Today is the birthday of John Henry Anderson (1814-1874). Born and raised on a Scottish farm, Anderson was inspired by a childhood viewing of a performance of Antonio Blitz to take up conjuring, which he taught himself. He began performing locally at fairs; his first recorded professional performances was at Brechin Castle for Lord Panmure in 1837. Dubbing himself “The Caledonian Conjurer”, he began filling huge theatres in cities in Scotland and Ireland. By 1840, he opened at the New Strand Theatre in London and did the same. With the proceeds of his engagements in England he built his own 5,000 seat theatre in Glasgow (which unfortunately later burned).
What was his secret? First, the excellence of his act. He did an early version of the bullet catch, was one of the first to pull a rabbit out of a hat, and had many other show stopping stunts. He would burn the gloves of a woman from the audience, then produce them from the inside of an egg. He vanished a man’s watch and then cut it out of the inside of a loaf of bread. He cooked some birds in a pan, covering it with a lid. When he lifted the lid, live birds flew out.
But secondly, he was one of the early geniuses of showmanship and promotion. He plastered his handbills and posters all over any town where he was engaged. He entered towns with great gaudy street parades, which became a model for later circuses. He printed up his own little free newspapers and had them distributed as advertisements. P.T. Barnum was one of his friends; they exchanged many tips of the trade. It was Sir Walter Scott who dubbed him “The Great Wizard of the North.”
He enhanced his act with some illusions pirated from Robert-Houdin (one of his principal competitors) and toured Europe and America triumphantly. In his last years, he concentrated his efforts on exposing Spiritualism. This and many other aspects of his work would be an inspiration to Harry Houdini.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, incldung magicians like John Henry Anderson, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.