No Historical Figures were Harmed in the Writing of this Book: A Review of The Magician’s Lie

On the night of January 19, 1897, illusionist and recent widow Adelaide Herrmann stood before a firing squad at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. In front of a large crowd of people that I imagine were sitting on the edges of their seats, the squad opened fire. When the guns were silent, Herrmann still stood, revealing to the audience that she had successfully caught six bullets and was completely unharmed.


Famous performers of the simultaneous bullet catch, in which neither has yet died. But they’re not revealing how they do it. photo credit: Penn & Teller via photopin (license)

Not every magician who has performed a version of the bullet catch illusion has been so fortunate. The earliest performance that I could find reference to occurred around 1580, and was accomplished by a French magician who lived long enough afterward to be killed by a disgruntled assistant more than thirty years later. But there have been a fair number (both verifiable and not) of magicians injured and possibly more than a dozen killed in the course of performing the catch.

How exactly the illusion is accomplished I couldn’t tell you (though plenty of people have offered explanations on the Internet) and even Penn and Teller aren’t revealing this one. What is clear to me is that it’s both dangerous and enduring (and quite possibly stupid), as iconic to the illusion performance industry as sawing a woman in half.


Adelaide Herrmann, the Queen of Magic, levitating, which is not nearly as dangerous as catching a bullet. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What makes Adelaide Herrmann’s performance notable is that this marked her debut as a headlining magician, taking the place of her deceased husband, illusionist Alexander Herrmann who’d been scheduled to perform it. Adelaide never included the illusion in her act again (an indication that she was not stupid), but she went on to become a highly successful illusionist in her own right, performing in Vaudeville circuits until finally retiring in 1928 at the age of seventy-four.

Her long and successful career as the Queen of Magic, highly respected by fellow illusionists, including Harry Houdini (a man who once announced that he would perform the bullet catch and later cancelled the performance citing concerns over the danger), in a field that was (and still is) male dominated, makes her a truly fascinating person in my book. But until recently I’d never heard of her.

And that is why I love to read historical fiction, because sometime I encounter truly interesting people with great stories. I was introduced to the Queen of Magic by the novel The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister. The story follows a fictional young female dancer turned illusionist named Arden at the turn of the century, who possesses a bit of true magical ability as well as a fascination with illusion and a love for the stage.


Seems like a good week to take a break from the news and read a good book.


In the novel, Arden is mentored by Herrmann and eventually takes over her circuit, adding her own flare to the show, including an act in which she (a woman) has the audacity to saw a man in half. When one performance ends in the discovery of a murdered man stuffed inside her equipment, Arden attempts to convince a small town police officer (with plenty of issues of his own) to hear out her story before deciding her fate.

The novel does play with history a little (like by shortening the career span of Adelaide Herrmann) but I don’t think any historical figures were particularly harmed by those choices. All in all, this was a beautiful story, ultimately about the illusions we can create for ourselves, the lies we must believe in order to misunderstand our own predicament, and the very real danger of playing with magic and sometimes catching a bullet.

Hyperactive Goats, a Pragmatic Pope, and the Bitter Red Cups of Satan

According to legend, sometime in the tenth century or so, Ethiopian goat herder Kaldi made a discovery that would forever change the course of the world. He noticed that his goats were suddenly acting kind of like two-year-olds at bedtime, annoyingly energetic and determined not to sleep.

These guys look like they could use some coffee beans. photo credit: little bobbies via photopin (license)

These guys look like they could use some coffee beans. photo credit: little bobbies via photopin (license)

Kaldi traced the behavior to a berry the goats ingested and alerted the local abbot who decided to try the magic berries himself. The abbot used them to brew a bitter drink that gave him the boost of energy he needed to make it through his evening prayers. Delighted, he passed on his secret.

Soon people (and goats) across the Arabian Peninsula were gathering in cozy coffee houses, discussing politics and the weather while sipping steaming cups of coffee and staying up way past their bedtimes.

By the 17th century, coffee reached Europe and while some rejoiced, adding sugar and cream to make the stuff more palatable, others were suspicious because whereas other popular drinks of the day, like wine and beer, made you sluggish and stupid, this new beverage instead made people thoughtful, productive, and pretentious.


But no way would you have caught Pope Clement VIII drinking coffee from a plain red cup. I bet.

And so coffee was deemed the “bitter invention of Satan,” with the local clergy in Venice condemning the drinking of the dangerous stimulant. But the people weren’t having it, convinced as they were that if they didn’t start their day with a cuppa, then they might commit homicide. So Pope Clement VIII decided to step in and settle the issue once and for all. He hopped into the pope-mobile, headed to the corner Starbucks, and ordered himself a venti Iced Caffé Latte with skim milk. And you know what? He liked it!

With Satan’s drink safely exorcized, it quickly spread to the Americas. Then in December of 1773, a group of liberty-minded men got all hopped up on coffee and dumped a whole lot of tea (which, as far as I am concerned is at least Satan’s second favorite beverage) into Boston Harbor. Thomas Jefferson then boldly declared (among other notable things) that coffee is the “the favorite drink of the civilized world.”

And for many people, it is.  Personally I’ve never been much of a coffee drinker (though I do make the occasional exception for a Starbucks vanilla Frappuccino, but that’s really more milkshake than coffee), so maybe this isn’t my war to wage. But recently, Satan reclaimed the civilized world’s favorite drink.

Because nothing says Jesus like levitating under the mistletoe. photo credit: Starbucks 'Red Cup' 2005 (mistletoe) via photopin (license)

Because nothing says Jesus like levitating under the mistletoe. photo credit: Starbucks ‘Red Cup’ 2005 (mistletoe) via photopin (license)

In case you’re not familiar with the controversy, earlier this week a video went viral of a self-declared “former pastor,” and “disciple of Jesus” explaining how he pranked Starbucks. The company, which has traditionally changed its cup designs to reflect the holiday season with pictures of sleds and snowflakes, revealed that this year its holiday cups (clearly designed by Satan himself) will simply be red with a Starbucks logo.

The “prank,” in which video guy was encouraging Christians to participate, was to tell the barista that his name was “Merry Christmas” so she’d have to write that on his cup. His claim is that by eliminating reindeer from the outside of his coffee cup, Starbucks is somehow persecuting Christians and that it is time to stand up and fight back.

Ha! Take that, Satan!

Ha! Take that, Satan!

I can’t follow the logic either. But there’ve been a surprising number of people who have taken to Twitter with images of Starbucks coffee cups with “Merry Christmas” written on them. (Ha! Take that, Satan!). I think it’s safe to assume, most of these people have had entirely too much coffee because they’re behaving kind of like hyper goats.

Of course, I’m also happy to report that a larger number of Christians have taken to social media to say, “Um…what?”

Still, perhaps it’s time to call on Pope Francis to hop into the pope-mobile and settle this mess once and for all. Because I could sure go for a vanilla Frappuccino. But don’t worry, I’ll get the last laugh. I’m going to tell the barista my name is “Snowman.”

Straight Up Infestation: A Motivational Tale

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad it’s finally November, a time for cooking up a big pot of soup, building a fire in the fireplace and reflecting on the many blessings for which we are thankful. Oh, and also for cleaning.

It seems to me that if there is an autumn equivalent to spring cleaning, it happens in the early part of November. Before the cold really sets in and the rush of holiday hosting and merry-making kicks off, it feels like the right time to de-clutter and scrub and organize, a time to chase away the Halloween gloom and the millions of stupid little plastic spider rings your kids brought home from classroom parties, trunk-or-treats, and fall festivals.

What we have here is a straight up infestation of stupid plastic spider rings. Scary.

What we have here is a straight up infestation of stupid plastic spider rings. Scary.

And I’m talking about A LOT of stupid little plastic spider rings here. I don’t know precisely how many came crawling into my house during the last days of October this year, but I have to assume it was a fair few (thousand) because every time I’ve been cleaning up a storm and I think I about have it done, I find more.

They ambush me from the dark recesses of my kitchen cabinets, scuttle into the corners of rooms I could swear I’ve already mopped, and creep out of the couch cushions when I finally sit down to relax.

To be clear, I don’t have a particular phobia of spiders. I am not the kind of woman who runs screaming from a room at the sight of one, begging the nearest man to kill it for me. In fact, as long as they aren’t too big (because let’s face it, eight legged critters are not aesthetically pleasing—I’m looking at you, Mr. Giant Squid!), I’m usually content to leave them well-enough alone, knowing that they are anxious to eat other little critters I’d rather not live with.

If I found one of these in my house, I would definitely squish it. Giant Squid, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If I found one of these in my house, I would definitely squish it. Giant Squid, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It turns out spiders may be good for more than just mosquito-eating, too, because in 1306 (or 1313 according to some versions) Robert the Bruce, the king who famously led the Scots in their first war for independence from England, found himself in a pretty miserable place.

His campaign for independence wasn’t going well. He’d been defeated in battle five times in a row and was hiding in a cave considering whether it was all worth it. That’s when he spied a small spider working to spin a web across a wide gap. Robert watched the critter fail to jump the gap five times, but on the sixth time she (because heroic spiders are named Charlotte), successfully made the jump.

Robert the Bruce, a tough, determined man, but possibly not the one you want to call if you need someone to squish a spider for you. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Robert the Bruce, a tough, determined man, but possibly not the one you want to call if you need someone to squish a spider for you. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Motivated by the spider’s determination and eventual success, Robert the Bruce dusted himself off and tried again, leading a far outnumbered Scottish force to victory against the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, and eventually to the recognition of Scottish independence.

A version of the story first turns up in the 1643 History of the House of Douglas, in which the entire experience of the spider is assigned to Sir James Douglas, an ally and close friend to Robert (like the kind of close friend that carries your embalmed heart into battle after you die, but that’s another story). Robert was apparently inserted into the tale in 1827 by Sir Walter Scott.

But the story is well-known by English and Scottish school children, in the same way that American children know of young George Washington’s refusal to lie about chopping down a fictional cherry tree. And whether it’s true or not, the tale teaches the valuable lesson that success often requires perseverance.

At least that’s what I’m going to choose to take from it. Because no matter how many stupid plastic spider rings I have to dig out of my couch cushions and surreptitiously throw away while my children aren’t looking, I will get my house cleaned up in time for the holidays. Maybe not on the first attempt, or on the second, third, fourth, or fifth, but I’m sure my perseverance will pay off in the end.

Dave Glover Spews Pea Soup?

In 1949, Jesuit Priest Walter Halloran was a student of history at St. Louis University who also served as a driver for William Bowdern, then pastor of St. Francis Xavier College Church. On the night of March 9, Bowdern asked Halloran to drive him to a charming two-story brick house in the northwestern suburb of Bel-Nor.

Halloran assumed he would wait in the car while the priest conducted his business at the home, but when they reached their destination, Bowdern surprised him, saying, “I’ll be doing an exorcism. I want you to hold the boy down in case it’s needed.”

As the story goes, in January of that year, a thirteen-year-old boy from near Washington DC (perhaps the most frightening place on earth), began exhibiting some very strange behavior after attempting to contact his recently deceased aunt with the aid of a Ouija board.

St. Louis's own Exorcism House, the last remaining location of the 1949 exorcism that inspired the novel and movie. Picture via Destination America, which will air

St. Louis’s own Exorcist House, the last remaining location of the 1949 exorcism that inspired the novel and movie. Picture via Destination America, which will air “Exorcism: Live!” at 9 pm EDT, on October 30. 2015.

Fearing he might be possessed, the family contacted their Lutheran minister, who directed them to Father Albert Hughes, a local Catholic priest. It seems Hughes knew only slightly more about exorcism than did his Lutheran counterpart and managed to get himself injured by the boy, who still appeared very much possessed.

After that, the family decided a change of scenery may be best (because nobody wants to exorcize a demon in their own house) and they headed to St. Louis where the boy’s mother had grown up and where there are evidently priests who know more about exorcisms than do their DC counterparts.

The demon seems to have agreed because the word “LOUIS” allegedly formed on the boy’s chest. The family (in a demonstration of the same kind of good judgment that led them to allow their son to attempt to contact the dead in the first place) took that as a sign.

And that’s when Bowdern and Halloran entered the scene, along with assistant and priest Raymond Bishop who kept a detailed diary of the proceedings. After more than a month of prayer and ritual, and moves both to the rectory of St Francis Xavier Church on the campus of St. Louis University and to the psychiatric ward of the Alexian Brothers Hospital (neither of which still stand), the exorcism was finally successful on April 18, 1949.

The boy and his family returned to their Maryland home where, his true identity safely obscured, he is said to have gone on to enjoy a normal, productive, and likely Ouija board-free life. But his ordeal became the basis of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist, and the 1973 film adaptation, most well known for the spectacular spewing of pea soup.

Terrifying. photo credit: Fresh Pea and Ham Soup via photopin (license)

Terrifying. photo credit: Fresh Pea and Ham Soup via photopin (license)

But the neat little brick house in Bel-Nor, Missouri is still here. The house is occupied, though the homeowners don’t seem to want to comment about the story. Neighbors and some previous owners have associated strange, unsettling feelings with the northwest upstairs bedroom where the exorcism is said to have partly taken place. Still, others are more skeptical.

All the priests who participated in the exorcism, with the exception of Halloran remained quiet on the subject in the interest of protecting the privacy of the possessed boy. Halloran never gave details either, but he did admit that he wasn’t quite sure what he had witnessed and that the entire episode may have been attributable to mental illness rather than true demon possession.

Others remain convinced that the house itself possesses an unusually large amount of spooky presence. Tomorrow night (October 30, 2015), on Destination America, television ghost hunters the Tennessee Wraith Chasers will join psychic and medium Chip Coffey, and Archbishop James Long (of the United States Old Catholic Church) in an attempt on live television to rid the house of lingering evil. With them will be local St. Louis radio talk show host Dave Glover.


This is what I’m hoping my Halloween will look like. photo credit: Walking via photopin (license)

And probably not tuning in will be me.

Because there are some things, whether real or not, I think probably ought not be messed with. Instead, I plan to enjoy my weekend of handing out candy to Disney Princesses and tiny Darth Vaders. Then on Monday, I’ll flip on my radio to find out if Dave Glover is spectacularly spewing pea soup.

Half Ghost, Half Scarecrow, But All Witch: A Case of the Heebie Jeebies

In 1968, Washington Evening Star editor Philip Love and his wife attempted to uncover a large piece of evidence in a very old mystery. What they were looking for was an 875-pound rock located somewhere in the woods to the south of Leonardtown, Maryland, that was said to hold the form of the hand of a murdered witch who had cursed the town more than 270 years before.

Seems like a nice town, but what the sign doesn't say is that 300 years ago it was cursed by a witch. photo credit: Leonardtown, Maryland via photopin (license)

Seems like a nice town, but what the sign doesn’t say is that more than 300 years ago it was cursed by a witch. photo credit: Leonardtown, Maryland via photopin (license)

According to legend, the impression belonged to a woman named Moll Dyer who traded healing herbs and lived on the outskirts of Leonardtown, largely depending on the generosity of its citizens for her survival. In part because she was unattractive and in part because she gave everyone the heebie jeebies, it was generally believed she was a witch.

The accusation wasn’t uncommon in the era, particularly in Maryland which had tried a number of women for witchcraft and had even executed one. But what was uncommon about 1696, the year Moll Dyer allegedly squished her handprint into a solid rock, was the extremely harsh winter the people of Maryland experienced.

As the dim cold days and long snowy nights dragged on, suspicion began to grow in the town that their devastating weather pattern had been summoned by the witch in their midst, the woman who was said to fly above the town at night, “half ghost, half scarecrow, but all witch,” casting her nefarious spells on the local children.

By February of that year, when the snow came down hard and fast yet again, producing rare and heebie-jeebie-inducing snowstorm thunder, the non-witch citizenry of Leonardtown had had enough. They grabbed their torches and their pitchforks and they burned Moll Dyer’s house to the ground, driving her into the bitter cold with nothing but the clothing on her back.

According to legend Moll Dyer was and is still associated with strange and violent weather, especially lightning. photo credit: Åskväder via photopin (license)

According to legend Moll Dyer was and is still associated with strange and violent weather, especially lightning. photo credit: Åskväder via photopin (license)

Her body was found a few days later, frozen solid, one hand outstretched, the other pressed into the boulder where she fell, cursing her tormentors.

Now, I can’t say whether there’s any truth to the tale of poor Moll Dyer and I hope there’s not. There isn’t great evidence that anyone by that name existed in the area, though there were some Dyers and records from that period are often a little sketchy. The tale was handed down orally for 160 years before a written record of the name turns up in a deed identifying a portion of land as “Moll Dyer’s Run.”

But to some extent, most of the residents of the area seem to believe it. Or at least they’re a little nervous about tromping through the woods south of town where bizarre weather events, unexplained accidents, and heebie-jeebies abound. Some insist that on particularly cold nights, you can even see Moll Dyer walking through her woods in a particularly unfriendly mood.

Personally I’m kind of a skeptic about these kinds of stories, but my husband, who has spent most of his life in the Midwest, did spend several formative early elementary years in Southern Maryland. While putting this story together I casually asked him if he’d ever heard of the Leonardtown witch. His eyes got big and he asked, “Do you know where I grew up?”

I’m a little directionally challenged anyway and though I’ve heard him mention the road he lived on and the name of his school, I had to admit I didn’t know what town or precisely where in the state it was located. So he explained to me that he lived on the outskirts of Leonardtown, Maryland, just to the south, across the street from a wood he was warned never to enter and where he’d always believed strange things happened.

And that’s when I got the heebie jeebies.

photo credit: Leonardtown, Maryland via photopin (license)

A very small sign identifies this as “Moll Dyer’s Rock, circa 1696,” but you may not want to get close enough to read it. photo credit: Leonardtown, Maryland via photopin (license)

But thanks to the efforts of Philip Love, you don’t even have to venture into the forbidden wood to experience the tale of the unfortunate witch yourself, because he did finally locate the stone on which Moll Dyer was said to utter her final curse. Since 1972 it has been sitting, without much pomp, in front of the courthouse in downtown Leonardtown.

Rumor has it that if you squint really hard and look at it from just the right angle, you can convince yourself there’s a handprint visible in the stone. And if you’re the sort of person who might do this kind of thing, you can even place your own hand in the outline. Just know the experience will probably leave you with a good case of the heebie-jeebies.

One Cool Artsy Hat

Sultan Mahmut II sporting his modern look. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sultan Mahmut II sporting his modern fez. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On November 25, 1925, the parliament of Turkey passed a law prohibiting citizens of that country from wearing a fez in a public space. The widely worn rimless hat had been an important part of the culture for nearly one hundred years, initially stemming from an 1829 decree by Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II that all civil officials and military personnel were required to update their headwear to the fez.

The move was part of a larger effort to modernize the Ottoman Empire, similar to Peter the Great’s grand plan to westernize Russia by taxing the beard. Though there was some resistance at first, the people more or less responded well and by the end of the century, the fez had become not only standard headwear, but also a beloved national symbol.

And that’s what led to the Hat Law. Prior to its passage Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk spoke passionately of his vision for the burgeoning nation of Turkey, which, he demonstrated, included the wearing of Panama hats, which he thought were much cooler.

First president of Turkey, with his modern Panama hat. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

First president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, with his even more modern Panama hat. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alas, the public already thought it looked pretty good wearing a fez and was not prepared to embrace yet another change to its attire. Instead of immediately casting aside the fez in favor of the rakish fedora, pockets of the population rose up in revolution.

The uprising didn’t last long, and it didn’t go particularly well for the revolutionaries who adopted the fez, formerly a symbol of reform, then a rallying cry for proponents of Turkish cultural conservatism. More than thirty people, both men and women, were executed in the course of Turkey’s brief Hat Revolution.

And though it is rarely enforced with much gusto today, the law remains on the books in Turkey, where it’s been for ninety years, even during the rise and fall of the casual European man lounging in a smoking jacket and matching fez.

I have to say, as far as symbols of cultural tug-of-war go, the fez is a pretty cool one (unless it’s paired with a smoking jacket, which most people can’t pull off). And I suspect that may be one of the reasons the online arts and literary journal Red Fez adopted it.

Because in 2002, magazine founder Leopold McGinnis decided to rise up against the well-guarded path to traditional publishing and provide writers with a new opportunity to get their imaginative work out there for public consumption.

Within a few years (with the help of additional artistic revolutionaries) Red Fez expanded to include not only fiction and poetry, but also comics, photography, music, and videos. And it became a really cool Internet hangout for artists of all types (like maybe even cool enough to pull off a smoking jacket).

That's one artsy hat.

That’s one cool artsy hat.
“Fes”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The magazine is published monthly and to date has served up “1,481 poems, 568 stories, 114 graphic works, 70 videos, 35 audio works, 424 articles and reviews from 1302 authors and artists around the world.” And this month, among the creepy artistic offerings of Issue 83: October 2015, The Halloween Issue, there is a story by a little known practical historian.

The story is called “Elixir of Life.” It’s not of a historical nature, but I hope you’ll follow the link and enjoy it anyway. While you’re there, don your fez and coordinating smoking jacket (you’re cool enough to pull it off) and hang out for a while because there’s a lot of good stuff to soak in.

Bald Might Be Better

On October 8, 1905 in London, German-born hairdresser Karl Nessler carried out the first successful public demonstration of a permanent hair wave process. Nessler applied sodium hydroxide to the long hair of Katherine Laible, wrapping sections of it around a dozen or so 2-pound brass rollers electrically heated to 212˚F. He then suspended the rollers above Laible’s head from an elaborate chandelier contraption so she wouldn’t be burned as she waited the six hours necessary for her new do to be done.

Turn of the century ad for Nessler's Permanent Wave Process. rough translation :

Turn of the century ad for Nessler’s Permanent Wave Process. Rough translation : “Better than bald!” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The demonstration was promising and it led to a 1909 patent held by Kessler who continued to improve his permanent wave machine up until he was subjected to internment during World War I. After the interruption to his career, Nessler immigrated to the US, changed his name to Charles Nestle, and grew a successful hairdressing business that included branches in major cities across the country.

But as far as I’m concerned, Charles Nestle is not the hero in this story. That title belongs to Katherine Laible, his incredibly supportive wife. Because before the successful demonstration of 1905, in addition to the chemical and heat experimentation on wigs, there had been at least two previous attempts to put permanent waves into a woman’s locks.  Katherine was the guinea pig then, too.

Six Hours. Hooked up to this. That better have been a really good perm. By Stillwaterising (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Six Hours. Hooked up to this. That better have been a really good perm. By Stillwaterising (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

And at least twice she wound up bald, with painful burns on her scalp. Obviously she was a much better wife than I am, because she kept letting him try. I often don’t even return to a hairdresser a second time if I don’t like the way my cut turned out.

Actually, I’ve been on a quest for the perfect haircut for about two-and-a-half years. The trouble is that when we lived in Oregon, for the first time in my life, I had great hair, like the kind of great that would make strangers stop me on the street and ask where I got it done.

Then we moved 2000 miles away and though I tried, I couldn’t persuade my hairstylist to move with us. Since that time, I have been to probably a half dozen salons, scoured family snapshots and determined that no one ever takes a picture of the back of my head, and made a fool of myself asking countless perfect-haired strangers where they got their dos. So far no one has successfully duplicated my cut.

photo credit: You're a good cop, Velez via photopin (license)

On second thought, bald might be better. photo credit: You’re a good cop, Velez via photopin (license)

But no one has yet burned away all of my hair, leaving me blistered and bald, either. Nor have I had to sit for six hours strung up by a machine that looks like it is more likely to suck out my brain than give me fabulous hair. So maybe I should take a lesson from Katherine Laible and give someone another chance. Or maybe I should honor this 110th anniversary of Charles Nestle’s success and just get a perm.