One journalist called the trick of levitation “daring and bewildering,” claiming that it “surpasses the fabled feats of the ancient Egyptian sorcerers.” The magicians, Harry Kellar and Howard Thurston, “hypnotized” their assistants, and, when sensing their audiences were mesmerized too, they brought the act to a finale raising the supine assistant six feet above the couch, passing a hoop over her still body.
“Annihilation of Space” and “Projection of the Astral Body,” sound like headlines for lectures on astrology, but 1890s newspaper ads assured readers that these feats were the “Ne plus ultra of the Magic Art.” In the late19th and early 20th centuries,the magical profession added its own luster to the culture of the American Gilded Age. It was a new era of theatrical extravaganzas, with magic shows spanning the gamut from short vaudeville acts to one-man shows traveling with the entourage of a circus.
The modern magic show has roots in the fear of witches, and some early magic books aimed to expose their “spells” as tricks that could be performed by anyone. In order to gain credibility, theatrical magicians disassociated themselves from superstition and from pickpockets and con men, who used slight of hand for criminal purposes. Gilded Age magicians used colorful, dramatic posters and grandiose catch phrases to hook paying audiences and elevate their status from street artists to international celebrities. They billed themselves as “The Greatest,” offering “19th-century Miracles” and “The Wonder Show of the Universe.” To design an evening’s worth of entertainment, these new magicians performed with apparatus that could be used only in the controlled setting of a theatre, with stage preparation, curtains, and special lighting. Assistants levitated, appeared, disappeared, and survived a variety of illusionary tortures.
Out of this patchwork history, emerged figures such as Harry Kellar (1849-1922), who apprenticed and performed his magic act worldwide before headlining his own shows across America, and Howard Thurston (1869-1936), with whom Kellar toured at the end of his career. In a famous poster, Kellar is shown passing his mantle of magic to Thurston, his “successor.” As part of their aspirations to disassociate themselves from vaudeville, Kellar and Thurston cultivated debonair, formally dressed stage personas designed to attract a higher class of spectator. They packed their posters with supernatural imagery, including devilish “whispering imps.” Their public relations worked: historians of magic acknowledge that, in their day, the two men were better known than Harry Houdini and more admired for their grand stage illusions, such as the “Levitation of Princess Karnak.”
The business transaction between Kellar and Thurston included his acquisition of Kellar’s levitation device, as well as his famed spirit cabinet. Cabinet illusions are staples of grand stage magic. Kellar himself had adapted the routine from the Davenport Brothers, whom he assisted from 1869 to 1873. In the original version of the trick, both brothers would be tied up inside, but then, when the door was closed, various "manifestations" would occur, such as tambourines shaking and bells ringing, which the bound magicians supposedly could not be doing. In his version, Kellar claimed to debunk the spiritualists, by “revealing” to the audience that he could instantly untie and retie himself inside the closed cabinet. Gilded Age Magic features a spirit cabinet created by Thurston, who added his own twists to the routine.
Despite their use of traditional spiritualist props such as spirit cabinets, Kellar and Thurston were not occultists but entertainers. The popularity of magic continued into the early 20th century, extending its Gilded Age to a Golden one for the art and its growing number of professionals. Kellar, Thurston, escape artist Harry Houdini and others presented magic, rooted in old time spells, a new way. Their skill as technicians and actors ensured that their audiences were amused and amazed by illusions they knew were merely puzzles they could not fathom.
In addition to the spirit cabinet, the exhibition includes a wealth of visual materials, primarily related to Kellar and Thurston, including theatrical posters and programs; tailcoats, hats and sequined assistants’ outfits; rare performance photographs and how-to books for amateurs. Sound artist John Morton designed a special audio mix as background ambiance.
Gilded Age Magic is sponsored, in part, by
Organized by the Hudson River Museum, the exhibition was inspired by the research of Benjamin Levy on Harry Kellar’s connection to Yonkers. The objects on view are drawn from The Rory Feldman Collection and The Bjorn Hanson Collection.