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Charles Dickens, a.k.a. “The Unparalleled Necromancer”

getty images (dickens) / istock (ghosts)
getty images (dickens) / istock (ghosts)

In the summer of 1849, a magician going by the name of Rhia Rhama Rhoos gave a performance in Bonchurch, a coastal resort on the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England. Billed as “The Unparalleled Necromancer,” and claiming to have been “educated cabalistically in the Orange Groves of Salamanca,” Rhoos’ conjuring act featured several bizarre tricks, including making playing cards magically burst into flames, transporting a woman’s watch from inside a wooden box and into the middle of a loaf of bread, and even cooking a steaming hot plum pudding in a gentleman’s top hat. With tricks like that, the act would undoubtedly have been a memorable show—but what made it all the more impressive was that the eccentric conjuror “Rhia Rhama Rhoos” was in fact the great English novelist Charles Dickens. 

Dickens’ interest in theater and performance is well known—as a boy, he had wanted to be an actor, not a writer, and he may well have ended up in the theater had he not fallen ill on the day of an important audition in 1832, when he was 20 years old. Even still, before his writing career took off, Dickens wrote, starred in, and directed a number of amateur productions in London in the 1830s. He dedicated Nicholas Nickleby to the renowned Victorian stage actor William Macready; he packed his novels full of actors, actress, and other theatrical characters; and whenever he gave public readings of his books, Dickens would always annotate his text with stage directions like “beckon down,” “shudder,” and “look round in terror” to make his performances all the more dramatic. It worked, too: the Scottish critic and historian Thomas Carlyle once called him “a whole tragic, comic, heroic theatre … performing under one hat.” 

Not long after the publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1837, Dickens did a reading of Nicholas Nickleby that was on the same bill as Ramo Samee, a famous juggler and magician. A few years later, he went to see a performance by a renowned Austrian magician named Ludwig Döbler. At the time, Döbler was at the height of his fame and had performed all across Europe for the likes of the Austrian Emperor Francis I and, while in London, Queen Victoria. He had spent much of his professional life designing and manufacturing his own unique stage props—including a magical pistol that was able to light 100 candles all at once, and a bottomless wine bottle, from which any drink imaginable could be poured on request—all of which helped him put on a truly remarkable show. 

Dickens was immediately hooked. After seeing Döbler’s performance, he—together with his friend (and eventual biographer) John Forster—purchased the entire stock of a magicians’ supply store that was going out of business and began putting on amateur conjuring shows at home and at parties. According to Jayne Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle’s wife, who saw Dickens put on a show at a Christmas party in December 1843, he eventually became a remarkably good performer. She wrote to her cousin: 

Dickens and Forster above all exerted themselves till the perspiration was pouring down and they seemed drunk with their efforts! Only think of that excellent Dickens playing the conjuror for one whole hour—the best conjuror I ever saw—(and I have paid money to see several)—and Forster acting as his servant! This part of the entertainment concluded with a plum pudding made out of raw flour, raw eggs—all the raw usual ingredients—boiled in a gentleman’s hat—and tumbled out reeking—all in one minute before the eyes of the astonished children, and astonished grown people! That trick—and his other of changing ladies’ pocket handkerchiefs into comfits—and a box full of bran into a box full of—a live-guinea-pig! would enable him to make a handsome subsistence lest the book-seller trade go as it please! 

Happily, Dickens’ “book-seller trade” didn’t “go as it pleased,” and instead went from strength to strength. He followed up the early success of The Pickwick Papers with the likes of Oliver Twist (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), A Christmas Carol (1843) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), until his ongoing accomplishments as an author forced him to shelve his interest in magic—but not before one final performance. 

By now, Dickens had created an entire stage persona for his magic act, “The Unparalleled Necromancer, Rhia Rhama Rhoos” (a name he based on a famous Indian magician and juggler called Khia Khan Khruse, a member of Ramo Samee’s troupe), and it was in this guise that he staged his last conjuring performance in Bonchurch in 1849. The Dickens family—Charles, his wife Kate, and eight of their eventual 10 children—arrived on the Isle of Wight in mid-July and stayed with Charles’ friend, the Reverend James White, until early October.

The exact date of Rhia Rhama Rhoos’ final performance isn’t clear, but it seems likely that it was sometime in September. In front of an invited audience of friends and family, Dickens, dressed in gaudy eastern robes, performed a selection of tricks including “The Leaping Card Wonder,” “The Travelling Doll Wonder,” and the climax of his act (according to his self-penned playbill), “The Pudding Wonder.” 

Sadly, the Dickens family’s trip to the Isle of Wight was marred by tragedy when John Leech, a long-time friend of Dickens who had accompanied them on their holiday, got into trouble while swimming in the sea and was crushed against the rocks by a wave. He suffered a terrible head injury that left him dazed and in considerable pain for several days, with Dickens later writing that, “it was quite impossible to get him to maintain any one position for five minutes. He was like a ship in distress in a sea of bedclothes.” Amazingly, when all the best medical treatments known at the time failed, Dickens used another of his conjuring hobbies to help nurse Leech back to health when he hypnotized him into a deep recuperative sleep. When Leech eventually woke up, he was well on the road to a total recovery. 

With the vacation over, Dickens was immediately back to work: David Copperfield was completed by November 1850, and was quickly followed by the first installment of Bleak House less than 18 months later. Though the pressures of writing apparently left him little time to continue practicing his own conjuring act, Dickens nevertheless maintained an interest in magic, and while in France in 1854 made a point of seeing a renowned French mind-reader called Alfred de Caston. He was, Dickens later wrote, “a perfectly original genius,” who “puts any sort of knowledge of legerdemain, such as I supposed that I possessed, at utter defiance.” Dickens himself, however, never performed again.

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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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