Big Friday sale

Magical Heroes: The Lives and Legends of Great African American magicians by Jim Magus

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii August, 2005)


Quick, name an African-American magician...other than a personal friend. Name a black magician whose name appears in an assortment of volumes in your library. Name a contemporary black magician who has been on the cover of a major magic magazine...in your lifetime...or ever. Well, now that I mention it, of the two major independent magazines, this journal has featured African-American performers on its cover three times: Goldfinger and Dove in the 70s, Charles Greene in the mid-80s, and Hiawatha most recently on the December, 1994 issue. Of course, all of those issues met with (the not unexpected but no less grotesque for the fact) hate mail from fringe lunatics, racists and other Neanderthals, complete with subscription cancellations (what a loss). A dismal record over 57 years, you say? Perhaps— until you consider that the other major independent magazine, younger but allegedly fresher, has yet to portray any thing other than your standard white bread male Caucasoid conjuror on the cover, along with the very occasional (read: a total of seven in four covers to date) scantily clad female assistant(s), plus a caricature (my apologies for redundancy) of Melinda. And as for less- than-independent magazines, so far as I can determine, Fetaque Sanders is the only black magician to have ever graced the cover of the aged IBM house organ.

As for the historical literature, Milbourne Christopher takes a few pages to discuss Richard Potter, who Christopher describes as "The first American to establish himself as a successful conjuror in his own country," in his Illustrated History of Magic, and there the story ends, even though Christopher devotes an entire chapter to "American Indian Conjuring." A quick perusal of T.A. Waters' Encyclopedia of Magic and Magicians yields the names of Potter and also Fetaque Sanders; a similar glance through James Randi's Conjuring produces no names of African American descent. The names of black magicians in the recorded literature of conjuring are few and far between.

If I have already exhausted the list of black magicians with which you—and most contemporary American magicians—are familiar with, then I have a surprise for you. In fact, I have about 229 pages of surprises, in this new book from Jim Magus. Based, it seems, substantially upon the collection of the late Fetaque Sanders—perhaps the most successful black magician of the twentieth century—Mr. Magus has now gifted us with a relatively in-depth look at the rich history of African American conjuring.

In nine chapters, beginning with Potter—the son of a slave—and ending with a compendium chapter on "Contemporary Conjuror's of Color," this engrossing story emerges; as always with the history of conjuring, it is filled with the range of human emotion, from humor to tragedy, and with larger-than-life characters, the loss of whom we mourn instantly upon learning of them. In between, chapters address Henry "Box" Brown, an escaped slave and outspoken symbol of Abolitionism; the minstrel show magicians who toured the country and the world at the turn of the century; faux "Hindu Fakirs," black magicians who donned the accoutrements of Indians, Arabs, Chinese and other exotic races and roles in order to facilitate crossing the color barrier during the Vaudeville era; Professor Armstrong, who presented a dignified show exclusively to black audiences so as to avoid the lowbrow style of the minstrel shows; The Great Black Herman, a legend-in-his-own-time combination of magician, psychic, pitchman and huckster; the aforementioned Fetaque Sanders; and a penultimate chapter on Everett Earl Johnson, known and renowned here in the Northeast as Presto, and an inestimable influence on the contemporary culture of New York conjuring.

When was the last time you read a volume of magic history where almost every page presented something that was entirely new to you? The refreshing nature of that experience made this book a delight to read, its failings notwithstanding. The stories unfold against a backdrop of historical issues of racism, some perhaps all the more disturbing because the author frequently chooses not to draw the reader's attention to what may already be all too obvious. The author's stance is not always clear, however, since while he does not shirk from reporting on such subjects, his introduction includes the comment that "...the fellowship of magic harbors no prejudices...," a remark that is naive at best and downright disingenuous at worst.

Any magic historian will be fascinated by this material, for the story of African American magic does not occur in a vacuum, independent of all else. The name of Harry Houdini arises several times: there is an anecdote concerning black magician Wilmont Barclay, born in Jamaica, having used the term "escape artist" prior to Houdini, and allegedly teaching Houdini his first handcuff escapes in 1895. Houdini's name again appears when we learn of Tommy Davis, aka the Great Bromo, who was escaping from a water torture cell of sorts as early as 1916. There are interesting accounts of effects and theatrical presentations, such as Professor Armstrong's version of the Sand Frame, in which "...a photograph of black statesman Frederick Douglas would disappear from the hands of a spectator and appear in a previously empty picture frame illustrating Douglas' historic escape from slavery." Remarkable when we consider that the use of dramatic metaphor in magic often seems new to many present-day conjuror's.

Here's a book whose subject—the history of African American magicians—is so long overdue for appropriate coverage that almost anything addressing it would be welcome. So it was that I virtually leapt for joy when, much to my surprise, I discovered this volume in the mail. As I briefly skipped through the pages, noting names both familiar and new to me, I was filled with an even greater sense of anticipation. Unfortunately, while this is a wonderful book in some ways, that joy must be tempered by flaws in the quality of both the author's literary ability and the book's production values. Nevertheless, despite these regrettable defects, this is a must-read book for anyone with the slightest interest in the history of American conjuring. Lacking this material, one's knowledge must remain, by definition, sadly incomplete. However, the shortcomings of this work are so glaring that they are impossible to overlook. That the author cares about his subject is unmistakable; what is unfortunate, and intensely frustrating to the reader, is that he did not care quite enough to make certain to compensate for his own limitations. The book is poorly produced and simply not designed in any sense of the phrase. More significantly, the writing is painfully unskilled, and there is no sign of an editor having been anywhere near this manuscript. Worse still, as a work of history, the book is completely lacking in academic detail. An index, at the very least, is shockingly absent. There is no bibliography; in fact, the author does not footnote or otherwise cite his sources, and thus the book's value to future historians who will continue in this vein is severely limited. Factual details are sometimes in error; Irv Tannen will no doubt be surprised to learn of a greatly exaggerated rumor of his death, and Presto's superb and widely-used coin switch, recently discussed to in this space ( Genii , March, 1995) is mislabeled; one therefore wonders about other errors, especially in light of the lack of identified sources. The result of these many blemishes is ultimately an injustice to a story that is, in fact, often about injustice. But it is also about triumph, and must be celebrated, and above all read, as such.

8-1/2" x 11" Hardcover; 229 pages; Illustrated with photos, drawings and other reproductions; 1995; Published by Magus Enterprises