Not so long ago the mention of conjuring evoked an image of a man in a black cloak pulling rabbits out of a hat. Well that man was The Great Wizard of the North credited as the originator of the trick. Another of his equally celebrated illusions was the death-defying Great Gun Trick in which he appeared to catch a bullet fired from a gun. More subdued but equally amazing was the magician’s ability to produce watches out of locked boxes. Yes, The Wizard of the North’s famous dexterity made him one of the 19th century’s greatest showmen known the world over and a performer who became a huge influence on the great Harry Houdini.
This global phenomenon was a talented and diligent Scot from Aberdeen who bamboozled and delighted shopkeepers and heads of state alike with such favourites as his Inexhaustible Bottle which produced whichever drink members of the audience requested and his Animated Oranges and Flying Guinea Pig routines.
The adept Great Wizard even claimed to render inanimate objects capable of holding conversations and if that was not impressive enough for the audience the objects would display their aptitude for dancing and keeping a musical beat.
Offstage the Great Wizard was John Henry Anderson, born at Craigmyle, Kincardine O’Neil a few miles west of Aberdeen in northeast Scotland in 1814. Orphaned at ten John was apprenticed to a blacksmith at Aberdeen Coach Works where his fellow employees included the acclaimed artists John Phillip and George Reith but the boy held an ambition to become an actor and one went off with a group of travelling theatrical players. However it was when he saw his first conjuring act that the youth was overtaken by the magic bug. In succeeding years he transformed the art of conjuring from fairground entertainment to major theatrical spectacles.
Anderson’s big breakthrough came when he entertained Lord Panmure of Brechin Castle who described his talent as the best he had ever witnessed. With this endorsement ringing in his ears Anderson felt able to begin touring as a professional magician who found himself equally adept as a self-publicist; his tours were hugely promoted with all manner of advertising from posters to parades, painted streets and handbills declaring ‘Anderson is Coming!’ and even the butter served up by hotels in towns he was appearing carried his first stage name, The Great Caledonian Conjuror (he had a set of moulds made which were sent ahead of his appearances so dairies could produce his edible ads).
His transformation from The Great Caledonian Conjuror to The Great Wizard of the North came directly from the original Wizard of the North, Sir Walter Scott, according to Anderson’s own account.
Anderson was a family man and father of several children, some legitimate with his Aberdonian wife, Hannah Longherst, who assisted him in his shows, and others illegitimate. His children, too, appeared on stage with Anderson. One daughter was a singer and another a pianist with the gift of ‘second sight’. Of Anderson’s sons, John Henry Jr tried to follow his father as a magician having learnt his craft under him but he never made the grade and died in jail in America in 1878. As for Anderson himself he died still touring, in Darlington in England on February 3rd 1874, and was buried at his request alongside his mother in Aberdeen’s St. Nicholas Cemetery.
Success followed success for John Henry Anderson and in 1840 he took London by storm and it is believed he performed before at least a third of the city’s population. Touring with his shows often meant hiring a theatre for the duration of his stay. In Glasgow he poured a lot of money into financing the enormous City Theatre on Glasgow Green and when it burnt down in 1845, Anderson was left with huge debts. A similar fate awaited his hire of the Convent Garden Theatre in London for it too burnt down, in 1856, plunging the Aberdonian deeper into debt. What happened was this. John Anderson had taken the London theatre on a short lease and was celebrating the end of his run with a masked ball when around 5 am the party was coming to a close at the playing of the national anthem when shouts of ‘fire’ rang through the building. Only 200 or so guests were still in the building and they all escaped unhurt but the theatre was lost apart from its frontage.
City Theatre burning
Undaunted by the catastrophe, Anderson moved on, touring as The Great Wizard of the North or Professor Anderson. He was rapturously received in America where his personable manner led to him being referred to a ‘gentlemanly performer’ in the ‘mystic art’. Broadway audiences went wild for the spectacular illusions he created night after night in 1851.
In Boston’s Melodeon theatre the following year, the Professor astounded his audience with the Inexhaustible Bottle trick. Assisted by his young son, Anderson passed around his ‘bottle’ which dutifully filled up with brandy, rum, gin, whisky and wines as audience members requested. One reporter admitted he was at a loss to explain how the vast quantities of liquids materialised from such a small container, with a gallon being poured from a quart bottle. This illusion was played on Tsar Nicholas of Russia, royals of Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Hanover and Prussia. World-wide millions of people from all classes are thought to have drunk from his magic bottle.
Touring became John Henry Anderson’s life. Audiences across Europe, Canada, Australia, Russia and America flocked to witness his astounding feats of legerdemain although performances in the southern states of America during its Civil War were cancelled because the southerners believed the Wizard of the North was a damn Yankee.
Recently replica medals were issued by the Yankee Gathering X in Massachusetts in commemoration of the New England Magic Collectors’ Association’s founding and were copies of those original ones struck to mark Anderson’s command performance in 1849 at Balmoral Castle where the Wizard had been invited by Queen Victoria to entertain Prince Albert on his birthday.
Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums have a rare Anderson medal which you can see if you click on the link to Aberdeen Quest.
In the Northern states they loved him and it should be said his accent, described in the New York Times as ‘unique’.
“Of Wizards who speak the English language we have but few, and their abilities, as a general thing, are third-rate. Professor Anderson, happily, cannot be accused of making more use of the English language than he can possibly help, and for this reason, perhaps, he is decidedly preferable to the ordinary run of performers. Conjurers have always been famous for having a jargon of their own. Prof. Anderson’s is a little more pompous than usual, but it has the true ring of the showman.”
New York Times, 26 March 1861
Among those Anderson thrilled and awed was King Kammehameha of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Queen Pomare of the Society Islands, Paul, Chief of the Canadian Indians. His stop in the Sandwich Islands came as he travelled from Australia to California on the ship Milwaukee and during his performance, Anderson borrowed King Kammehameha ‘s cocked hat and put it down on the grass and covered it with a handkerchief. When the handkerchief was raised the hat had disappeared. A servant was sent up a cocoanut tree where he collected the largest cocoanut he could find. On breaking it open the King’s hat was found rolled up within its shell. The King offered Anderson 1000 dollars to teach him the trick. The Wizard would not take any money but he did teach him how to do it.
The Wizard would lure in audiences to his shows by offering valuable prizes for the best conundrums offered by audience members. On the 6th February 1852 thirteen members of a New York audience were drafted in as jury for the Great Conundrum evening at which the prize was a silver tea service of kettle, teapot, jug, water and sugar bowls valued at $400.
Anderson compiled in excess of 1000 conundrums and riddles supplied by New Yorkers and others into his Wizard’s Book of Conundrums. Here is an example of one from which came from a fellow Aberdonian: ‘Why is a pig like a potato?’ ‘Because neither of them knows anything about the circumbendibus railway.’ Which only goes to prove everything in its own time.
Not everyone was won over by Anderson’s extravagant prizes. While touring New Zealand, he failed to draw audiences in at first despite offering all kinds of valuables including a silver purse, sapphire ring, a hunting watch but a reporter at one performance was impressed with the entertainment on offer at his local Oddfellow’s Hall and described one of the card tricks as an enticement to others to catch the Wizard before his run ended. The trick involved two or three people from his audience selecting two, three or six playing cards from a pack. The magician then placed the cards in a box which he locked and gave the key to a different member of the audience. He then walked through the hall and fired a pistol at star-shaped stage prop which revealed the chosen cards and of course when the locked box was then opened it was found to be empty. The reporter went on to enthuse about the Professor’s ‘marvellous feats’, sleights of hand and illusions: ‘the production of bowls of water, with gold fish in them, from what was apparently an empty cloth.’
At that same performance we learn how Anderson touched on spiritualism. Now John Henry Anderson was a master of his craft. He loved performing and his audiences loved to be amazed by his tricks and they were tricks often possible only from sophisticated apparatus (on which no expense was spared). Anderson never claimed to have paranormal powers unlike popular charlatans of the day who took to the stage as psychics who could communicate with those in the afterlife. The 19th century craze for spiritualism encouraged many unsavoury characters to prey on emotionally vulnerable people. Anderson was determined to expose them as the frauds they were.
One such set-up in his sights were the Davenport Brothers, Ira and William from New York. A stage specialty of theirs was to be tied up and placed inside a ‘spirit cabinet’ which contained various musical instruments. The audience would hear music being played and when the cabinet was opened the brothers would still be bound. Anderson revealed that their bindings were held by a simple slip knot which did the brothers’ reputation no good at all.
Anderson included ‘spiritualism’in his shows to reveal deception undertaken by the likes of the Davenports. So the New Zealand audience was presented with Mademoiselle de la Cour, most probably Anderson’s daughter or niece playing a role which was ‘very startling as well as funny’.
Before cinemas and television, travelling show people earned their livings the hard way treading the boards in theatres and halls across countries and continents. Exhausting certainly but there was camaraderie as well as competition among peripatetic performers. On one occasion when meeting a group of admirers Anderson introduced the illustrious showman, P T Barnum, on tour with General Tom Thumb, as the Great Wizard, all the time building up interest in his own forthcoming performance. Barnum went along with the practical joke for a time then announced he would be giving away free passes to the show and by the time he had distributed around 40 of them, Anderson ended the deception with a cry of, ‘Hold on! I am the Wizard of the North. I’ll stand the orders already given, but not another one.’
Apart from his undoubted skill as a performer, Anderson’s extravagant props were legendary – solid silver it is claimed. He also gathered equipment given to him by fellow-magicians. The year before he died several of his ‘stage paraphernalia’ from his ‘world of magic and comic shadows’ went to auction in Liverpool. A report in the Liverpool Mercury for the 18th January describes ‘curiosities’ and ‘magical apparatus’ which went under the hammer:bundles of muslin curtains, a selection of Scotch claymores, old muskets and magic back chairs, carpets and Indian clubs, New Zealand curiosities and glass lustres from Birmingham, cuckoo clocks and African neckties, dress swords and a drop curtain, a blunderbuss and transparent blinds, diamond rings, Japanese lanterns, a self-acting clock, a six-shot revolver, a ‘clarionet,’ a mechanical ship, engravings, a quantity of wire ropes, theatrical wardrobes, baskets, hampers, chessmen, violins, advertising frames, stuffed birds– on and on went the list of objects.
Buyers were as varied as the sale items: brokers, bootmakers, actors, schoolmasters, ‘ballet girls,’ musicians, theatrical managers, publicans, bandmasters all piled in for a piece of the Great Wizard.
First to be sold were the muslin curtains – bought by a bootmaker. A ‘great silver-plated rabbit production cover’ sold for 8shillings, a silver-plated blunderbuss and magic balls went for 10 shillings and a green baize lined chest, said to have been twice round the world sold for 17/6. The Scotch claymore, owned it was claimed by a Colonel Campbell who had fought in the Crimea was snapped up by a theatrical costumier for 35shillings.
John Henry Anderson once said, ‘It is the duty of all magicians to give entertainment’ and in this he certainly succeeded. He was buried, as he had instructed, alongside his beloved mother Mary Robertson in a grave in Aberdeen’s Mither Kirk graveyard. When the Great Houdini called by to pay his respects in 1909, he was shocked by the state of the grave and its stone so made provision to have it maintained. The gravestone John Henry provided for his mother reads:
In memory of
His beloved mother
Who died 8th January
1830. Aged 40
Yes! She had friends when
fortune smiled, if frown’d
they knew her not! She died
the orphan wept but lived to
mark this Hallowed Spot.
HERE ALSO RESTS THE ABOVE
WIZARD OF THE NORTH
In the year Anderson died, 1874, his great admirer Harry Houdini was born. As well as paying for the upkeep of Anderson’s neglected grave, Houdini had hundreds of pairs of shoes made for distribution to the poor barefoot children he encountered on his tours around Scotland. His generosity echoed that of The Great Wizard who while in America had given generously to charities for the poor.
Houdini visiting John Henry Anderson’s grave in St. Nicholas’ cemetery.
When the cable announcing the death of Scotland’s Great Wizard reached the USA the New York Times ran an obituary which demonstrated the country’s strong regard for the Professor. It praised his proficiency as ‘an exceedingly skilful conjurer’ who had entertained ‘many of the crowned heads of Europe.’ It suggested Anderson’s first magic trick was making a pudding in a hat and recalled how he had been immediately successful when arriving for the first of many tours of America as a necromancer certainly but also as an actor playing the role of Rob Roy although on that aspect of his talent the newspaper was less complimentary.
John Henry Anderson was a giant of the magician’s stagecraft who was hugely admired during his life by the great and the good and all others in-between. It is regrettable that he appears to have been largely forgotten by the town of his birth.