Magic Bond

Magic Bond

Seven years ago, magician Nelson Nicholson guided me through his Orange estate. The puzzle box of a home, the result of 13 separate additions, was filled with artifacts from the golden age of magic—between 1890ish and 1920ish, before film captured America’s collective imagination—and beyond.

Dozens of handcuffs that had tried (and failed) to trap the wrists of Harry Houdini hung in the foyer. Eerie automatons sat behind glass. Rare posters of notable magicians like Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston and Chung Ling Soo colored the walls among ancient occult tomes like early copies of Daemonologie (1597)—written by King James VI of Scotland, who would become King James I of England six years later—and Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584).

After these prizes, Nicholson showed me a worn cardboard box carrying children’s magic tricks and an illuminated glass case filled with seemingly mundane magician’s props. These, he explained, were highly collectable relics from New Haven’s own magic factories: the Mysto and Petrie-Lewis Manufacturing Companies.

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At the turn of the 20th century, New Haven’s industrial output was tremendous. Almost 800 manufacturers made everything from carriages and clocks to boilers and beer. When the city wasn’t working, it found entertainment in theaters like the New Haven Grand Opera House and the Hyperion, where illustrious magicians such as Herrmann the Great and Harry Kellar could be seen catching bullets in their teeth and levitating their assistants. Lesser-known illusionists paid their dues on the vaudeville circuit between acrobats doing backflips and baboons playing fiddles.

It was in this potent brew of factory and fantasy that John Albert Petrie and Alfred Carlton Gilbert first met. Before Gilbert founded the famed toy-making A. C. Gilbert Company, he was a medical student at Yale putting himself through school with magic shows and lessons. Petrie, 14 years his senior, was the son of a manufacturer and a craftsman of custom magical apparatuses for professional magicians. The two were introduced by a mutual friend, and between Petrie’s craftsmanship and Gilbert’s entrepreneurial spirit, it wasn’t long before a company, Mysto Manufacturing Mechanics, emerged, heralded in part by an ad in a 1909 edition of trade magazine The Sphinx.

Petrie designed and manufactured the magic sets while Gilbert promoted and sold them. A $5,000 investment from Gilbert’s father secured a needed expansion. From then on, Dad took a greater hand in Mysto, helping incorporate it as the Mysto Manufacturing Company in 1911 and becoming a major shareholder in exchange for the $5,000. Business boomed during the Christmas season and carried over into the next year. But just as Mysto had begun pulling a long string of dollar bills out of its hat, the company seemingly vanished.

The younger Gilbert had come to realize that the market for magic was smaller than his ambitions, so he began exploring other product ideas. He came up with the Erector Set. Yet in order to produce Erector Sets, Gilbert needed a new factory to accommodate the heavy machinery required. In a May 1912 director’s meeting, Gilbert and his father teamed up to outvote Petrie, selling the Mysto building, along with all the machinery inside, to finance acquiring the presses, dies and factory space needed to take the company in a new direction.

While Gilbert was bent on retooling Mysto into what would later become the A. C. Gilbert Company—which would dabble in magician’s kits along with everything else—Petrie, bent exclusively on magic, sold his stock to the Gilberts and began making magic equipment out of the shed in his backyard, not far from the old Mysto building. It wasn’t until 1916 that Petrie, with the help of wealthy businessman and amateur magician Thomas C. Lewis, Jr., was able to buy back the former Mysto complex and establish the Petrie-Lewis Manufacturing Company.

Petrie-Lewis, commonly abbreviated P&L, operated until 1968. It became one of the highest-quality manufacturers of magic equipment in the country, making its wares some of the most sought-after magic collectibles today. Examples of Petrie’s masterpiece, the P&L Flowering Rose Bush—a green metal shrub in a pot that could bloom roses, real or otherwise—most recently sold at auction for $4,400 and $7,000, respectively.

P&L became the seat of the exclusive New Haven Magic Society, where magicians would hold meetings and performances on a stage inside the factory. It was on that stage in 1962, at the age of 29, that Nelson Nicholson performed and earned his membership in the NHMS. Soon after, Nicholson befriended Dr. John Henry Grossman, a surgeon, magician and co-founder of the Magic Collectors’ Association. Towards the end of his life, Grossman, who died in 1992, would invite Nicholson to his Stratford home once or twice a week. They’d drink wine, and Grossman would offer to sell his guest a few relics from his extraordinary collection. “It was like Christmas every week!” Nicholson recalled.

Much of what Nicholson acquired from Grossman has now been spirited away. More than 300 items were sold at auction in Las Vegas on Halloween 2015, including a second-edition copy of Crambrook’s Catalogue of Magical Curiosities and Deceptions (1843)—the “earliest extant conjuring catalog” with only three known copies still in existence, according to the auction pamphlet—which sold for a record-setting hammer price of $54,000. All told, the sale generated more than $550,000.

Two days later, Nelson Nicholson passed away at age 82, as many of his artifacts were being routed to new homes. Of course, there’s at least one key item in Nicholson’s bag of tricks that can’t be sent elsewhere: New Haven itself, where Mysto and P&L made magic history, and where, more or less, people like Nicholson and Grossman kept it safe.

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik. This story was originally published on December 15, 2015.

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