Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Charles Howard Sheck, the Rise of the S.A.M. and the Broken Wand Tradition

This handsome pasteboard, obtained in early 2017 from Ray Goulet, showcases Charles Howard Sheck,  a seemingly obscure performer, whose obscurity seemed, at first, something of a mystery....

Turn-of-the-20th Century magical periodicals, which provide fairly comprehensive documentation of the lives of conjurers of that period, offer only a few scraps about Sheck.  He received a few brief mentions in Mahatma, an early magicians' magazine printed by New York's legendary Martinka magic shop.  Beginning in 1899, we find Sheck in New York City "playing lyceum dates," dubbed "a clever little professor [offering] the latest sleights with cards and coins" and "busy with local work in Brooklyn."  Curiously, in the grand tradition of magicians making hay out of fooling a leading performer, he is referred to as "the man who mystified Kellar," without further explanation, and commanding ten encores in Saratoga with his "flag trick."

Almost as interesting as the information I found about Sheck was what I didn't find.  Despite exhaustive searching, I discovered little about the nature of the effects he performed, any promotional material or even a single photo.   He published no books or articles.  Aside from the throwing card pictured here, I can find no graphic material relating to this magician.   The date and place of his birth remain a mystery.

While this kind of obscurity makes sense for one of our men of mystery (like Stincel), the trajectory of his career would seem to destined Sheck for substantial influence in the world of magic.   He was among the "prominent regulars" at Martinka's magic shop, where, according to John Mulholland, he found himself among renowned company, including Alexander Herrmann, Imro Fox, Carl Hertz, Harry Kellar, William Robinson, Adrian Plate, de Lion, Zancig, Nate Leipzig, Dr. Ellison,
Frank Werner, John W. Sargent, Dr. Mortimer, Elmer P. Ransom, Bob Ankle, Frank Ducrot and Henry Hatton.  Beginning in the late 1880s, this group (including Sheck) began assembling on Saturday nights, guests of the Martinka brothers in the shop's locked back room.

The so-called "Saturday Night Club" proved to be the precursor to the Society of American Magicians, which became formalized in 1902.  Sheck was among 24 magicians sworn in as the group's founding members, along with some of the most prominent magicians in history.  According to chapter reports, Sheck was an active member, frequently appearing a meetings "with his bag of tricks," and, at one meeting, playing the bagpipes.    At another 1902 meeting, he offered "an envelope test" and a "slate test."

Then, in July 1906, on an evening when Harry Houdini was elected Vice President of the fledgling SAM, "The death of Charles Howard Sheck, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was reported."   No other details are provided.  Hence, Sheck's relative obscurity arose as a result of his death early in the history of the S.A.M. (and presumably at a young age).

His passing was not officially commemorated by the organization until three years later, at an annual dinner in 1909 (at which Harry Kellar was the featured speaker) and a list of departed members was read. At the banquet, a half dozen names of departed magicians, including Sheck, was read aloud. As each name was read, a plate was turned over and a white carnation laid upon it.

The description of this improvised ceremony made me wonder: why didn't they simply perform the traditional "broken wand" ceremony?  The answer is simple: no one had yet devised the tradition.  There would be no mention of a broken wand ceremony in the magic literature -- or even use of the term broken wand in connection with a magician's passing, for several decades.  

The earliest mention I could locate of a broken wand consists of a 1919 article about Baltimore's Demon's Club, noting that a panel painting commemorating the deaths of two members included an image of a broken wand.  According to Ken Silverman's authoritative Houdini biography, a member of the SAM placed a broken wand on Houdini's coffin, an act specifically devised to commemorate Houdini's death in 1926, but the source of this information is unclear and I could not locate any contemporary accounts.  In 1933, a piece describing the funeral of Heller (another founding member of the SAM), noted that "across his breast was placed a floral design representing a broken wand, the tribute of A. W. Fronenthal, a warm personal friend."  And the first mention I could find of an actual broken wand ceremony is found in the Linking Ring in 1936, which described the commemoration of the passing of Howard Thurston, in the following article:

It would appear, then, that Thurston's was the first broken wand ceremony, which have since become standardized and commonplace in the magic community.  

By the 1940s, magazines began to run obituaries of magicians under the heading "Broken Wands," a practice that has continued ever since.  

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