Conjurors and Conjuring in the 1700s

William Hogarth’s a “Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism,” March 15, 1762. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Conjurors and conjuring existed long before the 1700s, and in its simplest form, conjuring was a performance of tricks that appeared to be magical and usually involved some sort of sleight of hand. Well before conjuring became popular in the 1700s, conjuring performances were given in antiquity and in the middle ages. However, there was never an overabundance of conjurors, even in the late 1800s, as one historian noted:

“I have said nothing concerning the manners and habits of conjurors, simply because there is nothing to be said. There are so few conjurors, as compared with circus performers, or members of the theatrical profession, that they do not contract those peculiarities of manner, language, and dress by which individuals of other classes of entertainers may almost invariably be distinguished. Performing singly, and each being (except occasionally in London or Paris) the only conjuror in the town which he is temporarily located, they have few opportunities of association, and those peculiarities which are the product of gregariousness are, in consequence, not developed. The conjuror, again, is very seldom trained to the profession from his youth, … and this being the case, as it has been with all the most eminent performers of legerdemain, they carry into the profession the habits and manners of the section of society in which they are born.”[1]

Isaac Fawkes. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the earliest and most talented conjurors of the 1700s was Isaac Fawkes. He became famous in the 1720s and was well-known for having a booth at the annual fairs held in Bartholomew and Southwark. His act included conjuring, contortionism, and exhibiting mechanical devices created by the clock maker Christopher Pinchbeck, with whom Fawkes had a long-standing partnership. Fawkes was also one of the earliest conjurors to use the Egg Bag, which allowed him to produce or vanish small objects. He also threw a deck of cards into the air that amazingly transformed into birds and became so popular that his name “Fawkes” becoming synonymous with skillful conjuring abilities.

Regularly announcements were made about his arrival in cities. For instance, one Scottish newspaper reported in June of 1728 that “some … who are reputed Artists in Legerdemain, are preparing to go into the Country for the Vacation; on the contrary Mr. Fawkes is just arrived in Town to play his juggling Tricks in their Absence; expected to have all the Practice to himself.”[2] Another announcement on his arrival in London occurred about a year later. It noted that he had prepared “New and surprizing Performances by Dexterity of Hand, also with some fine Pieces of Machinery in which are most beautiful Paintings, melodious Musick, and curious Motions, with several other diverting Pieces, not be equal’d in any other Part of the World.”[3]

Another conjuror who gained fame was a man named Yeates (and often called the younger). He was noted in 1733 to have an “incomparable dexterity.” In 1738, a newspaper reported that his booth at the Southwark Fair had been broken into and his wardrobe stripped. The theft temporarily “incapacitated” him from performing, but fortunately, it was reported that the same afternoon, “a fellow was taken up and secur’d on Suspicion of being concern’d in the Robbery.”[4] Yeates was also well-known enough that when he married Mrs. Lee (who was also known for her agreeably entertainment with Drolls at the Bartholomew and Southwark Fairs), an announcement was made in the Derby Mercury in April of 1739.

The riot at the theater related to the Bottle Conjurer. Courtesy of British Museum.

One anonymous conjuror of 1749 became known as the “Bottle Conjuror” (or “Bottle Conjurer”). Advertisements began to appear in newspapers that the Bottle Conjuror was set to perform a variety of amazing feats at the New Theater in the Haymarket. The conjuror advertised that while wearing a mask he would be able to identify anyone who came to him and that he could draw the likeness of any dead person requested by any audience member. He also guaranteed that while on stage and in full view of the audience, he would stuff himself, from head to toe, into a common quart bottle. Of course, the theatre was full of excited patrons, but ultimately, the conjuror did not appear on stage and a minor riot ensued.

A French conjuror grabbed Londoner’s attention a few years later. He was called Sieur Comus, but his real name was Nicolas-Philipe Ledru. In Paris, his show was situated on the Boulevard du Temple, a spot where Madame Tussaud’s mentor, Philippe Mathé Curtius, would open his Salon de Cire. Comus also had a reputation as a magician, and one historian noted “his repertoire included prestidigitation, mind reading, and fortune-telling, along with optics and electricity.”[5]

Comus arrived in England in 1765 and appeared at Panton Street that same year around Christmas time. He was a huge hit and although he had originally planned to stay for a few short weeks, he stayed three months, gave two performances daily (noon and 6pm), and charged 5 shillings. One English newspaper reported on the profitability of his shows stating that he had “acquired no less than 5000l. most of which he will carry off with him.”[6] Yet, despite the profitability of his shows, Comus found greater satisfaction in the scientific field because “he had also learned about the construction of scientific instruments in England, and, in 1781, Louis XVI commissioned him to build instruments and prepare meteorological maps for the navy.”[7] Having gained respectability, he also began to treat epileptics, and, in 1784, Louis XVI gave him the title of “Physician to the King.”

Sleight of hand. Public domain.

The next popular conjuror who grabbed headlines was named Jonas. Unfortunately, there was another conjuror named Jonas in the business. The original Jonas challenged the other Jonas to a public competition in 1769 but got no response. The original Jonas then began advertising himself as “the famous Jonas (who is the real and only Mr. Jonas)”[8] and charging an admittance of a shilling to see his exhibition. He opened a new exhibition in early 1773 located on James Street, Convent Garden, gave only evening performances, and raised his entrance fee to half-a-crown. He then suddenly disappeared, becoming one of the last conjurors to stand out in the 1700s. Moreover, by the late 1700s, it appeared as if conjuring might disappear altogether just as Jonas did, which caused one modern historian to write:

“[T]he social position of the professional conjuror was at this period even more dubious than that of the actor. The prejudice against his art and its professors which had been born of ignorance and superstition was dying out with the process of mental enlightenment; but he was ranked, in common with the juggler, the posturer, and the tumbler, as a vagrant, and in his provincial ramblings was something in danger of being treated in that character with the stocks.”[9]

Despite such reports, that was not the end of conjuring. Another famous conjuror rose to fame in the early 1800s. He was a Frenchman known as Monsieur Val. In addition, conjuring continued to be popular with the public into the late 1800s.

References:

  • [1] Thomas Frost, The Lives of the Conjurors (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1876), p. viii.
  • [2] Caledonian Mercury, “From the Post Boy,” June 10, 1728, p. 1.
  • [3] Derby Mercury, April 10, 1729, p. 3.
  • [4] Ipswich Journal, “London September 12,” September 19, 1741, p. 1.
  • [5] Thomas L. Hankins and Robert J. Silverman, Instruments and the Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 61.
  • [6] Manchester Mercury, May 13, 1766, p. 2.
  • [7] T. L. Hankins, and Robert J. Silverman, p. 61.
  • [8] T. Frost, p. 123.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 125–26.

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