June 2011
Charity Vogel

The Forefather of Charm

The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Influential Illusionist

Discussed: Nashville’s Best Millinery Shop, The Indoor Firing of Muskets, Hayseed Towns, Mendicants, The Dean of American Magicians, Itinerant Medicine Peddling, Snappy Patter, The Failure to Acknowledge Satan’s Majesty, Avian Menageries, White Slaves, Greenbacks, Female Extortionists, Justice for Humbuggery, The Divergent Lives of Sons

I. Hat Trick

One night in the mid-1800s, in Nashville’s Masonic Hall, a man billing himself as “the Genuine Fakir of Ava” brought his card tricks and fast-paced patter to a halt. To continue his show, he announced, he would need the help of a lady from the crowd. Where, he asked the audience, might the most prominent lady in Nashville be seated?

The audience turned toward Sarah Childress Polk, widow of the eleventh U.S. president, James K. Polk, and a longtime resident of Tennessee. The Fakir of Ava asked Mrs. Polk to entrust to him the new French bonnet she wore, the one purchased that day at Nashville’s most exclusive millinery shop. Cautiously, she yielded to his request. First, the Fakir dropped the hat into a footlight, wherein it briefly caught fire. He tore the smoking fabric and flowers into scraps, which he then loaded into a gun and fired at the ceiling, blizzarding the crowd with blackened hat bits and filling the hall with smoke.

The Fakir, nonchalant, passed out slips of paper and asked each person to write down a place where the hat might be located. Placing the slips into a black bag, the Fakir extended it to Sarah Polk. She picked one.

It read, “The clapper of the bell in the steeple of the Methodist church.”

The city’s mayor and a committee of citizens rushed to the nearby church and back again, bearing their prize: a hatbox, which they had found hanging from the clapper of the church bell by a ribbon. It contained Sarah Polk’s hat, identical in every particular except for one small detail, unnoticeable to the crowd: the presence of the maker’s label within the hatband.

The effect of this illusion on the audience, it was later noted, was “profound.” To the Fakir of Ava, the man who was one of the mid-nineteenth century’s most famous magicians, and—if you trace such lineages, as magicians do—the forefather of American magic, through a bloodline that would run from Harry Kellar to Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston, on to the best and most daring of modern-day illusionists, it was all in an evening’s work.

For her part, Sarah Polk—either because she was fooled, or because she wasn’t—always maintained that the hat she got back was better than the one she had worn to the show.

II. The Illusionist Prepares

In an age in which show-business careers were built through countless live repetitions of complicated shows mastered over long periods of trial and error, then dispensed from the buckboards of wagons rumbling from one hayseed town to another—until at last the theaters in big cities like Philadelphia could be filled with paying customers—the original Fakir, Isaiah H. Hughes, built his show-business success the hard way: one performance at a time.

Hughes did public magic shows, and he did them better than nearly everyone else. Hughes soon became so famous that he had to protect his name from impostors; countless fake “Fakirs” popped up during the course of his career, some even going so far as to label themselves from “Ava,” at which point Hughes obstinately inserted the word Genuine into his title and handbills. (Hughes himself had taken the name, possibly from a previous and lesser-known magician, for its obvious air of exoticism and romance; a fakir is a mendicant or holy man, and Ava was a place in Burma that sounded mysterious. Plus, it was short enough for posters and programs.) In February 1870, Hughes wrote a testy letter to one Buffalo newspaper defending his reputation as “the only ‘Fakir of Ava.’” “I would state,” Hughes wrote, “that the only value the name possesses is what I have made it.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Charity Vogel, a native of Buffalo, is at work on a book about the Angola Horror train wreck of 1867 (forthcoming from Cornell University Press). She and her husband and two daughters live in an 1898 Victorian home in western New York. She has worked in journalism for fourteen years and enjoys researching historical subjects.

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