The Mysterious Powers of the “Georgia Magnet” – Exposed! (1899)

What if you met a slight young woman who claimed to be able to overpower the strongest men, due to her mastery of a supernatural energy?

During the late 19th century, several women not only made that claim, but also made a lot of money by demonstrating their “powers” in touring music hall and vaudeville acts …

Who was the “Georgia Magnet”?

“Annie May Abbott”, whose real name was Matilda Tatro, was one of the most successful of the “Georgia Magnet” or “Electric Girl” performers. The “Magnet act” had been touring music hall and vaudeville stages since 1883, when Lulu Hurst, the original Magnet, had first risen to prominence in the USA.

“Magnets” were typically slender young women who claimed to be able to manipulate a hitherto-unknown power, said to be akin to electricity or magnetism, that allowed them to perform superhuman feats of strength, under certain conditions. This description of a Magnet’s performance from a Minnesota newspaper dated October 15, 1890 is typical:

It was the most wonderful and utterly inexplicable exhibition – a genuine phenomenon – ever witnessed in this country. People may scoff and turn up their nose at the supernatural or, unnatural forces, if you please. Hypnotism until recently had but few believers. Mesmerism and kindred phenomena were thought to be high-flown titles for “fraud” and “fake,” but science has taken a hand and dispelled such ideas. It sounds a little “fishy” to state that she lifted two feet clear from the floor nine heavy men at one time, piled upon two heavy chairs, and as easily as the reader would this paper; in fact two gentlemen had their hands interposed between her hands and the chair, with no other contact when the entire mass came up, and those gentlemen assert that there was no more perceptible pressure against their hands than the weight of the hand.

Her muscles were examined during the tests and no sort of muscular action was found. What does it? The committee all tried singly to lift her, which the smallest man could do (she weighs not over 95) when she willed it, but when she preferred not, it remained not. Men tugged till their eyes bulged and they were red and blue in the face, but she remained smiling and as immovable as a block of buildings. Two, three four, six and eight men together expended all their strength in vain to hoist her a particle. She picked men up by the ears, by the head, hoisted them on poles, by her fingers tumbled them around like paper balls.

Many believers in the Magnet’s powers attributed them to the odic force, a mysterious energy that was held to be akin to electricity or magnetism. This force was also believed to animate the psychic phenomena associated with spiritualistic seances.

Barton-Wright meets the Magnet

By November of 1895, “Annie May Abbott’s” world tour had brought her to Japan. She and her manager, Richard N. Abbey – who had previously managed another Magnet, whose real name was Dixie Haygood – joined forces with a Professor Frank E. Wood, who served as their translator. They performed a series of shows, or “demonstrations”, at theatres throughout Japan, eventually arriving in the town of Kobe.

The Magnet’s act consisted of two main parts. First, manager Abbey would deliver a short lecture on the mysterious forces that were Miss Abbott’s to command, his speech translated for their largely Japanese audiences by Professor Wood. Then, a committee would be invited onto the stage in order to test these feats as the Magnet herself performed them. The committee was typically made up of volunteers from the audience, ideally large, strong men.

One of the committee volunteers in this case was E.W. Barton-Wright, an English entrepreneur and civil engineer who was both working and studying the martial art of jujitsu in Kobe at the time. The athletic Barton-Wright would have made a fine volunteer, also possessing the distinct advantage of speaking English, so that he would have no difficulty in following Mr. Abbey’s instructions during the “experiments” on stage.

After the show, the committee was required to sign a testimonial as to the Magnet’s success in the various feats performed on stage.

How to Pose as a Strong Man

E.W. Barton-Wright’s true impressions of the Magnet’s performance became clear several years later, when he authored a detailed expose of “Georgia Magnet”-type stunts. The illustrated essay “How to Pose as a Strong Man” was published in Pearson’s Magazine during January of 1899, and included the statements:

It must not be supposed that it is necessary to possess any unusual strength to pose as a strong man; indeed, in many strong men’s feats, strength plays a less important part than knack and trickery.

… (The Georgia Magnet) declared that it was solely owing to the fact that she possessed remarkable magnetic and electric powers that she was able to perform these feats. This, of course, was not the case, for anyone of average strength, who follows these instructions, will be able to perform them.

Armed with his intimate technical knowledge of “balance and leverage as applied to human anatomy”, which was to become a cornerstone of his Bartitsu martial art, Barton-Wright proceeded to explain how to perform numerous illusions of superhuman strength. He also addressed the psychological aspect of the Magnet’s act, referring to techniques of distracting the audience’s attention from the actual methods employed through “patter” and misdirection.

In fact, aspects of the Magnet act had been repeatedly exposed by academic skeptics in various newspaper and magazine articles dating back to the 1880s, but Barton-Wright’s concise essay, well-illustrated with step-by-step photographs, was unusually accessible to the lay-reader. Therefore, it was with some evident delight that the editor of the New Zealand Graphic newspaper decided to re-print “How to Pose as a Strong Man” during Annie May Abbott’s extended tour of New Zealand in 1899. In the same issue, the editor printed a satirical cartoon suggesting that the Magnet might use her powers to “lift” certain recalcitrant City Council members out of their seats.

Response from the Magnet’s representatives was swift and came in the form of a politely blistering letter to the editor of the Auckland Star, which was published on September 11th:

I shall be glad if you will allow me space to point out the essential differences between the feats set out in the article and the tests accomplished by Miss Abbott. As a preliminary, I may state that the article in “Pearson’s Magazine” was written by a Mr E. W. Barton-Wright, and was published as a sort of counterblast to a complimentary testimony to the “Georgia Magnet’s” ability, which appeared in the “Strand Magazine.” It must also be remembered that at this time the rival firms of Newnes and Pearson were sparing no effort to go one better than the other.

The above facts are well known, and only require being brought to mind, but it is not generally known that Mr. Barton-Wright attended one of Miss Abbott’s performances in Kobe, Japan, in November, 1895, and as a member of her committee signed his name to a testimonial almost similar to the one signed by the Auckland committee on Tuesday week. Perhaps he was “led by the nose” in the manner so elegantly suggested by Mr. Kent in a recent letter; but probably he signed the document of his own free will. In any case, the publication of his article in the “Graphic” Is calculated to throw discredit upon Miss Abbott, for it attempts to explain her feats as purely mechanical operations.

The Magnet’s defender in this instance was a man named Danvers Hamber, who was, at that time, the assistant editor of the New Zealand Sporting and Dramatic Review. In a high dudgeon, he proceeded to point out the various ways in which Miss Abbott’s performance differed from Barton-Wright’s descriptions, before finishing:

Mr. Barton-Wright undoubtedly used Miss Abbott’s performance as the foundation of his article. He forgot much in the three years which elapsed between witnessing Miss Abbott’s tests at Kobe and writing the paper. He probably forgot all about signing the testimonial to the lady’s ability, and he certainly let the truth slide in concocting many of the above little stories. His article may probably harm Miss Abbott’s tour through New Zealand. Here in Auckland we have already seen the effect it has upon the medical profession. If it can so disturb members of what is considered a calm and judicious calling, what may it not do with persons who have less control over their judgment?

There may well have been divergences between Barton-Wright’s descriptions and Miss Abbott’s demonstrations. Barton-Wright had addressed the fakery of “Georgia Magnet”-style feats in general rather than Annie May Abbott’s act in particular, and his article also included several feats that were not part of the standard Georgia Magnet repertoire. It would be interesting to read the exact wording of the testimonials signed by the various committees, there being a significant difference, for example, between the statements “I saw Miss Abbott resist the strength of several men” and “I saw Miss Abbott use odic force to resist the strength of several men.”

Moreover, as Barton-Wright had explained, there are several ways to perform the various Georgia Magnet “experiments” without resorting to “odic force”, all of them requiring the practiced application of leverage and balance combined with the ideomotor effect – the influence of imagination, suggestion and/or expectation on unconscious bodily movement. Specific to the Georgia Magnet “experiments”, subjects who believed that they would not be able to overcome the “odic force” tended to find that they could not, while those who believed that the force was stronger than they were tended to find themselves flung about the stage. These effects were exacerbated by the strict rules of the “tests”, which subtly disadvantaged the volunteers in terms of position, momentum and leverage.

The ideomotor effect was first formally described and defined by William Benjamin Carpenter during the mid-19th century. A physician and physiologist with a strong critical interest in claims of psychic phenomena, Carpenter observed and then proved that the apparently mysterious workings of spiritualistic phenomena including ouija boards, table turning and dowsing could easily be explained at the psychophysiological level.

Danvers Hamber’s fears were somewhat justified, as several other New Zealand newspapers followed the Graphic’s lead and printed skeptical editorials as the Magnet’s tour continued through the provinces. The consensus was that, while the show was very entertaining, the “odic force” patter was past its prime. The editor of the Timaru Post asserted that:

.. the “Georgia Magnet” possesses no power, psychic or otherwise, that is not possessed by every member of her sex. As an example. The “Georgia Magnet” holds the downward end of a stick in her clenched right hand, and one or two men are expected to force it through. Why, almost a child could resist their efforts. We know it is claimed that she does not grasp the stick, but we have seen her do it. Every one of her tricks is explainable in as simple a manner, even to the rising of her temperature and simultaneous lowering of her pulse, which seems to have puzzled the doctors so much. Of course, the temperature is raised by her exertions and the surrounding atmosphere, while a couple of minims of tincture of aconite does the rest, as far as the pulse is concerned.

Twice has the “Magnet” been lifted from the local platform, despite her exertions and anatomical distortions, and twice has it been clearly demonstrated that there has been no magnetism or “new force” holding her down, and the nonsense talked about “flesh contact” is as meaningless as it is void of truth.

As previously stated, we have no objection to such exhibitions as shows, merely; but we are bound to protect truth and science from incursions of that description. It is unlikely the Magnet will attract much more in New Zealand, as all the papers are busy exposing her tricks. We have had one “feat” explained to us, and see the impossibility of standing still while clasping a chair in both arms, even though the contrary force is exerted only by some one’s little finger.

It’s unlikely that E.W. Barton-Wright was even aware of the part played by his article in this controversy, but there’s no reason to doubt that it would have pleased him.

Note – an earlier version of the above article originally appeared on the Past Tense blog and on the Bartitsu Society website.  It is re-used here by permission.

Houdini and Doyle, Episode 1: The Maggie’s Redress (Reviewed)

Doyle straight right

The ten-part Edwardian mystery/drama/action series Houdini and Doyle teams friendly rivals Harry Houdini (Michael Weston) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Mangan) as freelance investigators of crimes that appear to have a supernatural slant.

The first episode begins with a murder of a senior nun in one of London’s notorious Magdalene laundries, in which young women – often unmarried mothers – were effectively imprisoned and forced to work. The twist is that the murderer is said to have been the ghost of a former “Maggie”, or young resident, who had been cruelly tormented by some of the nuns and had died some six months previously.

Both arch-skeptic Houdini and true believer Doyle are fascinated by the case because of its apparently otherworldly nature, but there the similarities end. Houdini is convinced that a mortal murderer has exploited the laundry’s resident ghost story to cover their tracks, whereas Doyle is equally convinced that a restless spirit is to blame.

Essentially bullying their way in to the Scotland Yard investigation on the strength of their celebrity, they are assigned the help of the progressive and forthright Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), the Yard’s first female police constable, by a condescending Detective Inspector who wishes to be rid of both H&D’s amateur sleuthing and of his female constable. The Inspector, of course, has significantly underestimated Houdini, Doyle and Stratton, who combine their talents to solve the mystery behind the bloody crimes.

As it turns out, Houdini was right; the motive for murder was personal and punitive revenge.  The murderer exploited the ghost story to cover her tracks and hoped to establish a legend that might, perversely, lead to less cruelty by the Magdalene nuns in the future.


  • The Maggie’s Redress is an effective procedural that strikes all the requisite beats at a rapid clip, including numerous allusions to the lives of the real Houdini and Doyle while also playing very fast and loose indeed with historical accuracy. Although Houdini and Doyle were, in reality, friends and mutual admirers, they did not actually meet until the 1920s.  That friendship only lasted a few years, ending acrimoniously due to their vehement disagreements about the reality of spiritualistic phenomena.  That said, their fictional relationship in the show is layered and the interplay between Doyle’s optimistic embrace of all things numinous and Houdini’s rational humanism is well portrayed.
  • The character of constable Adelaide Stratton is fictional and, in real history, the first female constables in London were not appointed until the outbreak of the First World War, some fifteen years after the period portrayed in Houdini and Doyle.
  • Some of the dialogue is painfully anachronistic – no more so than when Houdini seemingly coins the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” some eighty years before it actually gained any currency – but the sets, costumes and other production design elements are all effectively evocative of London circa 1900.  Everything is ultimately explained, though the rationales for some of those explanations do strain credibility; if you like the show you may be inclined to forgive those trespasses, and if not, they’ll probably bother you.

All in all, The Maggie’s Redress is an enjoyable if lightweight 45 minutes’ worth of entertainment, noteworthy for its nuanced treatment of skepticism and gullibility.  We look forward to the remaining nine episodes of this intriguing new series.


‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ _ _ _

With all due ceremony, we award episode 1 of the Houdini and Doyle series a total of seven ibangs out of a possible ten (note – one full ibang deducted for “garbage in, garbage out”).

The Adventures of John Bell: Ghost-Exposer (1898)

Supernatural mysteries form a significant subsection of the annals of detective fiction, and may or may not be considered to include that rarified class of stories in which an apparently supernatural mystery – an “impossible crime” – is revealed as being nothing of the sort.  The progenitor of the “ghost-exposer” sub-genre may well be this series of short stories co-authored by L.T. Meade (Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith, 1844–1914) and Robert Eustace (Eustace Robert Barton,1854–1943) at the very end of the 19th century.

Their protagonist, John Bell, is – it must be said – a fairly generic late-Victorian sleuth, and not an especially vivid character.  He is of independent means, a robust constitution and a staunchly skeptical frame of mind; his most distinguishing feature being his knack for cracking mysteries that seem to admit no natural solution.  In each case, the plot hinges on a more-or-less plausible, albeit baroque, application of cutting-edge (late-Victorian) technology; the reader’s investment, meanwhile, being sustained by action-adventure elements (Bell being not at all averse to putting himself in harm’s way if required) and in trying to figure out exactly how the villain(s) have pulled off their audacious “supernatural” scheme.

Bell’s exploits were collated in the 1898 anthology A Master of Mysteries: The Adventures of John Bell, Ghost-Exposer and followed by a stand-alone short story, The Secret of Emu Plain.  The latter tale ended on a cliffhanger, with Bell admitting that, for once, he could not puzzle out the mystery, and inviting readers to contribute their own solutions.  A cash prize of one shilling would be awarded to each of the ten entries that most closely matched the authors’ solution, or else most pleased them in their ingenuity; three hundred and eighty-six readers responded and the authors had their work cut out for them in selecting the winners.

John Bell, thus, stands as an early predecessor of fictional “ghost exposers” including Jonathan Creek, Mystery, Inc., Encyclopedia Brown and the Mad Scientists Club.

Master of Mysteries is freely available in a variety of ebook formats – just click here!

A “New” Disguise of Rose Mackenberg’s (1928)

Miss Mack in a clever disguiseRose Mackenberg was among the most prolific and experienced “spook busters” of the 20th century, having learned at the feet of Harry Houdini himself as a member of Houdini’s “secret service”.  Disguise was a necessary weapon in her arsenal and her first stop in any new town was the local department store; there she would spend several hours making notes on the clothing of various “types” of women whom she might be required to impersonate in infiltrating fraudulent seances.

While a number of photographs of Miss Mack’s disguises have appeared online in recent years, we believe that this is the first modern reproduction of this particular ensemble.

What the Hell is an Interrobang‽

“An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.”

— Marcello Truzzi, “On the Extraordinary: An Attempt at Clarification”, Zetetic Scholar, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 11, 1978

Originally devised by American ad-man Martin K. Speckter in 1962, the interrobang (or “ibang”) glyph represents both surprise and questioning.  In combination, that seems like the ideal response to claims of hauntings, magic powers and other supernaturalisms, and so we here at The Ghost Racket have proudly adopted the neglected interrobang as our symbol and mascot.

Long may it glow.