Sleight of Hand 2

Sleight of Hand

Magic and Spiritualism in the Early 20th Century
  • Dates:
    Aug 4 - Jan 20 2019

This past exhibition was on view from August 4, 2018 to January 20, 2019.

Most of us enjoy being awed and bewildered by skillfully performed acts of magic. Maybe you even had a magician’s kit as a youngster and donned a cape to put on your own shows for appreciative parents. Slip into the nostalgia of the Golden Age of Magic when you go behind the curtain in Sleight of Hand: Magic and Spiritualism in the Early 20th Century.

An art of deception and wonder, magic has been practiced throughout human history as a means to entertain and to enlighten. It is one of the oldest performing arts with evidence of its practice going back to ancient Egypt and even earlier. The performance and perceptions of magic have changed over time, and it remains a celebrated part of our theatrical culture.

Spiritualism was one of the 19th century’s largest religious and cultural movements. The central principal was the idea that the dead could communicate with the living via a medium. The most commonly known practice was the séance, a private gathering at which a small group of people
would attempt to summon a spirit. A lesser known aspect of spiritualism is that it also functioned as a platform for discussing social and moral concerns without the fear of recourse. It sometimes went hand-in-hand with early feminism because it provided women with a tool for public speaking and access to the stage. In 1864, when Job Carr became the first permanent European American settler in Tacoma, his wife, Rebecca, chose to stay behind in Indiana and continue her work as a spiritualist and as an activist supporting the fight for women’s rights.

Washington was an important stopping point for many famous magicians, including Harry Houdini and Carter the Great. The cities of Spokane, Seattle and Tacoma all had ties to major organizations and brotherhoods of magic. In the early twentieth century, hundreds of magicians came through Washington or chose to make it their home because of these connections. The influence of these performers enriched the state’s vibrant theater culture, one that persists to this day.

Some of the great magicians to visit or live in Washington include Alexander–The Man Who Knows, Mandrake the Magician, Ray Gamble, and Virgil and Julie. The exhibition is filled with fascinating stories about these magicians, as well as the practice of spiritualism in our state. Artifacts include Mandrake the Magician’s crystal ball, red tuxedo and red loafers along with other items loaned by his family; magic kits and objects from the Historical Society’s collections; colorful vintage poster reproductions; and historic programs from the Pantages loaned by the Tacoma Historical Society.