See Eric Lott, pp112, 214-215 and pp 218-9.
Barnum’s ‘purchase’ of Joice Heth from her Philadelphia manager in July 1835 might be said to “mark the birthdate of modern American popular culture”. It coincided with “the massive expansion of commercial entertainment that was beginning to take shape on and around lower Broadway … [and] also connected Barnum to a particular mode of popular culture that would pervade this urban entertainment district (and others around the country like it) throughout the nineteenth century: what might be described, collectively, as artful deception.”
Barnum staged his exhibition in the William Niblo entertainment center on Broadway and Prince Streets, a large space which “had earlier been developed as a showplace for panorama paintings, a widely popular form of trompe l’oeil entertainment … ”
Nearby, at Niblo’s Gardens, Monsieur Adrien, “one of the first individuals to perform sleight of hand on a fashionable stage in this country” was appearing. And “a few doors down … Signor Antonio Blitz, antebellum America’s most successful magician on the urban exhibition circuit, … like Barnum – was making his New York show business debut at this very moment.”
Cook’s description of Heth’s role fits well with Rourke’s observation that Americans were more interested in the burlesque of the American Revolution than in honouring it as a solemn event in the birth of the nation.]
Even as early as the Heth exhibition, Barnum allowed for the fact that his presentation might be a hoax.
The press and the audiences attending Barnum’s Heth presentation seems to have “understood quite well that promotional puffery was an integral part of the showman’s craft” but nobody saw it as fraud.
When he toured Whiggish New England after Democratic New York, Barnum added in a promotional ‘drawing card’ to appeal to any abolitionist sentiment. In Boston they exhibited Heth “in an exhibition room right next door to the most celebrated popular curiosity of the mid-1830s – Johann Maelzel’s automaton chess-player … whose status as an authentic thinking machine remained a matter of intense public doubt, speculation, and debate.” When the Heth magic started to wane, Barnum simply spread rumours by anonymous newspaper reports that Heth might be nothing more than an automaton, a “piece of mechanical trompe l’oeil … ”
In this way, Barnum created “the suggestion that the deliberate act of promotional fraud was nothing more than good, clean Yankee fun; and the artful repositioning of the Boston audience from the role of observers to observed, looking and laughing … not only at Heth but at each other … was beginning to transform the Joice Heth exhibition from a plausible work of realism into a far more slippery form of
illusionism … ”
Heth died in February 1836 so Barnum staged a public autopsy of her body.
Richard Adams Locke’s Moon hoax: “the telescopic discovery of lunar creatures” as reported on the front page of the New York ‘Sun’ was followed by Locke’s description of Barnum’s “show business debut as ‘one of the most precious humbugs that ever was imposed upon a credulous community.”
Barnum then played the editor of the New York ‘Herald’ for a fool by feeding him a load of old rubbish about the Heth post-mortem. Bennett, the editor, was ever after given to denouncing Barnum’s show business. Barnum himself switched between portraying himself as the “virtuoso trickster” and “unsuspecting dupe”.
As to Heth herself, whether she was part of the trick or a dupe, Cook has no knowledge. Suffice it to say, though, that “white northern urbanites spent a great deal more time gazing at caricatures of blackness on stage than interacting with African Americans outside the exhibition hall.”
Barnum, more than anyone else seemed to instinctively know “what America’s very first mass audience would find especially curious to pay to see.”
And artful deception was “one of the most pervasive currents within this culture … ” Artful deception, “(along with circus management) … is the single skill … for which [Barnum] is best remembered today.” Playful fraud or
“artful deception was one of the main currents in American popular culture in the Age of Barnum … [and] Minstrelsy and melodrama are the only other non-literary cultural events even comparable in scale, durability and diversity … ”
Barnum, already from 1835, gave his audiences [something of a game] in that “they were hardly the unsuspecting suckers of show business folklore.” The game in question was “a perceptual contest played out between showman and viewer, in which the curiosity on display was approached by the public as dubious and evaluated according to competing claims of authenticity set out by the showman’s advertisements.” Barnum, that is to say, engaged in a “self-conscious mode of sleuthing”. Barnum, though, did not simply show the behind-the-scenes secrets and deceits; he just as frequently “created the appearance of behind-the-scenes secrets and promotional deceits for public evaluation … ” Barnum didn’t so much unmask as appear to unmask.
The audience enjoyed the joke played upon them; they had “a collective recognition that the exhibition hall debates were producing plenty of contradictory theories, but very few convincing solutions.”
There was a paradox of counterfeit and currency.
Barnum never said that there’s a sucker born every minute. Rather, more interestingly, he said that ‘The public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.’ He said this in his 1855 autobiography.
In common with the automaton chess-player, sleight-of-hand stage magic and trompe d’loeil painting, the popularity of Barnum’s deceptions “grew out of [a] capacity to be both things at once, an ambiguity that was never fully . … a sort of built-in perceptual fuzziness … ”
Artful deception can’t be pinned down to a period in the same way that Impressionism, say, can, but nevertheless “between about 1830 and 1900 this diverse collection
of exhibitory tricks followed a number of relatively consistent observable patterns.”
The successful formula involved (i) “a calculated intermixing of the genuine and the fake, enchantment and disenchantment … ”, (ii) the audience wanted to be fooled but also wanted attention to be drawn the act of fooling and (iii) “the deception always involved at least a modicum of narrative – an entertaining story that delivered the trick.”
Barnum’s presentation of Joice Heth deliberately exploited each of those images of ‘blackness’ which “had a broad circulation in the antebellum North”; i.e., She was supposedly a faithful slave who bore no ill-will against her master; a nurturing black nursemaid, a devout and pious Christian, and a gifted folksinger.
Barnum’s humbugs invariably carried within them the possibility that they were “genuine curiosities.”
The artful deceptions of American show business had antecedents in pre-nineteenth-century European culture but
it “rose to especial prominence in American cultural history.”
William Harnett’s trompe d’loeil painting made him “one of the country’s most commercially successful oil painters after 1875.”
Cook locates the American ability to walk the fine line between “upsetting and immoral acts of fraud … and acceptable forms of amusement” in the C19th. Presumably, that’s the case. [However, we should not imagine that with the dawning of the C20th the trickster vanished. I suggest that he’s still alive and well but takes different forms, that he’s still behaving much the same and is still allowed to walk the line, more frequently crossing it into fraud. Take the new Attorney General and his connections with Enron – the law firm he’s a partner in represented Enron ]
Barnum welcomed anyone who could pay the 25 cent admission fee to his Museum but had a rigid proviso that the b’hoys and g’hals of the Bowery “check their Bowery behaviour … at the door.” i.e., he catered to the middle-class, middlebrow family values.
Yet the 19th century American middle-class was notoriously anxious about and ever on the lookout for fraud in all of its guises. “These nineteenth century urbanites worried frequently … about how to represent themselves – and identify each other – as genuinely respectable. They fretted about how to distinguish the public behaviour of their central mythic hero (the self-made man) from that of the era’s most notorious white-collar criminal (the confidence man). They even worried about deceptions in the spirit world, mounting public investigations to differentiate between authentic mediums and a distressingly large assortment of parlor charlatans. Worries about deception, in short, were positively endemic to the culture of the new middle class. They surfaced at
home and in the streets, at work and at play, in this world and in the afterlife.”
February 3, 1826, Johann Maelzel arrived in New York City from Europe and by April 1826 newspaper advertisements appeared for the automaton chess player exhibition or demonstration at the National Hotel, 112 Broadway. Fifty cents admission meant that it was not for the same audience as those attending Barnum’s Museum, a decade later.
Whereas C18th European theorists who claimed to have ‘cracked’ the secret of the automaton as presented by Kempelen were “separated from one another by geography and limited print sources … Maelzel’s fans had access to a single textual intermediary through which to negotiate and consume this information maelstrom—their daily newspaper.”
In 1856 the respected Philadelphia physician [JC/30], John Kearsley Mitchell [who in 1857 wrote the ‘obituary’ of the automaton, JC/30], “portrayed the Turk [the automaton chess player] as a sympathetic friend and colleague, a ‘republican’ worthy of ‘our respect, since, perhaps, no other man has ever checked the march of so many kings as he.’
Up until the late 1820s, the chess automaton had only ever been beaten by ‘gentlemen’, both in Europe and the USA but in Philadelphia a woman was successful and then
a ‘handsome youth’; i.e., ‘ordinary citizens’. Cook suggests that since Maelzel was extraordinarily careful to have only the best chess masters as his assistant during these years that it is reasonable to question whether the “wave of losses after 1826 was deliberate, a deception.
For one thing, “Maelzel’s arrival in the United States coincided with a fundamental reorganization of the craft professions in the Northeast’s urban centers, a reorganization which subdivided and de-skilled many traditional artisanal careers … ” Those who could afford to attend his performances were not under immediate threat of unemployment but it coincided with social unrest in the 1820s and 1830s consequent upon the “new industrial system of production” and so it was a “subject of concern” to have a machine take control.
Another way of looking at it is to relate it to what Barnum later called ‘family entertainment’ but
with the white male as the trickster.
Despite the fact that countless theories had been advanced to explain the trick involved in the automaton, the newspapers of keeping the guessing game going.
Urban newspapers chronicled the game and was part of the game of “perpetual life and controversy”. As evidence, he cites the accidental discovery of the secret by two teenage witnesses in Baltimore in 1827. The told their local newspaper and their report no sooner appeared when a rival
newspaper declared the story of the discovery to be unreliable, dubious, and probably a ruse of the show business entrepreneur.
Maelzel seems not to have engaged in such publicity stunts but Barnum certainly did, later, but already in 1827, it seems, “dubious authenticity defined the object on display—made it curious—and … cheap daily print sources served as the primary tool for big-city showmen to construct and manipulate such suspicions.”
Maelzel, for his part, certainly impressed on Barnum (when the Joice Heth exhibition was in Boston in an adjoining space to the automaton) the importance of the newspaper.
The role of the press, then, was “not simply to notify the public about one’s popular cultural tricks, but to keep the public guessing at all times, to destabilize and perpetuate the process of public solution.”
“ … American audiences never quite answered [the question as to whether Maelzel was a brilliant inventor or a cunning trickster] and did not seem to mind … ” Those audiences regarded “such unresolved theorizing” as entertaining and that taught Barnum an invaluable lesson about showmanship.
In his 1973 biography of Barnum, Neil Harris suggests that Barnum’s success was the outcome of his “scripting his promotions according to the egalitarian ideals and rhetorics of the 1830s and 1840s.” Harris described such “promotion as a ‘democratic’ mode of discourse (in the Northern Jacksonian sense of the term) … ‘Technological progress and egalitarian self-confidence … combined to make many Americans certain of their opinions—and so easy prey for the hoaxers.’ Others have taken this point of view and Andie Tucher adds that “Barnum’s humbugs indulged a Jacksonian fondness for energetic vocal participation in the urban public sphere … ‘Working through and solving a hoax,’ she argues, became a kind of ‘republican right,’ for it ‘demanded from every citizen the democratic duty of judgment … the democratic delight of choice … the democratic satisfaction of participating in public life.’ ”
Cook says that there’s an important difference between Barnum’s use of democratic style and the specific ‘problems’ at the heart of the Jacksonian democratic discourse. It says nothing to describe the problems as hoaxes. We need to determine “what kinds of social, economic, and moral concerns were at stake in the showman’s exhibitions, as humbuggery
became one of America’s most pervasive forms of urban amusement. How was the literal truth defined—and differentiated from other forms of truth—in these battles of wits between showman and audience? What larger processes were these viewers observing during the early years of Barnum’s career … as they gazed intently at his dubious cultural goods on lower Broadway?”
“… Barnum’s humbuggery … [was] not merely the democratic rhetoric of see-for-yourself problem-solving employed by Barnum and his customers, but [we need also examine it in the context of] the larger urban market forces which fuelled the problems themselves. The complex system of urban market exchange that emerged during the first half of the nineteenth century looked to many contemporary observers like a kind of humbug too … ”
We need to ask how “Barnum’s deceits play[ed] on more general anxieties about commercial imposture practiced in the city’s streets, newspapers, or shops?” What criteria did antebellum Americans use to distinguish “between humbug-as-amusement and humbug as crime, and why did this distinction dissolve on certain occasions during the 1840s?”
As Barnum himself explained in ‘Humbugs of the World’ (1865) “Suspicions about fraud were rife everywhere in this brave new economic world, part of what made it feel so new and different.” It was up to every consumer to ‘transact … business to the best of your ability [and] on your own judgment.’
Barnum became Prince of Humbug’ [JC/119 “the winking puffer behind half-exposed deceits] with his Feejee Mermaid.
Barnum’s arrival on the scene raised questions about “what it meant —both morally and legally—to get one’s money’s worth in antebellum America … how to reconceptualise truth in a society that increasingly allowed urban merchants to exaggerate claims about themselves and the products they traded … the acceptable limits of such embellishments in the context of mass-distributed newspapers
and printed advertisements. … Why confine public speculation about one’s new curiosity to the conventional questions of natural history when this curiosity might also serve as a public litmus test for debating the conventional deviance of market capitalism?”
In New York, Barnum found himself in a marketplace where the personal reputation of the producer no longer stood behind the product and where the value of what was being sold had to be assessed based on the claim of “a salesman who probably did not produce the good.” [the merchandise] The buyer had to “decide whether or not the seller’s claim was worth the gamble.”
“America’s market revolution first took root during the 1780s and 1790s … in the New England countryside … in places just like Bethel, where Barnum and his sharp-trading Yankee relatives had long run a small freight enterprise, worked as lottery agents, entertained various peddling schemes, and proudly celebrated the business acumen of local merchants, who were never above ‘shaving’ a customer here and there to get ahead.”
But with all this trading experience, Barnum was woefully unprepared for “market capitalism on such a grand urban scale, in such a rapidly changing and complex environment.”
The term ‘cute Yankee’ “referred to a familiar social type—usually a Northeastern entrepreneur renowned for his ‘sharp’ trading practices.”
“Even when … [Barnum] admitted his own frauds, the goal was to produce suspicion rather than closure, to raise interpretive possibilities rather than solve the case.” Whereas the Peales set out to “promote genuine wonders of nature, the power of human reason, and the virtues of a clearly organised collection … Barnum, by contrast, promoted these virtues’ opposites: a dubious representation of a natural wonder, a mass exercise in perceptual confusion, and perhaps the most unscientific collection of curiosities in the history of Western culture.”
Barnum as trickster simultaneously argued for and against the authenticity of his exhibits [twin motif] using advertisements to “call into question the validity of all of his promotional claims.” He even set up and financed an apparent competitor and then each accused the other “of giving a low return for the customer’s entertainment dollar … ”
Peal “encouraged his viewers to pursue the questions of an Enlightenment naturalist [whereas Barnum encouraged them] to think like an antebellum speculator: to recreate, in a sense, the young showman’s own somewhat perilous economic education at the hands of shifty curiosity traders and unscrupulous business partners.”
Barnum’s exhibits “did not merely represent antebellum market relations in a cultural setting—it was a publicly scrutinised form of those relations. Whereas early modern theatre audiences [(including those in Elizabethan England)] had looked on from the pit, boxes, and galleries, Barnum’s American Museum audiences broke down the fourth wall and entered the drama. Or, rather, their attempts to sort out Barnum’s dubious claims about his cultural goods was the drama.”
Reaction against Barnum in the South, Philadelphia
and even in New York suggested that he had crossed a moral threshold; they could take a degree of humbug, some newspaper editors cried, but not to the extent that Barnum pushed it.
The Feejee Mermaid was exhibited [from 1842] and during that era the American scientific community was still addressing claims of “sea serpent sightings”, reported more or less regularly in the urban press.
Even when looking at Barnum’s Mermaid, though, they weren’t so much examining the exhibit to determine whether it was a sea monster but to detect the evidence for the handiwork of “some cute Yankee”. And when they then suspected that it was a counterfeit they found it intellectually stimulating—and recommended that people go and check it out for themselves.
Philadelphia newspapers took up the charge that Barnum had gone too far and there emerged a developing respect for whomever could put one over on the other newspapers and pull off such a “bold publicity stunt”. Northeastern reaction to Barnum ranged from grudging acknowledgment of his commercial success and the impotence of indignant cries against him through to outright respect.
It was different in the South, though: When, in January 1843, advertisements appeared in Charleston, South Carolina, newspapers for the ‘Grand Exhibition!’ at Charleston’s Masonic Hall, John Bachman the “respected Charleston minister and naturalist” initiated a campaign against humbug which soon developed to the point where Barnum’s agent and uncle Alanson Taylor,
was threatened by local Southern Gentlemen with the possibility of being physically injured did he not get out of town sooner rather than later. Barnum cut his losses by retreating. d
Barnum’s promotional style was more subtle than his uncle’s but it’s probably fair to characterise Barnum’s public discourse “based on bold accusations, flaming exposés, and ambiguous public appearances … [as having] clashed … with the strict code of honor maintained by Southern gentlemen.” Accusations which were commonplace in Northern newspapers were enough to result in a pistol duel to the dearth in the South. In the market-driven Northeastern economy the appropriate response was to fight back with better press, better commodities. The South rejected Barnum on scientific and moral grounds.
Charleston was by no means devoid of market economics—international investments concerning their crops, borrowing on international markets to float their investment in the next crop, and so on–but there was also “a set of public rituals that simply would not accommodate the ambiguities of representation on which Barnum’s brand of artful deception depended. Yankee traders and Southern gentlemen both practised rituals: the one had rituals associated with trading whereas the other had Southern male honour. And though both types of ritual “were representations”, they were viewed differently on either side: “Whereas Barnum viewed words and actions as the malleable instruments of economic and cultural contest, … [in the South] words and actions conveyed unequivocal meanings about the morals and status of the speaker. In fact, it was precisely the refusal of Southern gentlemen to search beneath the surface meanings they manipulated—refusing, for example, to focus on the inner beings of their slaves rather than on the social status ascribed to their skin color—which helped define and solidify their power as Southern gentlemen.”
What had in the urban North been experienced as ‘curious’ was “self-evidently immoral and worthy of quick and aggressive sanction” in the South.
The law was gradually changing and adapting to the needs of capitalism. The judge in a Massachusetts 1843 real estate case, for example, ruled that “ … ‘false affirmations’ about the value of a piece of land … [were] nothing more than the conventional seductions employed in the world of business.”
In South Carolina, though, the legal attitude was that the rights of the buyer were more to be protected, that the commodity for sale must be sound. Misrepresentations by sellers were frowned upon—especially those of Yankee salesmen.
Barnum started exhibiting biblical and temperance dramas on his stages during the 1850s and the entrance rules to his New York American Museum were tightened, too, against gambling, prostitution and drinking. His year-long Jenny Lind promotional tour for the European opera singer belonged within this middle-class tightening up but Barnum the trickster was still very active in
publishing tales of his life as a trickster showman which he situated as being merely a microcosm of the normal behaviour of the business community in the Gilded Age market economy. ‘And in what business is there not humbug?, he wrote; i.e., “humbug in the exhibition room was merely market capitalism by another name.”
If the Feejee Mermaid established Barnum as Prince of Humbug, General Tom Th[P1]umb established him “as the straight-faced producer of seamless deceptions. …[Now instead of ] focusing public attention on the boundaries between authenticity and fraud, Barnum living curiosities[, the ‘freak show’, phase] depended on a presumption of at least partical authenticity, as well as the perception that the showman was largely uninvolved in creating their curious features.”
The ‘freak-show’ exhibitions “appear in retrospect to have encouraged the very worst kinds of prejudices, stereotyping, and human exploitation.’ [Wasn’t Joice Heth just such?]
The “extensive historical literature on nineteenth-century American stereotyping … has done a far better job of cataloguing contradictory attitudes and images (for example, the common pattern of stereotyping African-American slaves as both happy laborers and prone to violence) than explaining the historically
specific ideologies that could accommodate such inconsistencies.” Barnum freak-show figures were in every case “a caricatured disruption of the normative boundaries between black and white (albino Negroes), male and female (bearded ladies), young and old (General Tom Thumb), man and animal (dog-faced boys), or self or two (Siamese twins).” Cook says that the popularity of the freak show and the rise of the new middle class was no coincidence but a causal relationship.
What Is It? Made it debut in the American Museum in February 1860,
3 months after Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’, and was wildly popular. Barnum promoted the exhibit as a possible link between man and beast. More significantly, it broached the racial divide and was therefore in dangerous territory in 1860. Justice Roger Taney’s Dred Scott  decision had decided that race alone, not being in the South, was what made one constitutionally less than a white American and it was clear that the 1860 election was primarily to be fought on race.
Barnum’s ‘What Is It?’ was promoted as the so-called ‘nondescript’; i.e., in name and place (category) Barnum “figuratively begged the public to fill in the blanks.”
‘nondescript’ first appeared “in the English language as a noun for ‘a person or thing that is not easily described, or is of no particular class or kind’ ” at the time of Barnum’s nondescript exhibition.
Previously, it had been an adjective only.
“ … no antebellum minstrel show troop attempted to identify the conventional caricatures of blackface as anything other than authentically Negro, African, or Ethiopian. Nor did their audiences ever hesitate to suggest that the ‘brutishness’ of Sambo, Jim Crow, and Zip Coon was, at base, African in origin. Such equivocation about racial origins and identity would have been largely antithetical to the ideological work of the minstrel show, one of whose primary functions was to essentialize certain physical and cultural attributes as Negro through and through.”
“Rather than say what this [What Is It?] exhibition was, Barnum offered only a range of possibilities. But in so doing, he also initiated something else: a series of public conversations in which the potentially divisive issues of sectional politics, racial science, and social respectability began to serve as topics of popular amusement, the more playful stuff of exhibition hall debate.”
“ … inconsistencies [with respect to assessments of Barnum’s What Is It? by George Templeton Strong and other intelligent anti-slavery commentators of the nineteenth century as a maltreated Negro slave probably from Alabama or Virginia with simian features] were actually part of a fundamental and recurring ideological pattern in nineteenth-century America … As Barbara J. Fields first noted of this pattern, ‘we cannot resolve the problem quantitatively, by the addition of example or counterexample. We can resolve it only by posing the question What kind of social reality is reflected—or refracted—in an ideology built on a unity of … particular opposites?’’ ”
Following the Missouri Compromise of 1820, “no New York theatrical productions would put on stage the subject of slavery’s moral legitimacy. While the melodramas of the 1830s and 1840s had plenty to say about race in the North, they usually observed the same constraints as those upheld by most contemporary politicians: they did not specifically address the potentially volatile political repercussions of African Americans’ legal status in the South and West.”
Barnum’s production of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was in competition with George Aiken’s adaptation of the novel being staged at the National Theater. Barnum used H J Conway’s version and thereby gave succour, as William Lloyd Garrison’s ‘Liberator’ complained, to the ‘slave-drivers … [by] playing a version … which omits all that strikes at the slave system, and had so shaped his drama as to make it quite an agreeable thing to be a slave.’
The ‘Liberator’ was something of a voice n the wilderness on the issue though. Others saw the Conway version as even-handed and the Barnum production’s “intermixing of abolitionist themes with blackface entertainment” as engaging. By the 1850s, then, Barnum was courting political controversy, says Cook, was making it the main draw card. Quoting Lott, he concludes that the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ plays ‘institutionalized the social divisions they narrated. Sectional debate henceforth became theatrical ritual, part of the experience of ‘Uncle Tom’.’ ”
Cook’s remark about minstrelsy and Barnum’s What Is It? being about masking may be useful.
See also, the reference to “W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1903 theory of ‘double consciousness.’
Late C19th observers would have found Max Weber’s notion that the Enlightenment and ‘rationalisation’ rendered the magician as nothing more than a showman, an entertainer, baffling. For them, “the very fact that magic had become mere entertainment only increased its fascination, social relevance, and historical importance.” The important point, for the modern man, is that magic now represents ‘the elegant display of scientific inventiveness and an adroit use of the human wit. … We believe that the spread of modern magic and its proper comprehension are an important sign of progress … ’ [Cook quoting Dr Paul Carus; this notion of ‘progress’ fits with the USA as having trickster psychology]. The modern man saw the stage entertainer as just that and the stage conjuror as an entertainer, not someone who had supernatural powers.
Signor Antonio Blitz, the English stage magician, sailed to New York from Liverpool in 1835 and “appeared at almost every exhibition hall, museum, and theatre in the United States over the next four decades, and introduced countless Americans to the novel concept of magic as an explicitly disenchanted form of fashionable
theatrical entertainment. “Robert Heller, the classically trained English pianist/magician, whose Salon Diabolique on lower Broadway during the mid-1860s became one of the longest-running one man shows in New York theatre history; and Compars Herrmann … [did] three major American tours (1861,1865 and 1869) introduced New Yorkers to a brand of stage magic fashionable enough even for the venerable Academy of Music. … [Wisconsin’s] Ehrich Weiss, the last of nineteenth-century America’s modern magicians – who named himself after Robert-Houdin during the 1890s (by adding an ‘i’), only to renounce his professional role model in print a few years later.”
These people “brought the magician fully into the more respectable confines of the urban middle-class theatre … [By altering the] wardrobe, stage props, patter, and marketing techniques … [they] placed the modern magician squarely within the new middle-class culture of professionalism taking shape during the second half of the century. … [Using advertising and publicity they] virtually invented parlor magic as one of the Gilded Age’s most popular bourgeois hobbies. And much like the avant-garde painters and writers of their era, modern magicians championed a vast assortment of bold new aesthetic techniques, many of which have become stereotypes in our time.” [Check out Lott’s remarks about 19Cth America fiction being more modernist than anything anywhere else.]
These were admittedly nothing more than tricks, as Carus noted, but for their audience these tricks were ‘of religious significance’ “H J Burlingame, another of the era’s leading writers on magic, went so far as to place the modern magician within the same eminent social milieu as ‘the successful physician, the able lawyer, the brilliant writer, the clear statesman, the bright inventor, and all others who attain high places in any respectful and helpful calling.’ ”
What is it in the sleight-of-hand performances that they saw in the C19th which we no longer see, says Cook? “The great paradox here is that no modern magician would have disputed our perceptions at all: it was precisely their status as ‘actors, merely playing the part of a magician’ that they routinely emphasised and celebrated.” What needs explaining, says, Cook, is how it is that the theatrical magician became such “a powerful symbol of progress.”
Count Cagliostro, the mesmerist who duped Marie Antoinette, represents pre-Enlightenment magic and post-Enlightenment magic differs in that it was an [open-deception; ie., where there was no suggestion of supernatural powers]; it was theatre [like American religion]
[Evans’ 1898 essay claim that Cagliostro was the last of the pretenders to genuine magic might be made something of with the fact that whilst nobody holds that synchronicity is supernatural, there’s no evidence, yet, apart from the metaphysical assumption that all events are caused – and this despite clear evidence to the contrary – that synchronicity can be accounted for by the laws of physics, even in principle. There’s something spooky yet.]
Cook takes issue with Evans’ claim, citing Evans himself on the fact that so-called ‘disenchanted’ magic was being practised even before the Enlightenment, i.e., that sleight-of-hand tricks were known to be just that, tricks.
‘Sleight-of-hand’ dates back to the beginning of the C17th, says Cook. [Yeah, the scientific revolution]
In C18th Massachusetts “Miles Burroughs began performing feats of ‘Legerdemain and Subtle Craft’ … [and] the town council quickly forced his departure. John Woolman, a devout Quaker, similarly wrote in his journal about chasing would-be patrons away from a sleight-of-hand performance in a New Jersey tavern, even though sleight of hand was officially legal in New Jersey by that time. And as late as 1808, a French magician by the name of Mr Martin got into trouble while offering a phantasmagoria in lower Manhattan when it was discovered that the building had been used for religious services in the past. An anonymous letter to the ‘Commercial Advertiser’ protested that it was a disgrace for ‘the devil’ to dance ‘on stilts to the tune of a hand organ’ in such sacred surroundings.”
Martin hit back, announcing that the attack had increased his audience dramatically. Rubens Peale, in 1809, used phantasmagoria demonstrations to conduct experiments in natural philosophy at his Philadelphia Museum; i.e., Peale was more than happy to use it but explicitly labelled the demonstrations so as to make clear that they were ‘deceptions’.
In Boston, “Supernatural simulations staged according to Enlightenment principles” were performed by William Frederick Pinchbeck who “engineered a broad range of philosophical experiments for public consumption … ”
Pinchbeck’s exhibits included a pig that “identified playing cards chosen at random by members of the audience.”
Barbara Maria Stafford “ recently demonstrated [that] literary explications of the ‘visible invisible’ [such as those of Robertson, Peale and Pinchbeck wherein the ‘trick’ was made clear to the audience, in Pinchbeck’s case via the use of a manual] were a major component of Enlightenment entertainment, serving as a form of visual education among the rising bourgeoisie as well as a novel means of demonstrating a cultivated sensibility to friends and family.” Such use of exposés of magic tricks “as a promotional tool by the stage conjuror was largely unprecedented. … explaining the behind-the-scenes workings of one’s magical performance was becoming almost as important and as central to the professional magician’s craft as the more conventional work of designing and performing tricks.”
“Magical modernism, then, required not only the erosion of faith in supernatural agency achieved by two centuries of Enlightenment, but also the adoption of Enlightenment rhetoric, ideas, and personas by the leading simulators of the supernatural.” However, there was a risk involved
because rationalism was not yet quite entrenched enough [is it yet?] to allay the superstitious fears of the society in which the stage-act was performed. “The old magic, in other words, did not just die out. Rather, it is more accurate to say that the larger category of sleight-of-hand entertainment—a category which had existed in one form or another for centuries—was changing in two dramatic ways.” (i) In the 1780s and 1790s “conjurors on both sides of the Atlantic began to reverse the aesthetic and ideological aims of their performances—transforming them from a somewhat shady and morally suspect form of realism to a more self-conscious and respectable mode of illusionism.” Disenchantment “became the raison d’etre in the post-Enlightenment world.” (ii) These changes “paved the way for stage magic’s movement into a novel cultural location: the rapidly proliferating urban entertainment venues dominated by the rising middle class.”
In his history of the New York stage, George Odell stated that ‘magic and legerdemain were assuredly features of the mid-30s in amusement halls.’ Odell documents the fact that “sleight-of-hand artists had appeared with some consistency in taverns, hotels, assembly rooms, and circuses of the late eighteenth century. Nor was this the moment when American magicians first appeared on theatre stages: according to Odell’s painstaking, year-by-year records, this transition began earlier, too. Rather, what seems to have caught his attention in the newspapers and handbills of the mid-1830s was the beginning of a more subtle and far-reaching shift taking place in
the social status and conventional locations of American magic.” The difference was that whereas sleight of hand had previously existed on the margins in New York, “by the mid-1830s it was becoming a prominent ‘feature’ of the stage—accepted, patronized, and even celebrated in the city’s most fashionable entertainment sites around lower Broadway.” The exposé was integral to these performances. The English at the time were still treating magicians as if they were occultists.
In 1906 Harry Houdini accused Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, after whom he’d fashioned himself as a magician, as “a complete fraud.” i.e.,
“virtually every one of the Frenchman’s celebrated tricks had been invented by someone else … ”
But, says, Cook, “In the business of artful deception, innovation almost always involves original productions of old ideas.” [It’s the same with song writing.]
Carl Herrmann went to New Orleans in 1861
and when the Civil War erupted he took a train to New York and made ‘prestidigition’ (sleight-of-hand) a respectable art form. He performed at “the recently built Academy of Music”. Possibly Manhattan’s “most elite cultural venue in 1861”, Herrmann’s performance was received with relish by the elite.
The ‘New York Times’ review went out of its way to say how, though, Herrmann performed the usual tricks ‘which one has seen at every fair and booth in the country’, the difference was that in his hands the heretofore ‘vulgar pretentiousness’ ‘becomes a respectable demonstration in his hands’. Unlike those who might have gone before him, Herrmann was never accused of necromancy or promoting superstition.
The newspaper reporters took to him as if he had come up with something of extraordinary innovation while readily acknowledging that there was nothing new in the tricks themselves. Cook takes it that he was suitably attired and had the demeanor of a bourgeois. Herrmann’s brother, Alexander carried on the same routine and performed at New York’s Academy of Music in May 1874. Robert Heller was successful in New York while Harry Kellar “became the darling of fashionable theatergoers in Philadelphia”, Mark Twain being among them for stage “exposés of spiritualist séance tricks…”
The bourgeois professional stage magician of the 1860s and beyond were giving themselves airs and calling themselves ‘prestidigitators’ and distinguishing themselves from while demonizing “carnival mountebanks … spiritualist medium[s]”, and so on. [P2]
These reformers, though, were nevertheless still practitioners, as it were, of the black art. “Indeed at the very core of this reform program was much the same project that had guided the sleight-of-hand business for centuries: a desire to trick the Muses of Irving Place blind—and to be applauded heartily for doing so.[P3] All in all, this was one of the more paradoxical enterprises in late nineteenth-century American popular culture: a reform movement which simultaneously traded in respectability and fraud, scientific principles and overt deception, ritualised
exposé and aesthetic cover-ups.”
In the world outside the urban theatres, Americans were experiencing a fashionable crime-wave in that another “type of modern illusionist began to capture the attention of the urban press—the so-called confidence man. The historical parallels are striking. The specific term ‘confidence man’ first appeared in 1849 … to describe the criminal activities of William Thomson, a New York swindler of genteel appearance who talked his victims out of their pocket watches. But much like the modern magician, this nivel figure from the late 1840s quickly evolved into a far broader cultural categorization, one used to reference a variety of urban deviants whose feats of deception involved some combination of false appearances and verbal manipulations.”
“The confidence man appeared frequently in advice manuals and etiquette books as a corrupter of character, a distinctly new middle-class species of urban criminal who threatened to steer the large numbers of unsupervised young men then moving to America’s industrial centers away from traditional republican values. The confidence man also routinely appeared in city guidebooks, often serving as a troubling literary personification of urban confusion. Much like the metropolis itself, in fact, what made confidence criminals particularly unsettling was their ability to defy visual interpretation, to maintain an impenetrable façade which gave no clue about the actual person or criminal agenda behind the misleading appearances. These concerns about the opacity of urban things were themselves historically specific, a product of both the most rapid period of urbanization in American history and the radical restructuring of the older socio-economic orders that such rapid urbanization provoked.”
“During the first week of Carl Herrmann’s triumphant debut, for example, New York readers
were bombarded almost daily with newspaper stories about urban swindlers.” Cook gives good examples, including card sharps, of the various confidence crimes. There was nothing especially unusual about these crimes; they were commonplace at the time. “one out of every ten professional criminals prosecuted in New York City during the 1860s was some kind of confidence man.” Herrmann and his fellow stage deceivers had the task of positioning themselves as “honest, upstanding illusionists rather than criminal imposters” and yet to capitalise upon the intense public concern about
urban deception. On the one hand they had to remove “the stigma of the carnival juggler” and now, on the other, they had to differentiate [their art from that of the pickpocket, as it were.]
Harry Kellar and Alexander Herrmann regularly performed tricks on the policemen and unsuspecting passers-by in the streets of New York City. In doing so, says Cook, they “were constructing an alternative narrative to the stories of confidence men, in which ‘honest’ tricksters emerged as the masters rather than the victims of deception in the streets.” [white magic]
These street performances ultimately had the effect of “placing middle-class magic fans in the odd position of applauding the tricks of pickpockets and laughing at the police. That was the uneasy balance struck by modern magic: a cultural form which made the carnival juggler’s tricks respectable, safe, and scientific enough for an enlightened bourgeoisie, but which also got the bourgeoisie in on the confidence game.”
Paul Staiti argues “that Harnett benefited from the popular cultural market built by Barnum (urban middle-class amusement centers) as well as the showman’s distinctive recipe for middle-class trickery, which ‘depended upon getting people to think, and talk, and become curious and excited over and about the rare spectacle’ ”
James Cook thinks this line of enquiry can be pushed further.
“For both Barnum and Harnett, the ultimate goal was to produce a highly unstable, perpetually contested brand of verisimilitude.”
Harnett’s most famous trompe l’oeil paintings—the four versions of ‘After the Hunt’ produced between 1883 and 1885—were painted variations of the games pieces produced by the photographer Adolphe Braun in the late 1860s.”
Braun’s photography was celebrated “for its ability to trick the eye.”
The panorama had been “an almost continuous popular cultural presence in the United States” since the first exhibition in 1795 in New York City up until the 1850s. It, too, seemed to anticipate trompe l’oeil painting
in that it, too, relied upon starting from a perspective calculated to create a false impression of reality.
The Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama, “a massive trompe l’oeil canvas … made its debut in lower Manhattan only a few short blocks from , and at about the same time as, Harnett’s 1885 ‘After the Hunt’”, had a great effect upon its audience.
“… such unresolved representational play was thoroughly conventional during the Age of Barnum.”
Harnett’s trompe l’oeil art, though, went a step beyond that and confused “the established boundaries between academic art and popular entertainment.”
“In some of [Haberle’s] trompe l’oeil canvases from the 1880s and 1890s … the aesthetic resemblance between close brush work and contemporary forms of popular illusionism was often made explicit and even celebrated.”
Haberle articulated in his work the fact “that any artist who ‘took up this line of painting’ must have been conscious of working within a genre linked commercially, aesthetically, and ideologically to contemporary popular culture.”
Haberle’s “pointed references to Barnum and humbug” had various functions: (i) as part of the pictorial narrative; (ii) to focus the viewer’s attention on the method of representation and to encourage “us to engage the work self-consciously as a form of illusionism”; (iii) to gloat, like Barnum, over his commercial success, in making trompe l’oeil painting pay off.
Haberle thumbed his nose at the establishment artistic community for looking down their noses at trompe l’oeil artists.
Charles Wilson Peale and his son Raphaelle exhibited trompe l’oeil canvases in Philadelphia early in the C19th but without much reaction from the public. By contrast, when Harnett’s ‘hunt’ painting debuted at NYC’s Stewart’s Saloon in the mid 1880s there was a very definite interest, crowds, as there was in Cincinnati when his ‘The Old Violin’ was exhibited.
trompe l’oeil paintings function “as an emblem of and a catalyst for the perceptual confuction conventionally associated with the nineteenth-century metropolis. For the uninitiated, trompe l’oeil art merely confirms suspicions about Gotham’s propensity for deception.” For the regulars who see the painting enough to be well initiated into the fact that it’s a trick, the art work in question (eg., ‘After the Hunt’) has become a mark of “their own urban sophistication”.
1888 St Louis art gallery display of Platt’s ‘Vanishing Glories’ has the art director, George Mills, collaborating with the artist to remain silent about the picture in question—a “signal gesture of the nineteenth-century trickster … [whose particular exercise in trickery] … was taking place in an art gallery … The St Louis art establishment was in on the confidence game.”
By the beginning of the C20th “all of the leading arts of deception from the Age of Barnum were either gone or in decline.”
Barnum was out of the museum business by the late 1860s.
But “Artful deception never disappears for very long: it keeps coming back, producing new historical cycles, aesthetic variations, and social inflections.”
Modern day versions are such things as ‘uncensored’ TV talk shows with choreographed controversies, professional wrestling, digitised trompe l’oeil,
“Masked Magician” TV specials where the stage conjuror is presented “as an enlightened expositor”, and so on.
Cook’s [straightforwardly causal] view is that artful deception is a durable and plastic utility “mechanism for individual and social differentiation.” [whereas I think it’s especially American]
Tricksters in any era provide “the indeterminate object, the uncertain image, the morally suspect act—an engaging assortment of cultural deceits with which an eager public gauges its moral and
aesthetic thresholds, defines itself.”
The different eras, though, manage artful deception differently: in the C18th and early C19th in Europe (Kempelen) and America (Peale) there was a “clear epistemological distinction… [made] between playful illusionism and the more truthful, morally productive work Enlightenment … [Peale and his type] simply would not become purveyors of trickery as an end in itself.”
For Maelzel and Barnum, on the other hand, “it was precisely the undifferentiated cultural object and the mass-circulated equivocation which served as the foundation of their show business success.” Unfortunately, as Barnum complained, the public came to regard all of his exhibits as fake.
Similarly, Harnett was arrested for counterfeiting by New York treasury agents for his trompe l’oeil depictions of banknotes hanging in Stewart’s saloons, near City Hall and Wall Street.
Harnett’s banknotes were indeed meant to perpetrate a fraud, but he had not intended to cross over into criminal behaviour.
[P1]See Jung in Radin/195 where TT’s rogueries are those of the trickster.
[P2]Don’t neglect to talk about mediums such as Blavatsky etc. in the American context, and note, too, that psychoanalysis caught on in a big way with Americans.
[P3]Barnum, afterall, had done more or less the same thing with everyone else