Herrmann the Great

After touring the rest of South America, Herrmann headed to Russia. His tour led him all the way to Siberia. In St. Petersburg, he received a grand reception. He was invited to a banquet for the Spanish minister, attended by various distinguished members of Russian society. They drank to his health: “From this moment forth, you will be known as Herrmann the Great.”

The newly crowned Herrmann the Great gave a command performance for Czar Alexander III of Russia. The czar enjoyed the thought of being of the same rough coarseness as the majority of his subjects. He basked in his own straightforward, crude manner. This came off sometimes as being too harsh. And his direct, plain way of expressing himself matched well with his rough features and somewhat sluggish movements.

He was also noted for his immense physical strength. He felt that the ruler of Russia should be more powerful than the toughest rough and most burly peasant.

The czar was impressed by Herrmann’s delicate touch. He picked up a deck of cards and walked over to the wizard. He firmly grabbed the deck and tore it in half. He wanted to test Herrmann’s mettle. He handed the torn deck to the magician to see if he could outmatch the czar’s iron grip. Herrmann was always cool under fire. He only hesitated a moment as he proceeded with the challenge presented to him. He placed one half on top of the other and squared them neatly. Then he proceeded to tear both together. Czar Alexander was most impressed. He gave Herrmann a watch with a chain made of heavy twisted strands of gold.

Alexander tells an interesting tale of an incident that took place after the performance. He was playing billiards at the saloon with the attaché of the court when he noticed the Czar was also playing there. Herrmann shot the ball with all of his strength against a plate-glass mirror that extended from the floor to the ceiling. It shattered into fifty pieces. Every person in the room was horrified, none more than Herrmann.

The Czar brushed off Herrmann’s apology and considered the destruction of the mirror trivial. He ordered the game to proceed. With the Czar’s permission, Herrmann examined the mirror to estimate the damage done. He was hoping to have it repaired.

The Czar teased him, saying if he was such a good wizard why didn’t he make the mirror whole? That was the very cue Herrmann was hoping for. He hesitated for an instant, then ordered the mirror to be covered with a cloth concealing it from view. After about ten minutes, he whisked away the cloth and the mirror was completely restored and without a flaw.

Herrmann later told The North American Review that he would leave it to the reader’s imagination how it was done.

From Russia, Herrmann returned to the place of his birth, France. At the Eden Theatre in Paris, his performance was witnessed by the Prince and Princess of Wales (later to become King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra of England, aka Alexandra of Denmark).

Alexander met his brother Carl again in 1885 in Paris. Carl was still miffed at Alexander from his triumph at Egyptian Hall. Carl was planning on retiring again and was grooming their nephew Leon to be his successor. However, he did not intend to retire until he regained his fortune. So an agreement was made between the two brothers to split the world. Compars was to return to Europe and Alexander to the United States.

Alexander left Paris to go back to America, where he became an established institution. Two years later, while in New York, Alexander was shocked to hear the news of the death of his brother Carl, who died on July 8, 1887 in Karlsbad in Germany. Even with the rivalry between them, Alexander could not help but feel that he owed everything to him. “We’ve always had a warm and brotherly feeling towards each other,” he told a newspaper.

Since Alexander was widely known in the States, when news of the death of Professor Herrmann hit the papers, many thought it was Alexander that had died. He was mourned in the papers.

Carl did regain his fortune before he died. Leon took his place and was doing well. Alexander was content to let Leon take over Europe.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Alexander and his wife Adelaide Herrmann performed together in elaborate stage shows. The great American impresario Michael B. Leavitt handled Herrmann’s American and Mexican contracts. Leavitt always paid all transportation costs as well as advertising, salaries, and other expenses. “Whenever I open a new theatre, ” Leavitt once said, “I want to insure of large crowds, I will have Herrmann the Great play the date.” He was always a drawing card wherever he played, receiving fifty percent of the gross receipt and earning $75,000 a year (about $3 million in today’s figures).

He often squandered his money and would ask Leavitt to advance him $5,000 or more. Leavitt never refused his star. He considered it a safe investment. “The name Herrmann the Great on any marquee was a sure sign of a successful run.”

Alexander and Adelaide lugged their show by railcar and kept their travels to the U.S. territories. They presented a full evening program, adapting such tricks as Robert Houdin’s Aerial Suspension routine in an illusion called Trilby. A board would be set on top of two chairs, and Madame Herrmann would be placed on top of the board. Both the board and Madame Herrmann would rise into the air. The two chairs would be removed. After a hoop was passed over, Madame Herrmann would descend back to the two chairs.

The Herrmanns presented this and many other fine illusions of the time. Their only rival was Harry Kellar.


With the departure of Carl, Alexander began his independent career in 1862. Carl returned to play to the capitals of Europe. Alexander brought his own show to London in 1871 and began a three-year stretch at Egyptian Hall, which he called his “one thousand and one nights”. Egyptian Hall was one of the first buildings in England to be influenced by the Egyptian style, inspired by Europe’s new interest in the various temples on the Nile, the Pyramids and the Sphinx. By the end of the 19th century, the Hall was also associated with magic and spiritualism, as a number of performers and lecturers had hired it for shows. So when Alexander began his run there, it was already the hallmark of a professional magician’s career.

As he got older, he came to resemble his brother Carl. Carl wore an imperial beard and handlebar moustache, and his hair was thinning. Alexander had a full set of curly hair, a thick goatee and a moustache with upturned ends. Even though they resembled each other, Alexander developed his own distinct, magnetic personality. Carl’s humor was sly and he presented his magic in a mysterious manner; he was from the old school of magic. Alexander’s performance style, on the other hand, was to interweave comedy with his magic. He was a humorist who aimed to make his performances a joyous occasion.

Herrmann’s philosophy about performing magic was that “the magician depends for the success of his art upon the credulity of the people. Whatever mystifies, excites curiosity; whatever in turn baffles this curiosity, works the marvelous.”

Despite his performances’ humorous elements, Alexander still mystified his audiences. His intense eyes, imposing mustache and goatee gave him a satanic appearance; in person he looked like a magician. According to H. J. Burlingame, Alexander Herrmann’s personality presented “an atmosphere of mystery about the magician.” Burlingame also noted that Herrmann was one of the kindest and gentlest of men.

Rumors emerged that Carl was Alexander’s uncle, or that they were not related. A lawsuit claimed that Alexander’s real name was Nieman. It went on to say that Carl adopted young Nieman and used him as an assistant so he could groom him to become his successor. The suit claimed that Nieman had adopted the name Herrmann. In 1895, Alexander printed a statement to a San Francisco newspaper that contradicted everything in the lawsuit. He told the newspaper that he had been born in France on February 11, 1843, of German parentage. (His date of birth given here contradicts records that show that he was born February 10, 1844, according to Herrmann expert James Hamilton). He stated that his father was a physician in Germany and had moved to Paris before Alexander was born.[1] Nevertheless, the rumors persisted even after his death; Alexander’s widow had to disprove them many times.

Carl retired during Alexander’s three-year stint at Egyptian Hall. While in America, Alexander had learned the value of making the press; he used that ability during his run in London. While strolling down Regent Street with a friend, he gathered a crowd. He stepped up to two gentlemen and picked a handkerchief from one. He did this clumsily to get the attention of two policemen that were behind him. As the two bobbies came towards him, Alexander deftly poached the watch of the second gentleman.

Alexander’s friend offered to vouch for him. As he was telling the virtues of his friend, the second man discovered that his watch was missing. He insisted that Herrmann took it. Alexander professed his innocence and asked the policemen to search him. They did not find the stolen items. Herrmann suggested that the two policemen should search themselves. The handkerchief was found on one of the cops, the missing pocket watch was on the other. Then one of the policemen noticed his badge missing. They searched one of the gentlemen and found the missing badge. Herrmann smiled and said, “It seems that I am the only honest person here.”

He tried in vain to explain to the police that the entire thing was just a magician’s joke. “We will not be deceived in that way,” the second cop said. So they hauled him off to the police station. There he was recognized and set free. The London papers got hold of the story and made it a sensation. The entire town was laughing at the practical joke Herrmann had played on London’s finest.

Herrmann had an outgoing personality and had no problem making friends. Not only did men find him sociable, but ladies took fancy to him. One in particular was a 22-year-old dancer from London by the name of Adelaide Scarcez (August 11, 1854 – February 19, 1932). Most of his acquaintances were from the theatrical world.

Alexander’s record-breaking run would soon end. He was set to tour Europe after his triumph at Egyptian Hall. Then he returned to the United States and Canada and made several tours. Meanwhile, the financial panic of 1873 wiped out his brother Carl. On May 9, the Vienna Stock Exchange (Wiener Börse) crashed. They no longer were able to bankroll the corrupt mismanagement of the Deutsche Bank. A series of Viennese bank failures resulted. This caused a deflation of the money available for business lending. (See Panic of 1873.)

Carl needed money and the only way to pay his debts was to return to performing.

Wikipedia, Alexander Herrmann, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Herrmann

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