Text: Henry Ridgely Evans, “Edgar Allan Poe and Magic,” Linking Ring (Bluffton, OH), vol. XVIII, no. 7, September 1938, pp. 413-416 (This material may be protected by copyright)


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Nearly half a century ago, Richard Henry Stoddard, critic and man of letters, sat down at his writing desk, dipped his pen into gall, so to speak, and wrote the following lines: “Edgar Allan Poe was a curious compound of the charlatan and the courtly gentleman; a mixture of Count Cagliostro, of Paracelsus, who was wisely named Bombastes, and of Cornelius Agrippa, — the three being intermoulded from the dust of Apollonius of Tyana, and Elymas the Sorcerer.”

After reading the above indictment of one of America’s greatest and most original literary geniuses, published in “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine,” for January, 1887 (Vol. 43, p. 109), I ask myself the question: Why did not Mr. Stoddard, who had known Poe and was perhaps jealous of his talent, drag in a few more necromancers and magicians, to say nothing of mesmerists and spirit mediums, when he composed his bitter critique. He might at least have compared the celebrated “Apostle of Mystery” with Mes-mer and Daniel Dunglas Home, and then his diatribe would have been complete. Well, much water has flowed under the literary bridge since Stoddard penned his reminiscences of Poe. The author of “The Raven” and the wonderful “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque,” has come into his own, whereas the feeble poetry and the prosaic prose dissertations of Stoddard are forgotten by the present generation of readers. The fame of Edgar Allan Poe rests secure. Time has laid in the dust the withered laurels of most of his contemporaries, but Poe’s memory will live as long as great literature lasts. He worked a field peculiarly his own — that of the supernatural. Who can forget his “Ligeia,” which deals with metempsychosis; “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which treats cf premature burial; and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which has to do with hypnotism. [page 414:]

In addition to his stories, Poe made incursions into philosophy and mechanics, which latter subject brings us to his masterly dissertation on “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” which belongs to the realm of modern magic; for many famous prestidigitators of the past included automaton figures in their entertainments — pseudo-androids like the chess-player, etc. But let us begin at the beginning, for Maelzel did not invent the chess-player; it was originally conceived and built “by the Baron von Kempelen.

In the year 1769, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, of Pressburg, in Hungary, constructed his famous automaton, which was exhibited by him at the leading courts of Europe. The Empress Maria Theresa of Austria played a game with it. In 1783 it was brought to Paris and shown at the Café de la Regence, the rendezvous of chess lovers and experts, after which it was taken to London. Von Kempelen died on March 26, 1804, and his son sold the chess-player to J. N. Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome, who was born at Ratisbon, Bavaria, in 1772. After showing the automaton in various cities of Europe, Maelzel sold it to Napoleon’s step-son, Eugene Beauharnais, the Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy. But the old love of “adventurous travel with the Turbaned Turk” took possession of him, and he succeeded in buying back the chess-player from its royal owner; whereupon he took it to Paris in 1817, and in 1818 to London, meeting everywhere with success. In 1826 he brought it to America, where it excited the greatest interest. Noted chess experts did their best to defeat it, but rarely succeeded. Maelzel died in 1838, while en route from Cuba to the United States, and was buried at sea. The chess-player was sold at public auction in Philadelphia, and was purchased by Dr. J. K. Mitchell, who eventually deposited it in the Chinese Museum of that city. In 1854 the Museum was burned to the ground, and the famous android, which had defeated at chess the Empress of Austria and Napoleon I of France, was reduced to ashes. Such in brief is the history of the automaton, which in the United States was called “Maelzel’s Chess Player.” Now for a short description of the so-called machine:

“The chess-player,” says Conrad W. Cooke, in his “Automata Old and New” (London, 1893), “was a life-size figure dressed as a Turk, and having before it a large rectangular chest or cabinet, on the top of which were a chessboard and a set of chessmen. The seat on which the figure sat was attached to the cabinet and the whole was on casters, so that it could be wheeled about the floor. When the automaton was exhibited, Baron von Kempelen began operations by opening the doors of the cabinet so as to show its contents. It must, however, be recalled that these doors were opened in succession, and never all the same time; but whichever door was opened, nothing could be seen but wheels, levers, connecting rods, strings, and cylinders. [I might interject here that a door in the back of the figure was also opened and the interior shown full of machinery.] After the doors were closed and locked, the machinery was wound up, and the android was ready to play a game of chess with anyone who would challenge it. On commencing the game, the figure moved its head, and seemed to look at every part of the board. When it checked the king, it nodded its head three times, and when it threatened the queen it would nod twice. It also shook [page 415:] its head when its adversary made a false move, and replaced the offending piece. It nearly always won the game, but occasionally lost.”

In von Kempelen’s day, the person selected to play with the automaton sat at the same chess-board with it; but Maelzel had the machine separated from the audience by a rope and the player was seated at a small table, provided with a chess-board, some ten or twelve feet from the Turk. Maelzel, acting for the human player, repeated his move on the chess-board of the android; and when the latter moved made the corresponding move on the board of the challenger. The whirring of machinery was heard during the progress of the game, but this was simply a blind. It subserved two purposes: First, to induce the spectators to believe that the automaton was really operated by ingenious clockwork; second, to disguise the noise made by the concealed confederate in the cabinet as he shifted himself from one compartment to the other, as the various doors were opened and shut in succession according to a pre-arranged routine carefully rehearsed. Many persons pronounced the chess-player to be a genuine machine, but careful observers who published their views in various newspapers and brochures, thought otherwise, among them being Edgar Allan Poe, who saw Maelzel’s exhibitions in 1835. His keen, analytical mind practically solved the secret of the android, in all but a few of its mechanical details, which were subsequently made known to the public by Dr. Mitchell, of Philadelphia, Pa., the last owner of the automaton.

Hervey Allen, in his “Israfel: the Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe” (1934), says: “It is possible that Poe’s interest in this automaton was early aroused by an article in the ‘Baltimore North American’ to which Henry Poe had contributed in 1827. Many persons had been more mystified than amused by the manoeuvres of the automatic man, and the exposé, although only partly correct, created quite a little furore. It was the first of Poe’s work in which he emerged as the unerring, abstract reasoner and foreshadowed the method he followed later in his detective stories, such as the ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ — a method which has been embalmed in the triumphs of Sherlock Holmes.”

Poe published his exposé of “Maelzel’s Chess Player” in the “Southern Literary Messenger,” of Richmond, Va., for. April, 1836, dwelling particularly on the psychological aspects of the subject. He divined at once that no machinery could possibly be constructed to imitate the human mind when engaged in playing chess, or any other mental operation into which the indeterminate enters and which requires reflection. He was the first, so far as I can discover, who emphasized this phase of the problem.

The concealed assistant in Maelzel’s time was a broken-down chess player named William Schlumberger, a native of Alsace, who at one time eked out a meagre living in Paris by giving lessons in chess. Occasionally, Schlumberger would over-indulge in wine, and as a result would be beaten, while acting as the motive power of the so-called automaton. “On one occasion,” remarks Professor Allen, in Fiske’s “Book of the First American Chess Congress,” New York, 1859, “just as Maelzel was bringing the android out from behind the curtain, a strange noise was heard to proceed from its interior organization, something between a rattle, a cough, and a sneeze. [page 416:] Maelzel pushed back the automaton in evident alarm, but presently brought it forward again, and went on with the exhibition as if nothing had happened.”

Schlumberger not only acted as confederate, but served his employer as secretary and clerk. Says Poe: “There is a man, Schiumberger, who attends Maelzel wherever he goes, but who has no ostensible occupation other than that of assisting in the packing and unpacking of the automaton. This man is about medium size, and has a remarkable stoop in the shoulders. Whether he professes to play chess or not, we are not informed. It is quite certain, however, that he is never seen during the exhibition of the chess-player, although frequently visible just before and just after the exhibition. Moreover, some years ago Maelzel visited Richmond with his automata, and exhibited them, we believe, in the house now occupied by M. Bossieux as a dancing academy. Schlumberger was suddenly taken ill, and during his illness there was no exhibition of the chess-player. These facts are well known to many of our citizens. The reason assigned for the suspension of the chess-player’s performances was not the illness of Schlumberger. The inferences from all this we leave, without further comment, to the reader.”

I confess myself an ardent admirer of the literary and poetical genius of Edgar Allan Poe. He stands alone in the world as the High Priest of the Weird and Wonderful. His talents were recognized in Europe before they were in this country. Charles Baudelaire, the celebrated French poet, sympathetically and faithfully translated his poems into the French language, and pronounced him to be the most original genius in belles lettres that America had produced. Poe is in the same class with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman; — grouped together they form a literary triumvirate hard to beat.

In 1881, when I was doing newspaper work in Baltimore, Md., I met Prof. John H. Hewitt, musician, poet, and journalist, who was editing a weekly paper devoted to literature, the drama, and society affairs, called “The Item,” which was published by a Mr. Loeb. Hewitt was eighty years of age at the time of which I write, and had known Poe intimately. In fact, he was one of the poet’s competitors in a prize contest for the best short story and poem, offered by the “Baltimore Saturday Visitor,” July 1833. Poe won the first prize of $50 with his tale, “A Manuscript Found In a Bottle,” and Hewitt the second prize of $25 for the best poem. Hewitt’s verses are completely forgotten, but Poe’s story is immortal. Professor Hewitt told me many anecdotes of Poe. It was in Mr. Loeb’s journal, ‘The Item,” that I contributed my very first historical studies of modern magic entitled “Magic and Magicians.” Hewitt expressed great interest in my articles and encouraged me to delve deeper into the fascinating subject of necromancy old and new, to say nothing of automata, in which he took a deep interest, having witnessed the performance of von Kempelen’s celebrated android.

In conclusion it is an interesting fact to note that the late Harry Houdini, the famous conjurer, was the proud possessor of the portable writing desk which belonged to Edgar Allan Poe, upon which the great apostle of mystery wrote some of his finest creations. Mrs. Houdini now has this highly prized relic.




This article is reprinted with special permission from the estate of Henry Ridgely Evans.



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