In the months preceding the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition,
museum curator and Special Assistant for the India Office Revenue and Statistical Department, George Molesworth Birdwood was commissioned to be the honorary art director for a private venture called the “Oriental Bazaar.” To provide entertainments and remain faithful to the character of India, Birdwood brokered deals to display “native artifacers … to work in their several handicrafts in their shops as in India,” as well as “Indian jugglers and snake charmers.”
More often though, India’s magic inspired equal doses of receptivity and skepticism to make it preferred material for British stage magic during its Golden Age (1880-1930). With emissaries planted in colonial outposts, the search for and importation of real magicians and conjurers should have been relatively simple, but this was not the case in practice. In his 1901 travelogue to India and Sri Lanka, Johannes Madsen, an employee of the Copenhagen Zoo, chronicles his search for the just the right type of performer for Hagenbeck’s Exhibitions, which sheds light onto a difficult process: “When I came to Colombo, [John] Hagenbeck had only secured our artisans, namely an ivory carver, silversmith, painter, and lace maker. The most important were sill lacking: magicians, snake charmers, sword swallowers, and Gujuratis.” If living humans were hard to procure, there were other tactics to bring them back to Europe, through travel guides and faked performances.
Because print culture held an authoritative position in bolstering the fascination with travel and exploration, displayed and performing people were often understood to be illustrations come-to-life of popular travelogues. Mary Louise Pratt argues that travel books imbued European readerships with a “sense of ownership, entitlement, and familiarity” with distant parts of the world being colonized and explored. Nineteenth-century travel writings often mentioned snake charmers in order to flesh out India’s colorful background, but more often than not they act as extras in support of the journeying British protagonist. For example, Robert George Hobbes observes the presence of “conjurers and snake-charmers” three separate times in his memoir, Soldiering in India (1893), yet the performers do little to advance the narrative action. Other examples, however, offer a more detailed account of India’s magical citizens. Even those these performances were supposed to incarnate the romance of India, they also became indicators of modern India’s economic fitness, or lack thereof. Professor of Asian Languages at East India Company College and later Oxford, Sir Monier Monier-Williams in his travelogue, Modern India and the Indians, notes that conjurers in India “helped to give an insight into the character of the humble classes who constitute the great mass of the people, and whose happiness and improvement are identical with the prosperity of the country.” By linking the conjurer-performer to a specific moment in India’s economic and social history, conjurers et al. transform into performers of wonder into enthusiastic or opportunistic entrepreneurs selling easily exchangeable magical wares to whoever may be in need. Monier-Williams mentions with a slight nod to their charlatanry: “Sometimes the pretended curer of snake-bites by charmers professes to possess the power of expelling demons, and in other cases the expeller of demons disclaims being a snake-charmer.”
Stage magic refers to performed illusions and special effects that combined stagecraft, fantastical stories, and technological and mechanical invention that often used the supernatural as a narrative device. Stage magicians may have called themselves “conjurers,” but the founder of the modern school of legerdemain, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin blew the lid off of stage magic’s supernatural enterprise by explaining that the modern conjurer is really “an actor playing the part of a magician.” Egyptian Hall fixture John Nevil Maskelyne further clarified that stage magic consisted of creating a “mental impression of supernatural agency at work” through the misdirection of novel optical, electric, and mechanical devices. Nineteenth-century stage magic culture was “designing,” as in calculating, scheming, and crafty. Stage magic works according to Neil Harris’ “operational aesthetic,” a phenomenon in which audiences delight in in observing processes and examining for literal truth,” even if the spectacle at hand was a known hoax.
"Magic consists of creating, by misdirection of the senses, the mental impression of supernatural agency at work. That, and only that, is what modern magic really is, and that meaning alone is now assignable to the term". John Nevil Maskelyne
India’s allure for Western audiences lied in its marvelous qualities. Stage magicians often alluded to Indian culture in order to make their conjuring seem more impressive and authentic, though these displays of magic were known fabrications. In a review for the Berlin Illustrated News, a reviewer enthusiastically praised circus impresario Carl Hagenbeck’s ability to replicate India as “the old land of magic” in his enormously popular caravan shows. Other stage magicians worked with India is a couple different ways: some billed themselves as intrepid explorer while others passed themselves of as mystics from India.
Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic: A Practical Treatise on the Art of Conjuring (1877) lists Colonel Stodare’s Indian Basket Trick as “imitated from a similar illusion performed by the Indian conjurers … its fictitious horror being apparently its chief attraction.” Stodare took on the fictitious “Colonel” title to brand himself as an intrepid explorer of mysterious regions; after having “done India,” Stodare returned with an arsenal of illusions from the “land of superstition and mystery.” Along with debuting his trick, Stodare published a textual companion, “The Hindu Basket” (1865), which explained the illusion’s mechanics. The “Indian Basket” trick features an oblong basket large enough to accommodate a magician’s assistant playing the part of a treacherous female whose punishment is to be put to death by the sword-wielding magician. Once the assistant is forced into the basket, the magician bludgeons it with his sword repeatedly, drawing blood and screams from the assistant and horrified gasps from the audience. Once he has elicited a fever pitch of excitement from the crowd, the magician reveals the basket to be empty and the assistant comes merrily tripping out from another corner of the theater.
On stage, Colonel Stodare was a “well educated Frenchman” who could make skulls and other precious oddities from the East talk for rapt audiences. His show struck just the right chord between British patriotism and alluring mystery that he was praised as “the mystic with the military title.” However well traveled Stodare appeared to be, his origins were decidedly more humble, but nonetheless just as mysterious.
Born in Liverpool, Colonel Stodare was actually either Joseph Stoddart
or Alfred Ingells, depending on who you ask; not much is known about his pursuits before he appeared on England’s provincial stages in 1860 boasting first-hand knowledge of the “celebrated illusions of Hindostan.” “Hindostan” may have stretch though, considering that he actually bought some of his more famous tricks, like the “Sphinx” off of Thomas Tobin, a young acolyte of Professor Pepper, a British inventor associated with the Royal Polytechnic Institute. If the furthest Stodare travelled was to London to procure his tricks, his performances of them were much more transportive, as advertisements exclaimed that his illusions would send spectators on a two hour trip to “wonder world.” Comporting himself as the worldly traveller who picked up and domesticated India’s mysterious crafts, Colonel Stoddare made magic a colonial project. The high point of Stodare’s career was probably on Tuesday evening, November 21st, 1865 when he performed the “Sphinx” trick for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, earning him the august title of “a royal illusionist.” Magician and magician’s archivist, Henry Ridgely Evans bestowed even a more plum honorific on the Colonel when he likened his “Sphinx” trick as riddle that “is really worth of Oedipus.” But, after a few years of schlepping his mystical wares, Stodare’s disguise wore thin. The eagle eyes of The Chesire Observer noted that he had “but scanty audiences” and “most of his tricks were old and common.”
Fakir of Oolu
If Colonel Stodare was magic’s militant colonizer, a more mysterious ambassador soon stepped out from colonial India footnotes and into the British foot lights: the Fakir of Oolu....
Throughout the thousands of pages in the gazetteers are ten short mentions of Indian fakirs. Fakirs were ascetics or religious devotees who would come to capture the Victorian popular imagination for their feats of spiritual and physical strength despite their relatively brief presences in colonial administrative documents. Well-versed in yoga practices, fakirs would stun audiences with miraculous feats of physical endurance that were mistaken for sorcery, like resting on a bed of nails. To satisfy British tastes for these mysterious illusions, Indian fakirs immigrated to London to try their hand at stage magic. Magician Henry Kellar mentions watching an 1875 performance of fakirs up to their old tricks. An old fakir took three sharp swords and buried them hilt-down into the ground so that they stood straight up. Another younger fakir lied himself prostrate on the ground and once made comfortably numb by the old fakir’s magical hands, a third fakir helped spread the enchanted fakir atop the swords, who remained in position as the swords were removed.
Knowing a good thing when they saw it, opportunistic Western magicians imitated the “fakirs” to add some spice to their shows. If fakirs in India submitted themselves to inhospitable physical acts as public signs of their religious devotion, Western adoptees of their practices were not always quite so pious. Alfred Sylvester (1831-1886) began his stage magic career as the assistant to Professor John Pepper at the London Polytechnic. Their relationship was short-lived and the two suffered a falling out after Sylvester presented an “improved” version of Pepper’s propriety “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion. Possibly feeling the bitter sting of the public apology he had to issue, Sylvester pulled his own disappearing act, which just happened to coincide with the appearance of a shadowy mystic, the “Fakir of Oolu,” or the “Denizen of the Air,” who was capable of aerial self-suspension and specialized in different levitation tricks. Draped in silky robes and a turban, the “Fakir of Oolu” was the height of sumptuous Eastern glamour, or so designated by rapt London audiences. After awhile the “Fakir” only put nominal effort into his costuming. In a publication for the Society of American Magicians Monthly, Robert Kurdz ponders “why any sane human being of British speech should dub himself the ‘Fakir of Oolu.’” Kurdz then goes on to describe the Fakir as “compely English gentleman” with a “tendency to rotundity” whose only visibly mysterious qualities were his “suspicion of gout.”
Levitation tricks were stage magic chestnuts, perfected by luminaries such as Robert Houdin, and Maskelyne and Cooke. Sylvester’s “Fakir” upped the magical ante by not only levitating himself, but also his bevy of beautiful female assistants, as a print shows him decked out in a bell-sleeved gown keeping a woman perched three feet off the ground by a single hand. So popular were these women that they began to share billing with the “Fakir” as his “entranced ladies” and would perform in his shows in two’s and three’s.
"...it is, we presume, due to Mr. Barnum’s advice that he comes before us with so astounding and awe-inspiring title.” (The Era, 1872)
However, not everyone was as entranced as his ladies. Prompted by his performance at Cremorne Gardens, The Era (August 4th, 1872) yanked off the fakir’s cover by informing readers that the “Fakir” hails “from America.” The article then goes on to place the “Fakir” in some dubious company indeed by speculating on this origins: “and it is, we presume, due to Mr. Barnum’s advice that he comes before us with so astounding and awe-inspiring title.” In a follow-up to its first lambasting review, The Era (August 25th, 1872) responds to the “Fakir’s” grievances by performing their own lexical legerdemain of civility: “But we have no desire to quarrel with Mr. Sylvestre for changing his own name, although we are inclined to think that Sylvestre is somewhat more euphonious than Fakir. But what’s in a name?” So as to not be shading the “Fakir” too much, The Era chalks up his popularity to the receptivity of British audiences to see performances of exoticism that transform them into world travelers: “the sight-seeing public, enjoy talent the more when it has a foreign ‘smack’ about it.” If the Fakir had a hard time of it in that London season, he did not fare much better on his second North American tour in 1877, as the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel (May 3rd 1877) reports that “the fakir of Oolu was greeted by rather a small audience last evening. The exhibition was one of the veriest mediocrity.” By the late-nineteenth century, “the Fakir of Oolu” became so synonymous with puffed up, staged trickery that his name transformed into a parliamentary euphemism for peacocking politicians trying to present themselves unsuccessfully as crafty.
 Emma Hardinge Britten. Nineteenth-Century Miracles; or, Spirits and their World in Every Country of the Earth. (New York: William Britten: Lovell and Co, 1883): 323.
 Lee Siegel. Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991): 199.
 John Hagenbeck was Carl’s younger half-brother. He collected animals and people for Carl’s menageries and caravans in Sri Lanka and India. He later used the contacts he made in Sri Lanka while forming a Sighalese caravan to purchase tea and rubber plant plantations and later started Hagenbeck’s Ceylon Tea company in 1895. David Ciarlo Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011): 88.
 Rikke Andreassen. Human Exhibitions: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Ethnic Displays. (Burlington: Ashgate, 2015): 87.
 Sadiah Qureshi. Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011): 174.
Mary Louise Pratt. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. (New York: Routledge, 1992): 3.
 Robert George Hobbes. Reminiscences of Seventy years’ Life, Travel, and Adventure; Military and Civil; Scientific and Literary. Volume 1: Soldiering in India. (London: Elliot Stock, 1893): 47.
 Monier Monier-Williams. Modern India and the Indians: Being a Series of Impressions, Notes, and Essays. (London: Trübner and Company, 1879): 48.
Monier-Williams, Modern India, 47.
“Legerdemain.” The Encyclopedia Brittanica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature. Volume XIV. Ninth Edition. (New York: Charles Scribners’s Sons, 1882): 415.
John Nevil Maskelyne and and David Devant. Our Magic: the Art in Magic, the Theory of Magic, the Practice of Magic. (New York: E.F. Dutton & Company, 1911): 110.
Neil Harris. Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973): 79
 Geoffrey Lamb. Victorian Magic. (London: Routledge, 1976)
Qtd. in Ames, “From Everyday to Exotic,” 320.
 Professor Hoffmann. Modern Magic: A Practical Treatise on the Art of Conjuring. Second Edition (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1877): 478.
 “Colonel Stodare” Magic: The Magician’s Monthly Magazine. Edited by Ellis Stanyon. 1:12 (September 1901): 97.
 David Arnold. Science, Technology, and Medicine in Colonial India. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 130.
c19 scholar interested in all things freakish