This month marks a devastating anniversary in the history of magic. September 7th was the 86th anniversary of the 1926 warehouse fire on West 46th Street in New York that destroyed, in one morning, a lifetime of Alexander Herrmann’s treasures, which his wife Adelaide had protected since his death, nearly 30 years earlier.
Alexander Herrmann was himself a great collector. Adelaide mentions that he had intended to write his memoirs, as well as a complete history of magic going back to its earliest roots. At the time of the fire, however, the big story in the press was the loss of 200 theatrical performing animals, including approximately 70 of Adelaide’s trained geese, ducks, chickens, doves, cats and dogs, which she had dressed up and marched down the gangplank of her Noah’s Ark illusion. She had been set to start a new tour, beginning in Chicago, on September 10th, but with the loss of her animals and her act, it took her many months to recover and begin again. (She was 73 years old at the time. Friends begged her to retire, but she regrouped and eventually set out on one last tour.)
The more far-reaching consequence was the loss of an unimaginable trove of Alexander Herrmann ephemera—magic props, illusions, books, letters, notebooks, photos, gifts from royalty and heads of state, and much, much more. Herrmann was a great accumulator, and the warehouse had contained the crème de la crème of his collection—the items Adelaide had not included in the auction of the contents of their Whitestone home in 1899.
Adelaide Herrmann was keenly interested in preserving her husband’s legacy, and after the fire she became increasingly concerned that all memory of Herrmann the Great would be lost. This was the motivating force in the writing of her memoirs, in which she devotes 25 years to the life and career of her husband and only 5 chapters to her own illustrious career following his death.
This fire robbed future generations of incalculable treasures and a great bounty of Herrmann information. Sadly, we don’t know what we’re missing.
The good news is that, with the surfacing of Adelaide Herrmann’s memoir in 2010, we now know much more about the incredible Alexander Herrmann. It mitigates somewhat the loss of all his “stuff.”