It's Magic . . .You know.

Mar 8, 2010, 4:40 PM |

My dear friend, Deb, was reading a couple books about the life of the great magician Harry Houdini.  She brought to my  attention the fact that Houdini, in response to some slight from the family of his adopted namesake, Jean Eugène Robert- Houdin, wrote a diatribe against the 19th century magician (The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, 1908) Robert-Houdin was
Robert-Houdinthe  most famous magician of his own time who wrote in his autobiography (Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and  conjurer, 1859) a detailed, and completey fabricated, history of the Turk (von Kempelen's automaton) which begins:  
"One piece of good luck never arrives without another; thus, in 1844, I also saw at the house of a mechanician of the name of  Cronier, at Belleville, the famous chess-player, who defeated the whole chess world. I never saw it at work, but since then I  have received some information about the automaton of a certain degree of interest, and I trust my readers will feel the same  surprise as I did when I heard it."

Houdini, in turn, wrote:

     "One error which M. Houdin makes must not be passed over. His account of M. de Kempelen's celebrated automaton  chess-player (afterward Maelzel's) is entirely wrong. This remarkable piece of mechanism was constructed in 1769, and not in  1796; it was the Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria who played with it, and not Catherine II. of Russia; it was in 1783 that it  first visited Paris, where it played at the Cafe de la Regence; it was not taken to London until 1784, and again in 1819; it was  brought to America in 1825, by M. Maelzel, and visited our principal cities, its chief restingplace being Philadelphia; M.  Maelzel's death was in 1838, on the voyage from Cuba to the United States, and not, as M. Houdin says, on his return to  France; and the automaton, so far from being taken back to France, was sold by auction here, finally purchased by the late Dr.  J. K. Mitchell, of Philadelphia, reconstructed by him, and finally deposited in the Chinese Museum (formerly Peak's), where it  was consumed in the great fire which destroyed the National Theatre (now the site of the Continental Hotel, corner of Ninth  and Chestnut Streets), and, extending to the Chinese Museum, burnt it down on July 5th, 1854. An interesting account of the  Automaton Chess-Player, written by Prof. George Allen, of this city, will be found in 'The Book of the First American Chess  Congress,' recently published in New York.
     Signor Blitz, in his book "Fifty Years in the Magic Circle," corroborates the Mackenzie correction, by telling how he saw  Maelzel in Havana, Cuba, where the famous German met his professional Waterloo, first in small audiences, then in the death  of his faithful confederate, Schlomberg. Finally, broken in health and spirit, Maelzel sailed from Havana for Philadelphia, but  death overtook him at sea. His body was consigned to the ocean's depths, and his few effects were sold to liquidate the cost  of passage and other debts.
     That Robert-Houdin should make an error concerning a world-famous automaton the history of which could be traced  through contemporary periodicals and libraries, is almost inconceivable and proves the carelessness with which he gathered  and presented facts.

Harry HoudiniRobert-Houdin had even more errors than what Houdini mentioned (Houdini doesn't even mention the fictional Polish amputee  whom Houdin claimed was Kempelen's first, and last, operator). But it's interesting to note that Houdini, who, incidentally, did  play chess, had conferred with Prof. Allen's detailed account of the Turk in Fiske's Congress book. It's also noteworthing that  he uses an alternate form of Schlumberger - Schlomberg, which is how Antonio Blitz referred to William Schlumberger in his  writings).

Here is Signor Blitz; account of his relation with Maelzel and the Turk:

Life and adventures of Signor Blitz. . . by Himself , 1872

"The Great Automaton Chess-player

Antonio Blitz     Our success was ample and flattering. Mr. Maelzel was a native of Germany—a large, phlegmatic man, extremely irritable,  yet very kind, and he displayed great taste and refinement in all his arrangements, without regard to cost.
     " It must be correct," was his constant observation.
     At the close of my first evening he came to me, and placing his immense hands on my shoulders, said,—
     " My dear Blitz, you are an excellent performer, but you must not make the people laugh so much. It is not shenteel to make  them ha! ha!  They laugh too loud; that's 'not shenteel."
     At the breakfast-table the following morning, and during the day, he often reminded me not to forget his advice to "make the  audience laugh shenteel." When the hour announced for opening the door in the evening arrived, he was whispering in my ear,  " Remember to make them laugh shenteel, Blitz, and not them big ha! ha! ha's!"  When the curtain rose he disposed of himself  in one corner, and there remained the whole time I was before the company, and whenever they became merry he would  whisper, " Blitz, Blitz, there's too much laughing ha! ha! Make it shenteel." And so he continued during my engagement, urging  me to control the muscles and risibles of my audience—incessantly enjoining me to make the people laugh "shenteel."
     Maelzel was a man of splendid attainments as a mechanic and musician, a fine linguist, and superior mathematician. The  latter was absolutely an important auxiliary to the success of the chess-player. Enjoying superior knowledge of the game  himself, he was fully capable of anticipating with almost certainty the success or defeat of his famed automaton. To those  acquainted with his peculiarities, there could always be formed an idea of the state and prospect of the game; for when  Schlomberg—being the absolute chess-player concealed in the figure—was non compos from the effects of wine, Maelzel's  fingers became electrified and telegraphic, plainly interpreting defeat; and these symbols never failed to indicate adverse  results. Schlomberg was very accomplished—could talk French, German, English, Spanish, and Italian with great fluency;  most unobtrusive in his manners, with little or no dignity in his personal appearance. His position was a responsible one, for  he superintended the out-door business, and in a great degree directed the exhibitions.
     Occasionally his love of genial companionship would betray him into habits of indulgences which, however slight, unfitted  him to compete with the masterly minds opposed to him in the game, yet there were instances, strange to say, when under the  influence of stimulants, he would triumph over his adversary. Maelzel and Schlomberg were, in their time, the great living  representatives of chess; their hearts and feelings were so identified with the game that they dreamed of it by night and  practised it by day. At every meal, and in all intervals, a portable chess-board was before them; they ate, drank, and played,  while not a word escaped their lips. It was a quiet, earnest, mental combat, and the anxiety of every pause or move was  defined in each & countenance, their features revealing what the tongue did not express.
     The chess-player was ingeniously constructed—a perfect counterpart of a magician's trick-table, with a variety of partitions  and doors, which, while they removed every possible appearance of deception, only produced greater mystery, and provided  more security to the invisible player. The drawers and closets were so arranged as to enable him to change his position  according to circumstances: at one moment he would be in this compartment; the next, in that; then in the body of the Turk,  which permitted Maelzel to open all parts at one time; when the figure was vacated he directed special attention to its skeleton  character. There was a considerable display of superbly-finished machinery in the box or ball, of a complicated appearance,  which diverged in various directions, the object of this being to distract attention, and impress the mind with the conviction that  the mystery was in the mechanism. In this opinion I am confirmed by Maelzel himself, who, whenever he perceived the  probability of defeat, withdrew the chessplayer, stating to the audience that the machinery was out of order.
     The attention that was created by its appearance and success has never been equalled by any invention. Not only the  lovers of the game, but those of refinement in all parts of the world, were interested in the highest degree. It was an enigma,  which even to this day, with all the explanations, has lost but little of its novelty; yet it has always been a wonder to me how the  public, upon reflection, could seriously entertain the idea that a machine could compete with the human intellect.
     In the winter following I met Maelzel in Havana, Cuba. He had visited the city previously, and was highly successful; but this,  his second venture, terminated most unfortunately, for his business failed, his exhibitions were less attended, while his  pecuniary matters became desperate and gloomy. While thus discouraged and surrounded by difficulties, Schlomberg died of  a fever. Maelzel was now an old man, reduced in circumstances and involved in debt, obstacles unknown to him before; his  pride and spirit could not battle with the change. He secured a passage for Philadelphia, but grief produced a severe illness,  which terminated in death during the voyage. Poor man ! he was buried in the sea, and his effects sold at auction, to liquidate  the cost of passage and other claims. The chess-player was purchased by several liberal gentlemen as a memento of the  renown it had acquired in Europe and this country, and was occasionally used by amateur players in its original capacity, until  it was destroyed by fire at the Chinese Museum.

There was yet another confederate of Maelzel, quite famous in his own field, who is often overlooked.

From The Book of the First American Chess Congress, George Allen's treatise on the Turk:
     " From an early period, Maelzel rented of Mr. Ohl some kind of store-room, where he had an odd fancy of depositing  broken stools and benches, or other, trumpery, which he knew to be useless, but which he had it not in his heart either to part  with or destroy.  [ So it was told me;"but I am pretty sure that this old store-room played a more important part in Maelzel's  arrangements When he was in Europe he needed a safe deposit for his Chess-player; and Mr. Ohl's store-room, and the  neighborhood of the friendly Mr Willig, were precisely what was wanted for his purpose. On his distant toura into the interior he  never took the whole of his Exhibition with him: a part was left behind and stored in this same room.]   His acquaintance with  native residents lay directly among such men of science and ingenuity as took an interest in the inventions which he had  perfected, or could help him in those which he was continually meditating. He was constantly keeping at work artists and  artisans of every description, one upon one detached part, another upon another, of some complicated mechanism; while no  one but himself knew the relation of the parts to each other, and to the whole. From one of these ingenious men, my friend Mr.  Joseph J. Mickley—then a young pianoforte manufacturer, now better known for his union of personal amiability and integrity  with curious knowledge—I have learned more of what I know of Maelzel and Schlumberger, in their private character and  relations, than from all other sources.
     Their acquaintance began by Maelzel's sending for Mr. Mickley, when the Hall was nearly finished, and when the final noisy  preparations for the first exhibition were doing their last and worst—late, therefore, in December—to make some slight  repairs in the upright piano on which Maelzel used to play—and finely, too—to accompany his Trumpeter, or guide the  motions of his Dancers. My amiable friend, who had the advantage, as a native of the Moravian settlement at Bethlehem, of  speaking German readily, appears to have made nn immediate and agreeable impression upon Maelzel. He was, at once  and for ever, made free of the exhibition; he was a frequent and welcome visitor at Maelzel's Hall; and his shop was a favorite  resort of the great inventor. On one of his earliest visits to the Hall, he found the stout, grey-headed exhibitor, not as usual,  quiet, bland, and urbane, but busily training some one behind the curtain in the proper manipulation of the dancing figures. He  was himself ordering, fretting, faultfinding, scolding in most emphatic French, while the unseen pupil was mildly and good- humoredly interposing pleasant deprecations. Maelzel interrupted his grumbling to apologize to Mr. Mickley for his awkward  disciple, by saying, in good-natured German, " He is a novice: he has only been a little while with me." The tall, stooping young  man left his puppets and passed out Soon afterwards Maelzel took occasion to introduce the young man to Mr. Mickley as "  Monsieur Schlumberger.

Joseph J. Mickley is devoutly ensconced as "The Father of American Coin Collecting."   According to his obituary, "Mr.  Mickley was the first president of the Numismatic Society, and a well-known member both of the Franklin Institute and the  Pennsylvania Historical Society." While coin-collecting was his passion, his livelihood was in making piano-fortes and in  repairing various musical instuments.  The high point of this career was the repair of a violin from the estate of George  Washington:

American journal of numismatics, vol xi. July 1876-July 1877
Recent Additions to the Mint Cabinet, by William E. Du Bois.

"Washington was the owner of two violins, and played on them. One of these was his recreation in the years before the war;  and it is even intimated that he drew the bow to entertain his colored servants. The other, a fine old " Steiner," was sent to him  by the French army officers, after their return home, and when his play-days were nearly over. This fact, probably, does not  appear in his biographies; partly because, in those days, the prince of instruments was belittled by a fiddling name. But it is  treasured in the collateral branches of the family, where the two violins are preserved, unless lately parted with in a lot of relics.  An English gentleman had the enthusiasm to offer two thousand dollars for one of them. (The English, indeed, seem almost to  claim the descendant of Sir William de Wessyngton, and by this time are willing to have been beaten by a man of their own  blood.) One of these, thoroughly dilapidated, was sent to Mr. Mickley in 1856, to be repaired. It was, perhaps, a desecration for  the writer to draw out some tones ; but when Ole Bull reverently took hold, and extemporized for an hour with closed eyes, it  was (as he called it) a sort of inspiration. I could not miss this opportunity of telling a good story, especially as it is a pleasant  relaxing of that dignity for which the great man was noted. But the point of it just now is, that of the two violins, the one much  used is more to be prized than the other. This can be said and admitted, without yielding the point that it is desirable to have  some unworn specimens, and especially those of our own mintage, where the date and polish make the only points of interest  to most collectors. "

note 1: The Turk was eventually stored in a warehouse, owned by Mr. Ohl, located on the Lombard Street Wharf in Philadelphia. Ohl took possession of the Turk for payment of debts owed to him by the deceased Maelzel. In 1840, Ohl sold the Turk to a consortium of gentlemen for $400.

note 2:  "1854, July 6.—The National Theatre and Chinese Museum and other buildings, between Chestnut and George [now Sansom] and Ninth Streets. That portion of the block which was entirely swept by the fire was that on which the museum and the National Theatre stood, the store at the corner of Ninth and Chestnut Streets, and the brick buildings Immediately east of the theatre and museum on Chestnut and Sansom Streets. . .The houses now standing on the north side of Sansom Street, between Eighth Street and the Continental Hotel building, were damaged by fire, and also the upper part of a store on Eighth Street, between Chestnut and Sansom Streets, and some of the houses on Chestnut Street, between Eighth and Ninth, on the south side, in the roofs."