In Baltimore, 1878, an eerie silence settled over the crowd in Ford's Grand Opera House. The boisterous applause for Herrmann the Great's wondrous illusions, in which the nattily dressed magician in a black velvet suit pulled a rabbit from his hat and levitated a sleeping woman, had abruptly stopped. A net was stretched across the full width of the theater, and the audience knew that the culmination of the evening — the cannon act — had arrived.
A young woman dressed in spangled red tights stepped into an upper stage box where the cannon waited, and was helped into the barrel. When she had vanished from view, Herrmann the Great yelled out: "Are you ready!"
"Yes," came her muffled response. "Go!"
There was an explosion.
A flash of gunpowder.
And she flew 50 feet through the air.
Only when she landed safely in the net and the smoke cleared did the audience break into a thunder of cheers that lasted on and on as the curtain rose and fell over the bowing Herrmann the Great and the intrepid young woman.
Although the 19th-century audience might not have noticed, she'd also been the evening's levitating sleeper, the bicycle rider who carried a girl on her shoulders, and the dancer who spectrally swirled in red silk like a pillar of fire. Her name was Adelaide Herrmann, Herrmann the Great's wife and daring assistant. She was not supposed to be a human cannonball.
She'd taken over that role in Caracas, Venezuela, when their trapeze artists quit halfway through a South American tour, and she described her anxiety the first night "as a condemned man must feel as the fatal hour approaches." But as she was loaded into the cannon, she showed no fear.
In 1896, Herrmann the Great — aka Alexander Herrmann — died, leaving his wife responsible for a traveling company, a herd of performing animals, and a lot of debt. If she was frightened, if she was weary, she hid it just as well as she did that night when she was first shot out of a cannon. Adelaide had no choice but to promote herself from assistant to headliner and take center stage.
"Hearts may be torn, bitter tears may be shed, but we of the stage have a jealous mistress in the public, which demands that we be gnawing at the soul," she wrote.
She would become the Queen of Magic — one of the most celebrated magicians in the world.
Born in England in 1853, Adele Scarsez pushed the boundaries of Victorian womanhood from an early age, obsessing over aerial acrobatics and dance. After a stint with the Kiralfy family's dance troupe as a teenager, she learned to ride the velocipede, a 19th-century bicycle, and traveled as a trick-rider with Professor Brown's velocipede troupe.
Alexander Herrmann arrived in her life with a flourish. The mischievous Frenchman, who had an air of Mephistopheles about him, right down to his goatee and twirled mustache, charmed Adelaide from their first encounter. She was engaged to someone else when a friend invited her to his show at London's Egyptian Hall. When the magician asked the women of the crowd to lend him a ring, Adelaide raised her hand.
"Without a thought of the significance of the act," she wrote, "I gave him my engagement ring. Apparently he burned it; but a few minutes later it was returned to me on a ribbon tied around the neck of a beautiful white dove."
In 1874, they met again on a ship sailing from Liverpool to New York. After two weeks of flirtation at sea, Adelaide agreed to marry him. At their wedding, presided over by New York City Mayor William H. Wickham, Alexander announced that he had no money to pay for the ceremony. As the crowd reacted, he reached into the mayor's long beard — or his pockets, according to some accounts — and produced a wad of bills. He tossed them into the air and they disappeared.
These stories come down to us from Adelaide's memoirs, recently rediscovered by magician Margaret Steele and published in 2011 as Adelaide Herrmann: Queen of Magic, and they are worth taking with a grain of salt. The book fails to mention her darker times and scandals — such as her arrest in 1895 for slapping a policeman who attempted to inspect her bag — but contemporary newspaper accounts confirm the matrimonial magic act, and that Alexander did ultimately pay the wedding fee after the sleight of hand.
At the height of their success, they moved into a mansion in Whitestone, Queens. Alexander purchased a steam yacht, several carriages — one pulled by six horses — and a private railcar. And then there was their ever-growing menagerie of cats, dogs, birds, goats, and even, for a time, a couple of unwieldy ostriches. It was terribly romantic, but the bills mounted fast.
From the beginning of their collaboration, Adelaide starred in many of Alexander's illusions. In the early days, she dressed in men's clothing and went by Mr. Alexander. Mainly she handed props to her husband, but one night, as he accepted a strand of six handkerchiefs that she had gathered from the crowd, he winked and said, "Mr. Alexander is now going to perform this trick." Adelaide ran from the stage in a panic. After a bit of coaxing she came back and performed the trick, blowing on the knots to make them disappear. Her take on the illusion became a fixture in their program.