A day of History of Magic

'The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.'

Muriel Rukeyser (1)


In the monumental work Greater Magic (2), written by John Northern Hilliard (1872-1935), the first few pages are dedicated to a wonderful essay called Pageant (3). It describes a procession of some characters of our wonderful art: from the Pagan priest and the medicin man to the illustrious magicians of the Golden Age of Magic. With Houdini passing through the veals of history, the procession comes to an epic finale.

In reading the words of Hilliard one can not help but connect with the inner child and the feeling of true astonishment, a curiousness spiked by a continuation of wondrous events.

In many cases the start of a fascination with magic seems today as a memory long gone.  Personally my affiliation with magic started by visiting the big circuses making camp at Saint-Pieters Square, not far from the house I grew up. In his function as chef protocol of the city of Ghent,  our neighbor Guy Puttevils (4) always arranged for free tickets to see every circus in town, what a treat!

The scent of sawdust coming from the circus track, mingled with the smell of fresh popped corn...A magician grasps a white scarf, throws it in the air, lo and behold, it transforms into a magician's wand. A seed was planted and continued to grow to this day.

Just as the universe, also our lives and memories are made of stories. Hence, we have a choice of sharing them with those willing to listen.

After joining the European Magic History Conference 2017, organized by the Circolo Amici della Magia di Torino (5), the Belgian attendants dreamt of organizing a day, focused on sharing Belgium's rich (but fairly unknown) magical history. The event was held on the 4th of March 2018 at the House of Mysteries (6), a place dedicated to the performance of magical arts. 


The procession shall begin, our heroes are waiting behind the curtain, secretly looking through a peephole to the audience, a full house!


The day begins with a reenactment of Dr. Belmans'  Inexhaustible Hat, performed by Roger Buyle, who as a 16-year-old boy and with the help of his father took over the entire Belmans' show. A strong opener and to many a favorite part of the day.


The procession has begun...


André de Poorter takes us to the circus with an entertaining overview of many magicians (dr. Nuiqsar, Miss White Flower (Suzy Wandas),Fria-Ned,... ) that were performing in our Belgian circuses over the years.

After a short break Robert-Houdin stole the show with his Double Mystery Clock, in loan from Jack Cooper and explained in detail by Luc Poppe, host of this precious event.

Afterwards we got the opportunity to get acquainted with Suzy Wandas. Her life span and career was expertly showcased by Kobe Van Herwegen, magic historian and writer of the book Chapeau (an overview of Belgium's magic history) (7).

Dinner was held in the atmospheric rooms of the House of Mysteries of which the library was transformed in into a Museum of Magical History, curated by Herman Dufraing. The exposition showcased some unique magical pieces, posters and paraphernalia.


The parade is about to restart!


On stage a flamboyant character awaits us, holding a cigar in his clenched left fist, his red costume adorned with a white hat. Simsalabim, Kalanag is my name! His mysterious story enthusiastically told by connoisseur Herman Dufraing.

There are many myths surrounding FISM and Gerrit Brengman knows them all, being vice president of the organization for quiet some time. We saw a glimpse of Lennart Green, Tom Mullica and an exposé on the organization’s history and future goals.


Tension rises... A stage filled with glamorous and glittering props...


A recognizable tune is heard. From behind the curtains, on the stage steps a charismatic figure dressed in a red garment, on his feet a pair of golden, pointed shoes. On his head a fez/turban and around his middle an Asian dagger. This must be Ali Bongo! The man comes to life through the stories and insights, told by Rafael. Showing many original requisites and costumes pieces, our mouths drop open in awe.

A hard act to follow, were it not for the 3 time FISM Grand Prix Winner Abraham Pieter Adrianus Bongers, better known as Mysterio, better known as Fred Kaps of whom we heard so much but know so little.  Dick Koornwinder engaged the audience with surprising stories about the performer Fred Kaps and the person behind the legend.


Alas, the procession comes to an end, were it not for a living legend yet to be honored for his exciting career.


Enter Joe Alcataraz, the now retired Belgian escape artist, who during his early career as 'the Black Panther' travelled many miles to showcase his talents, together with strongman John Massis (8). Alacatraz shared his reminiscences about the many dangers he encountered performing his durability stunts such as the famous 'Milk Can Escape', 'Climbing the Eiffel Tower', escaping a straitjacket from a burning rope, escaping a wooden crate eaten by fire.


The procession ended. The crowd stood still, there was much to think about.


Many stories had been shared so vividly. The magicians who once sparkled our imagination came to life again for a day.

The day came with an incredible gift: the gift of wonder, the gift to become a child again.


MAGIC is made of stories, not of atoms ...(9)

organisation: Herman Dufraing, Luc Poppe, Kobe Van Herwegen, Nikolaas Martens

location: House of Mysteries

text: Nikolaas Martens

pictures: Janis Van Heesbeke

1. Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) was an American poet and political activist, best known for poems about equality, feminism, social justice and Judaism (source: Wikipedia).

2. John Northern Hilliard, Greater Magic (Minneapolis: Carl Warren Jones (1938)). A complete and honest history about this book can be read in the biography of Jean Hugard written by James B. Alfredson. When in 1935 Hilliard passed away unexpectedly, the body of the work was a huge collection of notes with a few chapters in manuscript. He assessed the work as an advance man of Howard Thurston over the years. It was Jean Hugard, contracted by Carl Warren Jones, who organized and edited the material into the book we know today as Greater Magic. James B. Alfredson, Jean Hugard (Illinois: David Meyer Magic Books (1997)): pp. 40-42.

3. John Northern Hilliard, Greater Magic (Minneapolis: Carl Warren Jones (1938)): xiii-xvi.

4. Guy Puttevils (1922-2012) was appointed chief protocol of the city of Ghent by Jef Ackerman. In his career he welcomed 534 officials in the city of Ghent, 54 ambassadors, three kings, a few Princesses and the Prince of Saudi -Arabia. He was an avid lover of the circus and renown collector. For us he was just Guy, our neighbor, husband of Suzanne. On the high days me, my brother and my parents were always invited in their house for pre-dinner drinks. Our eyes could feast on a beautiful collection of books related to the history of our city, carefully collected by their son Christian Puttevils. When going to the toilet, I deliberately took the longest route so I could stroll through Guy's study filled with books, press clippings and colorful photographs of the many circuses he had seen in Belgium and abroad. In summer times Suzanne would spoil us with freshly plucked stalks of rhubarb, wrapped in aluminum foil. As souvenirs from his trips to America, Christian often brought back sun caps and the coolest T-shirts depicting some favorite Americana. After Guy's passing in 2012, his collection was donated to 'het Huis van Alijn', were it resides to this day.

5. CADM Circolo Amici della Magia di Torino, Via Salerno 55, 10152 Torino, Italy. www.amicidellamagia.it

6. House of Mysteries, Alfons Braeckmanlaan 430, 9040 Sint-Amandsberg, Belgium. www.housofmysteries.be

7. Kobe Van Herwegen, Christ Van Herwegen, Chapeau, de geheime goochelgeschiedenis van België (Brussels: Manteau (2014)).

8. John Massis (Wilfried Morbée, 1940-1988) was a Bruges born strongman and circus artist. In 1967 he made the Guinness World Record by pulling 15 ton weighing tram and a 36 weighing train with his bare teeth for over a distance of 15 meters. To this day he remains a popular urban figure. In 2004 Johan Heldenbergh created a musicale based on Massis' life story: Massis, the musical (source: Wikipedia).

9. Unless your name is Labman Rudy Coby.