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.
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.
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.
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.