Monday, August 28, 2017

Frederick Eugene Powell: Dean of American Magicians

I have been fascinated with Dean Powell since I first lectured on him at a 1986 meeting of the Magic Collectors’ Association. At that time I produced some cursory lecture notes that hardly did him justice as the Dean of American Magicians, a position bestowed upon him by both the National Conjurors’ Association and the Society of American Magicians. I have just completed a comprehensive biography of Powell scheduled for publication in 2018. For purposes of this posting, I will touch briefly on his career and in particular, the scaling cards he used throughout his lifetime.

Powell was born in Philadelphia on March 1, 1856. When he was just a child his father took him to see Signor Blitz, Robert Heller and other magicians of the period. His early interest in magic was sparked by a series of magic tricks published in a general circulation children’s magazine called “Our Young Folks.”

Over the course of his lifetime he performed magic
in a minstrel show, toured the major vaudeville circuits, traveled and performed extensively for several decades in Cuba, South America, Mexico and even down into New Zealand and Australia. He was part of The Great Triple Alliance of Servais Le Roy, Imro Fox and Powell.
The Great Triple Alliance 
In 1924, Houdini chose him to help promote his new movie, “The Master Mystery.” Houdini had four units of magicians performing at the theaters showing his film and he chose Powell to head unit #1. Upon the death of Harry Kellar, first Dean of American Magicians, the S.A.M. selected Powell. Both Parent Assembly # 1 and Chicago Assembly #3 gave Powell testimonials for his contributions to magic. 

There are two examples of Powell on the faces of scaling cards in my collection although there are a number of different Bicycle back designs. The earliest known card shows a young Powell from the late 1880’s with brown hair and mustache. This early card does not carry the U.S. Playing Card tag line but all edges are covered with advertising and self-promotion. The left hand side reads, “The most marvelous achievements known to modern times in the realms of unique prestidigitation, illusory illustrations and spiritualistic phenomenon.” The right side reads, “Powell has been called the most perfect conjuror now living.” New York World. The bottom of the card promotes his latest invention, the illusion “Noah’s Ark.” 


The other more common ones either show Powell with graying hair or a white-haired Powell in his later years. There are examples he used in Central and South America that say “a’ sus ordenes” (At your service) on them. Others in English say, “Yours Sincerely, Powell.” All of the examples except for the first one, carry the well-known U.S. Playing Card tag line. Early examples of his cards include back designs such as the Lotus (introduced in 1891); Thistle (1891); Emblem, (1892); Expert (1895); Tri Plaid (1905), and Racer No. 2 (1906). Many of these back designs were sold by the U.S. Playing Card Company for general card playing purposes over a number of years.

After living with John Petrie and his family on the grounds of the Petrie-Lewis Magic Company, 
Powell passed away February 27, 1938, the day before his 80th birthday. After an elaborate funeral in New York City he was cremated and his cremains interred in the Chester Rural Cemetery very close to the family farmstead. Jay Hunter posted a number of Powell cards on the Thayer magic collectors site. If you're a member, check it out. If collectors have other examples of Powell cards with different front images or back designs we would be pleased to add this to this posting.


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