Monday, July 24, 2023


   I am continuing my posts about famous Victorian magicians, and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about one of my favorites, Alexander Hermann. Born into a family of magicians, Alexander will become one of the most famous magicians of the Victorian period.

   The start of Alexander’s career as a magician began with his father, Samuel Hermann, who was not only a physician, but also toured Europe as a magician. One of Samuel’s patrons was the Sultan of Turkey, who paid large amounts of money just to get Samuel to perform for him. Samuel even performed for Napoleon, who gave him a gold watch which he carried with him until the day he died.

   With the birth of Compars his eldest son, Samuel settled in France and became a full-time physician. Compars, who also went by the name “Carl”, was schooled by his father in the conjuring arts. Carl began touring throughout France and he gave command performances in Paris and Versailles. Carl then went to medical school, but the magician bug had bitten him hard, so he dropped out of school to tour as a conjurer. In 1853 when Carl returned home from touring around Europe, he saw that his 8-year-old brother, the youngest of all the children, Alexander, was being schooled in the magician’s craft from his father.  Without permission from his family, Carl “kidnapped” his brother and took him on tour with him. First stop, St. Peterburg and Alexander’s first lesson on becoming a stage performer. Carl made Alexander a part of his act, and in his spare time, he schooled his younger brother in magic. They toured throughout Russia, Germany, Italy and Portugal, and when they eventually returned to their parents’ house in France, Alexander was already on his way to becoming a magician extraordinaire. Alexander stayed with his parents until he reached 11 and then went to live with Carl in Vienna who continued to foster his education in magic. They toured America in 1860 but left because the Civil War had just erupted and went down to South America. Alexander was becoming a better magician than Carl could have imagined and so they split company and Alexander toured on his own until 1867 when he again joined forces with Carl, and they would tour one more time together.  In 1871, Alexander was signed to a 3-year contract with the Egyptian Hall in London.  In London he will meet a dancer by the name of Adelaide Scarcez, who will later become his wife.   In March of 1875 they were married, and the ceremony was officiated by the mayor of New York. In July of 1876, he became a naturalized citizen and bought a mansion in Long Island, New York and here he would become known as Hermann the Great.

   Adelaide and Alexander toured throughout the United States, South America and Europe for many years until they met Carl in Paris in 1885. Carl was jealous of his younger brother’s talents and so they decided Carl would have Europe as his stage while Alexander would stay in America. Two years later, Alexander was shocked by the death of his brother, his mentor. A part of him was gone.

   The Hermanns did phenomenal illusions including a levitation that was the envy of all, especially of Harry Kellar, another American magician, who claimed he invented the levitation illusion. But, if you remember my post about Maskelyne, magicians told their own lies. Alexander was also known for his card skills and sleight of hand. One of Alexander Hermann’s most famous tricks is that of the Bullet Catch, which is as deadly as it sounds, and many things have gone wrong for other magicians doing it (including Chung Ling Soo, which will be in my next article).

  Adelaide and Hermann were touring the East Coast in their private train car when Alexander had a heart attack. He whispered to Adelaide, "Make sure all in the company get back to New York.” In his last moment, Alexander Hermann was thinking of other people, not himself. A doctor was called but it was no use, Hermann the Great was dead at the age of 52. Hermann’s funeral was attended by several thousands of people wanting to pay their respects to Herman the Great for not only was Alexander a great magician, but also a philanthropist.  He gave many performances for those who could not afford his tickets and was even the first magician to perform at Sing Sing prison.

  After his death, Adelaide kept up the family tradition and started performing Alexander’s illusions and her own sleight of hand. She even toured with Leon Herrmann, Alexander’s nephew, but they soon parted ways and she became known as “The Queen of Magic”. Adelaide performed magic for several years before she finally retired at 75.  She died in 1932 where she was finally laid to rest next to her husband.


   In my upcoming posts I want to do a series of blogs about famous magicians in the Victorian Age, and I would like to start with someone that many of you may not know. In the world of Victorian magic, one name stood alone, John Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne, born in 1839, in the town of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, was the son of a saddle maker, and when he came of age, he was apprenticed to a watch maker, a skill that would serve him well when he became a magician.

  Maskelyne’s first brush with magic wasn’t with a magician but with Spiritualists. Maskelyne was working in the watchmaker’s shop when he got an unusual request to repair a machine that was called an “instrument of surgery” by its owner, a spiritualist.   As John started tinkering with this piece of machinery, he found that he could mount it to his leg and use it to make rapping sounds very discreetly under a tabletop. Later he had the chance to see further trickery happen when at the age of twenty-six he saw the Davenport Brothers use their Spirit Cabinet. The Davenports didn’t call themselves magicians but spiritualists.   They toured the United States and Europe under the guise of being tied up in a special cabinet in which spirits would play musical instruments. During this performance Maskelyne saw the “flash”, where a magician unwittingly does something that shows how the trick is done and understood how the cabinet illusion worked.  He stood up in the theater and told the audience that he could recreate the Spirit Cabinet communication without the aid of anything supernatural.  Maskelyne, along with his friend cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, built a giant Spirit Cabinet and revealed the trickery of the Davenports in a show in Cheltenham.  In this performance they also included comedy illusions including one where Maskelyne and Cooke were transformed into a woman and a gorilla.  After several successful local performances, they decided to become professional magicians and went on tour.  They expanded their routine and eventually became famous and highly successful and performed across the country.  Maskelyne would often perform short plays and do illusions as part of the act on stage. Their tours included a tenure at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly which started in 1873 and would continue until the Hall closure in 1905.

   After the death of George Alfred Cooke in 1905, Maskelyne made David Devant his new partner. Devant started working for Maskelyne in 1893 at the Egyptian Hall, working as a conjurer as well as a creator of illusions until he and went out on his own creating his own show. After Devant came back in 1905, he came now with street experience and new insights on manufacturing magic tricks, and along with Maskelyne created many of their best illusions.

  Many of Maskelyne illusions are still performed today. Probably the most famous of these illusions is Levitation. Harry Kellar was also known for this illusion and claimed that he was the inventor though in truth Kellar had bribed one of Maskelyne’s technical assistants, Paul Veladon, and stole the illusion. 

  When Maskelyne first witnessed the Davenports’ Spirit Cabinet illusion, he was driven to expose fraudulent spiritualists and mediums who took advantage of other people.   In 1876, Maskelyne was called as an expert witness for the prosecution in the matter of Henry Slade, a medium who was being tried for fraud. Like Houdini, Maskelyne brought his magic skills to unmask those who claimed supernatural powers and would continue with this for the rest of his life.   In 1891 he and Psychiatrist Lionel Weatherly published a book called The Supernatural?  This book offered logical explanations to spiritualistic practices, the occult and supernatural phenomena. 

   Even though Maskelyne left this world in 1917, he left a huge mark on the magic community. Not only was he a master of illusion but his work with cards was phenomenal. In 1894, he published Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of The Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. This book would be the bible for card workers for years and included an excellent chapter on an apparatus known as a “holdout” which is the main reason magicians had to show that there was “nothing up their sleeve”. It is a fascinating book and I recommend it to all magicians who do card magic.

  Maskelyne was also an influence on his son and grandson who both became stage magicians. Jasper Maskelyne, his grandson, has been credited for creating large-scale deceptions and camouflage to aid the British government in their fight against the Germans during World War II.