The Great Wizard of the North

Written by Joe Culpepper

Professor Anderson performing his famous bottle trick with his son in his illusion act "The Magic Scrapbook" at the Boston Melodeon in 1852. Image from Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, an illustrated periodical digitized by the Boston Public Library.

John Henry Anderson, known as The Great Wizard of the North, was one of the most famous apparatus conjurors of the nineteenth century. He joined a traveling circus and then a theatre company with which he toured the smaller towns of Scotland as a young boy. Shortly thereafter, he witnessed a magic show (most likely a performance by Ingleby Lunar) and decided to become a professional magician. Though he spent most of his career performing in Europe, he also enjoyed great success in Canada and the United States during three separate tours beginning in 1850, 1860 and 1865 respectively.

Anderson, as suggested by the primary records of his performances in the Ontario region, was a master of publicity, mise-en-scène and presentation. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin and Carl Herrmann were far better sleight-of-hand artists than their Scottish competitor, but Anderson owned beautiful, elaborate apparatus, was a shrewd marketer and presented himself well as an exotic performer. Part of his appeal for European and North American audiences came from his cultural identity. In his illusion, "The Magic Scrap Book," the Wizard of the North produced an impossible number of large objects and concluded the routine with the magical appearance of his son in full Highland costume. In addition to such references to his Scottish heritage, Anderson frequently ended a run of his magic shows by performing the part of Rob Roy in local theatre productions. His wife, four daughters and two sons all, at one time or another, were involved in magic acts, both before and after, their father's performance days, which ended with his death in Darlington, England in 1874.

Advertisement for Professor Anderson's magic performances at the Music Hall, Mechanic's Institute in Toronto during the Agricultural Exhibition of 1862 in Toronto. From the Global and Mail, 19 September, 1862.