Adelaide’s Darkest Day

Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection

Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection

Today is the anniversary of the worst day of Adelaide Herrmann’s life – December 17th, 1896 – the day her beloved husband died in her arms on a train “flying along at fifty miles an hour on the coldest day in December.” (In Adelaide’s words, from her memoir.) The train was southbound from Rochester, NY towards Bradford, PA, the Herrmanns’ next stop.

Alexander Herrmann, age fifty-two, had been increasingly ill for a while. Adelaide wrote that “for some time he had been troubled by heart attacks.” It’s not clear exactly how she defined a heart attack, but Alexander’s episodes of chest pain drove him to seek medical help. A specialist in Chicago told him that if he didn’t stop his incessant cigarette smoking, he would die within two years. Alexander wouldn’t or couldn’t quit, and various doctors on the road diagnosed his distress as nervous indigestion.

The Herrmanns were in the midst of a grueling tour. The acquisition of a private railcar had opened new markets to them. For years Alexander Herrmann, the night owl, had refused to accept one-night and split week bookings because he hated waking early. With his luxurious railcar, Herrmann could wine and dine after his shows and never again be rousted from his hotel to catch an early morning train. This tour, the Herrmanns were playing both big and small cities, sometimes just for a single night.

When the company had arrived in Rochester on Monday, December 14, Alexander wasn’t feeling well. But he’d already promised a visit to the State Industrial School. He was whisked straight from the train to the school, only to find that they were expecting a show! Alexander sent word back to the theater, and his assistants brought some of his props up to the school. He then invited the entire school to his Wednesday matinee performance.

After his last show on Wednesday night, Alexander Herrmann was entertained by local dignitaries at the Genessee Valley Club. But, as usual, it was Herrmann doing the entertaining. Adelaide reported that he was in rare form, charming his hosts with witty stories and constant tricks. After the party, he brought several guests back to the rail yard to tour his private car and to see his horses and carriages.

At the end of the evening, he said to Adelaide, “Well, we ought enjoy these things while we are living, because after we die we are soon forgotten.”

The train left at 7:30 the next morning. Alexander had breakfast and met for a while with his business manager. A little later that morning, Adelaide discovered Alexander lying on her bed, looking deathly pale. He told her he was having trouble breathing. She helped him to his own bedchamber. A few minutes later his arms just dropped, and he was dead – according to Adelaide, “in just the way he had desired.”

The train stopped in Salamanca, NY, where a doctor boarded and pronounced Alexander Herrmann dead. The Herrmanns’ private car and their other railcars were detached from the southbound train and reconnected to a train heading east back to New York, where Adelaide and her company of sixteen would arrive at 8am Friday.

At this time of year, the sun goes down at 4:30pm. On this date in 1896, as her train headed east, away from the setting sun, Adelaide Herrmann was beginning the longest and darkest night of her life.


Magic, Addie Style

Adelaide Herrmann in 1899 - Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection

Adelaide Herrmann in 1899 – Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection

It’s a shame there’s no surviving film footage of Adelaide Herrmann’s magic act. If there were, she might have changed the course of magic even more than she did. And rather than fading into an unsung heroine, she might have received the credit she deserved for her tremendous innovations to the art of magic.

Like most magicians, she was not an inventor of tricks. But, according to her own accounts, she dramatically innovated the style in which magic was presented. Before she teamed up with Alexander Herrmann in the 1870s, magic – even in a big theater – was presented like parlor entertainment. Magicians bantered with the audience, performing in front of a curtain or whatever stock painted backdrop the theater happened to display. If they used musical accompaniment, it was whatever the house “orchestra” (usually no more than piano, violin and drums) chose to play.

Adelaide, in her youth, had danced in the Holiday Pantomimes in London, where she had witnessed the highest-tech theater magic of the time – flash appearances via stage traps, deus ex machina sets, and complex story lines beautifully supported by a coordinated combination of custom sets, backdrops and music.

Madame Herrmann was the first to come up with the idea of merging stage magic and stage conjuring. As soon as she married Alexander, the Herrmanns began their evolution into what Adelaide called “spectacular magic.” They began buying illusions. While other female magic assistants were presenting demure Second Sight acts (which Adelaide did as well) Madame Herrmann became the first glamorous, athletic and erotic female assistant. She oversaw the construction of custom backdrops and sets that the Herrmanns carried with them. Custom musical scores specific to each illusion were commissioned, and the Herrmanns began traveling with their own music director.  Illusions were developed into elaborate story lines, often topical, referencing popular novels or news events.

Every illusion show past and present evolved from this single model – the spectacular Herrmann magic show. Yet very few people – even the performers – realize that their entire genre originated with Adelaide Herrmann.

If this were her sole contribution to magic, it would be tremendous. But she took it much further. After Alexander Herrmann’s tragic early death, Adelaide debuted in vaudeville in 1899 as the first and only headlining female magician. (As with most “firsts” the story is more complicated, but Adelaide far outshined any predecessors and contemporaries.)

Again, she introduced tremendous stylistic innovations. For her entire career, she worked silently, to music. This in itself was a departure from the talking acts of all her male colleagues. Adelaide Herrmann feminized magic in a most elegant way. Too old (debuting at age 46) to play the ingénue or sexy showgirl, she was a regal presence onstage – a High Priestess of Magic in impossibly lavish gowns, baring shoulders and ample bosom, but never her thighs.

Because the films we know she made are lost, we have to piece together information about her magical style from reviews and other accounts. She was definitely charismatic and extremely skilled at connecting with her audience. Her magic was delicate, graceful and performed exquisitely slowly. She was a dancer who moved with the music. Her magic looked like no one else’s.

Because we have no video of her, generations of female magicians have grown up without this hugely-important role model. And it really shows. All of us learned our magic from men. We then had to take it and try to make it our own. Our female role models have been few, and for me, not useful except as inspirations. The great Dell O’Dell was a one-of-a-kind personality, and most of the others – like the highly-successful Celeste Evans – played The Bombshell, which even in my age-appropriate days was never me.

I hope that Adelaide’s rediscovery will show female magicians that there’s another, different, path – one that’s not primarily about comedy or selling sex. Beautiful, graceful, elegant, regal, highly skilled, dazzlingly feminine conjuring has been around for over a hundred years. And now, hopefully, it’s on its way back.