The decapitation trick was just one of many illusions pioneered by John Simmons, a.k.a. Washington Blythe, a.k.a. Washington Simmons, a.k.a. Hugh Washington Lynn, a.k.a Hugh Simmons Lynn, a.k.a Dr. H.S. Lynn. Is it just me, or does it seem likely that a guy with this many names had something to hide? Born in Britain in the 1830s, he divided his adult life pretty evenly between England, the U.S. and Australia (and toured the Far East extensively as well). He first learnt chemical conjuring at the hand of one “Dr. Shaw” in the 1860s (one envisions lots of flashes and puffs of smoke) and soon branched off on his own, augmenting his scientific demonstrations and wizardry with sleight of hand and mechanical gimmicks. When he reached the States, he became a close friend for a time of the great humorist Artemus Ward.
For a time, Lynn settled in the U.S., started a family and obtained an actual medical degree, becoming a practicing physician, hence his honorific title. (Back then, it was rather easier to do that). But by the early 1870s, he had re-emerged as a magician in London, for a time, becoming a principal rival to J.N. Maskelyn. He passed away in 1899.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.