Once referred to as “the Smithsonian of American Magic” by illusionist and magic historian Jim Steinmeyer, the American Museum of Magic in downtown Marshall was established in 1978 by Detroit-area journalist Robert Lund and his wife, Elaine, to house Lund’s private collection of magician artifacts and archives. It has grown to become the world’s largest collection of American magic artifacts, including apparatuses and illusions; more than 12,000 books on conjuring; about 3,000 posters, scrapbooks and periodicals; letters, diaries, memorabilia, photographs and costumes; and approximately 350,000 pieces of ephemera. The museum opens for its 45th season this month, and among the things you will see are some of my favorite pieces:
Ellen Armstrong Poster
Halfway up the wall on the museum’s second floor, you can find this rather plain poster with an extraordinary background story. Ellen Armstrong was the daughter of J. Hartford Armstrong (1876–1939), one of the few Black magicians performing from the 1880s through the early 20th century. He primarily toured the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. from 1889 until his death in 1939. Ellen Armstrong started working as an assistant to her father at age 6 and eventually had her own mentalist segment during the performance. After her father’s death, Armstrong took over his show and became the lead performer. To the best of our knowledge, this makes her the first and only woman of color during her time to run an independent touring magic show.
Suzy Wandas Poster
The American Museum of Magic has nearly 3,000 posters. Some are quite large, such as this poster for magician Suzy Wandas. Wandas (1896–1986) was a female pioneer in a male-dominated magic profession. Born Jeanne Van Dyke in Belgium to a family with a magic act, she began performing as a child and went on to have an extensive and highly acclaimed career that focused mainly on sleight-of-hand magic, which involved coins, cards and cigarettes. Wandas spoke five languages, an ability that was quite useful as she performed all over Europe.
Undoubtedly one of our more bizarre-looking artifacts on display is the late magician Harry Blackstone’s “Golem.” The prop is on wheels and has panels on all four sides. Blackstone would open the panels and give the prop a spin, showing his audience that they could see right through it and that no one was hidden inside. Then he would wind up a key to “animate” the Golem figure inside, and its light-bulb eyes would light up! An audience member would come up, and Golem would miraculously play checkers or cards with them. Card-playing abilities aside, we think this Golem is a fun, albeit a little creepy, example of a handcrafted stage prop.
Houdini’s Spirit Trumpet
Harry Houdini may have been best known for his death-defying escape tricks, but he was also famous during his lifetime for debunking spiritualist mediums and occult con artists. He lectured on the subject and wrote a book, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: A Complete Exposé, about how mediums and others would perform their fraudulent tricks. In the early 20th century, a popular tool used by mediums during seances was a spirit trumpet. The trumpet would mysteriously float in the air and emit the voices of spirits. This particular spirit trumpet, part of the Museum of Magic’s Houdini exhibit, was purchased by Houdini so that he could demonstrate to his audiences how the spirit trumpet was merely a trick and nothing supernatural.
The Discoverie of Witchcraft
This rare book, called The Discoverie of Witchcraft, is the oldest artifact in the American Museum of Magic’s collection. It is a first edition and was written by Reginald Scot and published in London. Considered by magic historians to be the first printed book in English to explain how magic tricks are performed, the book wasn’t actually intended as an instruction manual for magicians. Scot’s purpose was to convince the reader that people, including magicians, did not have supernatural powers and should not be persecuted as witches. Unfortunately, his message was not popular with certain people in power, and by the 17th century the book was banned.