New York Hocus Pocus: Kellar and the Spirit Cabinet

Many late 19th century New Yorkers were hypnotized by the the glamor of the spiritualist circuit, mediums, magicians and mind readers purporting communications with the ghostly world and conveniently in performance form with hefty ticket prices.

One of the most popular was Harry Kellar, Kellar the Magician, whose technical slight of hands in such tricks as ‘The Vanishing Lamp’ and ‘The Levitation of Princess Karnac‘ made him a popular draw on legitimate stages like Daly’s (30th and Broadway) and the minstrel house Dickstader’s Theater.

The poster above highlights one of Kellar’s greatest illusions via the ‘spirit cabinet’, a hokey convention of magical spirit diving that was actually invented by Kellar’s mentors the Davenport Brothers. By confining himself to the cabinet while feats of unexplained trickery manifested around him, Kellar could ‘prove’ the tricks were products of an unseen spiritual hand.

In April 1905, Kellar played the old Majestic Theater in Columbus Circle. One of the highlights included “two persons in the audience playing a game of euchre, the progress of which was suggested by large playing cards that appeared above the spirit cabinet on the stage.”

The tricks of Kellar enthralled New Yorkers and set the stage for one of his biggest fans, Harry Houdini, to become king of the magic circuit.

Below: Kellar sitting next to young Houdini, 1912

Pic above courtesy NYPL Digital Gallery

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