By BOB McCARTHY
Did you know that a world famous magician lived his entire life here along the St Clair River in Courtright? The house he lived in was called Aberystwyth, named after the place of birth of his great grand-father in Wales.
Stewart James (1908?1996) was a life-long resident of Courtright who refused to leave his home town, even though larger communities would have welcomed this man whose illusions have been used by magicians from Houdini to David Copperfield. He was an acknowledged creator of over 400 magic tricks, an author of books and magazine articles on magic, and was recognized by the Academy of Magical Arts in California as "the outstanding magical inventor of our time".
In the 1980's, a group of magicians from around the world began an annual pilgrimage each October 31 (Halloween) to learn about and purchase new tricks invented by Stewart James. They met at his Courtright home, the house along the St Clair that is still known as Aberystwyth.
Now, let us imagine it is October 31 back in the late 1980s. A young man from Port Lambton has been corresponding with Stewart James by mail for several months expressing an interest in a magic career and asking questions about magic tricks.
In his last reply of a few weeks previous, Stewart James invited this young man to visit him, ask some questions and then meet a group of magicians who would be coming to his house on Halloween.
Aberystwyth – home of Stewart James
It was late afternoon. Excited at finally getting a chance to meet with his hero, David Draziw, a young man of just 20 years of age fascinated with all aspects of magic, hesitantly lifted the heavy brass door-knocker and rapped it four times on the metal plate beneath. It was but a few moments before a man came to the door and invited the young man to enter.
“Mr. James, sir, I’m David. I am so pleased to meet you.” said the young man as he held his hand out.
“No, David” the man replied as they shook hands. “I am Allan Slaight, a good friend. Come with me and I will introduce you to Stewart.”
As they entered the parlour, the curtains pulled tight even at this time of day, David saw a slight man, sitting on a large stuffed chair next to a floor lamp with such an obviously low wattage bulb that David could barely see the man.
“Please have a seat, David. I am Stewart James. As I wrote to you in my letter, I will try to answer any questions you may have before any of my guests arrive. We have about half an hour. What would you like to ask?”
“First, I would like to know about that prophecy that you made almost 50 years ago.”
“I thought you might ask about that. Everyone does” the man answered with what seemed like a scowl in his voice. “As you may have already figured out, I much prefer to stay here in my house in Courtright and that’s partly because of what happened way back then.
“It was the first day of September in 1938. At the annual meeting of the Piff Paff Poof Society of magicians, held that year in Fort Erie, I offered to predict the headline that would appear one year later in the Buffalo Evening News. Many people there doubted that I could. But I did. On a piece of paper I wrote a few words, placed my prediction in a wooden box first and then placed the wooden box into a metal box which was then soldered closed in front of the whole audience at the meeting.
“One year to the day later, I returned and visited the office of the police chief of Fort Erie, where the soldered shut box had been kept in the police station safe. When the box was forced open in front of the police chief and several witnesses, I lifted out and opened the wooden box and then I removed the piece of paper. Confidently unfolding it up, I read aloud the prediction I had made one year earlier. I had written ‘World War Threatened, Germany Attacks Poland’. Then, a local reporter held up the front page of the Buffalo Evening News that day. Their headline read ‘World War Threatened: Nazis Attack Poland’.”
After pausing for a few moments before continuing, Stewart James continued “I wish I had never been so brash. But I was younger then and it was so easy to fool everyone. However, the publicity following that prediction became so intense that I never again agreed to forecast the future.
“For the next several years, I became a member of the Canadian Army show group that entertained Canadian soldiers here and abroad. Following the war though, there were so many requests for me to make predictions and my mother was alone and getting older.
“Since I never did really like being out in the limelight that much, I used the opportunity to care for her as a way to return to the only home I had ever known, Aberystwyth, this same building we are sitting in right now.
“Now, David, do you have something else you would like to ask me?”
“Yes sir, what about ‘51 Faces North’?”
“I think I will let Allan tell you about that. Allan, please.”
“David, let me tell you about the trick first. It is done with a regular deck of 52 cards. The magician will first announce to the audience a card. Let’s say it is the Queen of Spades. Next, he will ask a member of the audience to think of a number from 1 to 52. Then, asking the person to let him know when that number is reached, the magician will begin dealing cards face-up onto the table, counting aloud the numbers one, two, three, four and so on as he deals. When the number of cards dealt reaches the secret number, that card is dealt facedown. Then the magician will continue to deal until 51 cards are face-up or North and only one card remains face-down or South. When the volunteer from the audience turns that card over, it is the predicted Queen of Spades.”
“I know that much, Mister Slaight, but how is it done?”
“I wish I knew, David. That is Stewart’s secret. He, on his own, has always enjoyed inventing hundreds of tricks of all kinds. All but one of them has been made available to other magicians to adapt to their individual styles and perform in front of audiences in all parts of the world. My friend here has always been a mastermind who, from when he was a young boy, preferred to imagine ways to entertain people. But he has always enjoyed it more if he was backstage so to speak rather than performing in front of an audience.
“The only trick he has never revealed is ‘51 Faces North’. Why don’t you tell David and me why, Stewart?”
“You know I won’t, Allan. Why don’t we just think of it as one of my true gifts to the art of prestidigitation? By performing this illusion but not revealing how I did it, I have encouraged so many of my compatriots in this art of magic to devise their own individual ways of presenting this trick to their own audiences. Perhaps Allan, at some time after my death, you will find my solution somewhere among my papers or perhaps not.
“Now, David, Allan, my guests will soon be arriving. David, you are welcome to stay and meet all of them. Allan will look after you for the rest of your stay. Following dinner, I will be auctioning off my latest illusions to the highest bidders.”
HISTORICAL NOTES from the author:
A manuscript, dated July 15, 1955, half typewritten, half handwritten, describing Stewart James’ method, titled “51 Faces North” was discovered five years after the death of Stewart James in 1998, tucked inside an old book he had owned since he was a young child.
Stewart James led a sheltered life, perhaps tormented for many years by the fact that his mother, who was very controlling, would not die.
Some reports claim that his house and his relationship with his mother was the inspiration for Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho".
For many years, he ‘communicated’ with three invented friends. Known as the “The 3 Companions That Never Were”, they were named Rigonally, Faxton and Kardova. Even though he knew they were imaginary, his friends were still very real to him. Perhaps it was his way of organizing his internal thoughts.
A small collection of Stewart James' magic books and items he used in his tricks is currently on display at Moore Museum so that visitors can see a little of the work of someone who lived in the community his entire life but was very little known by it.
For more information about Stewart James, visit http://www.magicana.com/exhibitions/stewart_james/index.html