Hidden History

She Caught Bullets with Her Bare Hands — and Made Magic’s Glass Ceiling Disappear

When her husband died and left her penniless, audacious Adelaide Hermann transformed from lowly assistant to “the Queen of Magic.”

She Caught Bullets with Her Bare Hands — and Made Magic’s Glass Ceiling Disappear

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 — a.k.a. 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.

Herrmann the Great Co. poster titled “Herrmann’s beautiful illusion – maid of the moon,” 1898. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

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.

Later, she stopped being Alexander’s double and emerged a chameleon of feminine characters. In a trick called the “Slave Girl’s Dream,” she donned a white robe, stood on a stool, and pretended to fall asleep. Then, Alexander removed the stool and used four poles to move her body through a series of poses until she was completely horizontal in the air. She played a medium in the spirit cabinet trick, and summoned skeletal ghouls to prowl the darkened theater. All was revealed as a sham when Alexander called “Lights up!” and exposed the spirits as people with ghost puppets — a jab at the spiritualists of the day.

As their popularity grew, they kept innovating. One night in Boston, the Herrmanns introduced the “Cremation” illusion. The stage was set to resemble a catacomb, with a pile of rocks topped by a cross. Torch-bearing guards dragged Adelaide, screaming for mercy, on stage, and wrestled her into a coffin, then covered it with a sheet drenched in alcohol. Alexander stonily took a torch to the fabric, and to the audience’s horror Adelaide’s body was consumed by flames. When just a skeleton remained, Alexander collapsed on a nearby bench, only to be tortured by Adelaide’s reemergence as a series of ghosts and demons, who finally dragged the guilty magician to his death.

Using music, lights, costumes, and a heightened sense of drama, the Herrmanns excelled at transforming theaters into phantasmagoric worlds where anything might happen. Dance was Adelaide’s specialty. She imitated Loïe Fuller’s “Serpentine Dance,” a swirling performance in a voluminous dress that took advantage of new prismatic electric light effects. In “Lily of the Orient,” Adelaide mimed a calla lily in bloom, and in “La Danse de Vesuvius” she spun so fast in a costume of yellow and red silk squares that she looked like a column of fire.

With an ever-growing repertoire, the Herrmanns toured the United States, Mexico, South America, and Europe. In Chicago, on Easter Sunday in 1887, Alexander plucked an egg for each audience member from a volunteer’s hat; in 1896 at Sing Sing in New York, he pulled rabbits from the collars of prisoners. Still these vibrant days were increasingly haunted by Alexander’s waning health. Behind the glamorous spectacles were his increasingly regular attacks. A Chicago doctor, Adelaide wrote, diagnosed him with “the worst kind of tobacco heart, and unless he stopped his excessive cigarette smoking, he could not live more than two years.” She pressed her love to give up the habit, but “he would not, or could not.”

On December 14, 1896, they arrived by train in Rochester, New York, where a performance was planned at the State Industrial School. Not wanting to disappoint the hundreds of boys, excitedly gathered and dressed in their gray school uniforms, Alexander first attempted some sleight of hand tricks before tiring and inviting them to that Wednesday’s matinee. There he was in such good spirits that “he danced around like a big boy,” Adelaide wrote. That night’s performance was equally lively, followed by dinner with local politicians where he told stories from the road and brought them back to their private train car. According to Adelaide, after they left he quieted, and remarked somberly: “We ought to enjoy these things while we are living, because after we die we are soon forgotten.”

The next morning, Adelaide was washing her hair when she heard someone enter her room. It was Alexander, pale and unable to breathe. He collapsed on her bed. Seeing his glassy eyes and pallor, she attempted to give him some whiskey with water, but he couldn’t drink. She helped him into his own room, where she cradled his head in her arm. After a last attempt to drink some water, his arms fell to his sides, and his eyes stared.

“I knew then that Herrmann was gone,” she wrote. “I closed his eyes and placed him in the natural position. That was the end.”

Alexander Herrmann’s December 20 funeral at Masonic Hall on 23rd Street in Manhattan was so crowded it blocked the streets. After the burial, Adelaide was alone, with the show and its debts. As the Chicago Tribune reported on December 22, she went to the Queens County Courthouse and “declared the property left by the magician to be worth not more than $2,000,” and that the “debts of the dead man far exceeded the amount of the estate left by him.”

She lamented: “It is among the most pathetic aspects of the stage — of which the general public knows little or nothing — that it allows no time for the indulgence of private sorrows.” Even in her immediate mourning, a crew of 16 people, a show with expensive contraptions, and a menagerie of animals were all waiting for her to decide their fate.

“I received an immediate offer [to sell the show]; but to accept it was to throw away all that we had so long worked for,” she wrote.

To keep the Herrmann name alive, she cabled Alexander’s nephew, Leon, whom Alexander had intended to be his successor. With his lithe figure and similar facial hair, he was a perfect doppelgänger for his uncle, but he lacked Alexander’s experience and finesse. On January 28, 1897, just a little over a month after Alexander’s funeral, Leon made his formal debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. He was the star, but Adelaide ran the show, and she knew they needed something special. She decided to do one of the most dangerous tricks in magic: the Bullet Catch.

That night in 1897, after joining Leon in her usual assistant role, levitating and dancing, Adelaide returned to the stage dressed in trousers and a white blouse — the uniform of a magician, not an assistant.

“Poignant memories assailed me as, the overture being finished, the curtain rose to the familiar strains of the lovely Strauss waltz which my husband was accustomed to use for his opening accompaniment,” she wrote. “I began to feel faint; my emotion was almost too much for me.”

Left: “Pheon Waltz Song” with Herrmann dancing on the cover, 1896. (Photo courtesy of New York Public Library). Right: Poster of Herrmann and Company, around 1905. (Photo courtesy of McCord Museum)

There was no time for reminiscing. She had a date with a firing squad. A line of riflemen joined her on stage, as Adelaide asked the crowd to inspect their bullets, each of which had a special mark. The guns were loaded and aimed at Adelaide. The audience held its breath. The guns fired. The smoke cleared, and Adelaide was still standing — the marked bullets, still hot, clutched in her hands. The crowd leapt to their feet and roared.

Adelaide revealed the sleight of hand in her memoirs. A trick serving tray switched the marked bullets out for blanks, while the real bullets were burned backstage and secretly handed to the magician. It was a trick that could easily go wrong. One of Alexander’s former collaborators, William Ellsworth Robinson, who performed as Chung Ling Soo (one of several white magicians to don exoticized and stereotyped Asian identities), died in 1918 when a live bullet accidentally got into the mix of blanks. The sight of a woman performing this notoriously dangerous trick made Adelaide a sensation, and ensured that the Herrmann name would not soon fade.

The duo of Adelaide and Leon was short lived, their personalities clashing so tensely that, after only three seasons, each set off on their own. Adelaide Herrmann, the metamorphic performer who could be both levitated maiden and fearless cannon flyer, was reborn as the solo Queen of Magic. 

Herrmann as Sleeping Beauty for an ad, 1903. (Photo courtesy of Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Entertainment was at a moment of transition in the late 1890s, as vaudeville took over with short acts that centered on comedy and spectacle. And Adelaide had a keen sense of what would enrapture the vaudeville crowds.

Her favorite illusion was “The Phantom Bride,” which, perhaps meaningfully to Adelaide, had themes of loss and marriage. Through “hypnotism,” she made a bride’s body, draped in white, rise on a brightly lit stage. She passed a hoop over her hovering form, showing there were no wires, then pulled away the white silk — the bride was gone.

And of course, Adelaide danced. In “The Witch,” she stumbled onto the stage dressed as an old woman, trying to reach a fire burning in the darkness. When she finally arrived at the pyre, she dove right into the flames. Unlike the old “Cremation” act, when she returned as a taunting ghost, she emerged reborn and youthful. Smiling, she whirled to the swell of music with a cathartic abandon.

The Queen of Magic toured for over 25 years as a headliner. As she got older, and was no longer the dancing firecracker of her youth, she mesmerized with illusions that showcased her beloved pets. Her “Noah’s Ark” was her greatest vaudevillian hit. At first an ark was shown empty, then buckets of water symbolizing the flood were poured down its chimney. Soon two cats, one black and one white, climbed from the chimney, while a gangplank emerged over which prowled a parade of birds, leopards, lions, tigers, zebras, and elephants. (All the mammals were dogs in costumes.) A flock of white doves flew from the windows, and the biblical boat opened to reveal a lounging woman dressed in white.

Portrait of Adelaide Herrmann, between 1900 and 1920. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Although successful, she’d given up the Whitestone mansion and stored all her props, illusions, decades of mementos, and trained animals at a theatrical warehouse on West 46th Street in Manhattan. On September 7, her morning was interrupted by a phone call. The warehouse was on fire.

She caught a taxi to the building. Firefighters had pumped so much water onto the inferno that the street was like a river. Adelaide was told that all her animals were lost. Then she heard a bystander yell, “Look! Look!” and point to a fourth-floor window where a little white furry shape, her cat Magic, was crouched. “Magic! Magic!” she called and the cat leapt down, landing safely in the water on the street.

One of the firemen fished Magic from the water, and Adelaide took the wet cat in her arms. Later, in a search of the charred wreckage, her white poodle Mamie and wire fox terrier Nellie were found alive. Aside from these three, Adelaide stated that over 60 of her animals, all part of the “Noah’s Ark” illusion, were gone.

The New York Times blamed the fire on an explosion, possibly from some bootlegger stills. Adelaide’s heartbreak is tangible in her memoirs, particularly for the loss of what she called “the best talent among animal Thespians,” as well as a fellow vaudeville entertainer named Thomas Collins who was found “locked in the embrace of his famous boxing kangaroo.” Gone, too, Adelaide lamented, were her 200 crates of costumes, illusions, and 50 years of life, from wedding silver to ephemera from her journey with Alexander.

Even at the age of 73, Adelaide was not finished: “Summoning all my remaining courage to my aid, I clung persistently to the thought that I should again arise, phoenix-like from these ashes to face another future.”

She rebounded briefly with a pared-down show called “Magic, Grace and Music,” highlighting the three elements at which she’d excelled in her career. The National Vaudeville Artists’ Year Book from 1928 shows Adelaide in her final performing year, still poised, still dignified, her snowy hair coiffed in a bob, her figure dressed in black so she recedes into the darkness. She retired that year, with few possessions, but a lifetime of vivid memories that she poured into the memoirs.

Portrait of Herrmann in the National Vaudeville Artists’ Year Book from 1928. (Photo courtesy of Media History Digital Library)

The 2011 publishing of these memoirs has restored some of her fame. Children’s author Mara Rockliff, who wrote the 2016 Anything but Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic, says, “I was looking for a book about a woman stage magician for my nine-year-old daughter, and I couldn’t find even one.” She happened upon Steele’s Queen of Magic, and was inspired. Magician Angela Sanchez cites Adelaide’s career as an influence: “Adelaide’s legacy is important to remember because she demonstrates that women — even in the incredibly socially restrictive environments of early 20th-century America — can be stand-alone, single-billing magicians who command their own shows and audiences.”

On February 19, 1932, Adelaide Herrmann died of pneumonia. In Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, a stately granite monument topped by an urn marks the Herrmann plot. Alexander and Adelaide each have a headstone with their names. His is carved with “HERRMANN THE GREAT,” hers simply “WIFE.”

For three decades after Alexander’s death, Adelaide was not just a pioneering woman in magic, she was a major performer who adapted to changing audiences, and overcame loss. In a November 2, 1899 article for Broadway Magazine entitled “The World’s Only Woman Magician,” Adelaide proclaimed, “I shall not be content until I am recognized by the public as a leader in my profession, and entirely irrespective of the question of sex.”

Adelaide performed until she was 74, ever regal, ever transfixing, ever the star of her show.