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Women You Should Know: Adelaide Herrmann, The Queen of Magic

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the TV show, Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed (a title that, while being quite a mouthful, really does what it says on the tin). If you don’t remember the show, the premise involved a mysterious masked magician unveiling secrets behind some of the most iconic tricks and illusions in the biz (levitation, sawing a woman in half etc.) This was exciting for two reasons. Firstly, by doing so, the masked magician was going against the “gentleman’s agreement” made by magicians not to reveal how a trick is done to any non-performer. Secondly, there was the added anticipation of finding out exactly who the masked magician was.

Just... so 90s

Being a somewhat nerdy child, I was oddly invested in finding out his identity and would happily speculate on who was behind the mask. (I could be wrong, but I feel like magic was a bigger deal in the 90s than it is today, so even a 10-year old in the west of Ireland with no internet access had heard of big-name acts like David Copperfield or Penn and Teller.) In the end, the masked magician turned out to be Val Valentino (who I had actually never heard of and frankly, I still remember this reveal as being one of the bigger disappointments of my life), but that’s beside the point. The point is that even as a child who could name plenty of stage magicians, I knew one thing to be true - they were always men.

We’re almost 25 years on from Breaking the Magician's Code (side note: WOW do I suddenly feel old) and little has changed. Google “world’s most famous magicians” and you’ll get pages upon pages of articles ranking everyone from Harry Blackstone Sr. to Chriss Angel. In fact, out of the seven articles I clicked through when researching this piece, not a single one featured a female magician anywhere. Perhaps it’s not surprising given that only an estimated 3-8% of practising magicians identify as female.

It seems obvious - women simply do not feature in magic unless they are being levitated in glamorous dresses, having swords stuck into them while writhing about glamorously, or vanishing in a glamorous puff of smoke.

From what I gather, there hasn’t been too much research done into why more women don’t practice magic (I mean, fair enough. There are probably bigger problems we could tackle first), but one reason seems to be a lack of female role models in the magic sphere becoming a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If a new generation of magic enthusiasts don’t see themselves represented on stage and in the media, then perhaps they don’t consider it a viable career?

What a shame it is then that one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest magicians, someone who revolutionised the medium by merging Victorian parlour magic with the spectacle of vaudeville, was, in fact, a woman who has been all but forgotten.

A Born Performer

Born in 1853 to Belgian immigrants living in London, Adelaide Scarcez seemed destined for the stage. Her father was a theatre owner and in her youth, she studied dance and aerial acrobatics. She also learned to ride the velocipede (an early type of bicycle). It was her dream to move to New York and become a ballerina and in 1874 she finally made the trip across the water. It was on this voyage that she met and fell in love with a stage magician by the name of Alexander Herrmann who was known professionally as “Professor Herrmann” or, more usually, “Herrmann the Great.”

Adelaide Herrman performing, Houghton Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, Adelaide’s dream of dancing in the New York Ballet was not to be. The New York ballet scene was incredibly competitive and despite her small and waifish figure, she had already missed the narrow window of time for a ballerina to establish herself (a polite way of saying that at 19 years of age she was already over the hill). Instead, Adelaide ended up dancing in burlesque and spectacle shows run by famous Hungarian producers, the Kiralfy Brothers.

In 1875, Adelaide and Alexander were married and it was then she began her career in magic, first fulfilling the role of her husband’s prop assistant, before finally joining him on stage to perform various illusions. Together they toured throughout North and South America and Europe with Adelaide playing a supporting role.

During the Victorian era, the tricks of the magic trade were typically passed down from master to apprentice in an effort to keep control over proprietary illusions. However, even this was a risky business since apprentices had been known to run off with their master’s secrets and set themselves up as a rival magic act. Alexander realised that being married to Adelaide, a woman who showed a clear interest in magic herself, afforded him an extra level of trust and so he began to mentor her in earnest, teaching her new skills and gradually increasing her role in the show until they became a true double act.

Adelaide and Alexander: Magic’s Power Couple

Before Adelaide joined Alexander’s show, magic was still presented in the style of parlour entertainment - lots of banter with the audience, little attention paid to set dressing, and a distinct lack of spectacle. It was Adelaide, with her background in theatre and dance, who had the idea of blending stage magic with the pageantry of vaudeville. Together with Alexander, she evolved their show into a demonstration of what she called “spectacular magic”.

The Herrmanns began building elaborate backdrops, developing illusions that referenced topical news stories of the day and commissioning custom music scores. They even began travelling with their own musical director. Adelaide herself became an ever-greater part of the spectacle - while most other female magicians of the era would typically only perform the role of “second sight mediums”, communicating with spirits and entering trance-like states, Adelaide presented herself as an erotic, glamourous counterpart to her husband, performing tricks such as levitation, being shot out of a cannon, riding a bicycle with a girl balanced on her shoulders, and dancing through swirling red silk that looked like a pillar of flames.

“I shall not be content until I am recognized by the public as a leader in my profession, and entirely irrespective of the question of sex.”

On December 17, 1896, on a train journey back to New York City after a week-long engagement upstate, Alexander suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 52. For many women of the era, this would have spelled the end of their career, but not for Adelaide. After trying for a few years to set her husband’s nephew up as a successor to Herrmann the Great, they parted ways and Adelaide decided to go it alone. In 1899, she made her debut on the vaudeville circuit as the only solo-performing female magician in the country.

In an article published in Broadway Magazine in November of that year entitled, “The World’s Only Woman Magician,” Adelaide stated that, “I shall not be content until I am recognized by the public as a leader in my profession, and entirely irrespective of the question of sex.” By all accounts, that statement would prove true because, over the next 25 years, Adelaide continued to innovate and push the craft of stage magic forward.

Adelaide Herrmann and Company poster, photo courtesy of McCord Museum

Her favourite trick to perform was called “The Phantom Bride,” where she made the body of a bride, draped in a white silk sheet, levitate in the middle of the stage. She would then pass a hoop over the levitating form to show that it wasn’t being held up by wires, before dramatically pulling back the sheet to reveal that the bride had disappeared. Other illusions included the “Bullet Catch” (which she was one of the few magicians, male or female, brave enough to perform at the time); “The Witch”, where she would shamble onto the stage dressed as an old woman and throw herself on a burning pyre only to emerge as a youthful figure; and “Noah’s Ark”, where an empty ark was presented on stage and slowly flooded with water until cats, dogs, birds and even lions, tigers, zebras and elephants would emerge. Finally, a flock of doves would fly out of the ark’s windows and the entire boat would be opened up to reveal a woman dressed in white.

The Queen of Magic

After more than two decades touring and performing to packed houses, 1926 spelled the beginning of the end for Adelaide when a devastating fire broke out at a warehouse in Manhattan, destroying her props and killing most of the animals used in the "Noah's Ark" illusion. She briefly toured with a scaled-down show called “Magic, Grace and Music” - the three elements that defined her solo career - but by 1928 she had retired for good. On February 19th, 1932, Adelaide died of pneumonia at the age of 79 and was buried in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

Photo courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection

Audiences loved Adelaide Herrmann, as evidenced by the fact that she had continued to tour and headline her own shows for 25 years, performing right into her 70s. She performed magic for longer than her husband ever had and remained successful far longer than most magicians of the era. Her work even earned her the nickname, “The Queen of Magic.”

It seems almost unbelievable then that someone who achieved so much in their career could be all but forgotten today, but after digging into it, I think there are a few reasons why.

Firstly, there is little to no surviving Adelaide Herrmann memorabilia - most of her props were destroyed in the fire so unlike her contemporary, Harry Houdini, there was never a market to sell her items after her death.

Secondly, Adelaide was an intensely private woman and carefully guarded her personal life. She was known to be a prolific correspondent but so far, none of her letters to friends and family have ever emerged. We really know very little about her beyond what she chose to portray on stage and she and Alexander never had any children so she had no descendants to carry on her legacy. She also died a fairly uneventful death - living to a ripe old age and passing away due to natural causes. There was nothing salacious or tragic to keep public interest going.

Lastly, while we know that at least some of her performances were recorded there is no surviving footage so there is no longer any first-hand evidence of her show(wo)manship and style to influence the generations of young girls who came after.

There you have it, the story of Adelaide Herrmann who came to New York to be a dancer and died a Queen. I hope one day, a young girl obsessed with card tricks and making handkerchiefs disappear stumbles across her story and realises that she too can make magic.


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