“A few years back, they jacked David Copperfield in West Palm Beach, for Christ’s sake. Yes, it’s funny: “Yo, empty your pockets,” and he pulls out a bunny rabbit. But it’s also depressing. If someone who can make himself disappear isn’t safe, who is?” – Colin Quinn
American magician Karl Germain (1878-1959) once said, “Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does”. The professional magician openly and unabashedly traffics in the aesthetics of improbability, that is, practices an art form that demonstrates our ability to apprehend the impossible, even when we are forewarned that it is a performance intended to amaze and confuse, blurring the fine line between illusion and reality. While I find the comedic disdain of Penn & Teller amusing, they represent a school of thought which maintains that because we are susceptible to a range of psychological misperceptions – from intentional misdirection to the entire gamut of apophenia (the human tendency of perceiving patterns or connections in random or meaningless information) – that all phenomena can be categorically subsumed under the labels of illusion or fact, the more insidious end of this spectrum represented by the smug logical positivism of James Randi. No doubt, a good magician is an expert in human gullibility, which makes it awfully hard to impress them. Thus, when famous magicians lapse into recounting anomalistic experiences, I tend to take them seriously. It is, after all, especially difficult to con a con man, and while we may sometimes chalk up magicians discussing the preternatural to a maintenance of mystique, it seems particularly illuminating and worthy of note, when talented illusionists shrug and say, “that’s pretty weird” (roughly 26% of 400 stage magicians surveyed by noted skeptic Richard Wiseman reported paranormal experiences), as in the strange case of Ling Look, Yamadeva, Harry Kellar, and Harry Houdini. Contortionist Yamadeva died an ignominious death while touring China with popular magician Harry Kellar, but he was not about to shuffle off this mortal coil without the companionship of his beloved brother Ling Look.
An important part of being a mysterious 19th-20th Century vaudevillian stage magician was obscuring one’s origins, and playing to the expectations of the crowd. And at the time, nothing said arcane like the Far East. Perhaps this is still true to some degree. Take the current fascination with Yoga, or as we call it in the mundane West, stretching and breathing. Since relatively few Westerners were jetting to Asia in the late 19th Century, it held a certain esoteric appeal. A reputed realm of undiscovered magic, one might say. Then, as now, you needed an angle.
Heinrich “Harry” Kellar (1849-1922) was an American magician, considered the “Dean of Magicians” before Harry Houdini went primetime, and was experimenting with international, theatrical “stage spiritualism”, with varying degrees of success, abysmally flopping in South America, but packing the halls in Australia. Kellar’s career in magic is said to have started when he blew a hole in the floor of the druggist’s shop (while mixing chemicals) where he was apprenticed, and hopped a train out of town at the tender age of ten, eventually hooking up with the traveling magician, “The Fakir of Ava”, where he got the acting bug. While completing a somewhat ill-received tour of South America, Kellar met two brothers performing under the names Ling Look and Yamadeva, and came up with the idea for a magical variety show.
Bad luck again struck Kellar at Valparaiso, and he returned to Panama, where he met Ling Look and Yamadeva, two famous Chinese brothers. They were specialists of exceptional merit. Ling Look was a marvelous “Fire-King,” while Yamadeva was a contortionist of such rare powers, that he was known as the “Man-Serpent,” and his every movement was as graceful as a cat. Kellar formed a combination with these men under the title of “Royal Illusionists.” The party went to New York by the steamer Andes, narrowly escaping shipwreck off Hatteras in the March Equinoctial of 1876. After a short stay in New York, the trio crossed overland to California, and began an engagement at Baldwin’s Academy of Music, in San Francisco, on the evening of May 15, 1876 (Kellar, 1890, p58).
Oddly, Kellar seemed to have been involved with a lot of shipwrecks. When touring with “The Davenport Brothers and Fay” in Europe some years earlier, his ship was wrecked off the Bay of Biscay, leading to the loss of all his equipment and accumulated resources. Note, don’t get on a ship with Harry Kellar. Kellar decided to leave the Davenports and form his own company with Ling Look and Yamadeva, who were not actually Chinese magicians, rather a bunch of Hungarian circus performers.
In the spring of 1873, Brother Kellar left the Davenports and formed a combination called Fay and Kellar. Eventually he went into partnership with two Europeans, masquerading as Chinese magicians. The company was known as the Royal Illusionists, and consisted of Mr. Kellar, Ling Look, Yamadeva, and Cunard. Ling Look and Yamadeva were Hungarians by birth and brothers, their cognomens in private life being respectively David and Ferdinand Güter. Mr. Cunard’s real name was David Hayman, and he was a brother of Al Hayman, the well-known theatrical manager of New York. The Royal Illusionists opened at Baldwin’s Academy of Music, San Francisco, on May 15, 1876, under the management of Al Hayman, after which they made a short tour of California; closed their American engagement in Salt Lake City on July 6, 1876; and sailed for Australia. At Sydney they played a successful engagement at the Victoria Theater. During their ten weeks’ engagement in Australia they performed to capacity houses everywhere. Gov. Sir Hercules Robinson, Lady Robinson and suite were frequent attendants at the entertainments of the Illusionists. From Australia they went to Java, and from thence to Shanghai, China (Evans, 1916, p249).
Kellar, Ling Look, and Yamadeva were a hit, but then things got weird. I mean, things were weird enough what with Ling Look’s fiery sword swallowing and Yamadeva’s bizarre contortions – activities which would undoubtedly have been frowned upon if it was known that they were two nice young boys from Budapest, but seemed to go over well when they apeeared in makeup and costumes as Chinese magicians. Then Yamadeva had the poor judgement to die in a comically fatal bowling accident.
Ling Look, one of the best of contemporry fire performers, was with Dean Harry Kellar when the latter made his famous trip around the world in 1877. Look combined fire-eating and sword-swallowing in a rather startling manner. His best effect was the swallowing of a red-hot sword. Another thriller consisted in fastening a long sword to the stock of a musket; when he had swallowed about half the length of the blade, he discharged the gun and the recoil drove the sword suddenly down his throat to the very hilt. Although Look always appeared in a Chinese make-up, Dean Kellar told me that he thought his right name was Dave Gueter, and that he was born in Buda Pesth. Yamadeva, a brother of Ling Look, was also with the Kellar Company, doing cabinet manifestations and rope escapes. Both brothers died in China during this engagement, and a strange incident occurred in connection with their deaths. Just before they were to sail from Shanghai on the P. & O. steamer Khiva for Hong Kong, Yamadeva and Kellar visited the bowling alley of The Hermitage, a pleasure resort on the Bubbling Well Road. They were watching a husky sea captain, who was using a huge ball and making a “double spare” at every roll, when Yamadeva suddenly remarked, “I can handle one as heavy as that big loafer can.” Suiting the action to the word, he seized one of the largest balls and drove it down the alley with all his might; but he had misjudged his own strength, and he paid for the foolhardy act with his life, for he had no sooner delivered the ball than he grasped his side and moaned with pain. He had hardly sufficient strength to get back to the ship, where he went immediately to bed and died shortly afterward. An examination showed that he had ruptured an artery (Prince, 1928, p329).
Bowling fatalities are remarkably rare these days, but the game was no doubt a little edgier in 19th Century Shanghai. Yamadeva, evidently feeling that the afterlife was a little too solitary for his taste, decided to haunt his brother Ling Look, perhaps going so far as to drag him off into the light.
Kellar and Ling Look had much difficulty in persuading the captain to take the body to Hong Kong, but he finally consented. On the way down the Yang Tse Kiang River, Look was greatly depressed; but all at once he became strangely excited, and said that his brother was not dead, for he had just heard the peculiar whistle with which they had always called each other. The whistle was several times repeated, and was heard by all on board. Finally the captain, convinced that something was wrong, had the lid removed from the coffin, but the body of Yamadeva gave no indication of life, and all save Ling Look decided that they must have been mistaken. Poor Ling Look, however, sobbingly said to Kellar, “I shall never leave Hong Kong alive. My brother has called me to join him.” This prediction was fulfilled, for shortly after their arrival in Hong Kong he underwent an operation for a liver trouble, and died under the knife. The brothers were buried in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, in the year 1877 (Prince, 1928, p329).
As a curious side note, the story of Ling Look and Yamadeva caught the attention of the up and coming magician Harry Houdini, who heard the tale directly from Kellar, and in an even stranger turn of events, another performer emerged in England, claiming to be Ling Look, turning out to be yet another Hungarian Güter brother.
All this was related to me at the Marlborough-Blenheim, Atlantic City, in June, 1908, by Kellar himself, and portions of it were repeated in 1917 when Dean Kellar sat by me at the Society of American Magicians’ dinner. In 1879 there appeared in England a performer who claimed to be the original Ling Look. He wore his make-up both on and off the stage, and copied, so far as he could, Ling’s style of work. His fame reached this country and the New York Clipper published, in its Letter Columns, an article stating that Ling Look was not dead, but was alive and working in England. His imitator had the nerve to stick to his story even when confronted by Kellar, but when the latter assured him that he had personally attended the burial of Ling, in Hong Kong, he broke down and confessed that he was a younger brother of the original Ling Look. Kellar later informed me that the resemblance was so strong that had he not seen the original Ling Look consigned to the, he himself would have been duped into believing that this was the man who had been with him in Hong Kong (Houdini, 1920, p86-87).
Sometimes you have to play the odds. When a sorcerer tells you that a particular bit of sympathetic magic is a bad idea, you should probably listen. When a magician (off-stage) points out that strange stuff is afoot, well, frankly, they would know. The performance of magic is about tapping into our capacity for awe, but resultantly, as David Copperfield noted, generally, “Magicians lose the opportunity to experience a sense of wonder”. Therefore, when a magician worries about apparently preternatural experiences, it’s probably best to follow their lead and exit stage left.
Kellar, Harry, 1849-1922. A Magician’s Tour, Up And Down And Round About the Earth: Being the Life And Adventures of the American Nostradamus, Harry Kellar. Chicago: Donohue, Henneberry, 1890.
Houdini, Harry, 1874-1926. Miracle Mongers And Their Methods: a Complete Exposé of the Modus Operandi of Fire Eaters, Heat Resisters, Poison Eaters, Venomous Reptile Defiers, Sword Swallowers, Human Ostriches, Strong Men, Etc.. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1920.
Prince, Walter Franklin, 1863-1934. Noted Witnesses for Psychic Occurrences: Incidents And Biographical Data, With Occasional Comments. Boston, Mass.: Boston society for psychic research, 1928.
Evans, Henry R. Scottish Rite (Masonic order). Supreme Council for the Southern Jurisdiction. “The Old Age of Harry Kellar – Magus and Freemason”. The New Age Magazine v.24. Washington: Supreme Council, 33,̊ Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry of the Southern Jurisdiction, U.S.A, 1916.