Bartolomeo Bosco’s Murder Weapon

Posted: November 12, 2011 in apparatus, collecting, magic
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Bartolomeo Bosco (1793 - 1863)

Bartolomeo Bosco (1793 – 1863)

It is thanks to Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin that the name of Bartolomeo Bosco and his artistic legacy has come down to us, that we know his repertoire and that we are aware of his importance and of his popularity. It is also from Robert-Houdin that we learn that Bosco was a murderer, committing every night one or more assassinations in front of the eyes of a paying audience, without ever having to justify his actions. In addition to his powerful and exceedingly skilled hands, a sword was his favourite instrument, and it is this sword, now in front of me, that I want to discuss today…

Giovanni Bartolomeo Bosco was born in Turin, Italy, on January 3, 1793 and had a long magical career travelling central Europe in the first half of the XIX century. Bosco’s most artistic feat was his performance of the classic “cups and balls” routine, which he took to the stage and for which he devised some new sleight which now are standard for contemporary performers of this effect.

Bartolomeo Bosco left a long legacy of anecdotes, adventures, stories to remind him: some of these stories are probably apocryphal as they had already been used by magicians before him and would be used by magicians after Bosco. Some other stories may be real but filtered through the eyes of Bosco’s witnesses or his publicists (did this job exist in Bosco’s time?). One of the best-known stories is about a young Bosco, in Napoleon‘s army, wounded during the Russian campaign (1812), being robbed while laying on the ground and pick-pocketing his assailant at the same time. This would probably have been a certain way to ensure to be killed there and then, wouldn’t it?

But in the history of magic, Bosco’s name is tainted by the accusation, leveraged by Robert-Houdin, about his alleged cruelty to animals, in particular birds, that were being killed regularly during his performances. Robert-Houdin, in his Confidences d’un Prestidigitateur (1858) describes three such effects from Bosco’s performance in Paris in 1832-33 (the first visit of the Italian magician to Paris). From page 298 of the French edition, Robert-Houdin, 27 at the time of the performance, gives the gruesome details of Bosco beheading two pigeons for real, then suffocating a canary, and finally shooting another one off a gun and stabbing a third one on the tip of a sword! One presumes that at the time France didn’t have a Society for the Protection of Animals! According to Robert-Houdin, the audience was not too shocked by these effects, as they assumed the birds unharmed thanks to some clever sleight-of-hand.

At page 302 of the text, we find the paragraph of interest to us:

Confidences d'un Prestidigitateur - J. E. Robert-Houdin

Confidences d’un Prestidigitateur – J. E. Robert-Houdin

Professor Hoffmann translated this book in English: below the translation of the paragraph from the American edition, likewise available on Google Books:

Memoirs of Robert-Houdin: ambassador, author, and conjurer  By Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin

Memoirs of Robert-Houdin: ambassador, author, and conjurer By Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin

The words “this bird” refer to the canary killed in the previous trick, just to keep the paragraph in context. The effect is described very succinctly by Robert-Houdin, but some more information is available in other booklets about Bosco published in French and in Italian during Bosco’s life. One of these texts has been translated into English and is reprinted in Gibéciere, Vol. 3, n. 1 (2008), published by The Conjuring Arts Research Center in New York. From this booklet (Satana / Raccolta Europea / passatempo dell’intermezzo / nelle sedute / di Magia Egiziana / del cavaliere / Bartolomeo Bosco) we learn that a spectator was given a pistol and asked to load it with the live canary. Of course, the spectator would have been hesitant to push the canary down the barrel of the weapon, so Bosco encouraged him by “brutally showing his wand in the barrel and onto the head of the poor creature”. Once done, Bosco would step back, pick a sword up in his hand and invite the spectator to shot at him. Bosco promised he would parry the projectile with his sword, no mean feat at all! On the pistol shot, a canary would appear on the point of the sword, “flapping its wings […] and singing a diabolical tune”.

A well-known print immortalized the feat – the magician catching a live (?) bird, shot from an old pistol, on the tip of a sword:

Barolomeo Bosco and the sword trick

Bartolomeo Bosco continued to perform this trick, and his usual repertoire, until the last years of his life: he died in Dresden (Germany) in 1863. During his life, and especially after, many other magicians used his name to attract audiences to their performances: his son Eugenio would then continue to bill himself simply as “Bosco” in the second half of the XIX century and this further complicates a serious research on this influential magician.

However, this article does not want to be a biography of Bartolomeo Bosco: other historians much more qualified than me could write at greater length on Bartolomeo Bosco and I, for one, would be more than pleased to read some serious study. What I am concerned with is that the alleged weapon of Bosco’s continuos aviary murders has now a place in my collection.

In 2004, Christian Fechner began to dispose of his large magical collection, with an auction in Paris. I attended this auction, which contained mostly apparatus and continental posters, and was attracted by:

Lot 97: Carte à l’épée (Attribuée à G. B. Bosco)

Le spectateur choisit une carte puis la remet dans le jeu qui est mélangé. Le jeu de cartes est projeté dans l’espace. L’épée fend l’air et pique au milieu de toutes les cartes celle choisie par le spectateur.

Cette très belle épée aurait appartenu au fameux magicien Giovanni Bartolomeo Bosco, né à Turin en 1793. Ce fut un magicien au charisme exceptionnel. Il avait le sense de la publicité, du cérémonial et son spectacle attirait les foules. Il est décédé en 1863 à Dresde. Longuer: 740 mm.

So, the catalog was advertising the sword as a classical “card sword” “said to have belonged” to Bartolomeo Bosco. The “card sword” is a classical piece of apparatus, available in catalogs of dealers of the period. The effect of a card found by stabbing it with an instrument is a very old one: it is described by Edme-Gilles Guyot in 1740 (Nouvelle Récréations Physiques et Mathématiques): this version was done with a normal sword and while blindfolded and it can be defined as the ancestor of the “card stab” effect. The explanation can be found here. The trick was being performed by the early 1840 (by Ludwig Döbler) so it is likely that Bartolomeo Bosco knew it and performed it. However, I have not been able to find, in my texts about Bosco and researches on him, any note about a performance where Bosco stabbed a card: only birds!

Card Sword from ‘Modern Magic’ (click to enlarge)

The secret of the “card sword” was laid bare by Prof. Hoffmann in his Modern Magic (1864) where he described a sword specially prepared, with a container in the handle to keep the card to be produced, a duplicate of which will be forced from another deck. An elastic band (catgut, at the time) was stretched inside the hollow blade, along its side (the blade was a rapier with three sides) and through the card, ending in a piece of metal that would simulate the point of the blade.

The tip of the sword: three sides and a hole (click to enlarge)

However, the sword in my possession doesn’t have the holder to contain the card: the handle is plain and the blade has been soldered to the hilt (maybe re-soldered?). The blade is triangular, as necessary for the trick, be it involving cards or birds.

As I said, I haven’t been able to find any reference of Bartolomeo Bosco performing the card sword. If this sword was actually used by him, it would actually have been used to produce the canary, it not being in a holder, but simply held dead in the hand holding the handle. Or perhaps even alive, tied by one of his legs to the piece of catgut…

Detail of the hand holding the sword (click to enlarge)

On magnifying the Bosco’s print, we can see that apparently he was using a sword with a large hilt, something missing from my sword. This is the second element which may cast doubts on the fact that Bosco may actually have owned this sword. However, we should not rely too much on an image which was drawn almost 200 years ago, probably from the memory of the artist: the detail of the sword may have been forgotten after the performance, or the print may have been “corrected” by Bosco himself for aesthetic reasons. It is also possible that Bosco actually owned different swords in his career. In the drawing (above) the sword looks much longer that it actually is.

Detail of the handle of Bartolomeo Bosco’s Card Sword (click to enlarge)

Is this a “card sword”? It may not be:in magic, the principle of the “card sword” was adapted to another trick, whereby a silk handkerchief would appear at the tip of a sword. In 1912, Chefalo was performing an effect where a silk, over a candle, would disappear. After this vanish, the candle was re-lit (thus proving it was a real one, not hollow!) and Chefalo would pick up a sword and touch the flame: the same silk would re-appear at the top of the sword. Due to the nature of silks, it is not necessary to have a heavily gaffed sword to accomplish this effect; the working would still be the same. It is my belief the sword in my possession was engineered to produce a silk rather than a card. A dead canary, however, is sadly not very dissimilar from a bundled-up piece of cloth…

What is the story of “Bosco’s card sword”? Where does it come from? While the promised documentation about the provenance of the sword never materialized, apparently Bosco’s card sword was in the USA at least between 1880 and 1949. Ed Reno (Edward Munn Burdick 1861-1949) was a young magician from New York who was performing at The Egyptian Hall in London in about 1875, where he met Buatier de Kolta from whom he acquired a copy of his vanishing birdcage. At the same time, apparently, he also acquired “Bosco’s Card Sword”, but this may have been from Bosco’s son or may have had absolutely nothing to do with Bartolomeo Bosco other than the name (The Linking Ring, Vol. 19, p. 825 – Dec. 1939; The Sphinx, Vol. 39, n. 3, May 1940, p. 70; The Sphinx, Vol. 43, n. 3, May 1949, p. 81). Is my sword Ed Reno’s? I do not know: while the sword is certainly well used, it doesn’t seem to have been “exceedingly used” as it would have been the case with Mr. Reno’s material.

The pommel and the handle of Bosco’s sword (click to enlarge)

Technically, the sword is perforated across the blade and through the handle: the elastic exits from the pommel and can be secured with a knot through a hole at the base of the handle (see photo at the right). The sword has also been designed for a right-handed magician, but this is probably standard. I remember walking though the street of Paris carrying this sword after the auction and wondering how I could take it on the plane with me! I should not have worried: the sword fits comfortably in a suitcase. Unlike many other swords of the period, this one has the tip (photo below), which is often lost.

Close-up of the tip of Bartolomeo Bosco’s card sword (click to enlarge)

Is this Bartolomeo Bosco’s own sword, the one he used to stab a canary? It may be: it does not seem to be a standard card sword and it is about 180 years old but it has been preserved well. The handle has some dents on the side away from the palm: these may have been caused by depressing a dead bird’s beak or having it caught when releasing the catgut.

Unfortunately, the handle of the sword is broken: the wood has cracked after all these years and the handle is lose. It is not going to drop off any time, as the hand protector is soldered to the blade, ans probably some wood glue will be enough to fix it, but I’m reluctant to do any work on it. The pictures in the post should give a clear idea of the details of the sword, which is shown in all its glory in the photos below. By clicking on the pictures, you will be able to see a bigger version of the images.

Bartolomeo Bosco’s Card Sword

Where is the canary gone?

Another detail of the triangular blade of Bartolomeo Bosco’s sword

Did this sword help Bartolomeo Bosco to kill some canaries during his long career? Or was it simply a common card sword associated to him by some magician with a twisted mind? I believe this was actually Bosco’s sword, making it a macabre souvenir of this great Magician but, in any case, an object that obtained the applause of many audiences during its period on stage, many, many years ago.

All content is Copyright © 2010-2011 by Marco Pusterla - All rights reserved.
  1. Angelo Mitri says:

    Ciao Marco! Complimenti per il lavoro di ricerca che fai e per la condivisione del materiale magico della tua collezione che ci fai conoscere. Grazie!

    Penso che ti faccia piacere se inserisco alcune notizie inedite che ho trovato relative a Bosco che sono state pubblicate su Magia Moderna (CMI)

    Quando Bosco decise di abbandonare gli studi di medicina per darsi al professionismo, divenne concorrente di un certo Brazzetti, che in quel periodo si esibiva in Italia. Purtroppo per lui, di li a poco, Bartolomeo Bosco monopolizzò l’interesse ovunque andasse offuscando la sua fama. Questo cenno fa parte di una vecchia biografia del 1860 che nella parte finale recitava cosi

    “……Ne’ primi vent’anni di questo secolo, o poco dopo, eravi in Italia un Brazzetti, che faceva prodigi; ma il Bosco lo superò di gran lunga, e dopo tanti anni non ha ancora rivali”.

    La competizione con il Brazzetti doveva essere reale, perché se ne parlò molto tra la gente, a tal punto da ritrovarla in un componimento scritto, che evidenziava questo dualismo. Infatti in una raccolta di prose scelte del 1837 si legge

    “…….Altro che fumista ! ei mi rispose. Questi è il nuovo professore di fìsica recreativa, l’erede, il successore del vecchio, che qui sulla riva coran populo, mangiava stoppia e mandava poi dalla bocca fumo e faville, batteva il sacco per terra e quello gli partoriva le uova, che ne disgrado (venne a odio, non gradito) lo stesso chiarissimo professore Brazzetti”.

    L’autore non fa alcun nome, ma è evidente che sta parlando di un’ innovatore nell’ ”arte de’ prestigi”, siamo nel 1837 il periodo in cui Bosco era all’apice della carriera.

    Relativamente al repertorio di Bosco ecco una descrizione del 1939 a cura di Salvatore Costanzo che riporto integralmente. Il redattore avendo assistito allo spettacolo di Bosco in due occasioni (Teatro S. Cecilia e l’anno precedente al Regio Teatro Carolino di Palermo) ne fa una descrizione particolareggiata.
    E’ da notare che non fa menzione dell’effetto che tu ci hai ricordato, della spada e il canarino, ma parla di due colombe alle quali viene “scemata” la testa e poi messe in una scatola tornano integre. Non possiamo affermare che le decapitasse realmente, almeno non riesco ad immaginarmi la scena cruenta con sangue che schizza in ogni dove per poi riportarle in vita.

    “Bartolomeo Bosco si attira la comune ammirazione, non per la copia de’ giuochi, che ad ognora inventa, non pel numero delle macchine che mirabilmente maneggia, non per la leggiadria come esegue le sue operazioni, non per gli spiritosi motti ch’ei dice, non pel bizzarro linguaggio, mischiato d’italico e francese ch’ei usa; ma è grande, impareggiabile per la destrezza delle sue mani con le quali fa sparire ogni oggetto basta il voglia. Bosco esegue i suoi giuochi senza alcuna preparazione, ed a braccia ignude, acciocché non si creda che larghe maniche, od altro possano in parte nascondere il magistero delle sue ludificazioni. La sveltezza delle sue mani da a divedere fino a che possa giugnere l’alto potere della natura, e dell’ arte nella perfezione degli organi di un uomo; e Bosco per ciò verrà citato qual esempio di somma rarità a simiglianza della Catalani per l’organo della voce, di Gaspare lo Cascio che sordo comprendeva ogni discorso pel solo movimento delle labbra, di Paolo Granata che con la lingua imitava ogni sorta di canto di uccelli, e di quel monaco, che moveva il suo naso a capriccio ora in su ora in giù ora a manca, ora a dritta. I vecchi romanzieri de’ tempi di mezzo, sendo allora di moda i maghi, gli stregoni, le fate avrebbero per fermo fatto di Bosco un grande incantatore simile a quei tanti che leggiamo nelle novelle di mille ed una notte, parto della infocata fantasia degli Arabo-ispani, che nel nono secolo le composero, o pure un esacrando mago che evocava le ombre de’ morti e i demoni con tutte quelle scellerate e bestiali cerimonie, che ci vennero descritte da Cornelio Agrippa: ed avrebbero i suoi giochi celebrati come cosa diabolica, pari ai prodigi del gran mago Merlino, che riempì il mondo di superstiziosa fama. Ma in questo secolo di lumi riveriamo il nostro prestigiatore soltanto come un ingegno singolare, ed i suoi prodigi servono mai sempre a confermarci la meraviglia che svegliano le sue magistrali operazioni. I Pinetti, i de Rossi, i Turendot, i Filadelfia, i Comus, gli Olivier, i Comte e tutti i più rinomali giocolatori di cui si conserva ancor bella la memoria stanno le centinaia di miglia sotto del Turinese Bosco, e noi altra fiata tesseremo una completa storia di tutte le più curiose avventure , e de’più stupendi fatti di quest’ uomo estraordinario, essendo attualmente io sul raccogliere quelle importanti notizie, che meglio lo risguardano; e quest’ altro lavoro che dovrà per certo non riuscir discaro ai più, verrà fra non guari inserito in queste stesse Effemeridi. De’ giochi di Bosco direm poco, che abbastanza ne dissero i più accreditati fogli di Europa……”

    “…… i quali comechè in parte ebbero buon risultamento per la perfezione delle macchine da Bosco adoperate, non avrebbero potuto venire leggiadramente eseguiti, né avrebbero potuto mantenere un’intera illusione tra gli astanti senza la destrezza delle mani del nostro prestigiatore. Ei prese due colombe, e dopo averle fatte sceme del capo le situò in un cassettino aperto, e poscia ad un colpo di pistola le fe’ da quello riapparire vive. Raccolse un numero di orologi fattisi dare da persone che si stavano in platea, e tutti fracassatili a bella posta, così rotti e contusi, mostrandoli pria agli spettatori, ad un secondo colpo di pistola belli ed interi fe’ ritrovarli. Chiese dell’acqua in un boccale, e dopo essersi con quella lavato le mani, infìngendo di volerla versare per terra, la si vide tramutata in ispicciolati fiori, che tutta la platea inondarono. Dimandò una scatola, che fe’ subitamente sparire, e poi facendo le viste di cercare dove la si fosse, fé rinvenirla nelle tasche di colui che gliela avea data. Die’un pugno di monete ad uno degli spettatori, e dopo averle tutte contate, confortandolo a serrarsele in una delle mani, ad un sol cenno le fe’ crescere o diminuire secondochè mostronne miglior talento chi possedeale. Indovinò l’altrui pensiero in un gioco di carte, scrivendo pria di eseguirlo, a qual punto contandole, il tale o tal altro avrebbegli ordinato di fermarsi, in effetti cominciando a contar le carte ad una ad una, gli venne imposto di arrestarsi alla diecesettesima, e consultando lo scritto si trovò notato quanto già era avvenuto. Ma diciamo finalmente alcun che del più sorprendente de’ giochi di Bosco, di quello cioè in cui egli alla svelata mostra tutto il suo immenso valore, la inarrivabile destrezza delle sue mani, la franchezza del suo operare senza ajuto di macchine, senza alcuna preparazione diciamo in somma del gioco delle palle ch’egli fa. In questo si da Bosco a conoscere superiore di se medesimo. Il gioco di fare sparir le palle, di farle poscia trovare sotto un bicchiere, o sotto un bussolotto è antico, e si è fatto da tutti i giocolatori, ma tenendo essi un sacco legalo al cinto, e larghissime e lunghe maniche per potere in parte occultare le loro magagne, ma Bosco diversamente praticando di chi il precesse nel medesimo arringo meglio degli altri gioca, anzi miracolosamente gioca. Laonde la sua stupenda abilità gli ha procacciato a buon diritto smisurata fama, ed onori per tutta Europa: i più potenti monarchi a buon diritto gli hanno accordato diplomi e decorazioni; ed i cittadini di Amburgo vollero anche crearlo Cavaliere. A tanti meritati plausi, e tante belle corone, non possiamo aggiungere che caldi voti acciocché Bosco prestamente non ci lasci, ed acciocché faccia meglio conoscere a quei di oltremonti, che gli abitanti della bella penisola eccelsero non solo nelle scienze, nelle lettere nelle arti, ma sibbene in ogni sorta di cose peregrine, e che però agli Italiani non mancò mai l’intelletto, mai il potere, mai l’ardire, ma solo la buona fortuna”


  2. […] following this blog, you may have noticed that my recent posts were on apparatus, on posters and on more substantial items – not really on “ephemeral” objects. Sometimes, to really appreciate a small […]


  3. Boris Buchner says:

    Very interesting!! Have you done more research on Bosco?


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