The American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan, certainly pays tribute to the greats. An enormous Harry Houdini poster hangs suspended from the ceiling. The milk can Houdini filled with water and escaped from time and time again (while shackled, mind you) rests in a corner. The Blackstones and Penn and Teller, too—they all have their places here.
But if you visit the museum with LSA graduate Katherine Carlton (’10), she’ll tell you the stories of lesser-known magicians—like John C. Green, for example. His tattered diary lies in a glass case and is filled with the writings of a magician who traveled around the Midwest and Canada for 73 years doing tricks. In all that time, he never became a celebrity, and he certainly never made a lot of money. But Carlton admires him and feels a sense of connection to him because “magic was a career for him, and a love,” she says. “People like Green weren’t the big names, but they had so much passion that they were willing to travel around and make it their lives.”
Green’s story—and others like it in the museum—fascinate Carlton. “I’ve always liked imagining individuals from the past and what their lives were like,” she says.
But magic? Carlton had little interest in the subject before she started as the museum’s intern last June. It’s not an exaggeration, however, to say Carlton has fallen in love with this tall, colorful space, and the artifacts and stories inside it. “I definitely think falling in love is the right term,” she says. “There’s just so much amazing history here that I never knew existed.”
Carlton first heard about the internship from Brad Taylor, who is chair of the American Museum of Magic’s board and is also the associate director of U-M’s Museum Studies Program. The program offers a new undergraduate minor that allows students like Carlton to engage with museums intellectually and professionally. “Katherine was a natural fit for the Museum of Magic internship,” Taylor says. “It was intended to be a summer job, but the experience turned out to be more than that for her.”
So much more that by the end of her internship, Carlton would be giving tours, learning tricks, and would become both a spirit medium and a “magnetic lady.”
Carlton explains: “One of the museum’s other board members, Denny Laub, asked if I’d be interested in assisting him with some of the public lectures he was doing that summer. For the first lecture, titled ‘Mind Readers, Mesmerists, and Magnetic Ladies,’ he asked if I would be interested in becoming a magnetic lady to offer demonstrations at the end of his talk.”
Carlton agreed, but first gave herself a crash course in magnetic ladies.
“The first magnetic lady was a teenage girl from Georgia named Lulu Hurst, who performed in the late 1800s,” Carlton says. “She was coined the Georgia Magnet after convincing her ever-growing audience that she had superhuman strength. The 90-pound girl would throw men more than twice her size around the stage and infuriate them when she would balance on one foot and could not be pushed over. To supplement Denny’s lecture, I became the ‘Michigan Magnet.’ With Denny’s training and Museum Director Jeff Taylor’s assistance in the practice sessions, I was able to effectively demonstrate portions of Lulu Hurst’s act during the lecture. Hopefully I impressed a few audience members with my ‘magnetism.’”
How, exactly, did she do it? “There’s a code among magicians,” she says. “We never reveal how we do tricks.”
Carlton remains similarly tight-lipped on pulling off her next act: becoming a spiritual medium, which she adopted for Laub’s second lecture, “Magicians among the Spirits.”
“During the lecture, an audience member tied my hands behind my back,” Carlton says. “I then sat in a chair next to a table full of musical instruments and was put into a hypnotic trance by Denny. A black spirit curtain was held in front of me, and we then attempted to contact the spirit of a deceased magician named Henry Slade. When Denny called upon Slade, the musical instruments began to play and they flew through the air, but when the curtain was taken down seconds later I was still in a hypnotic trance with my hands tied securely behind my back. The audience loved it.”
Carlton doesn’t plan to expand her magical repertoire; instead she’ll be attending U-M’s law school in the fall. But she remains focused on preservation and cultural heritage, a passion the American Museum of Magic only heightened. “I want to make sure artifacts are preserved and protected, and that they’re accessible to everyone,” she says. “Small museums are just as important to protect and support as big-name places.”