Washington’s magical past


Most of us enjoy being awed and bewildered by skillfully performed acts of magic. Maybe you even had a magician’s kit as a youngster and donned a cape to put on your own shows for appreciative parents. Slip into the nostalgia of the golden age of magic when you go behind the curtain in Sleight of Hand: Magic and Spiritualism in the Early 20th Century. The exhibit is showing at the Washington State History Museum (WSHM), and while the museum isn’t revealing the secrets of magic, there are plenty of surprises in store for visitors as they learn about the superstar magicians and spiritualists who have practiced in our state.

“Washington was an important stopping point for many famous magicians, including Harry Houdini and Carter the Great. The cities of Spokane, Seattle and Tacoma all had ties to major organizations and brotherhoods of magic. In the early twentieth century, hundreds of magicians came through Washington or chose to make it their home because of these connections. The influence of these performers enriched the state’s vibrant theater culture, one that persists to this day,” said Lead Curator Gwen Whiting.

Some of the great magicians to visit or live in Washington include Alexander–The Man Who Knows, Mandrake the Magician, Ray Gamble, and Virgil and Julie. The exhibition is filled with fascinating stories about these magicians, as well as the practice of spiritualism in our state. Artifacts include Mandrake the Magician’s crystal ball, red tuxedo and red loafers along with other items loaned by his family; magic kits and objects from the Historical Society’s collections; colorful vintage poster reproductions; and historic programs from the Pantages loaned by the Tacoma Historical Society.

An art of deception and wonder, magic has been practiced throughout human history as a means to entertain and to enlighten. It is one of the oldest performing arts with evidence of its practice going back to ancient Egypt and even earlier. The performance and perceptions of magic have changed over time, and it remains a celebrated part of our theatrical culture.

Spiritualism was one of the 19th century’s largest religious and cultural movements. The central principal was the idea that the dead could communicate with the living via a medium. The most commonly known practice was the séance, a private gathering at which a small group of people would attempt to summon a spirit. A lesser known aspect of spiritualism is that it also functioned as a platform for discussing social and moral concerns without the fear of recourse. It sometimes went hand-in-hand with early feminism because it provided women with a tool for public speaking and access to the stage. In 1864, when Job Carr became the first permanent European American settler in Tacoma, his wife, Rebecca, chose to stay behind in Indiana and continue her work as a spiritualist and as an activist supporting the fight for women’s rights.

This gem of an exhibition has a subtle yet intentional connection to two other exhibitions at the History Museum – “Make/Do: A History of Creative Reuse,” which is on view through Dec. 6, and Two Centuries of Glass,” which will open Sept. 8.

“The invisible thread that connects our featured summer and fall exhibitions is the larger idea of transformation and alchemy,” said Director of Audience Engagement Mary Mikel Stump. In Make/Do, for example, visitors see ribbons of cassette tape crafted into a fur-like coat, crushed drywall waste reconstituted into construction blocks, and scraps turned into sculptures;  Two Centuries of Glass showcases what was once sand, now transformed into a glittering array of useful everyday products; and Sleight of Hand explores the masters of illusion who can cause us to believe we’ve experienced the impossible.

“Each exhibition considers the notion of making one thing out of something else, whether in actuality or in perception. I love how it challenges our visitors to consider the materiality of any given thing and our perceptions of it, Stump said.

Sleight of Hand will be on view through Jan. 20, 2019. See it before it disappears! Details at washingtonhistory.org.

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