Discovering the Magic City: Early Chicago Amusements, 1834-1871 by William Pack
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2006)
At the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History last November, Chicagoan William Pack gave a marvelous talk about the history of early amusements in mid-19th century Chicago. This limited edition manuscript further clarifies its subject by way of its subtitle: "Being an Incomplete Reporting of the Unrivaled Assemblage of Prestidigitators, Mind Readers, Spirit Mediums, Human Enigmas, & Kindred Entertainments performing in the City of Chicago's Finest Theatres, Storefronts, Meeting Halls, Dime Museums, Saloons, & Homes taken from the Chicago Tribune-1864 to 1871." And that about covers it, but I shall add a few more details for the record.
The author "spent the better part of 2004 and 2005 combing the microfilm collection of the Chicago Tribune at the Naperville Public Library." Having gone through "nearly a quarter of a million newspaper pages" of the leading Chicago newspaper of the Victorian era, he intends to eventually "search the other papers of the time" as well. Why? Because, he says, "I am greedy. I do not want to lose any of the great stories, any of the history. I love it all. Even the lies, rumors, half-truths, and tall tales." And for this passion, Mr. Pack deserves nothing less than our infinite appreciation. In this well produced monograph, we learn that the "first public entertainment ... given by a professional performer, and to which an admission was charged ... took place on February 24, 1834," by one Mr. Bowers, who performed various feats of invulnerability to fire and control over it, followed by "many very amusing feats of Ventriloquism and Legerdemain." Thus the story begins with magic. The admission was 50 cents, perhaps two days' wages for many workers, but there weren't many entertainment options available at the time.
The book discusses dime museums, acts like the Hanlon Brothers, Heller, Chang and Eng, the Herrmanns, the "Sphinx" illusion, General Tom Thumb, Joseph Hartz, the Davenport Brothers, and other features and performers recognizable to students of the history of magic, sideshows, and variety arts. Others less well known some otherwise all but lost to history—are revived through this pages. Mr. Pack's research is excellent and he has a knack for providing efficient thumbnail sketches of some of his subjects to provide context without getting carried away into digression. He comes upon oddities like an 1866 classified add for the sale of "magical apparatus," about which little else is, or is ever likely to be, known. The book concludes with the story of the Chicago fire of 1871, followed by a bibliography. The book is a delightful peek through a tiny and very old window; William Pack has greatly improved the view through it, and I, for one, am grateful for the job well done.