Pete: The Carter levitation was, I believe, a complete Kellar levitation. Charles Carter did make an addition to the apparatus: an electric motor and rheostat that controlled the speed of the floating lady's ascent and descent. It was this levi, restored by John Gaughan, that was presented at the 2nd Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. As Jim suggests, an interesting and perhaps ironic sidelight is that the way Carter initially acquired the levitation was through his hiring of two of Kellar's most trusted associates, Fritz and Carl Bucha. ;)
Jim: That the story about Kellar mounting the Egyptian Hall stage in the middle of a performance in order to see the levitation's workings continues to be repeated remains a mystery to me. Not only is there no positive evidence of it; it simply doesn't make sense. As Mike Caveney himself wrote almost a decade ago, "th(is) apocryphal story of Kellar walking up onto the Egyptian Hall stage...is ridiculous. First of all, Harry Kellar was too much a gentleman to resort to such a crass act to obtain what he desired. And secondly, any man who could glance up into the darkened flies of a theater and learn enough to successfully recreate Maskelyne's levitation could undoubtedly peek inside a pocket watch and then construct a duplicate timepiece."
I have the greatest admiration for Jim Steinmeyer, but must confess that I found his chapter Stealing Secrets in Hiding the Elephant most frustrating. The acknowledgment and notes for this section give no direct indication of the sources for his most fundamental of charges, including the abovementioned story. In fact, some of the sources provide evidence to the contrary. Take David Devant's My Magic Life, which is a primary source for Jim's information about Valadon's departure from Egyptian Hall. Yet Devant never even mentions the levitation in connection with Valadon. As for thievery, Devant makes no such charge...though he does sum up Kellar's career with: "Year by year Kellar presented in America the novelties of Bautier de Kolta, Maskelyne and myself, Morritt, and other European performers. Like Herrmann, he improved on some of the effects he utilized. He was a good showman, and had a gift for artistic presentation, but his claims to have invented most of the things he exhibited were unfounded." Hardly the outrage one would expect from the partner of the man from whom Kellar supposedly stole so blatantly. By the way, Devant's language is virtually identical to that in S.W. Clarke's The Annals of Conjuring. But it's not just Devant's language that suggests a lack of animosity toward Kellar. It's his actions. Within months of Kellar introducing the levitation into his act, he and Devant were working collaborately on an effect.
I must confess there are two items in Jim's notes with which I am not familiar and which might shed further light on this history. The first is a letter written in the 1960's by one of Valadon's former assistants, Will Stone. I'm assuming this is different than the letter Stone wrote The Linking Ring in 1956, where he notes that "Kellar obtained many of his best effects from J.N. Maskelyne" and notes that prior to joining the Kellar troupe with Valadon, he used to see Kellar at Egyptian Hall with a pair of opera glasses -- presumably to "get at" the levitation and other illusions. The other is a letter from Houdini to Kellar that apparently explains that Devant had told Houdini about a member of the cast who Maskelyne had set up to give Kellar false information about the levitation. Yet despite the provocation, Kellar never even tried to pry the information out of him...hardly an indication of Kellar's leanings toward larceny. It's hard to imagine either source so complete and credible that one would base so provocative and enduring a tale upon them.
Not that Jim's account isn't engaging. Take the sidenote that, according to Steinmeyer, while Maskelyne may have insisted that Kellar's levitation was only a poor copy of his own, he was also mystified by Kellar's success with what had been a very tempermental piece of apparatus. In fact, Steinmeyer suggests that Maskelyne hired someone to sneak backstage at a Kellar performance to take a picture of Kellar's equipment in the hope of seeing what improvements the American magician had made. :p
Having said this, I should stress that Hiding the Elephant is an enlightening and intriguing book...and it too, with its telling of "secrets," will continue to generate its share of controversy in the weeks and months to come. It, like all of Jim Steinmeyer's work, is worth a read.
Back to the levi...as for the "invisibility" of the wires, I think that is a bit of an overstatement. We certainly have reports that at the point when Thurston began inviting spectators onstage during the illusion, the wires were visible to these laymen.
Jim's post also raises an important point often overlooked by those who think that all Kellar presented was the Maskelyne levitation under a new name. Harry Kellar spent much of his professional career...and even after...searching for the perfect levitation. He spent a substantial amount of time and money refining the illusion...and he continued to improve its mechanics even after he retired. His initial improvements, as John discussed at the LA Confereence several years ago, were in the tool that made the eyelits and in constructing felt-covered rollers -- both of which dramatically increased the durability and reliability of the mechanism. Other improvements made the illusion transportable and eliminated the need for a trap in the stage...substantial advancements in a world of touring magicians and magic shows.