Fans of magician Lance Burton are thrilled to see the world-famous magician come out of retirement to perform Saturday at the Louisville Palace, but the Louisville-born prestidigitator came back to his hometown several days early to lead a ceremony that served as the capstone to a mystery 150 years old: What happened to the great magician Thomas Tobin?
To answer that question, first we should explain who Tobin was and why he was important
Burton gave Insider the lowdown as we waited for the ceremony to begin on Thursday afternoon.
“Thomas Tobin was only involved in magic for a short period of time — two or three years — but he was such a genius, he created several really creative magic illusions,” said Burton.
Those illusions, Burton explained, changed the face of magic.
In your mind, try to go back in time to London in the late 1800s. Magic was everywhere — in the big cities and packed into trains with animals, dozens of assistants and several train cars full of huge crates storing magic tricks big and small.
At that time, there were two kinds of magic: the up-close manipulation of cards, coins and objects that is called “sleight of hand,” and mechanical devices that moved with a speed fast enough to trick the eye. But the art of illusion didn’t include optical tricks until a teenager named Thomas Tobin used his background in chemistry and architecture to change that.
He used chemistry to create colored smoke to misdirect the eye. With his knowledge of architecture and design, he used panes of glass and mirrors to trick the brain.
So while they might not know it, every time someone says “it’s all done with smoke and mirrors,” they’re talking about Tobin and his creations.
Burton told us that magicians still use Tobin’s tricks today.
“Each generation of magicians changes it a little, tweaks it a little,” he said. “In my career, I did illusions in my show that were based on Tobin’s work — in my live stage show I used his work, in my TV specials. The guy was a genius.”
Burton added a whole list of names of famous magicians who used Tobin’s tricks: Harry Blackstone, Doug Henning, Siegfried & Roy, among many others.
What’s even more impressive is that Tobin created most of his illusions in his late teens and early 20s.
But then, just like a figure in one of his magic tricks, he disappeared.
“After he left London, he completely vanishes from the record books — nobody knew what he did, where he went, for 150 years, it was a mystery,” said Burton.
That mystery was finally solved by magician, author and historian Jim Steinmeyer, who also was in attendance at Thursday’s ceremony.
The details of Tobin’s disappearance can be found in Steinmeyer’s book, “Hiding the Elephant.”
The end of that mystery might not surprise the many Louisvillians who moved here from other cities and states, but it’s an answer that all the magicians world couldn’t have divined using all their clairvoyance and mentalism. On tour in America, Tobin found a city in Kentucky so beautiful, he decided he didn’t ever want to leave.
Turns out, he stayed in Louisville and decided to pursue his first love, chemistry. He lived a pretty interesting but magic-free life until he died of tuberculosis in 1883.
He was buried without any pomp or fanfare, while a slew of his contemporaries, magicians on the biggest stages in the world, remained ignorant to the final fate of the man whose work they were using every night under the lime light — lights that, incidentally, Tobin helped to revolutionize as well.
Word of Steinmeyer’s discoveries got around. Burton was astounded to learn Tobin was buried in his hometown, so the next time Burton was in Louisville at a magicians’ convention, he and several other magicians went to Tobin’s burial site in Cave Hill Cemetery to pay their respects.
“We dug around and we found the site, but there was absolutely no marker,” said Burton. “So we’re rectifying that today.”
With the help of Cave Hill and several other magicians and donors, Burton was able to make sure Tobin’s resting place would get the respect it deserves.
So with a backdrop of spring snow and sunshine at Cave Hill Cemetery, Burton, dozens of magicians both amateur and professional, magic aficionados and the press gathered to honor Tobin’s life on Thursday, March 22.
Magicians gave testimonials, Steinmeyer orated the history of Tobin’s life. Without giving away any secrets, orators described and rhapsodized over illusions Tobin created — grand magic tricks with names like Palingenesia, The Sphinx Illusion, Oracle of Delphi, and The Cabinet of Proteus.
Those names are inscribed on the monument Burton unveiled, a marble obelisk with a bronze statue of a Sphinx and a list of Tobin’s achievements.
After the attendees took a few moments to appreciate the monument, Burton brandished a magic wand, offering Tobin the traditional magician burial.
“For thousands of years, the magician’s power has been symbolized by the magic wand,” he began. But the wand, he explained, is just a tool. “It has no mean meaning without someone to wield it. Without the magician, the wand is powerless, meaningless, useless.”
He stopped for a moment, and with an audible snap, broke the wand in half.
“We break the wand to symbolize the passing of the magician from this world to the next. We break the wand to remind us what magic is really about. It is not about the props, or sleight-of-hand technique or music cues. Magic is about people.”
Burton continued, with a last round of praise for Tobin, his genius and his inventions, before he placed the broken wand at the foot of Tobin’s monument.
You can pay your respects to Tobin any time Cave Hill Cemetery is open. For hours, a list of tours, an app for exploring and more, visit Cave Hill’s website.
You can catch Burton on stage on Saturday, March 24, at the Louisville Palace. Burton will be joined by magicians Fielding West, Michael Goudeau, Keith West and Louisville’s rising star of magic, Cody Clark.
The show starts at 7:30 p.m., and tickets start at $49.50.