Mystery in History - Focus and Resources
Australian magical history, and theatre history in general, has been well served by a small number of enthusiastic researchers and collectors. Writers such as Will Alma and Brian McCullagh have contributed much detail about the performers, clubs, shops and creators of magic since about 1854 onwards. The many hours these writers have spent trawling over original documents, or tracking down surviving family members, is a credit to their persistence.
Despite this, a large field of enquiry still exists; little has been documented about the very earliest magicians to perform in Australia, and it is these magicians that “Mystery In History” aims to reveal.
The advent of text-searchable newspaper archives permits a vastly wider, more comprehensive, and rapid search for performers; at least, those who were mentioned via advertising or commentary in the newspapers. I am in the fortunate position of having so many ‘new’ names appear at every turn, that it becomes difficult to focus on just one performer at a time. The wealth of material is exciting and exhausting.
Of course, not all early performers appeared in theatres, or even in reputable taverns. Many itinerant wizards would have toured the countryside putting up small handbills, or performing in the temporary encampments which sprang up during the frenzied years of the Gold Rush. These will be far more difficult to track down.
With so many new names to be documented, my aim at present is simply to complete the listing of as many names as possible, starting with the very earliest magicians (around 1836) to the late 1860s. After that date, only those performers who have previously been missed from the record will receive attention, unless a significant addition can be made to their tales. For this reason, high-profile and already-documented conjurers such as Wizard Jacobs and John Henry Anderson do not fall into the scope of my present interests.
Likewise, I have not fleshed out every story with the sort of research which might be found by enquiries into the archives of early Government, immigration or family history. This may follow; what is told here is mostly what is revealed through newspapers.
References are given to the sources in most stories. All items on the Mystery in History site have been researched and documented by myself, Kent Blackmore. The site is a work in progress, and stories may be incrementally updated as new information comes to light.
Major Sources :-
National Library of Australia “Trove” online
This invaluable resource provides a tool not available to the early researchers – online searching by keywords and phrases. Trove provides links to documents, books, photographs, other libraries and more; in particular the extensive range of searchable newspapers is literally a “treasure trove” waiting to be mined. Newspapers are not locked behind a paywall.
State Library of New South Wales
A useful online search for books, maps and other materials to assist with background social history detail. Includes the Robbins Collection of Stage Magic, a large book collection once owned by Leslie Cole, the Great Levante.
State Records Authority of NSW
Immigration and Shipping lists, convict research, theatrical licensing and much more.
City of Sydney Archives
Searchable index particularly helpful for early maps, images and city guides.
Magical Nights at the Theatre – Australian Variety Theatre Memorabilia
In 1941, magic enthusiast Charles Wicks commissioned magician and author Charles Waller to list every overseas magician who performed in Melbourne from the earliest times onwards. The resulting work also included jugglers, ventriloquists and quick change artists who visited Melbourne. It was published only in 1980 after Waller’s ill-health prevented further work from 1948, and his death in 1960.
The book is unquestionably the primary source for researching magic history in Australia. While it is Melbourne-centric, contains numerous errors of fact, and starts in 1854 with the Fakir of Ava, “Magical Nights” is the starting point from which all further research extends; it has the added bonus of being a personal reminiscence from 1895 onwards.
Conjurors, Cardsharps and Conmen
”A comprehensive history of one of the most popular theatrical entertainments of nineteenth-century New Zealanders”. This new work in the field of magic history in the Southern Hemisphere is exactly what its subtitle says – a comprehensive history. In almost 550 pages a massive number of magicians, performing in New Zealand, are documented from 1855 to 1899 with news reports, images, and commentary on the state of NZ theatre at the time. As a companion to research into Australian magic history, an invaluable book, since many performers crossed between the two countries (although it is surprising just how many did not, considering the relative closeness of the geography). A further volume of post-1899 performers is in preparation.
W.G. Alma Conjuring Collection and ‘The Magic Circle Mirror’
Will Alma (1904-1993) was a performer, prop maker, mechanic to many illusionists, historian and researcher from Victoria, Australia. His large collection of photographs, research files, books, posters and other memorabilia now resides at the State Library of Victoria, which curates and promotes the collection so that it does not disappear.
Access to Alma’s photographs is simple; an online search will locate many magicians and performers, and a great many photographs may be reproduced without special licence.
The SLV also has a guide to researching magicians here: http://guides.slv.vic.gov.au/magic
The Alma Collection is described here. The librarians are enthusiastic and helpful; however Alma’s files on performers are held offsite and are not indexed. The only way to access them is by requesting information on a particular person or topic. This means that a researcher needs to know what is being sought – one cannot browse through the files to see what new links or insights might be available.
However, a good indication of what is in the Alma files can be found in a magazine published by Alma, “The Magic Circle Mirror” incorporating “Australian Magic Review” from 1971-1977. Indexes in Vol.2/#2 April 1972, Vol.6/#3 May 1976, and Vol.6/#11 January 1977 show the scope of the full articles, or briefer mentions, in the magazine. Alma, often opinionated, starts at 1854 and goes through to the late 1800s. In addition the magazine has stories on magicians of later years and other anecdotes garnered from his scrapbooks. In some cases, Alma makes judgements based on the information he has at hand, when further research would be desirable (for instance, in April 1972 he writes off Professor Lennox as a “lesser light of magic”, referring only to a ten-night season in Melbourne, when in fact Lennox had a vastly more extensive career in Australia.) and errors of fact can certainly be found. However he must have devoted an incredible amount of time to trawling libraries for the data he found. His writings are a crucial starting point for any researcher.