Marchand, whose picture is herewith reproduced. Judging from his dress, he antedated Manfrede.
Bell’s Messenger of July 16th, 1816, tells of a sword-swallower whose work is extremely pertinent to this discussion, and the clipping is quoted verbatim:
“The French papers give a curious account of one James de Falaise, a Norman, about fifty years of age, living in the Rue St. Honoré. It is said that this extraordinary man will swallow whole walnuts, shell and all, a tobacco pipe, three cards rolled together, a rose with all its leaves, long stalk, and thorns, a living bird, and a living mouse, and, lastly, a live eel. Like to the Indian jugglers, he swallows the blade of a sabre about thirteen inches long of polished steel. This operation he performs very slowly, and with some precaution; though he evinces no symptom of pain. After every solid body that he swallows, he always takes a small dose of wine expressly prepared for him. He does not seem to make any effort to kill the living animals that he takes in his mouth, but boasts that he feels them moving in his stomach.”
In my collection is the handbill of a stone-swallower who exhibited at No. 10 Cockspur Street, London, charging an admission fee of half-a-crown.
These performers actually swallowed the water, stones, pebbles, etc., and retched them up again so cleverly and at such carefully selected instants that the audience did not know that the disgorging had been accomplished.
Swallowing glass was a different matter, and the modern human ostriches have all wound up at city hospitals where surgeons have removed broken glass, knife blades, and other foreign matter by means of an operation.
I quote the above instances simply to prove that the stones were actually swallowed and then disgorged, and not hidden, as Robert-Houdin claims, in the folds of the Mokadem’s burnous.
In this one chapter alone Robert-Houdin quotes six authorities in explaining the tricks he witnessed, which fact only strengthens my belief that he borrowed his tricks, as well as his explanations, from able and graphic writers on the art of magic.
The next work descriptive of the conjurer’s art offered by Robert-Houdin was “Les Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie.” Under the title of “The Secrets of Conjuring and Magic; or, How to Become a Wizard,” it was translated and edited by Professor Hoffmann and published in 1878 by George Routledge & Co., London and New York.
Absolutely no originality is displayed in this book, and the majority of the tricks explained can be found in French books of a similar character which appeared before Robert-Houdin turned author. The proof of this statement can be found by reading any of the following works upon which Robert-Houdin patently drew for his material:
“Nouvelle Magie Blanche Dévoilée et Cours Complet de Prestidigitation,” in two volumes, by J. N. Ponsin, published in Paris in 1853; “Grande Initiation au vraie Pratique des Célèbres Physiciens-Prestidigitateurs,” Paris, 1855; “Nouveau Manuel Complet Sorciers, les scènes de Ventriloquie exécutées et communiquées par M. Conte, Physicien du Roi,” Paris, 1837; “Anciens et Nouvaux Tours d’Escamotage,” of which there are innumerable editions; “Le Manuel des Sorciers. Recréations Physiques, Mathématiques, Tours de Cartes et de Gibecière; suivre, des Jeux de Société,” Paris, 1802.
His third work, “Magie et Physique Amusante,” translated by Professor Hoffmann under the title of “The Secrets of Stage Conjuring,” and published in English in 1881, is marred by an almost continuous strain of mis-statements, incorrect explanations, and downright falsification.
On page 17 of the American edition Robert-Houdin starts his dramatic tale of inventing a detector lock by which he protected a rich neighbor, M. de l’Escalopier, from robbery, and incidentally in return secured funds with which to open his theatre in the Palais Royal. In his “Mémoirs” Robert-Houdin states that the opening of the theatre was made possible by the invention of the writing and drawing automaton whose history has been traced in chapter III. The reader can choose between the two stories. One is as plausible as the other.
But to return to the detector lock. Count or M. De l’Escalopier having complained grievously to his humble neighbor, the watchmaker Robert-Houdin, that he and his family were being robbed, begged that the latter suggest some means of catching the thief. Robert-Houdin then recalled a childish device by which he had caught his school-fellows in the act of pilfering his desk, etc., and he proposed to the Count that the same device, elaborated to meet the strength of a full-grown man, be attached to his wealthy patron’s desk. As first planned, the detector lock was to shoot off a pistol on being tampered with, and then brand the hand of the thief with nitrate of silver. Count de l’Escalopier objected to branding a man for life, so Robert-Houdin substituted for the nitrate of silver a sort of cat’s claw which would clamp down on the robber’s hand and draw blood. The Count deposited ten thousand francs in his desk and caught the robber, his confidential servant, red-handed. The ten thousand francs he presented to Robert-Houdin as a reward for stopping the thefts.
A charming tale this makes, but, unfortunately for Robert-Houdin’s claims to originality, the detector lock was not a novelty in his day. The lock which would first alarm the household by setting off a pistol and then brand the thief’s hand, is described by the Marquis of Worcester in his book “Centurie of Inventions.” As locks and locksmithing form my hobby, while in England I purchased the entire set of patent-books, to add to a collection of locks and fastenings from every known country of the world. In the introduction of the first book of patents for inventions relating to locks, latches, bolts, etc., from A.D. 1774 to 1866, the following quotation will be found:
“The Marquis of Worcester in his ‘Centurie of Inventions’ thus describes the first detector lock invented, A.D. 1640, by some mechanical genius of that day: ‘This lock is so constructed that, if a stranger attempts to open it, it catches his hand as a trap catches a fox, though not as far as maiming him for life, yet so far marketh him that if suspected he might easily be detected.’”
It appears that to this lock was fitted a steel barb which, if a certain tumbler was overlifted in the act of picking or otherwise, was projected against the hand of the operator by a spring. I have seen such a lock as this in the collection of Hobbs, Hart & Co., London, who have had it in their possession many years. In every respect it answers the description of the invention claimed by Robert-Houdin as his own.
Chapter VII. of “Secrets of Stage Conjuring” is devoted to Robert-Houdin’s very incorrect explanation of the famous Indian Basket Trick. Even his own translator, Professor Hoffmann, takes issue with Robert-Houdin, as will be seen by reading his foot-note on page 104: “We will not venture to question the fact vouched for by so high an authority as Robert-Houdin, that the Indian Basket Trick may sometimes be performed after the manner above described, but we doubt very much whether such is the usual or customary method.”
Robert-Houdin states that the child is placed in the basket, and the Indian fastens down the lid with leather straps. To facilitate this operation, he rests his knees against the basket, and the bottom of the latter thus being turned toward the audience, the boy slips out through a cunningly contrived trap and quickly conceals himself under the robe of the magician, whose attitude favors this concealment.
As the basket trick is the Hindoo magician’s most wonderful offering, a truthful account of his methods of performing the same may be interesting. In the first place, Robert-Houdin’s explanation is impossible and unreasonable because the Hindoo magician does not wear flowing robes in which the child could be concealed. Every Hindoo performer I have ever seen wore short trousers and was barefooted.
The correct method of performing the trick, which has been handed down through generations of Hindoos, is as follows: The boy subject is placed in a net in which he is firmly tied, after having had his big toes and thumbs fastened down with bandages. Then, with many a grunt and a groan, he is lifted into the basket. The subject, however, pretends that the basket is too small, so he is really seated on one side and keeps his back in the air. This is done to give the appearance eventually that it was impossible for him to crouch down or around the basket. The lid of the basket is now placed on his back, and a large sheet is thrown over the entire apparatus, which conceals from the audience every movement made by the subject.
Now commences the Hindoo “patter,” in reality yells, groans, and incantations, while the magician and his assistant strike the basket with swords or canes, stamp on the ground, gnash their teeth, etc. Gradually the cover of the basket sinks until the basket seems empty, to the spectators at least. The fakir now takes off the cover of the basket, leaving the sheet over it, however. Then he jumps into the presumably empty basket, stamps all around, and takes out the net in which are found the turban worn by the subject and the thumb tie. To prove further that the basket is still empty, the fakir seats himself in the basket, as shown in the illustration. The lid of the basket is now replaced, and under this friendly cover the sheet is taken off and the basket tied up.
Now commences the true Hindoo magic. The magician is a real actor. He apparently adjures Mahomet. He gets very angry and with fierce looks, ejaculations, and muttered curses he grabs up a sword or cane and jabs it through different parts of the basket. During all this time the subject, who is something of a contortionist, is wriggling about on the bottom of the basket, keeping out of reach of the sword, and in fact often guiding its thrusts between his legs, as every movement on the part of the fakir has been carefully thought out and rehearsed in advance.
By this time the fakir has convinced his audience that the basket is empty. To be sure he has not allowed any spectators to come too near him or the basket, nor has any hand save his touched it, but his clever acting almost persuades even an intelligent or sceptical onlooker that the basket is empty.
With the lid of the basket replaced, this time above the friendly sheet, and the basket tied, he resumes his weird incantations. He screams and runs back and forth, playing on a small instrument with a hideous tone which is a cross between the whistle of a locomotive with a cold, and a sawed-off and hammered-down flute in which has been inserted a tin whistle. As this nerve-racking music holds the spectators under its awful spell, the basket begins to rock, the contortionist-subject gradually raises himself inside the basket, and when the noise is at its height he straightens up in the basket and raises it with his back as far as it will go. To the uninitiated it actually appears as if he had returned to an empty basket in his original position. The trick is a marvellous deception, but only a Hindoo can exhibit it with success, for no white person would ever indulge in the screechings, imbecilities, and contortions which are the spectacular and convincing features of the trick.
Sometimes the trick is varied. Instead of the subject being found in his original position he is seen running toward the crowd as from a distance. This is accomplished by having two subjects, one in the basket and one hidden on the outskirts of the crowd, who are “doubles” or at least who show a marked resemblance and are dressed exactly alike.
The earliest programmes of Hindoo jugglers in my collection are dated 1818. The “Mr. Ramosamee” featured on this bill later split his name thus, “Ramo Samee,” and was engaged to perform alone between the acts of “The Broken Heart” at the Garrick Theatre, London. From Ramo Samee, Continental and British magicians learned the trick of juggling brass balls.
On page 135 Professor Hoffmann, in a foot-note, commends Robert-Houdin for the very impartial manner in which he approaches the question of spiritualism and spiritualistic manifestations, in his day a comparative novelty: “In default of absolute certainty, he wisely reserves his opinion. Where, however, as in the case of the Davenport Brothers, he had an opportunity of personally observing the alleged ‘phenomena,’ he has neither difficulty in penetrating nor hesitation in denouncing the imposture. We venture to believe that any of the so-called spiritualistic manifestations which had come under the test of Robert-Houdin’s examination would have met a similar fate.”
With this commendation I cannot agree. Robert-Houdin once had all the leeway he wished at a most remarkable manifestation and made no attempt to hide the fact that he was baffled by the “phenomena.” The “Memoirs of Marquis de Mirville” contain a Robert-Houdin letter in which he admits that he could find no explanation of tests just witnessed. The letter, translated from “Die Magie des XIX. Jahrhunderts von Uriarte,” 1896, published in Berlin, Germany, by Heusers Verlag, is herewith quoted: “I returned from the séance as greatly astonished as it was possible for me to be, and I am thoroughly convinced that it was entirely out of the possibility, and no chance whatever, that it was either by accident or practised trickery to produce such wonderful materializations. Robert-Houdin, May 18th, 1847.”
He further shows his ignorance of séances as offered in his times, by his attempt to describe the methods employed by the Davenport Brothers, to whom he devotes chapter XIII., which might be described as a chapter of errors.
These picturesque American entertainers, the Davenport Brothers, hailed from Buffalo, N. Y., U.S.A. Ira Erastus was born September 17th, 1839, and William Henry, February 1st, 1841. They fairly startled the world by their so-called manifestations of spiritualism during the 60’s, and were alternately lauded and reviled for their performances.
Both were below medium height, rather handsome men, and, as will be seen from the accompanying engraving, looked much alike. Their career, which started in America, ran from about 1853 to the early 70’s. They made a trip to Europe in 1864, remaining until August, 1869. Both married abroad; Ira a daughter of France, Mlle. Louise Toulet, and William Henry a Polish girl, Miss Matilda Mag. On the whole, their foreign tour was most profitable, though in some cities they paid a high price for their notoriety. In England they waged bitter warfare with John Henry Anderson, Tolmaque, and Professor Redmond.
On the occasion of their Paris opening at the Salle Herz they claimed that the hoodlum element mobbed the theatre and broke up their performance at the instigation of Henri Robin, who was playing in opposition. Hamilton, who had succeeded to the management of Robert-Houdin’s theatre, in a letter published after witnessing their initial performance announced that he shared this belief; but as Robert-Houdin and Henri Robin were bitter rivals, I believe Hamilton’s letter was the result of two things: first the intense ill-will he harbored against Robin, and second, as he had Robert-Houdin as his mentor, he was really ignorant of the Davenport methods and therefore not in a position to defend them. The letter, which is given in full, appeared in Gazette des Étrangers, Paris, September 27th, 1865:
“Messrs. Davenport: Yesterday I had the pleasure of being present at the séance you gave, and I came away from it convinced that jealousy alone was the cause of the outcry raised against you. The phenomena produced surpassed my expectations, and your experiments were full of interest to me. I consider it my duty to add that these phenomena are inexplicable; and the more so by such persons as have thought themselves able to guess your supposed secret, and who are, in fact, far indeed from having discovered the truth. Hamilton.”
After their return to America the Davenport Brothers retired from public life, purchased a farm, and rested on their laurels and a corpulent bank account. One of them is said to have admitted that all their work was skilful manipulation and not spiritualistic manifestations. Nevertheless, their names will live so long as spiritualism is talked of or cabinet effects tolerated by the public.
The trick as offered by the Davenport Brothers consisted of their being tied hand and foot at opposite ends of the cabinet, which was hung with musical instruments, bells, etc. The two men slipped in and out of the ropes without delay or apparent damage to the ropes, and musical instruments were played with arms presumably in bondage.
Robert-Houdin, in attempting to expose the trick, makes two flagrant errors. First he claims that “by dint of special practice on the part of our mediums, the thumb is made to lie flat in the hand, when the whole assumes a cylindrical form of scarcely greater diameter than the wrist"; and second that the Davenport Brothers had trained themselves to see in the dark.
As releasing myself from fastenings of all sorts, from ropes to strait-jackets, has been my profession for twenty years, I am in a position to contradict Robert-Houdin’s first claim positively. I have met thousands of persons who claimed that the rope, as well as the handcuff trick, was accomplished by folding the hand together or making the wrist larger than the hand, but never have I met men or women who could make their hands smaller than their wrists. I have even gone so far as to have iron bands made and press my hands together, hoping eventually to make my hands smaller than my wrists, but this has failed, too. Even if the entire thumb were cut away, I believe it would still be impossible to slip a rope that was properly bound around the wrist. You may take any cuff of the adjustable make, or a ratchet cuff, place it about a small woman’s wrist, and you will find that even she will be unable to slip her wrists. I do not mean by this any hand-cuff that will not come to any size, or the common cuffs which when locked will lock only to a certain size, but I mean a cuff that can be locked and adjusted to any size of wrist.
In rope-tying, the principal trick is to allow yourself to be tied according to certain methods of crossing your hands or wrists, so that by eventually straightening your hands you have made enough room to allow them to slip out very easily. It is not always the size of the wrist that counts. It is the manner of holding your hands when the knots are being tied.
The gift of seeing in the dark, with which Robert-Houdin endowed the Davenports, is equally preposterous. Professor Hoffmann defends Robert-Houdin by citing instances of prisoners who had been confined in cells for an indefinite period and who had learned to see in the dark. This is quite true, but they did not alternate daylight and darkness. Eminent opticians and oculists inform me that the faculty of seeing in the dark cannot be acquired by parties like the Davenports, who spent most of their time in the light.
While the Davenports were pioneers in rope-tying and cabinet séances, had Robert-Houdin been the clever sleight-of-hand performer and inventor he claims to have been, these tricks would have been clear and solvable to him. But as he obviously joined the ranks of the amazed and bewildered masses, making only a futile attempt to explain the performances, he convicts himself of ignorance regarding his own art.
A man who has made a fortune in the world of magic and who desires to hand down to posterity a clean record of his attainments will be clever enough and manly enough to avoid any attempt to explain that which he does not understand. By his flagrant mis-statements regarding the tricks of his predecessors and contemporaries, Robert-Houdin, however, convicts himself of ignorance regarding the fundamental principles of magic, and arouses in the minds of broad, intelligent readers doubts regarding his claims to the invention of the various tricks and automata which he declares to have been the output of his brain, the production of his own deft hands.
THE charm of true memoirs lies far beyond the printed pages, in the depth and breadth of the writer’s soul. The greatest of all autobiographies are those which detail not only the lives of the men who penned them, but which abound in diverting anecdotes and character studies of the men and women among whom the writer moved. They are not autobiographies alone, but vivid, broad-minded pen-pictures of the period in which the writer was a vigorous, respect-compelling figure. Memoirs written with a view to settling old scores seldom live to accomplish their ends. The narrowness and pettiness of the writer, which intelligent reading of history is bound to disclose, destroy all other charms which the book may possess.
At personal exploitation Robert-Houdin is a brilliant success. As a writer of memoirs he is a wretched failure. Whenever he writes of himself, his pen seems fairly to scintillate. Whenever he refers to other magicians of his times, his pen lags and drops on the pages blots which can emanate only from a narrow, petty, jealous nature.
Even when he writes of his own family, this peculiar trait of petty egotism may be read between the lines. He mentions the name of his son Émile, apparently because the lad shared his stage triumphs. His other children he never mentions by name. The second wife, who, he grudgingly admits, stood valiantly by him in his days of poverty and disappointment, he does not honor by so much as stating her name before marriage. Rather, he refers to her as a person whom he was constrained to place in charge of his household in order that he might continue his experiments and his work on automata. A less gracious tribute to wifely devotion was never penned.
But it is in dealing with contemporary magicians or those whose handiwork in bygone years he cleverly purloined and proclaimed as his original inventions, that the petty jealousy of the man comes to the surface. Whenever he desires to claim for himself credit due a predecessor in the world of magic, he either ignores the man’s very existence or writes of his competitor in such a manner that the latter’s standing as man and magician is lowered. Not that he makes broad, sweeping statements. Rather, he indulges in the innuendo which is far more dangerous to the party attacked. He never strikes a pen-blow which, because of its brutality, might arouse the sympathy of his readers for the object of his attack. Here, in the gentle art of innuendo and belittling, if not in the conjurer’s art, Robert-Houdin is a master.
In writing his “Memoirs” he deliberately ignores Compars Herrmann, Henri Robin, Wiljalba Frikell, M. Jacobs, and P. T. Barnum, all of whom he knew personally. He might have written most entertainingly of these men, but in each case he had an object in avoiding reference to the acquaintance. P. T. Barnum knew the true history of the writing and drawing figure, as reference to chapter III. of this book will show. Frikell was the pioneer in dispensing with cumbersome stage draperies. Robert-Houdin claimed this innovation as the product of his own ingenuity. Compars Herrmann was playing in London when Robert-Houdin made his English début under Mitchell’s direction, and was presenting, trick for trick, the répertoire claimed by Robert-Houdin as original with him. Henri Robin disputed Robert-Houdin’s claim to having invented the inexhaustible bottle, and proved his case, as will be seen by reference to chapter VIII. Jacobs was one of Anderson’s cleverest imitators and a rival of Robert-Houdin in the English provinces.
The adroit manner in which Robert-Houdin flays Pinetti, Anderson, and Bosco would arouse admiration were his pen-lashings devoted to men who deserved such treatment. Under existing circumstances—his debt to Bosco and Pinetti, whose tricks he filched remorselessly, and the fact that Anderson’s popularity outlived his own in England—his efforts to belittle these men are unworthy of one who called himself a man and a master magician. The truly great and successful man rises above petty jealousy and personalities. This, Robert-Houdin could not do, even when he sat pen in hand, in retirement, with the fear of competition removed.
It seems almost incredible that Robert-Houdin should ignore Henri Robin in his “Memoirs,” for Robin was one of the most interesting characters of that day. He still stands in magic’s history as the Chesterfield of conjuring, a man of many gifts, charming address, and broad education. Even in his dispute with Robert-Houdin regarding the invention of the inexhaustible bottle, he never forgot his dignity, but proved his case by that most potent of arguments, a well-edited magazine published under his direction, in which an illustration showed him actually performing the trick in 1844, or a full three years before it appeared on Robert-Houdin’s programme.
Robert-Houdin was indebted to Robin for another trick, the Garde Française, introduced by Robert-Houdin in October, 1847. Henri Robin had precisely the same figure, doing precisely the same feats, in the garb of an Arab. An illustration from Robin’s magazine, L’Almanach Cagliostro, shows Robin offering this figure in March, 1846, or a year and seven months before it was presented by Robert-Houdin. Yet the only reference made by Robert-Houdin to this popular and gifted contemporary is in “The Secrets of Stage Conjuring” where he remarks slightingly that Robin spoiled Mr. Pepper’s business by giving a poor imitation of the latter’s ghost show.
Again, in ignoring Herrmann, he proves his narrowness of mind, his utter unwillingness to admit any ability in his rivals. Compars Herrmann was no ordinary trickster or mountebank, but a conjurer who remained in London almost a year, playing the very best houses, and later scoring equal popularity in the provinces. He was decorated by various monarchs and was famous for his large gifts to charities. Even the present generation, including theatre-goers and students of magic, remembers the name of Herrmann, when Robert-Houdin is forgotten or would be but for his cleverly written autobiography.
Wiljalba Frikell, to whom should go the credit of cutting out heavy stage draperies, never claimed the innovation as a carefully planned conceit, but as an accident. His paraphernalia were destroyed in a fire, but he desired to live up to his contract and give a performance as announced. He therefore offered sleight-of-hand, pure and simple, with the aid of a few tables, chairs, and other common properties which were absolutely undraped. He was also compelled to don regulation, severely plain, evening clothes. The absence of draperies, which naturally aid a conjurer in attaining results, created so pleasing a sensation that Frikell never again draped his stage nor wore fancy raiment. Had Robert-Houdin told the truth about his so-called innovation, he must have given Frikell credit, wherefore he conveniently ignores Frikell completely.
It is entirely characteristic of Robert-Houdin that he did not openly assail Pinetti in the pages of his “Memoirs.” With cleverness worthy of a better cause, he quotes the bitter verbal attack as issuing from the lips of the friend and mentor of his youth, Signor Torrini.
The major portion of chapter VI., pages 92 to 104 inclusive, American edition of his autobiography, is devoted to assailing Pinetti’s abilities as a conjurer and his reputation as a man. Granted that Pinetti did put Torrini to shame on the Neapolitan stage, such revenge for a wholesale duplication of the magician’s tricks might be termed almost human and natural. Had a minor magician, amateur or professional, dogged the footsteps of Robert-Houdin, copying his tricks, the entire répertoire upon which he depended for a livelihood, thus endangering his future, I doubt that even the author of “Confidences d’un Prestidigitateur” would have hesitated to unmask and undo his rival.
In fact, by reference to the editorial note, foot of page 421, American edition of Robert-Houdin’s “Memoirs,” it will be seen that in 1850 Robert-Houdin appealed to the law for protection in just such a case. An employee was sent to prison for two years, as judgment for selling to an amateur some of his master’s secrets.
But in attacking Pinetti, Robert-Houdin goes a step too far and falsifies, not directly but by innuendo, when he permits the impression to go forth that Pinetti was hounded and ruined both financially and professionally by Torrini, as is set forth on page 104. He pictures Torrini as dogging the footsteps of Pinetti through all Italy and finally driving him in a state of abject misery to Russia, where he died in the home of a nobleman, who sheltered him through sheer compassion. Robert-Houdin must have known this was absolutely untrue, for he quotes Robertson, who published Pinetti’s true experiences in Russia. Pinetti took a fortune with him to Russia, acquired more wealth there, and then lost his entire financial holdings through his passion for balloon experiments, as is set forth in chapter II. of this book.
Then, to show his own inconsistency, after picturing Pinetti in his “Memoirs” as a charlatan, a conjurer of vulgar, uncouth pretensions rather than as a good showman of real ability, Robert-Houdin is forced to admit on page 25 of “Secrets of Magic” that later conjurers employed Pinetti programmes as a foundation upon which their performances were built! Even here, however, Robert-Houdin fails to acknowledge an iota of the heavy debt which he personally owed the despised Chevalier Pinetti.
Robert-Houdin devotes the greater part of chapter X., American edition of his autobiography, to belittling Bosco, a conjurer whose popularity all over Europe was long-lived. First, he pictures Bosco as a most cruel creature who literally tortured to death the birds used in his performances. Here, as in his attack on Pinetti, Robert-Houdin throws the responsibility for criticism on the shoulders of another. His old friend Antonio accompanies him to watch Bosco’s performance, and it is Antonio throughout the narrative who inveighs against Bosco’s cruelty and Antonio who insists upon leaving before the performance closes, because the cruelty of the conjurer nauseates him.
At that time no society for the protection of animals existed, and, even if it had, I doubt whether Bosco’s performance would have come under the ban. Certain magicians of to-day employ many of Bosco’s tricks in which birds and even small animals are used, but the conjuring is so deftly done that the public of 1907, like that of 1838, thinks it is all sleight-of-hand work and that the birds are neither hurt nor killed. Even in Bosco’s time the bird trick was not in his répertoire exclusively. All English magicians employed it. Apparently the head of the fowl was amputated, but often in reality it was tucked under the wing, and the head and neck of another fowl was shown by sleight-of-hand. Quite probably the Parisian public did not consider Bosco cruel. Robert-Houdin and his friend Antonio, being versed in sleight-of-hand and conjuring methods, read cruelty between the deft movements. Certain it is that the name of Bosco has not been handed down to posterity by other writers as a synonym of cruelty.
The animus of Robert-Houdin’s attack on Bosco is evident at every point of the narrative. Now he accuses him of bad taste in appearing in the box-office. Again he suggests that the somewhat impressive opening of Bosco’s act savors of both charlatanism and burlesque, when in reality the secret of showmanship consists not of what you really do, but what the mystery-loving public thinks you do. Bosco undoubtedly secured precisely the effect he desired, because Robert-Houdin devotes more than a page to a most unnecessary attempt to explain away what he considered Bosco’s undeserved popularity.
Bosco was not only a clever magician, but a man of many adventures, so that his life reads like a romance. This soldier of fortune, Bartolomeo Bosco, was born of a noble Piedmont family, on January 11th, 1793, in Turin, Italy. From boyhood he showed great ability as a necromancer, but at the age of nineteen he was forced to serve under Napoleon I. in the Russian campaign. He was a fusilier in the Eleventh Infantry, and at the battle of Borodino was injured in an engagement with Cossacks. Pierced by a lance, he lay upon the ground apparently dead. A Cossack callously roamed among the dead and dying, rifling pockets and belts. When he came to the form of Bosco, that youth feigned death, knowing that resistance to the ghoul meant a death wound. But while the Cossack robbed the Italian soldier, the latter stealthily raised his unwounded arm and by sleight-of-hand rifled the well-filled pockets of the ghoul, which fact was not discovered by the Cossack until he was far from the field of the dead and dying, where he had left one of the enemy considerably better off, thanks to Bosco’s conjuring gifts.
Later Bosco was sent captive to Siberia, where he perfected his sleight-of-hand while amusing fellow-prisoners and jailers. In 1814 he was released and returned to his native land, where he studied medicine, but eventually decided to become a public entertainer. He was not only a clever entertainer, but a good business man, and he planned each year on saving enough money to insure a life of ease in his old age. But events intervened to ruin all his well-laid plans. The sins of his youth brought their penalty. An illegitimate son, Eugene, became a heavy drag upon the retired magician, who was compelled to pay large sums to the young man in order to prevent his playing in either France or Germany or assuming the name of Bosco. In a German antiquary’s shop at Bonn on the Rhine I found an agreement in which Bosco agreed to pay this youth five thousand francs for not using the name of Bosco. This agreement is too long for reproduction in this volume, but unquestionably it is genuine and tells all too eloquently the troubles which beset Bosco in his old age.
Eugene was said to be the superior of his famous father in sleight-of-hand, but he was wild and given to excesses. Women and wine checked what might have been a brilliant professional career. Disabled, poverty-stricken, and respected by none, he soon disappeared from the conjuring world, and according to Carl Willman in the “Zauberwelt” he died miserably in Hungary in 1891.
In the mean time, Bosco and his wife lived in poverty in Dresden, where the once brilliant conjurer died March 2nd, 1863. His wife died three years later and was interred in the grave with her husband in a cemetery on Friedrichstrasse. There was nothing on the tombstone to indicate the double interment, and I discovered the fact only by investigating the municipal and cemetery records. Here I also learned that the grave had merely been leased, and as the lease was about to expire the bones of the great conjurer and his faithful wife might soon be disinterred and reburied in a neglected corner of the graveyard devoted to the poor and unclaimed dead. To prevent this, I purchased the lot and tombstone, and presented the same to the Society of American Magicians, of which organization, at the present writing, I am a member.
A man of noble birth and brilliant attainments was the original Bosco, and his name became a by-word all over the Continent as the synonym, not of cruelty, but of clever deception, yet never has posterity put the name of a great performer to such ignoble uses. For who has not heard the cry of the modern Bosco, “Eat-’em-alive"?
To-day I can close my eyes and summon two visions. First I see myself standing bareheaded before a neglected grave in the quiet cemetery on Friedrichstrasse, Dresden, the sunlight pouring down upon the tombstone which bears not only the cup-and-balls and wand, insignia of Bosco’s most famous trick, but this inscription: “Ici repose le célèbre Bartolomeo Bosco.—Né à Turin le 11 Janvier, 1793; décédé à Dresden le 2 Mars, 1863.” The history of this clever conjurer, with all its lights and shadows, sweeps before me like a mental panorama.
The second vision carries me into the country, to the fairs of England and the side-shows of America:
“Bosco! Bosco! Eat-’em-alive Bosco. You can’t afford to miss this marvel. Bosco! Bosco!”
Follow me into the enclosure and gaze down into a den. There lies a half-naked human being. His hair is long and matted, a loin cloth does wretched duty as clothing. Torn sandals are on his feet. The eulogistic lecturer dilates upon the powers of this twentieth-century Bosco, but you do not listen. Your fascinated gaze is fixed on various hideous, wriggling, writhing forms on the floor of the den. Snakes—scores of them! Now the creature, half-animal, half-human, glances up to make sure that attention is riveted upon him, then grasps one of the serpents in his hideous hands and in a flash bites off its head. The writhing body falls back to the ground.
You grip the railing in a sudden faintness. Has your brain deceived your eyes, or your eyes your brain? If you are a conjurer you try to convince yourself that it is all a clever sleight-of-hand exhibition, but in your heart you know it is not true. This creature, so near a beast, has debauched his manhood for a few paltry dollars, and in dragging himself down has dragged down the name of a worthy, a brilliant, a world-famous performer.
Of the twentieth-century Boscos there are, alas, many. You will find them all over the world, in street carnivals, side-shows, fair-booths, and museums, and why the public supports such debasing exhibitions I have never yet been able to understand. I have seen half-starved Russians pick food from refuse-barrels. I have seen besotted Americans creep out from low dives to draw the dregs of beer-barrels into tomato cans. I have seen absinthe fiends in Paris trade body and soul to obtain their beloved stimulant. I have heard morphine fiends in Russia promise to exhibit the effect of the needle in return for the price of an injection. But never has my soul so risen in revolt as at sight of this bestial exhibition with which the name of Bosco, a nobleman and a conjurer of merit, has been linked.
Even more despicable than his attack upon Bosco is Robert-Houdin’s flaying of John Henry Anderson. In this he is both unmanly and untruthful. Hinging his attack on his surprise at the press methods and advertising adopted in England as opposed to the less spectacular means employed in France, he insinuates that Anderson’s entire success was built not upon merit, ability, originality, or diversified programmes, but solely upon sensational advertising. On page 325 of the American edition of his “Memoirs” Robert-Houdin writes thus of his competitor:
“On my arrival in England a conjurer of the name of Anderson, who assumed the title of Great Wizard of the North, had been performing for a long period at the little Strand Theatre.
“This artist, fearing, doubtlessly, that public attention might be divided, tried to crush the publicity of my performances; hence he sent out on London streets a cavalcade thus organized:
“Four enormous carriages, covered with posters and pictures representing all sorts of witchcraft, opened the procession. Then followed four-and-twenty merry men, each bearing a banner on which was painted a letter a yard in height.
“At each cross-road the four carriages stopped side by side and presented a bill some twenty-five yards in length, while all the men (I should say letters), on receiving the word of command, drew themselves up in a line, like the vehicles.
“Seen in front the letters formed this phrase:
THE CELEBRATED ANDERSON ! ! !
While on the other side of the banners could be read:
THE GREAT WIZARD OF THE NORTH.
“Unfortunately for the Wizard, his performances were attacked by a mortal disease; too long a stay in London had ended by producing satiety. Besides, his repertory was out-of-date, and could not contend against the new tricks which I was offering. What could he present to the public in opposition to the second sight, the suspension, and the inexhaustible bottle? Hence he was obliged to close his theatre and start for the provinces, where he managed, as usual, to make excellent receipts, owing to his powerful means of notoriety.”
In the first place, Robert Houdin insinuates that when they played in opposition John Henry Anderson’s répertoire was stale and uninteresting. Is it possible that Robert-Houdin could not read Anderson’s bills, or were his statements deliberate falsehoods, emanating from a malicious, wilful desire to injure Anderson?
What did Anderson have to offer in opposition to Robert-Houdin’s much-vaunted Suspension, Second Sight, and Inexhaustible Bottle? Consult the Anderson programme, reproduced, and you will find that the great Wizard of the North duplicated the French conjurer’s répertoire. “The Ethereal Suspension” of Robert-Houdin’s programme was “Suspension Chloroforeene” on Anderson’s. Second Sight appeared on both bills. “The Inexhaustible Bottle” had wisely been dropped by Anderson because he had been using it in one form or another for ten years preceding the date of Robert-Houdin’s appearance in London, as is proven in chapter IX. of this book.
Second, John Henry Anderson was not in London when Robert-Houdin arrived there in May, 1848. He was on the Continent, and a bill reproduced will show that he was in Germany in January, 1848, and did not open at the Strand Theatre until December 26th, 1848. Then it was Robert-Houdin who had just returned from the provinces, not Anderson. Anderson had been playing the capitals of Europe. Robert-Houdin had been in Manchester, England.
Robert-Houdin again skilfully twists the truth to suit his own ends. He actually states that Anderson, returning from a tour of the provinces, used a new poster, a caricature of the famous painting, “Napoleon’s Return from Elba":
“In the foreground Anderson was seen affecting the attitude of the great man; above his head fluttered an enormous banner bearing the words ‘The Wonder of the World’; while, behind him and somewhat lost in the shade, the Emperor of Russia and several other monarchs stood in a respectful posture. As in the original picture, the fanatic admirers of the Wizard embraced his knees, while an immense crowd received him triumphantly. In the distance could be seen the equestrian statue of the Iron Duke, who, hat in hand, bowed before him, the Great Wizard; and lastly, the very dome of St. Paul’s bent towards him most humbly.
“At the bottom was the inscription,
Return of the Napoleon of Necromancy.
“Regarded seriously, this picture would be found a puff in very bad taste; but as a caricature it is excessively comic. Besides, it had the double result of making the London public laugh and bringing a great number of shillings into the skilful puffer’s pockets.”
Reference to my collection of Anderson programmes and press clippings proves that while on the Continent his performances had created such a sensation that, according to the ethics and etiquette of his profession, Anderson was quite justified in assuming the title of “The Napoleon of Necromancy” and in depicting even kings and noblemen admiring his abilities as a conjurer. But, alas, Robert-Houdin had played only before English and French monarchs, not before the other crowned heads of Europe, including the Czar of Russia and the German Kaiser!
It required weeks and months of browsing in old book- and print-shops, national libraries, and rare collections on my part to prove that Anderson had really played these engagements, when his bitter rival, Robert-Houdin, his heart eaten with jealousy until his sense of honor and truth was hopelessly blunted, was claiming that Anderson had just returned from a trip in the English provinces.
It will be noted by reference to the Anderson programme that he had been engaged only for the Christmas holidays, but despite Robert-Houdin’s claim that he was a failure and was obliged to close and seek new fields of conquest in the provinces, Anderson’s engagement was extended. He remained at the Strand until January 11th, 1848, then after a brief provincial tour he actually returned to London and played to big receipts. Again and again he appeared in London. Far from being the unpopular, forgotten ex-magician pictured by Robert-Houdin, he performed with great success at the St. James Theatre, London, in 1851. Robert-Houdin appeared in London for the last time in 1853, but in 1865 “the despised and forgotten Anderson” was there again, creating a furor in his exposure of the Davenport Brothers.
Robert-Houdin might have been justified in criticising Anderson’s sensational advertising methods, for these were entirely opposed to the more elegant and conservative methods employed by the French conjurer. But certainly he was not justified in picturing his rival as one who had passed his prime, whose popularity had waned, whose répertoire no longer attracted the public. For, in addition to duplicating Robert-Houdin’s entire répertoire, Anderson offered tricks of which Robert-Houdin knew nothing, and for years to come he constantly reconstructed his programmes, keeping them strictly up-to-date.
Anderson did die a poor man, but this was not because the amusement-loving public had wearied of him. A popular performer, like so many of his class he did not know how to invest his huge earnings. It is known that he gave $20,000 to various charities, while no record of Robert-Houdin’s charities exists. He was burned out several times. He lost money through a bad contract made for his Australian tour. Certain investments dropped in value because of the Civil War in the United States, during which England sympathized with the South. Finally, during his American tour after the Civil War, Anderson played the Southern States, then steeped in bitterness toward the North, and was unfortunate enough to bill himself as “The Great Wizard of the North.” This roused the Southern prejudice to white heat, he was almost mobbed, and was finally driven from that section of the country. He went into bankruptcy, November 19th, 1866, and died at Darlington, County Durham, England, Feb. 3rd, 1874. His remains were interred, in accordance with his dying request, at Aberdeen, Scotland.
So ends the true history of Robert-Houdin. The master-magician, unmasked, stands forth in all the hideous nakedness of historical proof, the prince of pilferers. That he might bask for a few hours in public adulation, he purloined the ideas of magicians long dead and buried, and proclaimed these as the fruits of his own inventive genius. That he might be known to posterity as the king of conjurers, he sold his birthright of manhood and honor for a mere mess of pottage, his “Memoirs,” written by the hand of another man, who at his instigation belittled his contemporaries, and juggled facts and truth to further his egotistical, jealous ambitions.
But the day of reckoning is come. Upon the history of magic as promulgated by Robert-Houdin the searchlight of modern investigation has been turned. Credit has been given where it belongs, to those magicians who preceded Robert-Houdin and upon whose abilities and achievements Robert-Houdin built his unearned, unmerited fame. The dust of years has been swept from names long forgotten, which should forever shine in the annals of magic.
Thus end, also, my researches, covering almost two decades of time, researches in which my veneration for old-time magicians grew with each newly discovered bit of history; researches during which my respect for the profession of magic has grown by leaps and bounds. And the fruits of these researches I now lay before the only true jury, the great reading public. My task is finished.