Solving magical mysteries in Victorian Edinburgh

posted in: Robert J. Harris | 1

Next week all the residents at Playing by the Book Towers are decamping to Edinburgh for a few days of mischief and mayhem (involving lots of harps and dancing, cats and cakes) and so it’s especially enjoyable for us to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for Artie Conan Doyle and the Vanishing Dragon by Robert J. Harris (@RobertJ_Harris). This is the second book in the Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries all of which are set in Edinburgh and are packed with references to real locations and people; indeed, in my review of the first book in the series, Artie Conan Doyle and the Gravediggers’ Club, I wrote how I would recommend “this to friends with kids visiting Edinburgh who wanted a different sort of travel writing to share as a family. Lots of landmarks feature and a wonderful tour of the city could be constructed around the book.” We’ll definitely be squeezing in a few of the sights mentioned in these enormously enjoyable detective stories whilst we’re up in the capital of Scotland, but until then, I’m delighted to share with you a specially written piece by Robert J. Harris all about magic in Edinburgh.

Tartan Magic – Magicians in 19th Century Edinburgh

I was ten years old when I saw my first live magic act. It was at a birthday party for one of my classmates whose parents had hired a magician. The tricks he performed were simple, but nonetheless we were thrilled and amazed.

Many years later in 1998 I was watching a magic show on TV with my wife and three children. We ignored the ringing telephone and missed a call from the USA because a magician on TV was about to make the Sphinx – the huge and ancient Egyptian statue – vanish into thin air, and we had no intention of taking our eyes off the screen.

To this day I cannot resist a magic show…

John Henry Anderson
In Victorian times, with no competition from cinema, radio or TV, the theatre ruled supreme, and magic shows provided some of the most popular entertainments. The most successful Scottish magician of the age, who appears in my new novel The Vanishing Dragon, was ‘Professor’ John Henry Anderson. Styling himself as ‘The Great Wizard of the North’, he followed his initial success in Scotland with tours of America and Russia, becoming one of the world’s most successful entertainers. He was famous for his dangerous bullet-catching trick and for being the first man to pull a rabbit from a hat on stage.

Among the many other magicians to perform in Edinburgh was Stuart Cumberland. He had a mind reading act in which he guessed numbers people were thinking of and found hidden objects. He did this by the use of what he called ‘muscle reading.’ Today we would say he was a body language expert. In spite of the fact that Cumberland declared openly that he was doing nothing supernatural, after his show at the Music Hall in Edinburgh in 1884 the letter column of the Scotsman newspaper featured an intense debate about whether or not he actually had telepathic powers.

In the 1870s a magician going by the name Signor Boz performed at Weldon’s Circus in Nicolson Street, Edinburgh. He set himself up as a deliberate rival to the famous London magicians Maskelyne and Cooke. Their most amazing act involved a pair of mechanical creatures called Psycho and Zoe who could play chess and answer questions.

Signor Boz claimed their automata were fakes, with a child hidden inside, while his own creation – ‘Yorick’ – was a genuine mechanical marvel. He even went so far as to openly challenge them in the press. Eventually Maskelyne and Cooke came to Edinburgh while their London theatre was being refurbished, performing at the Albert Hall off the west end of Princes Street. By all accounts their show knocked the spots off poor old Signor Boz.

These old Edinburgh theatres with their fabulous magic shows make a fascinating background to the latest mystery to be investigated by young Artie Conan Doyle and his friend Ham. I hope my audience will also be amazed and delighted.

My thanks to Robert for sharing some of the inspiration behind his latest Artie Conan Doyle book. If you’ve not yet discovered this series, think The Sinclair’s Mysteries by Katherine Woodfine but swap the main protagonists for two boys, and place all the action in wonderful Victorian Edinburgh and you’ll have a good idea what to expect. An added level of interest comes from the fact that these books are based around an imagined childhood of the author Arthur Conan Doyle (whilst the plot is fiction, the background is all based on historical fact). You certainly don’t need to have read any Conan Doyle or be a fan of Sherlock to enjoy these books but they may well act as gateways into those classics, which can be no bad thing.

Source for Image of John Henry Anderson: By dangoat –, Public Domain,, via Wikipedia


    Thanks, Zoe. You’ve got me hooked! And we’re planning a few days in Edinburgh in July, so you have given me extras to look out for – we were planning to look for Rowling influences!

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