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Marvel at the Awesome and Mysterious Power of 19th-Century Magic Advertisements

An 1894 poster for Harry Kellar’s stage show. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Devils. Crystal Balls. Skeletons. Bats. Floating figures. Disembodied heads. The promotional posters for late 19th-century magic shows promised sensational entertainment and awe-inspiring tricks, among them necromancy, mind-reading, fortune-telling, levitation and hypnosis. It’s no surprise that attending a magic show at a large theater–as opposed to a country fair, where they had traditionally been held–became a popular pastime for Victorian-era audiences.

As their fame grew, different illusionists became synonymous with certain tricks. Harry Keller was renowned for levitating a woman; Howard Thurson, the “King of Cards,” could make cards vanish one-by-one; and the most famous of them all, Harry Houdini, pioneered escape acts and sought to uncover fraudulent spiritualists.

These magicians and their illusions are portrayed in exaggerated glory in the advertisements for the performances, which make up a large part of the Magic Poster Collection from the Library of Congress. Below, we bring you the most tantalizing specimens from the trove. 

A 1920 poster for the ‘master mystifier’ and necromancer, Harry Houdini. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Houdini promising to expose fraudulent mediums in this 1909 poster. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Harry Kellar’s demonic 1900 poster. (Photo: Library of Congress)

A 1900 poster for Forrest & Company. (Photo: Library of Congress

Howard Thurston “all out of a hat”, from 1910. (Photo: Library of Congress

Howard Thurston with the “wonder show of the universe”, in 1915. (Photo: Library of Congress)

An 1898 poster for one of Newmann the Great’s illusions. (Photo: Library of Congress) 

Another Newmann the Great poster from 1911. (Photo: Library of Congress

A poster from 1870 for the “Modern Witch of Endor”. (Photo: Library of Congress

Leon Herrmann “the Great”, from 1898. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Promises of “startling sensations and illusions” in this 1898 poster for Leon and Adelaide Herrmann. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Zan Zig the magician performing in four vignettes in this 1899 poster. (Photo: Library of Congress)

A poster from 1900 for Phllips Climation, successor to The Great Dayton Show. (Photo: Library of Congress)