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Posters from History's Greatest Illusionists

A collection of posters, illustrations, and advertisements that follow the evolution of magic performances from early street performances to the greats of Blackstone, Thurston, and Houdini.  

I am pleased that every day so many adventurers, so many people and jesters come to me, bring me amusement, tell ribald stories, make me happy and make me laugh. Jesters are dear to lords, and they steal more than other thieves.They are quick with their tricks, [illegible] is a useless court servant. (Translation from the German)

"Jesters are clever, but useless court servants, beloved of lords who are caught by the light breeze." (Translation from the Latin)

This 17th century German etching appears to be a scene depicting wealthy courtiers, court jesters and their lord, gathered around an ornate table to observe the ancient conjurer’s trick known as cups and balls. The conjurer has his back to the viewer, while the lord appears to be rejecting the cleric to his immediate right. Cups and balls frequently involves gambling, with the magician always amazing his audience while reliably winning his bet.

Ellen Armstrong was the daughter of J. Hartford Armstrong (1876 -1939), one of the few African-American magicians performing from the 1880s through the early 20th century. He primarily toured the eastern seaboard of the U.S. from 1889 until his death in 1939. Ellen Armstrong started as an assistant to her father at the age of six and eventually had her own mentalist segment during the performance. After her father’s death, Armstrong took over and continued to perform, making her the first and only black woman of her time to run an independent touring magic show.

A variation of the illusion, Pepper’s Ghost, this trick facilitates a man’s gradually transformation into a skeleton. It was ill suited for stage, but became a popular sideshow attraction.

John Nevil Maskelyne (British 1839-1917) was a British magician and inventor who designed and created many illusions that are still preformed today, including levitation. Inspired by the Davenport Brothers, he spoke publicly to debunk their faux spiritualism and, with the help of his friend, George Alfred Cooke, created his own Spirit Cabinet to break the Davenport Brothers’ illusion. Afterward, the two decided to become magicians themselves and remained a team until Cooke’s death in 1905. He is credited with the invention of the coin-operated public toilet.

Renovating St. George's Hall in 1905, John Nevil Maskelyne (British 1839-1917) reopened the building under the title "St George's Hall, England's New Home of Mystery." Maskeylyne hosted The Magic Group - an association of both amateur and professional artists - as well as his own performances of "Theatre of Mystery".

Harry Rouclere Terhune (1866-1942) and his wife Mildred Searling (1869-1938) were a married couple magic act that went by the name Mildred and Rouclere. Prior to their union, Harry had toured the country with his own show, using many illusions that were of his own invention. Harry was an early member of the Society of American Magicians and both were elected into the Society of American Magicians Hall of Fame.

To obtain the magnificent detail of the advertising for Mildred and Rouclere’s vaudeville performance “The Flight of Princess Iris”, Ackermann-Quigley Co. used a separate block of limestone to print each color.

Robert Ankeles was a little-known American magician performing during the last quarter of the 19th century. He was quick to include electricity into his magic performances at a time when electrical knowledge was still in its infancy. After his retirement from magic, Ankeles became known in the magic community for producing framed souvenir portraits of the fifty-eight most prominent magicians of the day, which he sold by ads in the magic trade journals.

The poster is an effective black and white design that features vignettes of standard magic tricks of the era as well as anti-spiritualist tricks, which were incorporated by some magicians into their performances.

Window advertisements like this were a common way for traveling magicians to promote upcoming shows. Magic shows were a popular form of entertainment in the early to mid 20th century but the costs included in traveling from town to town was often too much for any individual magician. Often lesser known illusionists would travel together to offset the incurred costs as well as draw bigger crowds.

Owner of the Martinka magic shop in New York City, Frank Ducrot (1872-1939) was also a Chautauqua and Vaudeville performer. Ducrot started his career early as “The Boy Magician” and would continue to use that moniker well past the age of 50. It was in the 1920s that he took over his favorite childhood stop, the Martinka-Hornmann Magic Co, created after a merger with the Otto Hornmann Magic Company orchestrated by Harry Houdini.

After the death of Alexander Herrmann, his nephew Leon Herrmann (American 1867-1909) took upon the mantle of Herrmann the Great. Prior to taking the main stage, Leon had worked with Alexander and the eldest Herrmann, Carl, in various shows, and his striking resemblance to his uncles made it easy for him to continue their role. The initial launch began as Leon performed with Alexander’s widow, Adelaide. They continued to travel together for three seasons but, due to personal differences, parted ways shortly after.

Since Leon performed under his uncle’s name it is sometimes difficult to determine whether a poster references a performance done by the elder or younger Herrmann. However, the printing company H.C. Miner Lithography wasn’t founded until 1896, which was tragically the same year Alexander Herrmann passed away. Leon used H.C. Miner for several other posters during his career so it can be safely assumed this particular lithograph was for the short run Leon did as Herrmann the Great.

Initially the collaborative invention of Henry Dircks and Professor John Henry Pepper, the illusion Pepper’s Ghost found its way to a small stage in London for the first time in 1862. The trick used a sheet of window glass and a oxyhydrogen lamp, more commonly referred to as a “limelight”, to create an ethereal effect around one of the actors on stage. Despite receiving several letters from spiritualist who wanted to know how the trick was done, Pepper never responded to them. It wasn’t until the illusionists who called themselves the Davenport Brothers saw the trick performed that they were unable to unpack its secrets. Traveling with the Davenports at the start of his career, Harry Kellar most likely learned the trick from them as well. It would be no surprise that such an illusion would have been used to draw crowds since it was still known to very few performers.

Harry Kellar (1849-1922) ran away from home to work a series of odd jobs, eventually becoming an assistant to the magician “Fakir of Ava” after witnessing one of his performances. Kellar eventually struck out on his own but found the trials of a traveling performer difficult. At age eighteen, he was forced to halt his travels while in Michigan in order to raise funds for his tour while working on a Detroit road crew. Undaunted, Kellar went on to become one of the greatest names in magic. At his retirement in 1908, he turned his show over to his successor Howard Thurston.

Initially performing with his brother Heinrich, Austrian magician Chevalier Ernest Thorn (1855-1928) billed his act as being able to perform a variety of feats including levitation, answering questions posed to the spirits, and duplicating feats by the well-known Davenport Brothers. Thorn eventually became one of the first magicians to travel the world and was most renowned for his “Dreamland” performance, which included many effects invented by Thorn himself. He was knighted a chevalier Cambodian King Norodom I.

One of the most innovative magicians of his time, Servias Le Roy (Belgium 1865-1953) is credited for inventing the classic levitation illusion, Asrah the Floating Princess, which is still performed today. His best known performances were with his wife, Mary Ford, who performed under the stage name Talma, and a buffoon character that went by the name Leon Bosco. While Talma and Le Roy remained the same throughout the performances, Bosco was played by at least nine different performers. Le Roy was also known for creating such illusions as Where do the Ducks go?, Modern Cabinet, Costume Trunk, and Palaquin.

A half sheet, color lithograph illustrates Le Roy holding a tray aloft in one hand where Bosco’s head resides. A red devil is tied up in the background signifying the Le Roys’ command over the supernatural.

Known for his elegant presentation of magic, Karl Germain (born Charles Mattmueller, American, 1878-1959) was a star of both the Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits. Considered a highly innovative performer, his stage career was ended prematurely by blindness in 1916. This dramatic poster measures more than six feet in height, advertising Germain’s “Spirit Cabinet” illusions.

Despite his father’s disapproval of magic, Walter Edwin Floyd (American 1861-1940) was able to persuade magician Professor Harrington to teach him the trade after Floyd saw him perform in 1871. He moved to assisting magician Robert Nickle before venturing into his own professional career in 1879. His acts included a two-person mind reading act with his wife, Mohala (Mary Robinson) and he sometimes shared ideas and information in collaboration with Harry Houdini to expose fake mediums. Floyd performed for nearly 60 years before he died on stage of a heart attack while performing the “Miser’s Dream”.

The minimalist styling of this poster relies on the name recognition of Floyd himself rather than the grandeur of his tricks.

Known more commonly as Harry Houdini, Ehrich Weiss (Hungarian 1874-1926) made his name through creating an entirely new concept of magic with the “escape-artist”. Among his other performance specialties was the exposure of so-called “mediums” that claimed to be able to communicate with the spirits of the dead.

The color lithograph advertises for expected illusions and escapes but focuses specifically on the passion Houdini held for revealing the trickery behind those who claimed power over the supernatural.

Ehrich Weiss (Hungarian-American 1874-1926) is more well-known by his show name of “Harry Houdini”. Although remembered as a magician, he was thought of as more of a daredevil or stuntman during his time. Birthing the concept of the escape artist, Houdini would often go to police stations and request to be strip-searched and then imprisoned in a local cell. Upon his inevitable escape, he would receive wide press coverage in the papers and once claimed he received more advertising space than anyone through these feats.

At the peak of his career Houdini was so famous he needed no introduction. This image – often referred to as the “Houdini for President” poster – makes no mention of his escape artistry or illusion skills but assumes name recognition for any viewer.

Eight cartoons from some of the world’s leading newspapers are reproduced in this black and white
Poster, linking their senior statesmen with the escape tricks performed by the famous illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926) in the 1922 silent film The Man From Beyond. Houdini wrote, produced and starred in the film, playing a man brought back to life after having been found frozen and embedded in a lock of Arctic ice.

Younger brother to the famed Harry Houdini, Hardeen Houdini (1876-1945) generally billed himself as the “Brother of Houdini”. Many of his acts involved the same escape-artist tactics of his brother. Hardeen was the first to conceive of escaping from a straightjacket submerged in water in full view of the audience rather than behind the standard curtain.

After his brother’s death, Hardeen went on to perform many of his brother’s stunts on the vaudeville circuit. Advertisements such as this were used to draw the audience’s attention through the use of Houdini’s prestige as well as Hardeen’s own skills as an escape artist. "

Suzy Wandas Bennett (1896-1986) was born Jeanne Van Dyk in Brussels, Belgium to a theatrical family, performing at age eight as Miss White Flower the dancing violinist. She also learned to perform magic, primarily coin and card manipulations, and by 1910 was performing it as part of the family show. After her father’s death in 1912, she along with her brother and mother were known as The Wandas Trio, and later with her mother were billed as The Wandas Sisters. In 1936, Suzy became a solo act known as the "Lady with the Fairy Fingers – a master manipulator". Her elegant performances incorporated ropes, thimbles, cigarettes, canes, silks, coins, the Miser’s Dream, card fans, and eight linking rings. She spoke five languages, enabling her to perform all over Europe. In August 1959, she married Michigan magician Zina Bennett and returned with him to Detroit. Her final performance was in Colon, Michigan in 1962, but even though retired, still continued to practice magic daily, dying July 12, 1986 at age 90.

Christian Ander George Newman (1880-1952) became Newman the Boy Wonder at the age of 13, performing as a hypnotist and mind reader. While he eventually expanded his shows to include illusions such as levitation and the Spirit Painting, his focus remained on the mentalist arts, garnering praise from such greats as Howard Thurston and John Northern Hilliard.

Joseph B. Hallworth (1872-1956) was born in Massachusetts but eventually donned an oriental costume and dubbed himself Kar-Mi. Along with the rest of his family, he performed stage illusions and daring feats involving guns and swords.

The large, one-sheet poster displays the five performers of the Kar-Mi Troupe undertaking various stunts.

Joseph B. Hallworth (1872-1956) was born in Massachusetts but eventually donned an oriental costume and dubbed himself Kar-Mi. Along with the rest of his family, he performed stage illusions and daring feats involving guns and swords.

The final act of Kar-Mi’s performance, displayed on this poster, involved him putting a special rifle down his throat and then, bending downwards to fire the weapon, shooting a cracker from atop his son’s head.

Perhaps the most successful theatrical mind reader of his time, Alexander, (American- born Claude Alexander Colin 1880-1954) kept much of his trade secrets and personal life shrouded in mystery until after his death. Since, much has surfaced about his stints as a conman, jailbreaks and myriad courtroom appearances. He is best remembered for his performances as a seer who could discern unspoken questions from audience members and give answers and predictions in response to them. It is thought that he earned millions from his performances and merchandising.

Alexander was known for investing a great deal of money into the production of the stage posters such as this three panel, full color print. He kept the unused posters in storage until he eventually sold them, along with the rest of his stage equipment and props, to magic dealer Robert Nelson in 1944. This lead another magician, Leon Mandrake, to procure some of the posters and recreate Alexander’s shows in the 1950's to make use of the supply and to build upon Alexander’s already established notoriety.

Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of William Robinson (American, 1861-1918). Never able to establish his own act, Robinson “borrowed” the act of a Chinese performer named Ching Ling Foo. After moving to England, Robinson pretended to be a Chinese conjurer for eighteen years, fooling his audience with his magic and his appearance. His career and secret were cut short in 1918 when his bullet catch illusion went horribly wrong and he died from a bullet wound to his chest.

At the age of 12, American John C. Green (1866-1951) decided to join a circus when he saw it unloading from one of the rail cars while working as a candy butcher for a train line. He worked a number of jobs while learning magic from the circus magician. He performed for over 70 years, mostly in small communities and farm towns in Canada and the United States, which he preferred over the larger theaters and cities.

A Chicago native, Harry Blackstone (born Harry Bouton, 1885-1965) began his career around 1910, often performing escapes that put him in direct conflict with Harry Houdini. As president of the American Association of Magicians, Houdini refused Blackstone membership to the organization. Nonetheless, Blackstone succeeded in becoming one the biggest names in magic. He made his home in Colon, Michigan for nearly 30 years.

This poster scene provides a sense of the mystery and wonder of far-off lands that the Blackstone stage show evoked. A companion poster is similar in style and presents a scene of Blackstone’s adventures in Africa, a continent that, in fact, Blackstone never visited.

Alois Kassner (1887-1970) was an illusionist who began performing magic in his native Germany in 1907. In 1930, he introduced his Vanishing Elephant illusion. The elephant – Toto – cost Kassner his life savings, but proved to be a successful part of the act. Frightened by Allied air raids on Berlin, Toto died in 1941. Kassner’s final performance took place in Berlin in 1954.

A Chicago native, Harry Blackstone (born Harry Bouton, 1885-1965) began his career around 1910. After witnessing a performance by Blackstone, the late Harry Keller was quoted stating, "Blackstone is the greatest magician the world has ever known."

Louis Jerome McCord (1884 - 1972) was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania and as a young man became friends with Edward Maro, a successful bandleader and magician. Rearranging his friend's last name, McCord created a stage persona known as Silent Mora, based upon his Chinese magic act performed without speech.

Despite owning a profitable chain of cinemas, Neil Sinclair Nesbitt (1886-1936) took up the stage name The Great Nesbitt and began working on stage in 1919. He developed his own touring production company that eventually created wondrous acts such as the one displayed in this poster.

Nesbitt is displayed in the poster recreating Chung Ling Soo’s Daemon Smoke trick.

Born in an Illinois farming community, Edwin Brush (1873-1967) found his love of magic early on when a neighbor showed him a few magic tricks. The hobby translated into a career after Brush watched a performance by Hermann the Great. While working as a traveling salesmen, Brush performed at community gathering until 1900 when he decided to become a full-time performer. From that time on, he became a regular performer in lyceum, Chautauqua, USO and school tours.

Franz Schweizer (1886-1969), better known as Bellachini, was a German magician who trained under the tutelage of the magician Strack-Bellachini, who was known for his experiments with lighting effects and creating new techniques for illusions. After the First World War, Strack-Bellachini sold his company and requited the name “Bellachini” to Schweizer at the younger magician’s request. Although Schweizer would not be the last magician to take on the name, he would become the most famous.

The side-by-side full color posters show a montage of illusions audience members could expect to see during a typical Bellachini performance.

"Going by the stage name “Von Arx”, Charles Nicol (American, 1871-1958) spent his early career traveling with his father Nicoli and brother Will who went by the stage name “The Great Nicola”. In an effort to differentiate himself from his brother, Nicol went by a variety of stage names, assuming “Von Arx” in 1912. He would later change his name to “The Great Chalbert” in 1918 and finally settled on the stage name “Chasan” which was created from his birth name Chas. A. N.

The color half-sheet poster emphasizes Von Arx’s illusionary abilities with a blonde-haired woman appearing from seemingly thin air while imps and skeletons watch."

Despite being educated as an attorney, American Charles Carter (1874-1936) preferred the lights of the stage. Mounting some of the largest touring illusion shows of his day, he traveled the world eight times between 1907 and 1936. Performing abroad allowed him to avoid competing with Houdini and Thurston who were then at the height of popularity in magic entertainment in the United States.

This large, eight-page poster evokes the mystery of the exotic places where Carter performed. It features his vanishing elephant illusion. Carter was so thrilled with the design that he immediately wrote to congratulate Otis Lithograph Co., calling the image a “real money-getter”.

August Harry Jansen (1883-1955) was born in Denmark, but moved to the United States at age six. Like many others, Jansen became enamored with magic after witnessing a performance by Alexander Hermann. He started performing professionally in 1900 with moderate success, and put together a world tour just one year later. Catching the attention of leading magician Howard Thurston, Jansen was invited to incorporate his show into Thurston’s own traveling company. Thurston dubbed Jansen “Dante” and the two toured the U.S. together from 1923-1927. After a joint world tour in the mid-1930s, Dante left Thurston to launch out on his own.

Still relatively unknown, the poster emphasizes Thurston as much - if not more - than Jansen's Dante. Dante is shown over Thurston’s shoulder instead of the customary imp that was often portrayed in magic posters at the time.

Literally running away from an unhappy childhood to join the circus, Howard Thurston (American 1869-1936) became the most famous magician of his time, succeeding even Harry Houdini. His career started in one of the circus’s sideshows, along with another magician who would become famous in his own right, Harry Keller. After Thurston’s enormous success in Europe, he and Keller traveled together during Keller’s farewell tour. Eventually he was labeled Keller’s successor. This dynasty of magicians continues to this day with the Baltimore Assembly of the Society of American Magicians being known as Kellar-Thurston No. 6.

The full color window card was printed for a show that unfortunately never took place. Suffering a stroke from which he would never fully recover, Thurston was unable to fulfill his performance obligation

From an early age American magician Charles Carter (1874-1936) showed an aptitude for stage performance. At the age of ten he worked with the Kickapoo Indian Medicine show and later became an assistant to the then-unrenowned Houdini. At his height Carter traveled the world eight times between 1907 and 1936 with his large touring show of illusions.

The 1926 image portraying Carter riding a camel was inspired from an actual photograph taken during one of his trips to Egypt. The text below Carter capitalizes on the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb four years earlier in 1922.

August Harry Jansen (1883-1955) was born in Denmark, but moved to the United States at age six. Like many others, Jansen became enamored with magic after witnessing a performance by Alexander Hermann. He started performing professionally in 1900 with moderate success, and put together a world tour just one year later. Catching the attention of leading magician Howard Thurston, Jansen was invited to incorporate his show into Thurston’s own traveling company. Thurston dubbed Jansen “Dante” and the two toured the U.S. together from 1923-1927. After a joint world tour in the mid-1930s, Dante left Thurston to launch out on his own.

Foregoing Thurston’s name recognition, the poster is meant to emphasize Jansen’s success as Dante in his own right. Like many other images of the time, Dante is shown with a red imp by his shoulder who seems to be whispering the secrets of magic into his ear.

Roody was an Italian born illusionist known for his sleight of hand work performed in many countries during the 1920s and 30s. The large, one-sheet poster displays a profile view of the performer with a stimulated time-lapse effect of his gestures to emphasize his skill with slight of hand techniques.

Wilbert Willis Holley or Mel-Roy (American 1888-1966) became best known for his radio performances as the psychic “Mental Mystic” where people would send him letters, along with the required payment, for him to answer on the air. He received as much as 17,000 letters a day and eventually had to stop due to the stress.

This 3-sheet poster advertises his traveling show, which he started in 1934 after retiring from radio

While his given name was John Davenport Jones (1898-1995) his father nicknamed him Little Johnny and he performed as both the “Fashionable Magician” and the “Jolly Magician” following WWI service in the navy and a career as a professional photographer. He toured for the USO for three years during WWII.

Ray-Mond, born Raymond Monroe Corbin (1916-2003), began his career as a teen-age performer with the Dr. Miles Medicine Show. By age 22 he billed himself as the “aristocrat of deception” in his vaudeville stage magic shows. Drafted into the Army in 1942, Mr. Corbin served in Europe with the "Yankee Doodlers," a 9th Army/Air Forces team of performers that entertained Allied troops. He was one of four entertainers selected to perform for Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI, at Buckingham Palace. While in England, he married Doris May Broom, who became his stage manager and assistant. In late 1940s, he and his wife started touring with his illusion show which later developed into a ghost or “spook” show presented in movie theaters that combined the screening of a horror film with gruesome illusions such as decapitations performed live on stage.

Born into a life of entertainment, Dell Newton (1902-1962) was raised in Kansas, when not touring with her family’s carnival. Dell began her career as a strong woman in the show but soon developed her own magic act. Embedding comedy into her routine, she became the most successful woman in the field from between the 1930s and the 1950s. In her later years she had her own magic television series in California.

At a time when photography and television were becoming more prevalent, the poster takes advantage of both traditional lithography and a black and white still photograph of O’Dell holding two rabbits.

Born Edward Munn Burdick (1861-1949), Reno’s history is somewhat muddled due to lack of evidence and the varied tales he told later in life. He appears to have gotten his start as a drummer outside a traveling show to attract audiences to performances and later became billed as a boy magician. For several decades throughout most of his adult life he was a regular act on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits. In later years his performances moved to school shows.

Resembling a child's dollhouse, this illusion is shown all around and then opened to reveal an empty interior. After being closed, it is reopened to reveal an adult assistant within. It was invented early in the 1920s by British performer Frederick Culpitt and soon became a popular standard in many performer's act. This version was made and owned by Werner Dornfield (1892- 1982), a well-known magician and master of ceremonies.

Under the tagline of “The First Magic Musical Comedy”, The Magic Show graced Contra Theaters from May 1974- December 1978. During its run it received two Tony nominations for Best Featured Actor and Best Direction of a Musical and is the 34th longest running musical in Broadway history.

Son of the famed American magician and namesake, Harry Blackstone Jr. (1934-1997) began his career in other areas of entertainment, despite growing up around Blackstone Sr.’s act. He eventually emerged from his father’s show to be a successful entertainer in his own right, taking a career as a full-time illusionist in 1970. His touring evening show was successful with critics and fans alike. Unfortunately, he died while still in his prime due to cancer.

Credited for becoming the first major “television magician” American Mark Wilson’s (1929-current) interests in magic started at the age of eight after seeing magician Tommy Martin perform at a hotel where Wilson’s family was staying. He continued to hone his magic skills and in 1955 launched the TV show, Time for Magic. While starting on a local Dallas channel, Wilson eventually signed with CBS, and later ABC. Wilson continued his television career into the 1980s with help from his longtime assistant Nani and son Greg.

This autographed poster features Wilson levitating Nani above the ground

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