I've long had a particular fondness for this card featuring J.W. Wilson, perhaps drawn by the incredibly cheesy devil-costume clad assistant whispering in this performer's ear. This particular piece of ephemera dates to an era when artists like Thurston and Kellar distributed promotional pieces adorned with gorgeous lithography sporting imps, devils, owls and other familiars imparting secrets to the performer. Wilson went decidedly low-tech and low-rent on this piece, offering a friend in a devil get-up in this black-and-white photo. The Deland back suggests that Wilson may have hand-printed these himself.
|A group of Deland backs. Wilson's is on the left.|
So who was J.W. Wilson? That Wilson is a common surname, and he insisted (generally) on only using the initials J.W.. made him somewhat difficult to track down. (Consider the fact that these pages also feature a contemporary named John Darrell Wilson). Scattered references reveal that together with the famed A.M. Wilson (ed. of the Sphinx), he was admitted to the Society of Buffalo (New York) Magicians in 1921. Later that year, the Sphinx reported that J.W. performed something intriguingly entitled his "Black Box Mystery" but left tantalizingly undescribed. (Additional research suggests it was a put-together production box). In 1922, the Sphinx reported that Wilson was performing magic and Punch and Judy shows for American Legion halls. By 1928, he hosted a group of Buffalo magicians, now using the name "John W. Wilson" and performed a spirit seance, and by 1933, this group elected him "stage manager."
The other textual clue on the card was the reference to The New York Clipper. This periodical, it turns out, was a theater newspaper published in New York City through 1924, when its coverage was assumed by Billboard. This helps date the card, and suggests that Wilson was playing the theater circuit.
Fortuitously, I came across this image of a 1918 issue of The Magic World on an Internet antique dealer's site, and Tom Ewing was able to secure a copy of the article for me. It adds a few details: Wilson was born September 29, 1876 in Buffalo. He developed a magic program and eventually added some large stage illusions, leading to a contract with United Booking Offices. The illusions included Black Art and The Haunted House. The Magic World found him working in Delaware and developing a new, Asian-themed act.
Finally, there is a coin move called the "JW Wilson Grip." For a time, I assumed it was attributable to this performer. However, continued searching led me to a September 2010 article in M-U-M by inventive magician Nathan Kranzo. Fascinated by the JW Wilson move, he dug into the question, and came to believe that it had been developed by a Jimmy (sometimes spelled "Jimmie") Wilson, Jr. whose father, J.W. Wilson Sr. was also an accomplished magician. Yet Richard Kaufman credits "Jimmy Wilson, Sr." for developing a coin grip in 1946 (see Genii, June 2003). And the Conjurer's Magazine for May 1946 does contain an effect called the "Five Coin Vanish" by one Jimmy Wilson.
The J.W.'s - father and son - have left us with a few mysteries.