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A Day With Alexander the Great

A Day With Alexander the Great,
By Henry Ridgely Evans

I.

Alexander Herrmann at the age of 23

Alexander Herrmann at the age of 23

They come hack to me, those old days in the newspaper office in Baltimore. I can shut my eyes and see the long, dingy room with its ink-splattered tables and flaring gas jets. The printers’ devils rush in and out with wet proof-sheets.

Reporters come and go. Look! There is Joe Kelley, Lefevre, Jarrett and John Monroe. And here comes Ludlam, familiarly known as “Lud,” the prince of Bohemian newsgatherers; a cross between Dickens’ Alfred Jingle and Murger’s Rodolph. He is always “down on his luck,” but nothing can phase his natural gaity and bonhomie. He snaps his fingers at Fate, and mocks at the world. On his death bed he made hon mots. Poor old Ludlam, he is forever associated with my introduction to Alexander the Great.

I look back across the years that separate me from my journalistic experiences, and see myself seated at a reporter’s table, on a certain morning in January, waiting for an assignment from the city editor: a fire, a murder, political interview, I knew not what, and therein lies the ineffable charm of newspaper reporting. Enter Ludlam, jaunty and debonaire. The snow encrusts his faded coat with powdery flakes. He strikes a theatrical attitude, and exclaims: “Philosophers say that the Devil is dead! Gentlemen, don’t you believe them. I have just had an interview with His Satanic Majesty, and he is very much alive. He was beautifully perfumed with sulphur (or was it cigarette smoke?); and wore a fur-lined overcoat. Coming from a tropical climate, he finds this cold weather very disagreeable. He turned my watch into a turnip and back again. He took a roll of greenbacks from my coat pocket. That was sure enough witchcraft. I defy any other person than Beelzebuh, to get money from my clothes. He extracted a hard-boiled egg from my nose, and a rabbit from my hat. But seeing is believing. Here he is now!”

With that he threw open the green baize door with a crash and in walked Alexander Herrmann, the magician, smiling and bowing. This little comedy had been arranged by the irrepressible Ludlam. He was a great practical joker. We shouted with laughter. This was my first introduction to Alexander the Great, who was making his periodical visit to the newspaper offices, and he came to the “News” first, because it was an afternoon journal. He was to play that night at Ford’s Opera House. He performed a number of capital tricks for us with watches, coins, handkerchiefs and rings, and was pronounced a royal good fellow by the entire outfit – editors, reporters, typesetters and devils. Being the only amateur magician on the paper, I was detailed to accompany the famous conjurer on his “swing around the magic circle.” I was delighted with my assignment. We traversed the markets; visited the Stock Exchange where a howling mob of brokers danced a carmagnole about us; and the police stations. Herrmann was received everywhere with acclamations. His impromptu feats of magic evoked shouts of laughter. On one of the street cars the following scene took place, which I hugely enjoyed.

The conductor, a cadaverous, solemn looking man, who took the world and himself seriously, came around to collect the fares. He accosted the conjurer first.

“Fare,” exclaimed Herrmann, with an expressive shrug of the shoulders, “Why, I paid mine long ago.”

“No such thing!” snapped the conductor.

“But my dear fellow-!”

“You can’t come that game on me!” said the conductor. “I demand your fare, at once, or off you go.”

“Nonsense man, I gave you a five-dollar gold piece, but you did not return the change. You said, wait until -. But here is the gold coin sticking in your scarf.” So saying, the conjurer proceeded to extract a coin from the muffler which the conductor wore about his neck. “And worse than that, you’ve robbed me.” Then seizing hold of the coat of the dumbfounded man, he took from his breast pocket a large bundle of what seemed to be greenbacks. These, Herrmann scattered about the car. On each note was printed his portrait and an advertisement of his show. At a trifling distance these advertisements resembled greenbacks. They were more or less facsimiles of U. S. Treasury certificates. The occupants of the car picked them up, and laughed heartily at the mystification.

Herrmann then paid his fare, presented the conductor and driver with passes to the theatre, and in a little while we got off at Barnum’s hotel, where we had luncheon. The negro waiters of the establishment eyed him with fear and trembling, for he had played many practical jokes on them, and they never knew when he would break out in a new spot. He had a capital trick of raising a glass of wine to his lips as if about to partake of it, when with a dash of the hand upwards the glass would vanish, wine and all, only to be reproduced a minute later from somebody’s coat tail.

The following is a charming anecdote related by him in the North American Review,” some years ago:

“In March, 1885, while in Madrid, I appeared at the Sasuella Theatre quite successfully, for the house was filled every evening with hidalgos and noble senoras, and King Alphonso XII. was kind enough to view my performance from a box. He was so pleased that I was asked to the palace, and knowing him to be a great sportsman, I presented him with a silver-mounted saddle which I had brought with me from Buenos Ayres. He was exceedingly kind, and after I had performed a mathematical trick with cards, which pleased him greatly, he kept asking me continually if he could not be of some service to me. At first I did not accept, but a little while afterwards I thought it ‘would he a great thing if I could make the King of Spain my confederate in a trick. He consented, laughingly, and it was so arranged that from the stage I was to ask one of the audience to write a number, when the King was to get up and say, ‘I will write it,’ and do it. Of course, with such a confederate, the trick was accomplished with the greatest effect. The first thing I did in beginning the second part of my performance was to take a blank piece of paper. This, I handed to the king, asking him to sign it at the bottom. He did so readily, and the paper was passed from hand to hand and given to me. I conjured up all the spirits that have been or will be, and lo, and behold! the ‘paper was closely written from the top to the place where His Majesty’s signature was affixed. It was handed hack to him, and, while he laughed very heartily, he said, ‘I will not deny my signature to this document, which appoints Alexander Herrmann prestidigitateur to the King of Spain, and, as the spirits have done so, I heartily acquiesce.'”

Those who are acquainted with the peculiar properties of sympathetic inks will readily understand the modus operandi of the above trick. For example: Copper sulphate in very dilute solution will produce an invisible handwriting, which will turn light blue when subjected to the vapor of ammonia. Again, write with a weak solution of sulphuric acid and the chirography will appear in black letters when the paper is submitted to a strong heat. To obtain the requisite heat, all you have to do is to lay the sheet of paper on a small table which has a top of thin sheet iron or tin. Beneath this top, concealed in the body of the table, is a spirit lamp – not a lamp run by spooks, but by “spirits of wine.” Ample time for the chemical operation to take place is afforded by the patter of the conjurer.

Another clever trick, bordering on the supernatural, was Herrmann’s “Thibetan Mail,” the effect of which was as follows: Handing a sheet of note paper to various persons in the audience, Herrmann requested them to write sentences upon it, one under the other. When this was accomplished, he tore the paper into halves, and requested some gentleman to retain one half. The other half the magician thrust into the flame of a candle and burned it to ashes. Flinging the ashes in the air, he cried: “I send this message to the mighty Mahatma who dwells in the great temple of Lhassa. Let him restore the paper intact and return it to me by spiritual post.” No sooner said than done. Immediately a District Messenger boy rushed into the theatre, down the center aisle, waving in his hand a sealed letter. Handing this to some one in the audience, Herrmann requested him to break the seal and examine the contents of the envelope. Inside of the envelope, he found a second one, and within that a third and fourth, etc. In the last envelope the half sheet of paper was revealed perfectly restored. Its identity was proved by matching it with the half-sheet of writing retained by the first spectator, whereupon they were found to fit exactly and the writing to correspond. The modus operandi of this astounding feat like all good things’ in magic is very simple, but it requires adroitness on the part of the performer to execute properly. The conjurer does not burn the piece of paper which contains the writing, but exchanges it for a dummy which he thrusts into the flame of the candle. The original half-sheet of paper is secretly transferred to an assistant usually in the following manner: The magician calls for a candle and matches which the assistant brings in upon a salver. The slip of paper is “worked off” to the assistant in the act of taking the candle and matches from the tray. The confederate then goes behind the scenes, slips the paper into a “nest of envelopes,” seals them simultaneously, and gives the package to a stage hand habited as a messenger boy, who runs to the front part of the house to await the cue from the conjurer. This trick was intended as a burlesque on Madame Blavatsky’s Indian Mall feat.

I remember very well performing this experiment at an amateur show at the home of Mr. O- H-, of Baltimore, some eighteen years ago, before a company of interested spectators, among whom was the charming daughter of the house, Miss Alice, now the Countess Andrezzi Bernini, of Rome, Italy. My stage was situated in an alcove at one end of the splendid drawing room, and it had a window opening on a side street. My District Messenger boy, hired for the occasion, and privately instructed how to act, was stationed beneath this window, and threatened with all the penalties of Dante’s Inferno if he went asleep on his post. My brother, Walter Dorsey Evans, afterwards a skillful amateur prestidigitateur, acted as my assistant, and adroitly threw the sealed note out of the window, to the boy. Great was the surprise of my audience when the door bell rang and the stately butler of the establishment brought into the parlor the messenger boy with his sealed letter.

“Where did you get this?” asked the host, as he doubtfully fingered the envelope, and examined the address which read, “To Sahib O- H-, Baltimore, Md.”

“Please, sir, an old man dressed in a yellow robe came into the office, and asked that the letter be delivered at once.”

“A Mahatma, I presume!” said the lawyer, ironically.

“He had no hat on, sir, only a turbot wrapped round his head.

“A turban,” I suppose you mean.

“That’s it, sir – a turbing like the Turks wear.”

“That will do young man. You may go.”

The boy left. May he be forgiven the lies uttered in my behalf. But all is fair in love, war, and conjuring. He was well tutored what to say in the event of his being questioned, but he performed his part so naturally and lied so artistically and with such a front of brass as to have deceived the most incredulous. I have often speculated upon the subsequent career of that lad. Possibly today, he is representing his country abroad in an important diplomatic post, or manufacturing sensational news for the yellow press. Had I been a professional conjurer, I would have hired him on the spot as an assistant.

II.

Alexander Herrmann was born in Paris, February 11, 1844. Information concerning his family is somewhat meagre. His father, Samuel Herrmann, was a German Jew, a physician, who had come to France to reside, and there married a Breton lady. Sixteen children were born of this union, of whom Carl was the oldest of the eight boys and Alexander the youngest. Samuel Herrmann was an accomplished conjurer, but rarely performed in public. He gave private seances before Napoleon I, who presented him with a superb watch. This time-piece descended to Alexander, and is in possession of his widow.

Carl Hermann

Carl Hermann

Carl Herrmann was born in Hanover, Germany, January 23, 1816. Despite parental opposition he became a sleight of hand artist, and was known as the “First Professor of Magic In the World.” In 1848 he made his first bow to the English people, at the Adelphi Theatre, London, where he produced the second-sight trick, which he copied from Houdin in France. Early in the sixties he made a tour of America, with great success. At his farewell performance in New York City, he introduced his brother, Alexander as his legitimate successor. Carl then retired with a fortune to Vienna, where he spent the remainder of his days in collecting rare antiquities. His death occurred at Carlsbad, June 1887, at the age of seventy-two. He was a great favorite with Czar Nicholas and Sultan Abdul Aziz, and frequently performed at their palaces.

Alexander was destined by his father to the practice of medicine, but fate willed otherwise.

When quite a boy, he ran away and joined Carl, acting as his assistant. He remained with his brother six years, when his ‘parents placed him in college at Vienna. He did not complete his scholastic studies, but went to Spain in 1859 and began his career as a magician. He appeared in America in 1861, but returned a year later to Europe, and made an extended tour. He played an engagement of 1,000 consecutive nights at Egyptian Hall, London. In 1875 he married Adelaide Scarsez, a beautiful and clever danseuse, who assisted him in his soirees magique. Herrmann became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1876. He died of heart failure in his private car, December 11, 1896, while traveling from Rochester, N. Y., to Bradford, Penn, and was buried with Masonic honors in Woodlawn cemetery, just outside of New York City. He made and lost several fortunes. Unsuccessful theatrical speculations were largely responsible for his losses. He aspired in vain to be the manager and proprietor of a chain of theatres. He introduced the celebrated Trewey, the French fantaisiste, to the American public. Herrmann was an extraordinary linguist, a raconteur and wit. Several chivalric orders were conferred upon him by European potentates. He usually billed himself as the Chevalier Alexander Herrmann. His mephistophelean aspect, his foreign accent, and histrionic powers, coupled with his wonderful sleight-of-hand made him indeed the king of conjurers. He had a wrist of steel and a palm of velvet. He performed tricks wherever he went, in the street cars, cafes, clubs, hotels, newspaper offices, and markets, imitating in this respect the renowned Bosco. These impromptu entertainments widely advertised his art. He rarely changed his repertoire, but old tricks in his hands were invested with the charm of newness. I can remember as a boy with what emotion I beheld the rising of the curtain, in his fantastic soirees, and saw him appear, in full court costume, smiling and bowing. Hey, presto! I expected every moment to see him metamorphosed into the Mephisto of Goethe’s “Faust,” habited in the traditional red costume, with red cock’s feather in his pointed cap, and clanking rapier by his side; sardonic, and full of subtleties. He looked the part to perfection. He was Mephisto in evening dress. When he performed the trick of the inexhaustible bottle, which gave forth any liquor called for by the spectators, I thought of him as Mephisto in that famous drinking scene in Auerbach’s cellar, boring holes into an old table, and extracting from them various sparkling liquors as well as flames. In his nervous hands articles vanished and reappeared with surprising rapidity. Everything material, under the spell of his flexible fingers, seemed to be resolved into a fluidic state; as elusive as pellets of quicksilver. He was indeed the Alexander the Great of Magic, who had conquered all worlds with his necromancer’s wand – theatrical worlds; and he sighed because there were no more to dominate with his legerdemain. One of his posters always fascinated my boyish imagination. It was night in the desert. The Sphinx loomed up majestically under the black canopy of the Egyptian sky. In front of the giant figure stood Herrmann, in the center of a magic circle of skulls and cabalistic figures. Incense from a brazier ascended and circled about the head of the Sphinx. Herrmann was depicted in the act of producing rabbits and bowls of gold fish from a shawl, while Mephisto, the guardian of the wierd scene, stood near by, dressed all in red, and pointing approvingly at his disciple in the black art. In this picture were symbolized Egyptian mystery and necromancy; mediaeval magic; and the sorcery of science and prestidigitation.

III

Alexander Hermann

Alexander Hermann

When Herrmann came to Baltimore, he always put up at Barnum’s hotel, a quaint, old caravansary that had sheltered beneath its hospitable roof such notables as Charles Dickens, Thackeray and Jenny Lind. Alas, the historic hostelrie was torn down years ago to make room for improvements. It stood on the southwest corner of Calvert and Fayette streets, within a stone’s throw of the Battle Monument. I spent some happy hours with Herrmann in this ancient hotel, listening to his rich store of anecdotes. I received from him many valuable hints in conjuring. There was something exotic about his tastes. He loved to surround himself with Oriental luxuries; rare curios picked up in the bazaars of Constantinople, Cairo, Damascus, etc.; nargilehs, swords of exquisite workmanship; carved ivory boxes from India; richly embroidered hangings from the looms of Turkey; Japanese bronzes and the like. His private yacht, “Fra Diavolo,” and his Pullman car were fitted up regardless of expense. He was a replica on a small scale of the Count of Monte Christo. Habited in a Turkish dressing gown which glowed with all the colors of the rainbow; his feet thrust into red Moroccan slippers; the inevitable cigarette in his mouth, he resembled a pasha of the east. He was inordinately fond of pets and carried with him on his travels a Mexican dog, a Persian cat, cages full of canaries, a parrot and a monkey. His rooms looked like a small zoo. He seemed to enjoy the noises made by his pets. His opinions concerning his art were interesting.

“A magician is born, not made!” was his favorite apothegm. “He must possess not only digital dexterity, but be an actor as well.”

“What is the greatest illusion in the repertoire of the conjurer?” I asked him.

“The Vanishing Lady of M. Bautier de Kolta,” was the unhesitating reply.

“Why so?” I inquired.

“Because of its simplicity. The great things of magic are always the simple things. This trick has the most transcendant effect when properly produced, but, alas, the secret is now too well known. Its great success proved its ruin. Irresponsible bunglers took it up and made a fiasco of it. In the hands of De Kolta it was perfection itself. There was nothing wanting in artistic finish.”

Herrmann related to me some amusing episodes of his varied career. In the year 1863 he was playing an engagement in Constantinople. He received a summons to appear before the Sultan and his court. At the appointed hour there came to the hotel where he was staying a Turkish officer, who drove him in a handsome equipage to a palace overlooking the gleaming waters of the Golden Horn, where “ships that fly the flags of half the world” ride at anchor. It was a lovely afternoon in April. Herrmann was ushered into a luxuriously furnished apartment and invited to be seated on a divan. The officer then withdrew. Presently a couple of tall Arabs entered. One carried a lighted chibouk; the other a salver, upon which was a golden pot full of steaming hot Mocha coffee, and a tiny cup and saucer of exquisite porcelain. The slaves knelt at his feet and presented the tray and pipe to him.

“A faint suspicion,” said Herrmann to me, “crossed my mind that perhaps the tobacco and coffee were drugged with a pinch or two of hasheesh-that opiate of the East, celebrated by Monte Christo; the drug that brings forgetfulness and elevates its votaries to the seventh heaven of spiritual ecstasy. I thought, ‘what if the Sultan were trying some of his sleight of hand tricks on me for the amusement of the thing.’ Sultans have been known to do such things.’ Now I wanted to keep cool and have all of my wits about me. My reputation as a prestidigitateur was at stake. It was very silly, I suppose, to entertain such ideas. But once possessed of this absurd obsession I could not get rid of it. So I waved off the attendants politely and signified by gestures that I did not desire to indulge In coffee or tobacco. But they persisted, and I saw that I could not rid myself of them without an effort. Happy thought! I just took a whiff of the pipe and a sip of the coffee, when, hey, presto! I made the chibouk and cup vanish by my sleight-of- hand and caused a couple of small snakes which I carried upon my person for use in impromptu tricks, to appear in my hands. The astonishment on the faces of these two Arabs was something indescribable. They gazed up at the gilded ceiling and down at the carpet, puzzled to find out where the articles had gone, but finding no solution to the problem and beholding the writhing serpents in my hands, fled incontinently from the room. These simple sons of the desert evidently thought that I had just stepped out of the Arabian Nights entertainments. At this juncture a chamberlain entered and in French bade me welcome, informing me that His Imperial Majesty was ready to receive me. He conducted me to a superb salon with a platform at one end. I looked around me, but saw only one person, a black-bearded gentleman, who sat in an armchair in the middle of the apartment. I recognized in him the famous ‘Sick Man of Europe.’ I bowed low to the Sultan Abdul Aziz.

“‘Well, monsieur, begin,’ he said in French.

“And so this was my audience. No array of brilliantly garbed courtiers and attendants; no music. Only a fat gentle man, languidly polite, waiting to be amused. How was it possible to perform with any elan under such depressing conditions? It takes a large and enthusiastic audience to Inspire a per former. I began my tricks. As I progressed with my programme, however, I became aware of the presence of other persons In the room besides the ruler of the Ottoman Empire. The laughter of women rippled out from behind the gilded lattice work and silken curtains that surrounded the salon. The harem was present though invisible to me. I felt like another being and executed my tricks with more than usual effect. The Sultan was charmed and paid me many compliments. A couple of weeks after the seance, I was invited to accompany him on a short cruise In the royal yacht. On this occasion I crested a profound sensation by borrowing the Sultan’s watch which I (apparently) threw overboard. His face fairly blazed with anger; his hand involuntarily sought the handle of his jeweled sword. Never before had the Commander of the Faithful been treated so cavalierly. Seeing his agitation, I hastened to explain. ‘Don’t be alarmed, your Majesty, for the safety of your time-piece. It will be restored to you intact. I pledge my honor as a magician.’ He sneered incredulously, but vouchsafed no reply. ‘Permit me to throw overboard this hook and line and indulge in a little fishing.’ So saying I cast into the sea the line, and after a little while brought up a good sized fish. Cutting it open I produced from its body the missing watch. This feat bordering so closely on the sorcery of the Arabian Nights made a wonderful impression on the spectators. I was the lion of the hour. Constantinople soon rang with my fame. In the cafes and bazaars the ignorant populace discussed my marvelous powers with bated breath. The watch trick, however, proved my undoing. One morning I was sitting In my room at my hotel, idly smoking a cigarette and building palaces as unsubstantial as those erected by the Genii in the story of ‘Aladdin and his wonderful lamp,’ when a messenger from his Imperial Majesty was announced. He made a low obeisance and humbly laid at my feet a bag containing 5,000 piastres, after which he handed me an envelope inscribed with Turkish characters and sealed with large seals.

“‘Ah,’ I said to myself, ‘the Sultan Is going to confer upon me the coveted order of the M-.’ My heart swelled with pride. I was like the foolish Alnaschar who while indulging In day dreams of greatness, unconsciously overturned his stock of glassware in the market, thereby ruining himself. I prolonged opening the envelope in order to indulge my extravagant fancies. Finally I broke the seals and read the enclosed letter, which was written in French:

“‘It would be better for you to leave Constantinople at once.’

“My budding hopes were crushed. I left the city that afternoon in a British steamer bound for a Grecian port. Either watch tricks were unpopular in the Orient or I was encroaching upon the preserves of the Dervishes – a close corporation for the working of pious frauds. But things have changed in Turkey since then.”

IV

Adelaide Herrmann

Adelaide Herrmann

Madame Herrmann, on the death of her husband, sent to Europe for her nephew-in-law, Leon Herrmann, and they continued the entertainments of magic throughout the country, meeting with success. Some curious and amusing adventures were encountered on their travels. One of Alexander Herrmann’s favorite tricks was the production of a mass of colored paper ribbon from a cocoanut shell, and from the paper a live duck. This clever feat always evoked tremendous applause. The stupid look of the duck as it waddled around the stage was very laughable. On one occasion, when I was present at the soiree magique, the duck seemed to find difficulty in reaching the exit and went around quacking in loud distress, thereby interrupting the conjurer in his patter. Quick as a flash, Herrmann remarked to his assistant, “Kindly remove the comedian.” Shouts of laughter greeted the sally. Herrmann was very felicitous in this species of impromptu by-play. He was indeed, as he described himself, the necromantic comedian. Leon, following in the footsteps of his illustrious uncle also performed the cocoanut shell trick. He had an assistant, a stalwart Ethiopian, who had been with the elder Herrmann, and rejoiced In the stage name of “Boumski.” One day in the city of Detroit, Mich., Madame Herrmann missed from her dressing room at the theatre, a valuable diamond ring. Suspicion fell upon the negro, who had attained some proficiency in the black art, so far as making things disappear was concerned, though he was not so apt when it came to producing them. Boumski stoutly asseverated that he had seen the duck swallow the ring. The fowl was accordingly slain, and its stomach searched, but with out result. The loss of the duck caused considerable grief in the conjuring menage. It was quite a pet, and trained to perform its part in the magic tricks. Suspicion again fell upon Boumski. Finally, the dusky necromancer confessed that he was the thief and that the poor duck was innocent. The ring was recovered in a pawnbroker’s shop. Boumski went to jail. To revenge himself he exposed the whole repertoire of tricks of the Herrmann company to the newspapers.

After playing together a season or two, aunt and nephew separated. Today they are performing with great success in vaudeville. Madame Herrmann calls her act “A Night In Japan.” It is an exhibition of silent magic – en pantomime. She was ever a graceful woman, and her exhibitions of legerdemain are most pleasing. Beautiful scenery adds to the effect. Leon Herrmann, who resembles his great uncle in personal appearance, is fast becoming a favorite with the American public.

(The Sphinx, Kansas City, Mo., Volume 4, Numbers 3 & 4, May and June, 1905. Additional illustrations from Harry Houdini’s The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin and Henry Ridgley Evans’ The Old and the New Magic.)

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