The name ‘Barnum’ might spark visions of the big top, but the famed circus man also had a long history of magic. The Magic Detective website turned its investigative eye toward legendary showman P.T. Barnum, delving into the connections he had with magicians over the decades.
For starters, many of his business associates were magicians. He also attended the 1844 World Exposition in Paris, where Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin showed off his latest automata to everyone from the casual observer to King Louis Philippe. Barnum was especially fascinated by machine that could write and draw based on audience prompts and eventually acquired it for his collection.
If you’re curious to learn more about Barnum, The Magic Detective has several reading recommendations that served as sources for the anecdotes shared.
Given magicians’ bent toward half-truths and misdirections, it’s no wonder that the history of early performers is a minefield of uncertainties. It takes a lot of digging and a lot of luck to piece together an accurate picture of who magic’s pioneers were and how they worked. That’s a big task for magic historians, but the work does yield fascinating glimpses into previously unknown lives.
One such artist was Minerva, The American Queen of Mystery. She was so mysterious that we’re not even sure what her real name was. According to Dean Carnegie, the two prevailing theories are Margaretha Gertz Van Dorn or Margaretha Snelling. This escape artist is believed to have been active on the performance circuit between 1904 and 1913, placing her as a contemporary of such icons as Harry Houdini.
Much of what we know about Minerva comes from a hazy paper trail of handbills, photos, and lawsuits. She was married to a fellow performer who went by the stage name Vano The Handcuff Expert and the legal name of Edward VanDorn. The duo had a joint act, with the regal billing of The VanDorns, King and Queen of Handcuffs. VanDorn also served as Minerva’s manager when she went solo, although the pair divorced in 1909. She appeared to have remarried Prof. Chas. M.J. Haugeros, who also served as her manager, in 1910.
During her active years, Minerva put her spin on several popular tricks of the day. One signature move was the bridge jump, where she would be handcuffed and leap from a bridge into the river below, then attempt to free herself. Minerva also performed a riff on the Milk Can Escape popularized by Houdini, although hers involved heavy shackles, handcuffs, and a water-filled barrel.
For more insights on Minerva, including her third marriage and brushes with the law, check out the always-impressive sleuthing of Dean Carnegie on his The Magic Detective website.