A few weeks ago we came across this letter from President Roosevelt to his son Kermit in 1904, about a family excursion to a magic show. The letter brings to life that afternoon, and the family's wonder at the illusionist's tricks. Roosevelt remarks, "There is no use in anybody's ever telling me about anything supernatural. It could not be half so wonderful as the things I saw today."
We love stumbling upon letters about family life when cataloging Roosevelt's papers, as they are glimpses into a different side of the man, full of joy and wonder and love. If for nothing more than that, and the reference to a guinea pig that looks like Admiral Dewey, this letter is fascinating and a great addition to our digital library.
And yet, my day got even better when I began trying to identify the magician Kellar to tag him in the letter. As it turns out, unbeknownst to me, the magician they saw was Harry Kellar, who is known as the Dean of Magicians. He trained most of the great magicians of the day, and was a mentor to Harry Houdini, whom he is pictured with below, and later to Howard Thurston.
Kellar, the son of German immigrants, was the largest touring magic act in the world in the decades surrounding the turn of the century. He learned from a magician known as The Fakir of Ava and the mediums Davenport Brothers and Fay, but quickly surpassed his mentors. If word of mouth about his impressive levitation tricks weren't enough to bring people in, his advertisements, featuring imps and devils, and images of his own self decapitation, brought in more sales, from those curious about any connection between his powers and the dark side.
According to the International Brotherhood of Magicians, Kellar once performed his “The Nested Boxes” illusion at the White House for Roosevelt and his children, meaning that TR must have reached out to Kellar after the show to arrange a private meeting. As we are gradually cataloging Roosevelt's papers, and have a while to go, I am hoping that someday we'll stumble upon documentation of Kellar's White House visit.