Showmanship, Magic and Illusion

Chipperfield's Ghost Show circa 1908

The notion of illusion and magic on the fairground is not necessarily restricted to a conjuring show. The feeling of illusion is a trick where the showman can hypnotise, hoodwink or beguile the audience into suspending their belief for the matter of time they are in the show. This can be through the art of the spiel or the telling of the tale, sensory deprivation through blackout conditions and use of smoke and light, or exaggerated props alongside the freak exhibit. The oration by the showmen was an important aspect of the side show performance and one renowned for his capacity to tell the tale was Randall Williams, a showman who started his career with a conjuring booth and ended travelling a cinematograph show.

The showmen presented an imaginary world which in the case of the freak show would be presented within the context of inflated or exaggerated imagery. The adoption of a grandiose title such as ‘General’ Tom Thumb; an appeal to scientific or ethnological interest, such as Lionel the Lion Faced Boy; or the exotic Great Omi the tattooed zebra-man. Giants might gain extra inches with built-up shoes and midgets were frequently advertised as being much older than they actually were. Hirsute or bearded attractions would range from Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy and the famous fake show Hairy Mary from Borneo who was in reality a monkey.

The art of illusion was an essential part of being a fairground showmen but the conjuring and illusion booth was also an attraction in its own right. Although the origin of magic and illusion performances predates travelling fairgrounds, the Victorian showground was the age of the great illusionists. Optical projection and magic tricks could be found within the sleight of hand shows on variety and theatrical bills and on the fairground. One of the most famous was Pepper's Ghost, a well-known phantom producing device which employed a piece of inclined glass to reflect an otherwise hidden figure into a staged dramatic situation. Used as part of a stage act this show was first privately demonstrated at the Polytechnic on 24 December in 1862. It proved so successful that it ran as a commercial show throughout 1863. “The Ghost” as it became known, continued to be shown in a variety of venues throughout the country for the next ten years. It was a timely distillation of three of the most popular, old existing, fairground show forms, namely the theatrical booth, the conjuring show and a wide and ever changing array of up to date optical curiosities. Although the ghost appeared in a variety of venues including Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1865 and the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington London, it was on the fairgrounds that the ghost drama thrived. By the mid-1870s many fairground exhibitors had seen the advantages of this innovation and showmen such as Randall Williams, Harry Wall and Colonel Clarke were exhibiting at venues throughout the country.

Through the 1880s and early 1890s the ghost show continued to expand until it was the most spectacular of all the fairground booths prior to the introduction of the bioscope show.

The illusion of motion and movement was finally realized with the introduction of the cinematograph in 1895. However, the fairground showmen still relied on special effects and tricks predating moving pictures to add to the spectacle of the performance.

Although the ghost show was superseded by the introduction of the cinematograph, the principal ingredients of the ghost illusion and the use of mirrors was a fundamental part of side show illusion and magic well into the twentieth century. Side shows included the Headless Wonder, Madame Le Guillotine and the Death Ray Show where the audience would stand in front of a mirror and see their reflection disappear.

Another staple of the illusion show was the Headless Wonder or sometimes known as the Spider Girl or the Head-Without-a-Body. Dan Boles in Midway Magic explains that this illusion has always been a consistent money taker and easily constructed with three mirrors, a board for the subject's head to go through and a string of red lights.

Magic and illusion shows became a staple diet of Victorian entertainment and magicians such George Alfred Cooke and John Neville Maskelyne performed at the Egyptian Hall in London, a venue uniquely associated with magic from 1873 until 1905. However, long before the association of the Egyptian Hall with magic acts, the fair was the main venue for such performances, Isaac Fawkes, Professor Anderson the Wizard of the North and Walford Bodie enjoyed parts of their careers on the fairground. John Alexander Anderson was Scotland's most famous magician who appeared as The Great Wizard of the North between the late 1830s until his death in 1874. In the twentieth century the Great Carmo started and ended his career on the travelling shows when both he and the amazing Dr. Walford Bodie shared the bill on Tom Norman’s Travelling Variety Show in the 1930s. Bodie was perhaps the most outrageous of the magicians who appeared on the fair, calling himself the British Edison, he was both showman and charlatan. Walford Bodie had a range of acts’ including a ventriloquist act called 'Fun on an Ocean Line', his Madame Electra trick where he would defy death in an electric chair and his hypnotic and bloodless surgery acts. Whilst adapting a grandiose title such as Professor, Lord or Doctor was commonplace in the showman's world, Bodie became the subject of litigation when he added the letters MD after his name. Although he claimed they stood for Merry Devil and Man of Distinction, it resulted in clashes with the medical profession including the famous 'Bodie Riot' at the Glasgow Coliseum in 1909. Bodie's career fluctuated between the First and Second World Wars and he returned to the fairgrounds in the 1930s, appearing on Tom Norman's Palladium Show and finishing his career at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1939.

Another famous illusionist associated with the fairground was Harry Cameron the Great Carmo who had a number of careers including illusionist, magician and circus proprietor.

Illusion shows continued to be an in style form of attraction on the fairground throughout the twentieth century. By 1936, The World's Fair reporter was stating 'that with the exception of a several small circuses the whole of our present day shows can almost be divided into three classes, freaks, animals and illusions'. Trance shows remained popular, as did the Clock-eyed-girl, Radiana, the Lobster-lady illusion and the Spider Girl. The transparent girl show was a popular illusion between the Wars as was the Man with the X-Ray Eyes performed by Ramonde at Newcastle Town Moor.

See also our section on Magic and Illusion