Mistress of Modern Magic
I’ve chosen to begin my profiles with Ellen E. Armstrong because, while I never met her, she started my interest in women in magic. Thirty-seven years ago, when my father and I bought a collection of props and memorabilia that belonged to Ellen and her father, John Hartford Armstrong, I became fascinated with female magicians and African-American magicians at the same time.
J.H. Armstrong (1874-1939) was a Black man from Columbia, South Carolina, who started performing magic with his brother Thomas around the turn of the last century. They called themselves “The Colored Hermans.” Later he partnered with a man named Jordan and finally with his first wife Ida. As “The Celebrated Armstrongs,” they toured the East Coast with a lyceum-style magic act, playing primarily to Black schools and churches. Unlike some African-American magicians of the time, who adopted Hindu dress or exaggerated minstrel mannerisms, the Armstrongs proudly proclaimed their race and performed with formal dignity.
On December 27, 1905, Ida gave birth to a daughter, Ellen. Ida died soon after. But as soon as she was old enough, Ellen joined her father and stepmother Lillie Belle as part of the act. The family performed as far south as Key West and as far north as Philadelphia, and they brought magic to minority audiences at reasonable admission prices. Their scrapbooks are full of letters from African-American schools and churches, where audiences had been delighted with their magic. The family occasionally faced prejudice, as in the time that Armstrong was turned away from a performance because the white men who booked him did not realize he was Black until he arrived for the show. Ironically, the venue was at an Indian reservation.
Armstrong died in 1939, and his petite daughter took over the show, with her step-mother still assisting. The two women toured the segregated South with a show of magic and mentalism for two years. While it was short-lived, the show was unique in magic history, as it featured two Black women as the sole performers. Since her own mother was a white woman, Ellen had fair skin. However, she continued in her father’s tradition, performing magic for the African-American community. She did standard effects such as the mutilated parasol and the miser’s dream, but she also included rag pictures and ventriloquism. The show, like her father’s, emphasized comedy, and her posters offered a half-price discount for “one-eyed people,” and warned, “If laughing hurts you, stay at home.” In 1949 Ellen appeared in the December issue of Ebony, in a five-page spread on Black magicians. During the war, she did USO shows. She married a real estate developer named Pierce Bowling in the 1950s, working out of Spartanburg, SC. Again, like her father, she received hundreds of testimonials, all of which she pasted into her scrapbooks.
For years, Ellen was the only female African-American magician in the United States with a touring show. She was an annual attraction at the historically Black Allen University in Columbia, and her fifty-year performing career lasted until around 1970. She spent her final years in a Spartanburg nursing home, no longer able to communicate.
Ellen Armstrong Bowling died on March 21, 1994, at the age of 88. When she took her own show out on the road in the Jim Crow South, she had both race and gender as strikes against her, but Ellen Armstrong displayed remarkable courage and deserves an important place in the history of magic.
For more information about Ellen Armstrong, see Jim Magus’s books Magical Heroes (1995) and That Old Black Magic (2020), and an article by Julie Sobanski in the January 2008 issue of MUM. Ellen and her magical family will soon be the subject of a documentary now in production. A version of this article first appeared in June 2006 in The Linking Ring and appears here by permission of the current editor, Sammy Smith.
There are, of course, many other women in magic—past and present—whose stage names begin with “A.” Let me mention a few, decade by decade. Dates of birth and death are present when I know them.
Mademoiselle Benita Anguinet (1819-1887) performed in Victorian France. The famed Scottish conjurer John Henry Anderson had several daughters (Louise, Helen/Helena, Alice, Eliza/Lizzie, Flora, Ada and Sophie) who dazzled audiences, and two in particular, Louise and Lizze, both worked with their father and on their own—some as “The Sisters Anderson”—in the 1870s. Annie Abbott (1861-1915) was the talk of the town in England and America in the 1890s as “Magnetic Lady.” Atelenta released herself from bonds as an escapist in the Twenties—her husband was the Scottish magician Rex Palmer Gordon.
In the Thirties another prominent magician’s wife—Grace Andrews, wife of Irish vaudevillian Lawrence Crane—intrigued viewers as the “Mystery Girl.” Peggi Austini and Philadelphia amateur Ruth Anderson both worked in the US in the Forties, while Lady Alberta manipulated cigarettes on cruise ships in the Fifites. Anna-Lou and Maria were a British act producing livestock in the Sixties. Hungarian-born FISM prize-winner Aniko and the exotic dancer-turned-magician Abby-Kadabra both worked their magic in skimpy costumes in the Seventies. Alice Bakkenes was from Holland and performed an elegant act, also in the Seventies.
Since the Nineties, there have been a number of “A” list female magicians who have worked or are currently working. The “International Close-Up Magician” is Alicia Easton. Born in Virginia but now living in France, Tiffany Allen recreates the nineteenth-century Georgia Magnet act for the contemporary stage. Elizabeth Amato does magic and mentalism in France. Alana from Germany made the cover of Genii in November 2014 with her multiple-hands act that has been seen all over the world. Alba is a card pro from Buenos Aires. Starting in 2010 as an assistant, Gwyn Auger has embraced her role as “The Magic Assistant” and was named the PCAM’s Best Assistant in 2014. She has since assisted a number of magicians, including Lance Burton, and has now embarked on her own solo career in magic.
In recent years, Jeanette Andrews has had several creative one-woman shows, including one based on “My Fair Lady.” She appeared on the covers of MUM in September 2021, and Genii December 2023. Autumn Morning Star is a Native American from Shreveport who honors her heritage in her magic performances. Magic festival producer Renée-Claude Auclair was responsible for staging and presenting the first FISM in North America, in Quebec City, in 2022. Nikola Arkane hails from Northern Ireland and specializes in magic for children and has appeared on the covers of The Linking Ring in May 2021, and Genii in April 2023. Anchal of India uses her magic to protest the dowry system in her country and makes her point by being chained, locked in a box, and lowered into a blazing haystack, from which she manages to escape.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but in singling out Ellen Armstrong, or any other magician in this series, I also want to pay tribute to the rich diversity of women in magic. They all have enriched the art.