New Episode: History Podcast for Kids: Famous Magicians: Jean- Eugene-Robert-Houdin

Jean- Eugene-Robert-Houdin-

(December 7, 1805 – June 13, 1871)

 “A magician is merely an actor playing the part of a magician.” 

Jean was born in Blois France to a watchmaker.  His father was set on Robert becoming a lawyer. Robert was set on becoming a watchmaker. He had a job as a clerk in a law office for a short time where he spent most of his time tinkering with mechanical objects in the office than writing and copying. He was sent back to his father where he became an apprentice watchmaker. He never stopped making clocks and is credited with the invention of The Mystery Clock.

In the 1820’s he saved his money to purchase a 2 column set of books, Treatise on Clockmaking, written by Ferdinand Berthoud. In a twist of fate upon returning home he discovered 

Not the books he had saved for but a 2 volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements.

The books had a fault. They explained the principle behind the trick but not how to perform the trick. Without the benefit of our modern magic, the internet. Robert went to take lessons from a local fair and party magician named, Maous from Blois (side note Maous from Blois was a foot doctor when not performing at parties). 

Jean learned sleight of hand and dexterity but the most important lesson he learned was repetition and discipline. I have researched many magicians and a constant theme is they are never without their trade. If they are a card magician you will never see them without a deck that they are working with. 

Jean also learned that it is crucial to still make money even while pursuing one’s passions. He opened a watchmakers shop and performed in his spare time.

Jean met and married Josephe Cicle Houdin. He took her last name and hyphenated his Robert- Houdin in 1830. They moved to Paris where Jean worked in his father in laws watchmaking shop and he found a group of magicians at the shop Rue Richelieu.

He married his love of mechanisms with an interest in automatons creating a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton that wrote and drew. This was later sold to P.T. Barnum.

Using his knowledge of engineering he created amazing props and made stories out of magic creating character plot tension and resolution in his acts.

His props were nothing short of engineering marvels creating illusions that were not only beautiful but told stories from the growing an orange tree in a pot to the levitation of his son.

His acts and his ability to create a narrative play from magic changed the way magic was performed to this day. Magic had become high entertainment and not a way for a magician to claim special powers. Magic was to awe and delight. It was an age of Darwin and reason and Houdin’s magic played into science and engineering of the age, not the superstition. 

To further prove this point he did not dress as magicians had before. No long robes embroidered with strange symbols. He dressed as the members of his audience would have done. Coattails, top hat, and gloves 

His first show was in his estimation a disaster. On July 3, 1845 he performed the “Soirees Fantastiques.”

On the verge of a nervous breakdown he told a friend of his failure. His friend agreed with him. It was silly and ridiculous. This harshness gave Jean the kick up the backside he needed to try again.

Jean had tremendous success both as an inventor of new and amazing illusions and by selling his magic tricks to other magicians. His style of having tricks build upon tricks to create a story is still used to this day. His influence on other magicians of his time and directly after can not be overstated. The most famous being Houdini who in 1891 took on the last name.

In an interesting side not after he retired at 48 he was called upon by Napoleon the third to use his magic to pacify a tribe in Algeria.

If you have ever seen a movie called Hugo you might have heard a few things that make you think of the movie. Here is why. In 1888 after his death, his widow sold his theatre to Georges Melies. A magician himself, though history mostly remembers him for his contributions to movie making and pioneering stop motion effects.


Magic Is Dead Ian Frisch

Hiding the Elephant

Did You Know America Had An Emperor? Learn All About Edward Norton Emperor of America

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Emperor Norton the King of America

Did you know America had a n emperor? This is one of my favorite stories in history and it happened in San Francisco California in the late 1880’s. The reason this is one of my favorite tales from history is that usually when someone decides they are going to grab for power they are usually doing it for POWER. There is a fight of varying degrees of awful for everyone involved. This is not that story. Emperor Norton was a visionary and you will see his vision for this country and the state of California was ahead of its’ time. This is a story of a fortune lost, some very good ideas, a two VERY good dogs, and a dear friend named Mark Twain

Joshua Norton was born in 1818 or 1819 in Britain migrating to San Francisco for the gold rush in 1849. He invested heavily in real estate growing a $40,000 investment into a quarter of a million dollars. Due to a bad deal in rice he became bankrupted and disappeared for a small while.

When he came back he came bak in a big way. On September 17, 1859, a most unusual decree appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper. In grandiloquent fashion, the message stated, “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens…I, Joshua Norton…declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” It went on to command representatives from all the states to convene in the Bay Area, “to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.” The edict was signed, “NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.”

Mr. Norton was usually dressed in an epaulette-adorned Navy coat, an ostrich feather-plumed hat and occasionally carrying a military saber, the delightfully eccentric “Emperor Norton I”

He lived by the kindest of restaurants that would take the currency he made. Many of the citizens would bow and tourists would collect his currency as a keepsake.  There were Emperor Norton dolls. Theatre owners would save him a seat for opening nights. San Francisco’s directory listed his occupation as Emperor.

The San Francisco newspapers knew they had found gold and would print each of the emperor’s proclamations with great fanfare. . When an overzealous police officer once dared to arrest the Emperor on charges of vagrancy, the city’s newspapers responded with outrage. One writer defended him as a local institution, arguing, “since he has worn the Imperial purple [he] has shed no blood, robbed nobody, and despoiled the country of no one, which is more than can be said for his fellows in that line.” The Emperor was quickly released, and from then on, the city’s lawmen saluted whenever they encountered him on the street.

In October 1859, declared, “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice…in consequence of which, we do hereby abolish Congress.”

"He's talking about how African-Americans should have the right to attend public schools, ride public streetcars. How the Chinese should be able to have their testimony heard in court," Lumea says. Norton also argued for the rights of Native Americans and against political corruption. (KQED)

In the 1870’s he asked for funds to build a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. The Bay Bridge was built in 1936.

During Edward Norton’s reign Mark Twain worked as a journalist for the San Francisco papers. Mr. Twain was inspired by the emperor modeling the “king” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after him.

The emperor was said to spend his days in the library, playing chess, at religious services , or going for walks with the cities most famous dogs: Bummer and Lazarus. If you hav not yet heard I Can’t Believe That Happened episode on Bummer and Lazarus go to our show notes and click on the link.

When Emperor Norton dies in 1880 he was hailed as far as The New York Times as The great emperor of America for more then 20 years. The headline of his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle read, "Le roi est mort." More than 10,000 people attended his funeral.


Emperor Norton’s Decrees

Bay Curious Podcast: America's Emperor, San Francisco's Treasure: Who Was Emperor Norton?