by DM Testa
At a time when the success of female magicians “depended not on new tricks but on the novelty of a female performing them,” two sisters performing around the greater London area would toss that convention out the window. In October 1856, sixteen-year-old Annie Vernone with assistance from her younger sister, Florence, became one of the few magicians in the world (and arguably the first woman) to perform “The Great Gun Trick,” better known today as the “Bullet Catch.”
According to Magicpedia, this is:
“an illusion in which a magician appears to catch a bullet fired directly at him – often in his mouth, sometimes in his hand. Arguably, the Bullet Catch is one of the most dangerous and daring illusions a magician can attempt.”
Superstition surrounds the trick. The great Harry Houdini announced that he would perform the Bullet Catch after one of his friends died during an attempt on a London stage. But he cancelled the performance when another friend pleaded “we can’t afford to lose Houdini.”
Yet here was Annie, “Celebrated Youthful Professor of Magic,” catching bullets in her hand! Assisted by a sister not yet in her teens! One might be tempted to ask where were their parents during all of this? Well, maybe part of the act?
Annie was the oldest and Florence the youngest within a family of entertainers. The 1861 census shows them living at 27 Upper Manor Street in Chelsea with their mother, Fannie and sisters, Fannie and Helene. All the women in the household were noted as “Artists/Magicians.”
We don’t know whether any others from the family besides Florence took part in Annie’s audacious act, but early advertisements do mention a “Madame Vernone,” (possibly Fannie, their mother) who put on demonstrations of spirit rapping during the program.
Although details are sketchy on how exactly Annie pulled off her illusion, there would be other female magicians attempting the Bullet Catch with notably mixed results.
Over four decades after Annie and Florence performed the Bullet Catch, Adelaide Herrmann who became known as the “Queen of Magic” after her husband’s death, would face a line of riflemen in front of a packed house.
She requested audience members come forward to inspect the bullets they would be using, pointing out that each bullet carried its own special mark. She then stepped in front of her firing squad and gave the signal.
The guns went off. The audience gasped. When the smoke cleared, Adelaide stood holding the marked bullets – still warm – in her hands!
The secret behind this illusion wouldn’t be revealed until years later in Adelaide’s memoir. A trick serving tray had been used to display the marked bullets and those bullets were switched out for blanks. Behind the curtains, marks were rapidly burned into other bullets and secretly handed off to Adelaide.
A few years later, Mrs. Frederick Risk, calling herself the “human target,” would thrill audiences by catching bullets in her teeth. But things went horribly wrong during a Trinidad, Colorado performance when the magician fell to the floor with what appeared to be an ugly head wound. A doctor’s examination revealed that she hadn’t been seriously injured because the bullet which struck her was made of wax but the “accident” did reveal the secret behind her act.
Wax bullets had been shown to the audience and then placed into the rifle. The heat from the firing was supposed to melt the wax. After the rifle discharged, Mrs. Risk (an appropriate enough name, don’t you think?) would display a bullet she’d already concealed in her mouth. But on this occasion, one of the bullets didn’t melt and Mrs. Risk got the fright of her life.
Thankfully the Vernone sisters didn’t experience a similar catastrophe. By 1861, Annie was calling herself Mlle. Veroni and headlining a show which boasted “100 Astounding Illusions and Transformations.” The Lynn Museum on Market Street in King’s Lynn carries a wonderful broadside within their collection which advertises one of Annie and Florence’s performances during this period.
As time passed, the Bullet Catch would be phased out in favor of safer illusions – the great rope tying mystery and three hundred silver goblets from a hat to name a few. Then in April 1866, several important announcements appeared in London’s The Era newspaper from the Vernone sisters.
Readers learned that “Mademoiselle Florence Veroni, the Youthful Magicienne” had decided to strike out on her own and would be “open to an Engagement for Half an Hour’s Gem Performance in New Delusions.”
Annie needed a new assistant so she recruited her spouse, W. J. Morris. Although Morris was also a magician, Annie remained the headliner, her act “a brilliant entertainment of Magic, Mystery, the Ophonic Crystal and the Musical Rocks.”
By 1875, the Morris’s changed careers, becoming innkeepers of the White Horse Inn in Brentford. But Annie didn’t totally leave her magic behind; every now and again, she would thrill guests with an impromptu illusion or two.
Cheers to Annie and Florence Vernone, those “Most Wonderful Entertainers Extraordinaire of Magic and Mystery!”
Magic Tricks.Com – https://www.magictricks.com/annie-vernone.html
or to learn more about the many other unsung women in magic – https://www.magictricks.com/library.html
Lynn Museum – https://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/lynn-museum
About the Author:
DM (Denise) Testa and Winston the Great Pyrenees specialize in digging up history; especially stories of obscure yet fascinating women from the past. While Denise concentrates on the writing, Winston enjoys the travel and ensuing snacks while on research trips. When not traveling, Denise uses her investigative skills as part of the Missing Princes Project team sponsored by the Richard III Society. Her latest book is Defending the Dillinger Gang: Jessie Levy and Bess Robbins in the Courtroom.