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Monday, March 18, 2024

March 18, 2024: American Magic: Fakir of Ava

[This coming weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ll perform some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to a special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On three ways that the first famous American magician paved the way for the profession.

1)      Persona: Isaiah Harris Hughes (1813-1891) was born in England and immigrated to the U.S., but the Fakir of Ava, Chief of Staff of Conjurers to His Sublime Greatness the Nanka of Aristaphae, was born sometime later. I don’t think too many future magicians have gone to quite the lengths that Hughes did to imagine and inhabit their constructed persona, as besides creating an entire fictional backstory (although not the character’s geographic origin, as Ava was the Anglicized name of a real city in Burma [now Myanmar]), he also put on blackface, wore elaborate costumes, and claimed that his tricks were “Oriental feats.” But at the same time, it seems clear to me that Hughes expected his audience to be in on the act, or at least to recognize it as a performance—“Fakir” is a pretty telling name for an invented role, after all. And once Hughes got successful enough, he apparently ditched most of the costume, but not the name—a persona is a persona.

2)      Publicity: The Fakir achieved that level of success not only because of his impressive bag of tricks, but also because he was equally adept at making people aware of them and him. He did so through a variety of techniques beyond his own elaborate advertising (although that was impressive as well, as that hyperlinked broadside illustrates), including befriending reporters to gain favorable newspaper coverage, joining popular existing shows like P.T. Barnum’s to tap into their audiences, and coming up with new promotional ideas like the “gift show” (offering lucky audience members prizes in the course of the act). Magic isn’t much without the show that accompanies it, and those shows aren’t much without an audience to trick and misdirect and amaze. Hughes’ mastery over connecting to and amplifying his audience certainly modeled that skill for future magicians.

3)      Passing it on: Some of those future magicians learned from Hughes quite literally, as his apprentices. I’ll write more about the two most famous, Howard Thurston and Harry Kellar, in tomorrow’s post, but will note here that both overtly claimed to be Hughes’ heirs: Thurston by arguing “The historian of magic can trace an unbroken line of succession from the Fakir of Ava in 1830 to my own entertainment”; and Kellar by performing under the Fakir of Ava name when Hughes became too old to travel and retired to his Buffalo home. It’s easy to think of magicians’ helpers as the stereotypical pretty girls in spandex—and maybe they too should be seen as apprentices instead—but the truth is that both persona and publicity are often intended to live on beyond the performer’s career, and heirs are a vital part of that goal. One more way that the Fakir set the standard!  

Next MagicStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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