When I did a blog on Philip Astley, and the popularity of the circus in the latter half of George III’s reign, it produced an interesting response from Pietro Micheli. He wanted to know if I had any ephemera relating to Eighteenth Century conjurers, in particular one called Breslaw. It wasn’t a name I had come across and as Pietro has written a book on the subject of conjurers and magicians (entitled “They lived by Tricks” I suggested he did a guest blog for me.
By way of background: Philip Breslaw is believed to have been born into a Jewish family near Berlin in 1726. Some reports suggest that he died in 1783, but there are various different dates attributed to him and Pietro gives the date of death as 1803. When he was in his early-thirties (around 1759) Breslaw came to live in England. There are records that he was performing in Ireland in 1767. There were few business openings for Jewish immigrants in Britain at that time – it was difficult for them to get apprenticeships or open business premises, and Breslaw became a travelling magician, with an act which contained tricks with cards, watches, rings and so on. At that time being a travelling entertainer was considered only one up from vagrancy, yet in the course of his career Breslaw managed to raise it to something far more respectable and popular. He in effect developed the role of the impresario, heralding in the birth of the Music Hall the following century.
In his early days he was playing in taverns, but by 1771 was performing in rooms at London’s Haymarket. Breslaw is believed to have been one of the first eminent figures of the era to have explored the field of mind reading and thought transmission, most likely drawing inspiration from the French conjurer Comus. He would have relied on verbal codes (and possibly physical gestures) given by a stooge or confederate.
Pietro explains an interesting conflict between Breslaw and Philip Astley, especially concerning Astley’s trick with his “Little Military Learned Horse”. Sometimes also called ‘Little Conjuring Horse’ Astley claimed the horse could “count, could turn a gold watch into an orange, and an orange into a living bird” and was obviously treading on Breslaw’s toes in what he regarded as “his territory” – conjuring and mind reading.
“In June 1772 Breslaw was presenting his sleight-of-hand shows in London, at his Exhibition Room in Cockspur-Street. Some of his newspaper advertisements and playbills contained an abrasive – however indirect – mention of his opponent Philip Astley (1742 – 1814), referring to him as the “Hobby-Horse Rider, or pretended conjuror, at the foot of Westminster Bridge”.
Astley was primarily a brilliant rider and showman and he was also trying to compete with the growing number of conjurers who were working in London : he extended his act by making forays into the territory of the magician/conjurer, taking advantage of the fact that it was very much in vogue thanks to people like Breslaw. In 1785 Astley had published a book called “Natural magic: or physical amusements revealed”.
Astley saw Breslaw as a rival. The antagonism between the two was unforgiving: having been denigrated as a “hobby-horse rider”, the equestrian publicized his “little learned military horse” as being able to equal if not surpass all the present conjurors and to exhibit every trick, “the town of Breslaw not excepted”, clearly aiming – using a pun – at the Prussian performer. The animosity between the two apparently led a few inquisitive gentlemen to see, and test, the abilities of Astley’s much publicized Little Military Learned Horse at Westminster-bridge. Evidently, these spectators were not satisfied with the results and, sensing that the whole thing was but hot air, proposed to toss the puffer in a blanket. Afterwards, they seemingly advised Breslaw not to pay much attention to the rider’s claims.
Equestrian figure from Astley handbill
At the same time, Astley published an article in a local journal hinting at a previous incident that occurred to Breslaw during one of his performances in Cambridge, where the Prussian magician apparently had been tossed in a blanket for his vulgarity demonstrated towards female spectators. Then, Astley, distancing himself from the conjurer, underlined that he, on the contrary, had never been punished for such improper acts.
What did Breslaw do to the ladies in Cambridge? Probably, we will never know exactly, but we can guess what the matter was about reading this extract of a letter dated 9 November 1771 and cited in “The Virginia Gazette”, 13 February 1772:
“Last night we had a new exhibition: One Breslau, who shows slight [sic] of hand, came here, and in his performances he gave a piece of paper to three ladies to read, the only three in the room. As soon as they looked at it, they rose; and without speaking, left the place. The gentlemen of the University, immediately guessing that there must be something very gross in what was given them to read, in revenge of the insult tossed the conjurer in a blanket.”
In 1784 a book was published entitled ‘Breslaw’s Last Legacy; Or the Magical Companion: Containing All that is Curious, Pleasing, Entertaining, and Comical; … Including the Various Exhibitions of Those Wonderful Artists: Breslaw, Sieur Comus, Jonas, &c. … With an Accurate Description of the Method how to Make the Air Balloon’. Rather than being written by Breslaw, Pietro is almost certain that it was simply seeking to cash in on the Breslaw name, and was a re-hash of earlier material. It did however become very popular and original copies of the book sell for large sums. One in January is being offered at auction with a guide price of $2200. A check on Amazon shows that re-prints are still being produced.
The Biographical Dictionary of Actors Actresses and Musicians refers to a playbill in the Finsbury Public Library dated 4th June 1781 advising the public that at Breslaw’s Great Room in Cornhill “Miss Rosomond, a young lady about 9 years of age, will deliver a satirical lecture …” Another describing ‘Breslaw’s Italian troupe’ at ‘Merchants Hall Bristol beginning 16th October 1775’ had a Sieur Romaldo on the bill, who offered bird imitations. Another gives the list of birds imitated on stage by these supporting acts: finch, goldfinch, canary, skylark, blackbird linnet, robin, thrush, crow and of course the nightingale, whereupon the performer would oblige “the above birds” to obey his call and “on his imitation of the last bird all the birds will fly around the stage”. Sounds like chaos!
Some of the tricks apparently performed by Breslaw give an interesting insight into the work of 18th century illusionists. Pietro gives us the following:
1. To make an egg jump out of any person’s pocket into a box on the table, and back again;
2. To make a piece of money fly out of one handkerchief into another, at one yard distance;
3. To replicate any word (unseen) which another person has written in another room;
4. To make a living bird fly out of a fresh egg;
5. To change a card under any person’s hand, at two yards distance;
6. To make a ring hang in the air, over a table, for several minutes by itself
Breslaw had his detractors. From “A Full detection and explanation of all the delusive tricks performed by Mr Breslau” printed in Dublin in 1767 we have some idea of his alleged repertoire – getting a piece of gold to jump from one hand to the other; borrowing a ladies ruffle or handkerchief and appearing to cut in in pieces and setting fire to the fabric, only to produce the item undamaged; exchanging an orange for a dove inside a hat (described as ‘a poor low trick which is equally as well performed by every puppet-show man in the country of Ireland’); and somewhat bizarrely, producing a freshly made pancake, still hot, from the inside of a man’s hat!
It looks as though the ‘detection and explanation’ was written by a rival determined to denigrate Breslaw, no doubt jealous of his huge success.
I am most grateful to Pietro for introducing me to this extraordinary man, and for providing me with much of the material for this post.
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As a post-script for those who have asked about the practice of tossing in a blanket – here is a detail from a caricature by Richard Newton dated 1795: