Women in The Golden Age of Magic -Yes, There Were Female Magicians!

Continuing its wonderful summer series of magic-themed events, The New-York Historical Society presented historian/ magician Margaret Steele. Steele is editor of Adelaide Herrmann-Queen of Magic, memoirs of the widow of world famous Herrmann the Great (1844-1896), inheritor of his touring company, and one of the only female impresarios and magicians of her time.

THIS evening, however, is not solely about Adelaide. Why, Steele is often asked, are there so few female magicians? “Magic is a man’s world. It’s all about the wand, baby,” she quips. People are accustomed to seeing women in the role of assistant, “a living prop with no power herself – which could be considered sexist…but here’s the big secret: illusions are a bargain between the magician and his (decorative) aide. She makes it work, has a fabulous career, and travels with her sweetheart. He takes the credit.”

The first women in magic, we’re told, date back over 200 years. (This presumably not counting sibyls, goddesses or those in literature.) They were mentalists. Scottish Professor John Henry Anderson (1814–1874) presented “second sight,” using his daughters to capitalize on the rage for spiritualism. The blindfolded girls identified objects he borrowed from audience members while standing among them. Lizzie Anderson even went out on her own.

People were more willing to believe a woman was clairvoyant than that she could remember a complicated code communicating answers. Adelaide Herrmann would later be told by doctors that being mesmerized so often would shorten her life. So many teams utilized clairvoyance, one could buy a ready-made poster and add performers’ names. Even Harry Houdini and his wife Bess featured faux clairvoyance in their show early on, though he regretted it later. We hear about occasionally vociferous rivalries.

Alexander Herrmann had 16 employees, countless expensive costumes/mechanisms, and a well earned reputation for complex, extravagantly staged magic when he died in 1846. A tour through Central America required 50 transport mules. Fifty soldiers were assigned for protection by the then dictator/president, a fan. Herrmann’s wife, Adelaide, a former dancer, not only aided in the conjuror’s show – playing at risk heroines, historical figures, witches and spirits – but learned to duplicate illusions.

In fact, “illusions, in which magic happened to a person were rare.” Until the Herrmanns, unsupported floating figures were always children. The visionary couple re-rigged apparatus to support Adelaide. They called the effect “ethereal suspension.”

It was Adelaide who planned theatrical aspects of their shows creating the foundation for much we see today. Backdrops and costumes were elaborate. Dressed first as a boy and then femmes fatales, she was shot 50 feet from a cannon on stage. Though she’d hide in the dressing room on nights when Herrmann performed the dangerous “bullet catch,*” as an in-debt widow, the artist later stood before guns herself.

Resolving to continue her husband’s legacy, Adelaide sent for his look-alike nephew and partnered in a new show. They didn’t get along. She then took her own company on tour first in vaudeville and then elsewhere, successfully working until age 74 when a tragic fire wiped out every piece of the show including its 60 animals.

Steele regales us with tales of Adelaide’s life with and without her husband. The book itself is extremely entertaining. Adelaide Herrmann had an eye for detail. One assumes she kept a diary as both vicissitudes of the field and 22 years of touring are vividly recalled. It’s a look at a period and profession rarely chronicled, certainly never from a woman’s point of view. Accompanying photos are grand.

William Ellsworth Robinson began as assistant to and designer for magician Harry Kellar. Robinson’s wife, Olive “Dot” Path was featured in the act because of her diminutive size and flexibility.  Bess Houdini was also very small and similarly employed early on. When the Robinson created his own act as Chung Ling Soo (even having a translator present for interviews), Dot took on even more. Both Bess and Dot (as “Suee Seen”) attempted to continue as solo artists when their husbands died. Neither succeeded.

Also the wife of a magician, Mercedes Talma was known for her terrific sleight of hand. The performer could palm 30 half crowns. The size of women’s hands often made this aspect of prestidigitation difficult. Our speaker lists other women in the field about whom we know next to nothing but for extant posters or articles.

Steele is a good storyteller. She’s researched her subject outside the Herrmann book, delivering such a witty and enlightening talk, one can only hope a volume of her own will follow. Illustrative images – posters and photographs – add considerably toward helping us imagine this greatly unexplored history.

“There have never been many (women magicians), but there have always been some. Right now, there are more than ever before standing on the shoulders of women pioneers in The Golden Age of Magic.”

Adding a cherry on top, Steele then performs “The Mystery of The Rings,” balletic movement during which six 12” diameter metal rings link and unlink in various configurations with utter fluidity.

*The bullet catch is a stage magic illusion in which a magician appears to catch a  bullet fired directly at them – often in their mouth, sometimes in their hand or sometimes caught with other items such as a dinner plate. Wikipedia. At least 12 deaths have resulted from attempting the trick.

Summer of Magic image Courtesy of The New-York Historical Society

Author photo and book cover courtesy of the publisher

All quotes are Margaret Steele

The Summer of Magic series is a wonderful way for laypeople to explore the subject in an entertaining fashion. To read Alix’s piece on the accompanying exhibition from David Copperfield’s iconic collection, click here.

For Summer of Magic events at The New-York Historical Society  click here
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About Alix Cohen (793 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.