News From Terre Haute, Indiana

History

January 27, 2007

Historical Perspecitve: William Benjamin Caulk acclaimed as magician

Terre Haute — Terre Haute city directories identify William Benjamin Caulk as a “painter.”

As a member of the advisory council of the Ornithological Congress at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and as secretary in 1894 of the Wilson Ornithological Society of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he was known as “William B. Caulk.”

For many years he was a taxidermist, mounting stuffed birds and animals. He also was a frequent contributor to “Scientific American” magazine.

Meanwhile, the only child of Joshua and Mary J. Caulk earned a national reputation as an innovator of magic tricks.

Calling himself “W. Benjamin,” Caulk was a self-described “prestidigitateur.”

When illusionist Albert A. Hopkins compiled a magicians’ “bible” in 1897, titled “Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, Including Trick Photography,” he turned to Caulk for 17 separate contributions.

Hopkins was an editor of “Scientific American,” also printed by Munn Publishing.

In 1898, Caulk contributed an entire chapter, “Miscellaneous Tricks,” to William E. Robinson’s book, “Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena.” According to a story in “Linking Rink” magazine during 1934, Robinson paid Caulk $500 for the work.

Robinson was America’s premier “Man of Mystery” early in his career, but later changed his name to “Ching Ling Soo” when Chinese illusionist Ching Ling Foo failed to pay him $1,000 as a challenge prize for duplicating Foo’s “bowl of water production” trick.

Ellis Stanyon, the British “master of the sleight of hand,” knew about Caulk. Aware that the Terre Haute man intended to publish a volume on magic, Stanyon wrote to Caulk in December 1899. “The Rover Magazine for Young Readers” was publishing a series of articles by Caulk titled “Easy Magic,” alluding to a forthcoming book.

For several years Caulk played vaudeville, appearing in theaters and at chautauquas. For a while he was a member of Robertson’s Hindu Illusions’ vaudeville troupe.

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