Early American Magicians

MAGIC. . . .

Early American Magicians

Most of the British Colonies of North America were under the strong influence of Puritanism, which frowned on all idle amusements as works of the devil. Magicians were outlawed in some colonies. Only in Dutch New Amsterdam were such entertainers well received and permitted to perform.

The general lack of acceptance in the colonies may have prompted the first outstanding American magician, Jacob Meyer, to make his reputation in Europe during the second half of the 18th century. He adopted the name of his birthplace, Philadelphia, and traveled Europe entertaining royalty and the general public under the name Jacob Philadelphia. He even reached Russia, where he performed his illusions for Catherine the Great. In 1774 he published 'Little Treatise on Strange and Suitable Feats'. This was the first magic book by an American-born magician.

By the time of the American Revolution, public attitudes toward magicians had become more tolerant. Several European illusionists made their way to the United States after 1776. Among them were Peter Gardiner, Hyman Saunders, and John Rannie. One of Gardiner's feats was stretching himself between two chairs, with his head on one and his feet on the other. He lay there as a member of the audience used a sledge hammer to break a rock placed on his stomach. Saunders was able to remove a man's shirt without disturbing the jacket or vest. Rannie was a ventriloquist and juggler as well as an illusionist.

The first native-born American to succeed as a magician in the United States was Richard Potter, the son of a slave woman. He was usually taken to be an American Indian or a native of India. His career lasted from about 1805 until his death in 1835. He, too, was a juggler and ventriloquist.

While Potter's career was progressing, a former soldier was working as a magician in the Midwest then still mostly frontier. Eugene Leitensdorfer was born in northern Italy. He went to the United States in 1809 and began performing in 1814. His most fascinating illusion was restoring a playing card that had been burned to ashes.

In 1835 Antonio Blitz arrived from Europe. He was basically a showman who used magic in his acts. His illusions were always accompanied by humor. Laughter and mystification were his goals. Catching a bullet in midair was among his tricks.

Scots-born John Henry Anderson, who performed throughout Europe and the United States, was another consummate showman. He advertised himself relentlessly and conducted street parades to get audiences. Bullet catching was his favorite trick, but he is better remembered as the magician who pulled a rabbit from a hat. He did not originate the trick, but he popularized it.

Emergence of Modern Magic

Houdini and After

Tricks of the Trade

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