Saturday, February 18, 2017

Ralph E. Powell – One Bad Apple

“In the big barrel of fine people I have met in magic, here was one bad apple.” So reads the opening comment from Stuart Cramer, longtime magician, author and biographer of Karl Germaine, speaking of magician, Ralph Emerson Powell, of Cleveland. His comments were printed in James Hagy’s entertaining historical journal Perennial Mystics in 1989.

Cramer was recalling his experiences with Powell (1905 – c 1952), the son of the prominent Cleveland surgeon and nephew of a federal judge. Powell was a professional magician and if you go by Cramer’s account and those of others, not a very good one. He did have a scaling card with a Roterberg back.

According to Cramer, Powell was 6’ 4” and, “carved an unhappy career in that city’s history and was no credit to magic.” His big contribution to magic was the creation of the “Stung, Stung Again” trick. Cramer first met Powell after a Blackstone Sr. show where the Harry had identified young Cramer in the audience and described him as a magic enthusiast. Powell caught up with Cramer after the show and eventually invited him over to his house. Eventually Cramer even assisted Powell on some “pretty awful” shows at run-down movie houses.

In a July 1985 Linking Ring article Cramer recalled Powell’s mishandling of livestock during his shows. In one instance, around 1928, Powell produced a dead rabbit from a Welsh Rarebit pan. It had suffocated. Another time he produced a pigeon…not a white dove, but a common street pigeon…and when produced, the startled bird flew out in a panic, hit into a wall and broke its neck.
Cramer described him as “pushy” and with having the conviction that he was the greatest magician who ever lived. At one of the early I.B.M. conventions, his act was going on way too long and all of a sudden the rear curtain rose silently to reveal the back brick wall of the stage. Joe Berg and Jack Gwynne started carrying ladders and buckets across the stage to great laughter from the audience. Powell thought it was his witty patter.

The end came while Cramer was demonstrating magic at a local department store. It was his job to perform some of the tricks in magic sets. Powell heckled Cramer from the audience and shouted out his way of doing the tricks.

The most bizarre and troubling thing about Powell was that he was a suspect in a series of grisly murders in the mid-1930s. They came to be known as “The Torso Murders.” Police began discovering headless, armless, and castrated bodies in a ditch called “Kingsbury Run.” 

Elliott Ness, then Safety Director of the city, rounded up 1,500 suspects, many of them lunatics. Apparently, after each body was discovered, police visited Powell’s home. The surgical precision of the attacks led them to believe that only someone who had access to surgical tools (Powell’s father was a surgeon) could have done such ghastly murders. He was never arrested. 

Apparently years later, Powell straggled into a local magic shop, Jean’s Funny House, asking for a squirting flower. He told John Isley, the manager, that he was going to fill it with acid and play a trick on a certain person he had in mind. Powell was eventually committed to the Newbury Insane Asylum where he reportedly emasculated one of the guards. It was there that he died in solitary confinement.



  1. What an amazing tale, Tom. And, it appears that Powell used a Roterberg back, as discussed in the backstory page:

  2. Powell was also able to insert himself into the first "Crime of the Century". From the Jan 6, 1935 edition of Cleveland Plain Dealer.


    The “sales psychology letter” written with the orange and black letterhead which correspondents reported Bruno Hauptmann read during his trial was not a sales psychology letter at all, according to its author, Ralph E. Powell of 1492 E. 105th Street.

    Powell said that, instead, it was a scientific proof of life after death by mathematics. The letter, according to Powell, urged Hauptmann to study the proof and “to be open and not to conceal himself.”

    “The papers said that Hauptmann read it once and handed it back to his attorney,” Powell said. “Of course if that’s what he did, it won’t have any effect on him. It’s not hard to understand but you have to read it and study it several times before it has any effect.”

    Powell said he also sent one to Lindbergh so the aviator would know what was in Hauptmann’s letter but that he did not suppose that Lindbergh even had seen it.

    Powell is listed in the city directory as a magic entertainer.