“La Mysterie Indescriptible”
The passing of Dr. Edwin “Eddie” Dawes in 2023 at the venerable age of 97 is an incomparable loss to magic history. Though a gentleman of his advanced age could not be expected to live forever, he seemed tireless, working on his research projects up to the very end. Known for his meticulous scholarship in two major fields—biochemistry and magic—he was a master of biography, producing both articles and book-length studies of magicians such as John Henry Anderson, Cecil Lyle, Charles Bertram, Colonel Stodare, Stanley Collins, Sidney Clarke, David Nixon, Will Goldston, and more. Among his many, many accomplishments, Eddie was also a pioneer in telling the stories of women in magic. He shared this distinction with his late wife Amy, who wrote extensively on the subject, focusing specifically on female magicians in the UK.
Back in 2008, I asked Eddie’s blessing to include the story of Vonetta in my series. She was an illusionist and quick-change artiste from Scotland who flourished in the British music halls in the early years of the last century. Dr. Dawes first published his research on Vonetta in The Magic Circular and in a monograph that appeared in 1982. After a previously unknown archive surfaced in her son’s estate in Glasgow, Eddie updated the previous articles in his “Rich Cabinet” series in the October and November 2006 issues of The Magic Circular. Now that his monumental series of 500 essays is being published in book form by Magicana, the full story is told in Volume 2. With his kind permission—and with great affection for his memory—I appreciate the opportunity to summarize Vonetta’s life and career here.
Let’s start with the symbolism of her cremation illusion. The poster illustrating it is dramatic. It shows a lavishly costumed woman presiding over the seeming torture of a male assistant, who lies in an open box engulfed in flames, with his body pierced by three swords. This 1915 lithograph by David Allen reads, “Presenting the Sensational Illusion: By Fire and Sword,” and it depicts a fantasy that has been staged in some form or another by many recent female magicians, who are proud to “chalk one up” for their gender by sawing a man in half, or by otherwise causing illusionary havoc with a male form.
Except for a generic 1929 comment about having overcoming obstacles in her career as “Britain’s one and only lady illusionist,” Vonetta’s thoughts on her role as a woman in a largely male business are lost to history. But thanks to Dr. Dawes, Paul Daniels, and Tim Reed, the details of her life and career are now available. Born Etty Thompson in North Yorkshire on August 14, 1878, she married a theatrical impresario named Thomas Monaghan in 1904. That was ten years after she had given birth to a son, Alfred, in 1894, whom she always referred to as her brother, given the scandal of a sixteen-year-old unmarried woman having a child in Victorian times.
Etty got her show business start playing Robin Hood in a Pantomime Company in Durham, and she went through a few different stage specialties before becoming Von Etta, “Quick Change Artiste and Illusionist,” in 1906. She said that her parents were opposed to her working on the stage, but she was proud when they came to see her at the Holborn Empire in London. The act was such a smash hit that within a few months her salary on the Moss circuit had increased from £18 to £60 per week. When she appeared at the London Hippodrome, the press called her “the illusionist who combines the mystery of Maskelyne with the quickness of Fregoli.” Leopold Fregoli (1867-1936), by the way, was an Italian actor and protean artist.
The reviewer went on to say that “Von Etta’s illusions are both original and bewildering, and the box trick is as mystifying as it is ingenious.” The box trick is described in a review that appeared in Houdini’s Conjurers’ Monthly in March 1907: “The illusion most commented on by the press is one in which she enters a coffin-shaped box that rests on two stools; this box then commences to float in midair, and whist doing this feat, the young lady rushes through the audience, coming from the front of the house.” (The effect, as Vonetta revealed in an interview years later, was done partly by black art.) When the box was opened onstage, a girl dressed in a butterfly costume would emerge. Once, the comedian George Robey (1869-1954) pulled a joke on Vonetta, and he emerged from the box while she was rushing down the aisle. The audience reaction was raucous, and the two took a bow to a prolonged ovation.
During her early performances, Vonetta changed costumes twelve different times in ten minutes. In 1908 she debuted her “Palace of Electricity” transformation number, which required the use of 150 electric lamps. She also featured blindfold drives with a team of horses, with her husband sitting behind her and cueing her movements with a string. She related the dramatic story that her horses once got spooked during a drive, and she managed to get them halted only seconds before she would have run over an elderly pedestrian. Vonetta was also fond of motoring, until an accident took her off the road for ten months between 1909 and 1910.
Upon her return to the stage, Vonetta had doubled her costume changes to 24. One reviewer described her quick-change work, claiming that “the lightning-like rapidity of the change makes one very much wonder whether there are not two Vonettas, impersonating each other in turn.” (Her advertising offered 300£ to anyone who could prove she used a double.) She also added tableaux vivants, in which she posed as subjects from famous paintings. Work was steady and the reviews were good. One journalist described her performance as “mystifying, weird, thrilling, artistic, and picturesque . . . and comprises three or four distinct lines of entertainment.”
She toured under the name Countess de Russe for a couple of years during the early teens. By 1914 she had resumed using the name Vonetta and said that she had three years of bookings ahead of her when the Great War broke out. Since she lost her male assistants to the draft, she left the variety stage. Her son Alfred and brother George also served in the war, and while her husband remained in show business, Vonetta spent the war years as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Sometime during those years, her act was advertised for sale.
Yet Vonetta did not entirely abandon show business. As E. W. Travers, she appeared in a few films and worked as a “film renter.” She resurfaced as Countess Wilet around 1922, playing theaters in Scotland with a “Revue of Art and Magic” that featured elaborate costumes in the grand Vonetta tradition. The ‘20s and ‘30s saw her dabbling in many careers, including singing, teaching dance, selling furs and costumes, and running a beauty salon. Business cards from the ‘20s also advertise her as “Scotland’s Only Lady Magician,” available for private shows. As an honorary member of the Scottish Conjurers’ Association, Vonetta further kept her hand in magic, appearing as an assistant to Richard Armour in 1931 at the IBM British ring convention in Cheltenham.
In a series of newspaper interviews in 1929, Vonetta shared memories of her show business career, including anecdotes that linked her with many famous names. She claimed to have fooled Houdini with a handcuff escape, and seen Lafayette in Dublin only weeks before the magician’s tragic death in Edinburgh. She said that Chung Ling Soo praised her handling of a flower production, while David Devant complimented her skill with billiard balls. She dined with Rudolph Valentino, and gave advice to the male impersonator and singer Vesta Tilley, who was nervous about debuting one of her signature songs. At this late date, it’s impossible to verify these stories, though it seems fair that she would know each of these celebrities from her vaudeville days.
After three decades out of the spotlight, Vonetta died in a hospital south of Glasgow on June 30, 1964, at the age of 85. For years, her theatrical trunks and memorabilia remained in an attic in Glasgow, where her son Alfred Thompson lived. But after he died, and over thirty years after Vonetta’s passing, her house was scheduled for demolition. Professional cleaners discovered the attic contents and contacted the legendary British magician Paul Daniels (1938-2016). He acquired the remnants of Vonetta’s career, including photographs, contracts, newspaper clippings, window cards, personal effects, and beautiful, billboard-sized posters. Over the next few years, parts of this collection were dispersed by Tim Reed on behalf of Paul. Several collectors acquired rare photos and memorabilia, and I was pleased to be among them. Now a century after her heyday, Vonetta still dazzles.
A version of this article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of The Linking Ring and appears here by permission. Again, I’m thankful for Dr. Edwin Dawes for his blessing in including Vonetta in my series. For her complete story, see Volume II of The Rich Cabinet Collection.
Now here is a V-list of women in magic (in alphabetical order). Miss Rosina Vacua, “the Lightning Queen,” performed electric stunts in Hull circa 1894. Valerie is a contemporary Swiss magicienne and quick-change artist whose story is told in the November 2007 issue of Genii. Vampira (1927-2002) was married to Tom Palmer and later to Ralph Marcom, and she did a vampire-themed act in the ‘60s. Beth VanGordner did magic in Canada in the 1980s. Amélie Van Tass and her partner Thommy Ten won second place on America’s Got Talent in 2016 with their act of mentalism. Jeanne Van Zandt (ca. 1925-?) was a child magicienne who published a manuscript called “Jeanne’s Magic” in 1933. The Austrian Brigitte Varga won the 1982 FISM first prize for a female magician.
Gabrielle Varley and her husband Roy Billings garnered much praise in the ‘40s for their “Cameo in Light and Shade” act and for her solo magic. British performer Jasz Vegas works as a “magician, burlesque dancer, fire eater and more.” Velma was active in magic for several decades beginning in the ‘60s, wowing audiences with her unique flying carpet act and other specialties. Dutch perfomer Sylvia Vermeulen won first place in the Junior Magician category in FISM in 1982. Inez Vernello (1867-1944) holds the distinction of being the first female editor of a magic magazine, The Sphinx, from 1902-1904. She was also a magic dealer, issuing a catalogue from Chicago in 1904 under the name “M. Inez.” Jeanne Hays Verner (1902-1984) had a difficult life married to the peripatetic Dai Vernon, but she’s best known for her magnificent papier-mâché masks made for Cardini, Mulholland, and others.
Annie Vernone (c1840-?) heads a short list of women who have performed the bullet catch. Mademoiselle Verona (1880-1947) worked with her magician husband Frank Christopher in the teens and twenties and also as a solo act. Madame Victoria appeared in Boston in the early 1860s and claimed to have been a student of Robert-Houdin. An Australian woman named Viola conjured circa 1905. Mlle Viviane was active in the SAM in the 1930s. Finally, the appropriately named Iva Voyce (aka Cora Lister, 1884-1975) was a lady baritone, magicienne, and wife of English magician Chris Van Bern (1871-1950). I have already included Gwendie Voltaire in a previous installment of this series.