The Victorian period was a magical time. Telephones, electrical lighting, cameras and even the first automobiles all came into the public’s consciousness during this era of prosperity and technological advancement. Indeed, the speed and frequency with which inventions and discoveries appeared prompted people to wonder what other weird and fantastical things could be just around the corner. It was a time when it seemed anything was possible, and for some the lines between science, spiritualism and magic were blurred. This was a mind-set that magicians of all kinds took advantage of, including those skilled in mentalism – the art of demonstrating seemingly supernatural mental powers. It was to become the golden age of mentalism, and one in which some of the most creative and flamboyant characters ever to read minds or muscles would reach stratospheric heights of fame and fortune.
7) Stuart Cumberland
Born with the name Charles Garner, Stuart Cumberland enjoyed such success as a mentalist that a key part of contact mind reading is sometimes also known as Cumberlandism. The Englishman was a ‘thought reader’ who accomplished his theatrical feats by closely studying his subjects’ ‘facial expressions and muscular tensions.’ It was by using this early knowledge of a phenomenon known as the ideomotor effect that Cumberland’s muscle reading flourished.
With his act, he traveled throughout Europe and drew much acclaim for his talents. He was adept at discerning secret words (sometimes in languages he didn’t even know) and locating hidden objects with what seemed like lightning speed, and he performed for Oscar Wilde, Andrew Carnegie and other great names of the era. He could even pinpoint physical pains and ailments known only to the sufferer. One quote describes him as able to “do all that Mr. Bishop [Washington Irving Bishop, a later entry in this list] ever professes to do without the fuss.”
As a journalist and author, he also penned a newspaper and several books concerning mentalism and the techniques he used to help spot fraudulent mediums and phony psychics. More than one of his contemporaries came under attack (including Washington Irving Bishop) from Cumberland for claiming to possess a supernatural extra-sensory perception. He himself was one of the few mentalists who never claimed to have any kind of psychic powers whatsoever, attributing his extraordinary powers of insight entirely to muscle reading.
6) Samri S. Baldwin
Inspired by the Davenport Brothers’ cabinet routine, Baldwin began his career as a stage magician, but it would be as a mentalist that he would achieve his greatest fame. Born Samuel Spencer Baldwin in Cincinnati, Ohio, he assumed the moniker "The White Mahatma" and formulated a double act with his first wife Clara (and later with his second, Kitty). He brought to the stage a trick well-known by the era’s fraudulent mediums called the sealed envelope (or question and answer) act in which he would discern the answer to secret questions thought up by his audience members and sealed in envelopes. He might even have predated Harry Houdini’s famous handcuff escape tricks on stage with an escape routine of his own.
He traveled the world with his routine and, despite insisting that his talents were very much of this earthly realm (he even authored the book Spirit Mediums Exposed in 1879), he was nonetheless regarded by many audiences as a genuine psychic. Alas, he is little remembered today.
5) Anna Eva Fay
The diminutive Anna Eva Fay was heralded as one of the ‘greatest mind-reading phenomena’ of her century. After beginning her career as a spiritualist medium, she later switched to mentalism and became a famous and much celebrated performer of the art. Unlike Cumberland she wholeheartedly claimed no less than a psychic ability to peer into her audience’s minds and extract whatever information she so desired. This supernatural skill, she claimed, was gleaned from a time when she resided in Burmah, India and was trained by a ‘high priest’ there.
“The High Priestess of the Mysterious Mysteries”, as she was billed, or “The Indescribable Phenomenon”, mastered such tricks as the dancing spirit handkerchief, ‘somnolency’, the rapping hand, and even pulled off a levitation or two. Her shows drew large crowds that numbered in the several thousands and, like one of mentalism’s first performers, J. Randall Brown (more below), she baffled the men of science who studied her. Even the venerated magician J. N. Maskelyne, with whom she fell out, admitted that she was "a fascinating little blonde."
One of Houdini’s closest friends, Fay became an honorary member of that prestigious club The Magic Circle of London in an age when women were not even allowed to join. Fay revealed some of her secrets to Houdini upon her retirement.
4) J. Randall Brown
It was an American named J. Randall Brown who first brought mentalism to a nationwide audience by incorporating it into his stage shows as ‘mind-reading'. Brown combined his childhood knowledge of the Victorian pastime called the Willing Game with his familiarity of séances to become an early pioneer of mentalism. He expanded upon the techniques used in the Willing Game with one of his favorite signature acts, in which the audience was enlisted to nominate one of their number to act as an imaginary murderer, another to be his victim, and to identify something to act as a murder weapon – all while Brown was out of the room. The Celebrated Brown, as he became known, would then return to the theater with a flourish, grasp the wrist of one of the audience and promptly discern all three nominations amid bemused gasps. Although it would seem that he was leading the audience member to the murderer, victim and weapon, it was in fact the other way around: Brown was ‘reading’ the minute muscular movements in the unwitting accomplice’s wrist using the contact mind-reading techniques that Cumberland became so adept at.
But perhaps Brown’s most amazing feat was the national excitement he managed to induce. He was tested under ‘scientific conditions’ by the eminent American neurologist, Dr. George M. Beard. Just as the recent advances with electricity had created amazing, almost magical results that reached tangibly into everyday people’s lives, so the public’s interest in Brown, Beard and mentalism became a brief fervor, as knowledge of the performer’s talents generated a feeling that telepathy was a real and imminent skill. This excitement was captured and expounded by the media attention surrounding Beard’s work, and Brown’s fascinating abilities led him to even greater fame.
3) Washington Irving Bishop
No list of Victorian mentalists would be complete without the inclusion of Washington Irving Bishop. Bishop noticed the media attention and public enthrallment that J. Randall Brown enjoyed and craved the same for himself. A flamboyant and colorful figure with an oscillating career, Bishop learned Brown’s secrets (some sources say he became his assistant for a time) and was soon making his own headlines. His career would eclipse even Brown’s and would also culminate in a mysterious demise.
Perhaps Bishop’s most celebrated spectacle took place in New York. On the morning of March 5th 1887 he gathered a large crowd of people outside Hoffman House, and from the throng a ‘committee of gentleman upon whom no suspicion of confederacy can be claimed’ was selected to aid Bishop in his endeavor. After entreating the watching crowd for an object, a lady volunteered her medallion pin, and the ‘committee’ was given 30 minutes to secrete the pin anywhere in the city within a one mile radius of the Hoffman. Bishop then allowed himself to have cotton wool bound over his eyes using a large handkerchief and a black sack placed over his head before being helped into a two-horse buggy. The returned committee of gentlemen, having executed their task, also climbed into the buggy, and two of them were attached to Bishop with a few feet of thin wire tied around their wrists.
Despite being blindfolded, Bishop was doing the driving. In what must have been a white-knuckle ride for the committee, the buggy and its passengers sped down 25th Street, Madison Avenue and 23rd and 4th Streets until Bishop finally pulled his horses up. The crowd had followed from the Hoffman with interest and now waited expectantly as Bishop was helped down to ground level. Still blindfolded and attached to the two gentlemen, Bishop walked shakily to the Gramercy Park Hotel and entered the lobby. Advancing through the reception he approached a bronze, sculpted figure and upon lifting the statuette, triumphantly produced the medallion pin, much to the crowd’s wonder and delight. The blindfolded buggy drive was continued in more modern times by the British mentalist David Berglas using a car.
While not quite reaching the height of his fame until shortly after the Victorian era, Alexander’s exploits deserve an honorable mention. Born in 1880, Claude Alexander Conlin – “The Man Who Knows” – specialized in mentalism and ‘telepathy’. Easily recognizable by his Oriental-style costume and feathered turban, he set attendance records across North America and became the highest-paid mentalist in the world, accruing a fortune of over $4 million.
He would ask audience members to write questions on pieces of paper before sealing them in envelopes. There seemed no possibility that Alexander could see the questions. Then, employing what he insisted were his considerable powers of telepathy, he would answer each of the secret questions in rapid succession. Although it has now been suggested that he used the ‘one ahead’ method (using sleight of hand to read the supposedly secret messages), nobody could figure out how he accomplished such feats of startling mentalism during his lifetime. It has even been suggested that his ample turban might have hidden an early use of wireless radio!
1) The Zancigs
A husband and wife double act called The Zancigs concocted a ‘spectacularly successful’ mentalist routine. Billed as “Two Minds with but a Single Thought”, Agnes Zancig would sit blindfolded on stage, while her husband Julius would meander through their audience, plucking or receiving objects from the onlookers sat around him. Julius would hold aloft each item and simply ask Agnes to identify it, which she did – unfailingly. Personal effects, bus tickets, serial numbers, words, names – anything the audience could think of – would all be correctly named by the blindfolded Agnes Zancig. There were no accomplices in the audiences and no holes in Agnes’s blindfold – she really couldn’t see anything at all. But then she didn’t have to, for The Zancigs were actually employing an extremely complicated code, undetectable to outsiders and still regarded to this day as ‘the most dauntingly complex two-person communication system of its type ever devised.’
Together, the Zancigs had developed a vast list of simple, varying questions, each one paired with a letter of the alphabet, number or name. Once memorized, Julius merely had to match the question to the object and Agnes match the object to the question. So confident were they of their ‘thought transmission’ routine that they offered $100 to anybody whose name they could not detect. From their beginning as childhood sweethearts in Copenhagen, Agnes and Julius would take their act around the world and enjoy a unique success which lasted thirty years.