Legend has it John Wesley Simmons used to walk the streets of 1860s Tokyo with a loaded pistol tucked under one arm, and his head tucked under the other.
People pretty much left him alone.
Simmons — also known as Washington Blythe, Washington Simmons, and, most famously, Dr Lynn — was the first Western magician to perform in Japan after the country opened itself to foreigners in the mid-19th century.
More than 50 years before sawing an assistant in half became the measure of an illusionist’s skill, Simmons was dismembering a man nightly and putting him back together for a paying audience.
As Dr Lynn, Simmons was one of the most famous and successful illusionists of his time, but his contribution to the world of magic is mostly forgotten outside of enthusiasts and historians.
He was a pioneer in some stage magic techniques, a gifted performer, and said to be the man whose magic inspired the great Harry Houdini to become an illusionist.
And his big break came because he decided to take a punt and travel from England to Australia; unknown and untested, but not unambitious.
Magic historian and researcher Dean Arnold believes Simmons has been overlooked by those stacking up the achievements of illusionists in the golden era of the art.
“I think he’s one of the more fascinating characters in magic, in terms of his showmanship, inventiveness, who he met, what he did, where he travelled,” he said.
“He’s been cast as a B-player by a number of historians, they said he stole people’s tricks. My research indicates he didn’t.
A better magician than sailor
It was a thirst for adventure that led John Wesley Simmons to join the British navy in the mid-19th Century, but he soon discovered he suffered from debilitating seasickness and rarely strayed far from land.
He may have failed as a sailor, but he had a knack for entertaining them with his amateur magic tricks and decided it was time for a pretty significant career change.
In 1861, Simmons packed up his things and boarded a ship bound for Australia determined to make his name as a magician.
Simmons started performing in Melbourne under the name Washington Blythe, and later more successfully as Washington Simmons, touring regional towns in Victoria and South Australia.
But it wasn’t until Simmons teamed up with theatre manager Robert Sparrow Smythe that his career really took off.
Sparrow was putting together a group of performers to travel to China and Japan and wanted Simmons to be part of what was to be a pioneering trip to the Far East.
The chance to perform in Japan was rare indeed, and no Western magician had so far made the trip, which was not without its risks.
One of Simmons’ fellow performers died of cholera in China, and the group was caught in a typhoon while crossing from Shanghai to Tokyo — but apart from that the trip was a success, particularly for Simmons.
From Japan, Simmons travelled to the United States before returning to England in 1865 with a new stage name — Dr Lynn — and a catalogue of tricks that would take him to the very top of his craft.
‘Another man cut up tonight’
By 1873, Dr Lynn was one of the most successful illusionists in the world, performing nightly at the famed Egyptian Hall in London.
His signature trick was an illusion he called Palingenesia, in which he dismembered his assistant on stage before putting him back together.
The illusion used what was known as Black Art, which involved clever lighting and strategically placed black material to fool an audience into believing the dummy limbs being hacked off were the real thing.
Flyers would advertise Dr Lynn’s show with the promise of “another man cut up tonight” — and people loved it.
The trick was apparently so convincing that if left a lasting impression on a young Harry Houdini, who would buy the rights to the illusion after Simmons’ death.
Simmons was wise enough not to reveal the secret of his greatest illusion while he was alive, even as he “explained” the trick’s method in his own book The Adventures of the Strange Man.
“After this (provided life is not quite extinct) you take off another leg and arm, throw the remains in a basket, and request the victim to put himself together again — and THAT IS HOW IT’S DONE.”
Would the real Dr Lynn please stand up?
Simmons had achieved such fame as Dr Lynn that pretenders would pop up across the world using not only his name, but his illusions as well.
In Australia, a magician called “Dr Lynn” found himself in court for failing to pay for a suit he’d had made for an upcoming performance.
This was not the world-famous illusionist who’d filled the Egyptian Hall nightly, but the son of a Brisbane merchant who’d tried to cash in on Dr Lynn’s fame.
When the real Dr Lynn returned to Australia to perform in the 1880s, he took out newspaper advertisements to condemn the “impostor” who had been performing under his name.
It’s also likely the “Dr Lynn” Harry Houdini saw as a child in the US was also an impostor.
As part of his research, Dean Arnold gained access to Houdini’s diary in which the famed illusionist named Dr Lynn as the magician who inspired him to take up the art.
“I did find in his journal a very strong indication that he believed he saw Dr Lynn,” Arnold said.
“The only time Houdini could have seen Dr Lynn — the actual Dr Lynn — was when he was eight years old, but when he was eight years old he was not anywhere near Lynn.”
A final trip Down Under
Simmons toured Australia for a final time in 1886, when his career was in decline, but he had one last trick up his sleeve (pardon the pun).
He’d invented an illusion he called Thauma, in which a woman appeared to vanish from the waist down, and had licensed it in Australia well before his arrival, leaving him without a centrepiece trick to perform.
He persuaded illusion inventor Buatier De Kolta to allow him to use his new Vanishing Lady trick on his Australian tour — it’s believed to be the first time the illusion was performed.
In the Vanishing Lady, an assistant sits on a chair, has a sheet thrown over her and vanishes into thin air — an illusion so simple and effective that variations of it are still performed today.
The key to the trick is a complicated trapdoor mechanism, but it was Dr Lynn’s stagecraft that sold the illusion.
As one reviewer wrote in the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1886, “Dr Lynn is a gentleman full of surprises”.
“Everything he says contains some unexpected form of merriment; everything he does produces some unexpected and strange result,” the reviewer wrote.
After his 1886 trip to Australia, Simmons continued to take his illusions as far afield as India and South Africa, performing until his death in 1899 at the age of 63.
While he is not held in the same esteem as Houdini, who would bring his own feats of illusion to Australia many years later, Arnold believes Dr Lynn’s contribution is worthy of a reappraisal.
“I think he was very, very important, I think he contributed to some of the most important [illusion] techniques.”
“If he didn’t invent it, he came bloody close.”
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