We’ve only got fragments on the early ventriloquist Joseph Askins (Thomas Haskey, born ca. 1771), Born in the West Midlands town of Walshall (near Birmingham), Haskey was an apprentice bit and bridle maker as a boy, who then served in the army, where he lost his leg. Upon his return he encountered a local vent named James Burns, and this is who inspired him to take up the craft himself. Handbills and commemorative coins advertising his performance at Sadler’s Wells in the 1790s today testify to the peak of his career.
The most interesting thing to me about his act, is the now neglected niche it occupied. Askins didn’t work with a dummy, but merely had conversations with an “invisible familiar” named Tommy, which brings the act a bit closer to what we think of as mediumship, though Askins was always quite clear that he was the one providing all the voices, promoting himself as the “The Man with One Leg and Two Voices”. Over the years there have been plenty of vents who have done sections of their act without dummies but most work with at least one such figure as the core routine. Working with none at all seems bold and brassy. Today the International Ventriloquist Association gives out an Askins Award for Lifetime Achievement, named for this early performance pioneer.
To learn more about the history of variety entertainment consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.