A long overdue tribute today to showman and charlatan Walford Bodie (Samuel Murphy Brodie, 1869-1939). Our shocking lapse in waiting so long to add him to our rosters of great vaudevillians and flim flam artists has purely been a question of nationality. Our focus has tended to be on American figures; Bodie, for whatever reason, seems not to have crossed the puddle in our direction. He played music halls in Britain and on the continent. Also, I was hesitant to venture into turf that had so clearly been staked out by the late Ricky Jay, who has a wonderful chapter on him in Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. But Bodie (like Jay now) belongs to the ages, and a Cat Can Look at a King, Can’t He? And so this brief look at Bodie.
Bodie was from Aberdeen, Scotland. As a teenager he apprenticed with the National Telephone Company, where he acquired his journeyman’s knowledge of electricity. He was about 16 when he began performing in music halls (circa 1885) with an act that incorporated magic tricks, ventriloquism, and hypnotism. Like Franz Mesmer, he hit on the idea of exploiting the popular notion of electricity as having miraculous, curative properties. While the earlier figure gave us “Mesmerism”, Bodie gave the world “Bodic Force”. His knowledge of currents, conductive apparatus, and so forth from his telephone days allowed him to work electrical zapping into his act in a fashion most convincing. Bodie is the guy who originated the “electric chair” act, still used in sideshows to this day. This is the bit where the subject sits in a simulated electric chair, a lever is pulled, Tesla coils throw impressive looking bolts of electricity, and the subject is handed lightbulbs and lamps which become illuminated by the electricity surging through his body. (The trick, an open secret nowadays, is that a small, non-harmful amount of static electricity will light the lights. It doesn’t require the “30,000 volts” claimed to be coming from the electric chair.) Bodie’s assistant was his wife, Jeannie Henry, billed variously as “La Belle Electra” and “Mystic Marie”. She also played Trilby in a “Svengali” routine performed by Bodie.
So far, so good. But then Bodie started claiming that he could cure people of all sorts of ailments with his electricity, a process he called “Bloodless Surgery”. He even used “M.D.” after his name. And he earned money by this dodge. For this reason he was not only called the “British Edison“, but also the “British Barnum“. In light of this, I find it strange that Harry Houdini, who hated spiritualist charlatans, was his close friend. But perhaps Houdini was content with the obvious fact that Bodie’s “cures” were presented in the context of a magic act in music halls. If that doesn’t clue you in that it’s all just show biz, God Bless You, Child! (Or maybe Houdini just had a soft spot for Scotsmen — Conan Doyle was also his good friend). At any rate, during the first decade of the 20th century, Bodie was a subject of much controversy and tabloid press. There were songs written about him. In his music hall days, prior to his stint with the Karno troupe, young Charlie Chaplin even worked up an act that parodied him. Here’s Chaplin as Bodie:
Bodie wrote books on his methods, and sold patent medicines. The legitimate medical establishment grew concerned and took him to court. All Hail to Bodie’s chutzpah in putting up a defense! First, he claimed that his use of “M.D.” stemmed from an American diploma (which he had purchased from a dentist). Later, he claimed it stood for “Merry Devil”. At any rate, he was busted. The cat was out of the bag. For a time, his performances were interrupted by rioting medical students, chanting, “Quack, Quack, Quack!” After a while, things blew over, and he was able to perform in music halls again, making much more modest claims about himself. Bodie performed right until the bitter end, collapsing on a Blackpool stage during the 1939 summer season.
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous