Harry Cooke was a 19th century magician and a very early escape artist. Born in 1844, he performed on stage much of his life. He retired in Los Angeles in 1907 and became head of the Los Angeles Society of Magicians. He was a Union soldier in the Civil War and even then showed some facility with being able to escape from being tied up. His diary noted being asked to demonstrate this for the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and several generals of the Union army in 1864. This talent would prove useful when he was captured by Confederate General John Mosby’s troops while scouting later that fall. As he was scouting out of uniform, he was considered to be a spy, and was due to be executed the following day. He was tied up overnight, and when his guard fell asleep, he loosened his bonds and released himself and his fellow prisoners and they escaped.
By the spring of 1865, he had been removed from combat duty and was a clerk in Alexandria. On April 14th of that year, 152 years ago, he went to the theater in downtown Washington DC. A performance of “Our American Cousin” was on the bill that night.
The play has a slight magic connection. One of the main characters is Lord Dundreary, a dotty, clueless Englishman who, at one point in the play, has convinced himself that he had eleven fingers from unwittingly performing a false count on himself. He counted them backwards, as 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 on one hand, and 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 on the other. He added the count from the first hand as 6 to the 5 fingers on the second hand, and got to 11. Jim Steinmeyer has used variations of this count in several tricks in his Impuzzibilities series. Although more or less forgotten today, the play was very popular during its time. The actor Edward Sothern was typecast in the role, and the image of him cluelessly trying to figure out how many fingers he has became iconic (sheet music, joker).
We do not know if Cooke enjoyed the play. We do know, however, that he didn’t get to see a full performance, because in the third act an actor who had sympathized with the Confederacy and was upset at the recent Union victory, John Wilkes Booth, shot a local politician who was attending the play that night.
Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.
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Also, on Apr 14 1912, British magician Harry Woodley should have been sailing across the Atlantic as part of his day job working for the White Star Line. He was rescheduled, though, and missed the trip. Magician Howard Carter had tried to book passage on the same vessel, but it was too full to accommodate him and his show. The ship, the Titanic, ended up striking an iceberg late in the evening, and sank early the following morning, taking 1500 lives.