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Wonder Shows

Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion in America

Fred Nadis
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Wonder Shows
    Book Description:

    Imagine a stage full of black cats emitting electrical sparks, a man catching bullets with his teeth, or an evangelist jumping on a transformer to shoot bolts of lightning through his fingertips. These and other wild schemes were part of the repertoire of showmen who traveled from city to city, making presentations that blended science with myth and magic.

    InWonder Shows, Fred Nadis offers a colorful history of these traveling magicians, inventors, popular science lecturers, and other presenters of "miracle science" who revealed science and technology to the public in awe-inspiring fashion. The book provides an innovative synthesis of the history of performance with a wider study of culture, science, and religion from the antebellum period to the present.

    It features a lively cast of characters, including electrical "wizards" Nikola Tesla and Thomas Alva Edison, vaudeville performers such as Harry Houdini, mind readers, UFO cultists, and practitioners of New Age science. All of these performers developed strategies for invoking cultural authority to back their visions of science and progress. The pseudo-science in their wonder shows helped promote a romantic worldview that called into question the absolute authority of scientific materialism while reaffirming the importance of human spirituality. Nadis argues that the sensation that these entertainers provided became an antidote to the alienation and dehumanization that accompanied the rise of modern America.

    Although most recent defenders of science are prone to reject wonder, considering it an ally of ignorance and superstition,Wonder Showsdemonstrates that the public's passion for magic and meaning is still very much alive. Today, sales continue to be made and allegiances won based on illusions that products are unique, singular, and at best, miraculous. Nadis establishes that contemporary showmen, corporate publicists, advertisers, and popular science lecturers are not that unlike the magicians and mesmerists of years ago.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4121-1
    Subjects: History, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Part I: Electric Wonders

    • INTRODUCTION: Beyond the Z-Ray
      (pp. 3-20)

      L.Frank Baum publishedThe Wonderful Wizard of Ozin 1900 at a time when the American public was confident that science and technology were evoking a modern world of wonders. Inventors and scientific wizards abounded, such as the imaginary Oz, the ventriloquist, balloonist, and circus promoter, as well as his real-life peers, the rainmakers of Kansas who offered to save drought-ridden towns with their mysterious equipment. This book is a study of scientists and inventors who enter the realm of showmanship and of showpeople who mimic scientists to promote wonders. Approached from both directions, the public of the past two...

    • CHAPTER ONE The Electric Wonder Show
      (pp. 21-47)

      In July 1853 the Crystal Palace opened on Forty-second Street in New York City. Like its slightly older namesake in London, it was an enormous building of glass, its panes held in a framework of bronze-tinted iron, topped with towers, flags, and a soaring dome. This glass structure housed exhibits of industrial and fine arts that ranged from sculptures of Cupid and a “stag in zinc” to soda-water apparatus, gas meters, mechanical chairs, steamoperated machinery, false limbs, and “a specimen of the banana plant.”¹ For the opening, much of New York was draped with bunting and flags to greet President...

    • CHAPTER TWO The Techno-Wizard
      (pp. 48-82)

      On December 31, 1883, William J. Hammer, one of Thomas Edison’s chief assistants, threw a New Year’s Eve party at his all-electric house in Newark. Dinner guests at twenty-five-year-old Hammer’s “Electrical Diablerie” were offered nonstop delights. As they walked up the first step to the house, the address blazed in tiny lights, the next step caused the doorbell to ring, the third opened the door and lit the gas jets in the hallway. An electrical device brushed snow and mud from the guest’s shoes, then administered a shock to the shoes’ wearer. All the furniture in the house also was...

  6. Part II: Mystic Vaudeville

    • CHAPTER THREE The Hypnotist
      (pp. 85-112)

      Before Professor Leonidas, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century performer, traveled to a new town, he would send his advance man ahead to install a coffin in a pharmacy window with a placard announcing an upcoming hypnotic show. Upon arrival, Leonidas would hypnotize his youthful assistant, sew his lips shut, set him in the coffin in the pharmacy window, and promise the crowd to revive the subject, or “window sleeper,” on stage the following evening. During this same era, another stage hypnotist, Walford Bodie, M.D., offered a modernized gothic touch to his stage act: the electric chair. After describing the horrors of this new...

    • CHAPTER FOUR The Magician
      (pp. 113-137)

      In 1873, in Genoa, New York, townspeople saw the following poster announcing an upcoming performance: “if not spirits what is it. The mysterious man will perform the wonderful manifestations produced by all the noted mediums of the day.” The poster went on to describe the performer’s abilities, announcing, for example, that he “plays on several musical instruments while firmly bound with ropes” and that he “is released after being bound by a committee in less time than is taken in binding him.” Using rhetoric common to séance invitations, the poster urged the audience to “Come and Investigate.” Men were charged...

    • CHAPTER FIVE The Mind Reader
      (pp. 138-176)

      Psychologist Joseph B. Rhine began his rise in psychic research in 1927, when he and his wife, Louisa E. Rhine, examined “Lady Wonder—the Educated Mind Reading Horse” of Richmond, Virginia. Adults who paid one dollar and children who paid fifty cents were allowed into Lady Wonder’s stable, where she spelled out answers to questions and solved mathematical problems by flipping lettered or numbered cards with her mouth. The Rhines concluded that “Lady” had no thinking ability but did show signs of telepathy. They reported that even when hidden behind a screen, the horse was able to pick out numbers...

  7. Part III: Millennial Wonders

    • CHAPTER SIX The Missionaries
      (pp. 179-210)

      The grim economic landscape of 1930s America encouraged a public taste for exotic escapes and romances. Movie patrons feasted on fantasies that included musicals with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, the aquatic epics of Esther Williams, jungle or space adventures with Tarzan and Flash Gordon, and at least one journey to the spiritual utopia of Shangri-La. This desire for the exotic was explored in Charles G. Finney’s 1935 underground classic,The Circus of Dr. Lao, a novel that depicted the combination of boredom, hopelessness, and sexual longing with which small-town America could greet the appearance of a mysterious circus in...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Flying Saucers
      (pp. 211-229)

      In 1953, George Van Tassel arranged the first Giant Rock Space Convention, a gathering of flying saucer enthusiasts that continued to meet annually at his resort in the California desert for two decades. Van Tassel, a pilot, built a landing strip and a hotel and created a council room in a cavern at the foot of Giant Rock near Yucca Valley, California. At his first convention, over five thousand people came to discuss flying saucers, hear lectures, scour the desert skies for saucer sightings, and stop at booths to purchase books and talk to recent “contactees” who, like Van Tassel,...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Many Gospels
      (pp. 230-262)

      In 1999, performer Austin Richards, aka “Dr. Mega-Volt,” delighted the crowd at the “Burning Man” arts celebration in the Nevada desert, when he danced around in a metal suit and helmet on a flatbed truck between two large, humming Tesla coils that discharged ozone, bolts of electricity, and thunder. In that same year, evangelist Dean Ortner, heir to Irwin Moon, appeared onRipley’s Believe It or Not!and performed his “million-volt man” demonstration, jumping on a transformer and letting the crowd see a stick of wood in his hands burst into flames. Also in that year, inventor Dennis Lee conducted...

    (pp. 263-274)
  9. NOTES
    (pp. 275-306)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 307-318)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 319-320)