Do you know the name of the very first credited American magician?
He was Henry Keller (born Heinrich Keller in 1849 to German immigrants in Erie, Pennsylvania). Keller spent much of his childhood playing games of risk like “Chicken” and conducting chemistry experiments. He ran away from home at the age of ten, after blowing a hole into a drugstore floor with a failed experiment.
He continued to hone his skills as a risk-taker and illusionist after seeing a traveling magic show in New York and deciding to track down the magician and become his apprentice. He stayed on with that magician, who called himself “The Fakir of Ava,” until he was 20, at which time he took a job with renowned “Davenport Brothers and Fay,” who would later become known as the first successful stage mediums.
In 1875, Kellar formed a new troupe called “The Royal Illusionists,” a name copied from London’s famous Maskelyne and Cooke. Over the next thirty years, he would become one of the best known magicians in the world, developing tricks like The Vanishing Birdcage, The Kellar Rope Tie, and The Vanishing Lamp. He was also skilled at levitation.
During his years of fame, Kellar struck up a friendship with Harry Houdini that endured until the end of Kellar’s life. Many of Houdini’s acts are said to have been greatly influenced by his proximity to and friendship with Kellar.
Kellar retired in 1908, handing his mantle as America’s Greatest Magician over to fellow illusionist Howard Thurston. His last performance was with Houdini in 1918 for a show to support the families of men who died when the troop transport Antilles was sunk by a German U-boat.