I’ve heard it said that 35 years after Reykjavik, Bobby Fischer is still the most famous chess player in the world.
I mention that for two reasons.
Firstly I wanted to start with a mention of our favourite game because the chess content of today’s blog is going to be a little while coming. Stay with me dear reader, we’ll get there in the end.
Secondly, it’s a similar situation with magic. The mostly widely recognised name of any magical entertainer is not Paul Daniels or David Blaine - it’s Harry Houdini.
The difference there, I suppose, is that while most people will have heard of Houdini, he’s invariably remembered as an escape artist. That he both started and finished his performing career as a magician is largely forgotten nowadays. What’s even less widely know, even amongst conjurers, is Houdini was an avid historian of magic and compulsive collector of memorabilia related to the performers who came before him.
I mention that because I’ve just finished reading Houdini’s book Miracle Mongers. He wrote it, he said, to,
“… commemorate some forms of entertainment over which oblivion threatens to stretch her darkening wings.”
These were acts on the fringes of what might be considered magic – even more obscure today than they were back when Houdini was writing.
Houdini spends the early chapters of his book recording the history of fire eaters and heat resisters. These were men who entertained their audiences with feats such as walking on burning coals, dipping their arms in molten lead, licking white hot metal and drinking boiling tar.
The leading performer of this kind was a Frenchman called Ivan Ivanitz Chabert (“the only Really Incombustible Phenomenon” as he billed himself) who found fame during the first half of the 19th century. Chabert’s signature piece was walking into an oven heated to 220 degrees holding a quantity of raw steak then emerging several minutes later with perfectly cooked meat in his hands.
Chabert, like any other successful performer, spawned any number of imitators all of whom tried to create their own gimmick or angle. Each one of them tried to add something different to the 'heat resistance' act in order to separate themselves from the crowd. Houdini records one such man to be a W. C. Houghton who performed in Philadelphia in 1832.
I mention that because, and I’m finally getting to the point here, Houdini reproduces a piece of Houghton’s publicity material on page 19 of his book:-
“W.C. Houghton has the honor to announce to the ladies and gentlemen of Philadelphia, that his BENEFIT will take place at the ARCH STREET THEATRE, on Saturday evening next, 4th February, when will be presented a variety of entertainments aided by the whole strength of the company.
Mr. H. in addition to his former experiments will exhibit several fiery feats pronounced by Mons. Chabert an IMPOSSIBILITY. He will give a COMPLETE explanation by illustrations of the PRINCIPLES of the EUROPEAN and the AMERICAN CHESS PLAYERS. He will also (unless prevented by indisposition) swallow a sufficient quantity of phosphorous, (presented by either chemist or druggist of this city) to destroy THE LIFE OF ANY INDIVIDUAL.”
Now that’s what I call a variety act. Unfortunately, though, no clue is given as to precisely what these principles were - nor why they might alter as one crosses the Atlantic!
In any event, it certainly sounds like a fun night. Think of W. C. Houghton next time you attend a chess lecture or simultaneous display. Taking on 30 players at once is all very well but can our current crop of IMs and GMs after setting themselves on fire? Sadly, I rather think not.
Miracle Mongers. Truly, as Houdini says, a dying breed.