E. A. and Cassie Maskelyne: Magic couple
by Bob Davenport
Edwin Archibald Maskelyne – E. A. Maskelyne as he was known professionally, or ‘Archie’ to his friends – was born in London in the last quarter of 1879, the youngest (by some 13 years) of the three children of John Nevil (‘J. N.’) Maskelyne and his wife, Elizabeth, née Taylor.
J. N. had been born in Cheltenham in 1839, the son of a saddler of the same name, and claimed descent from Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811), who from March 1765 was astronomer royal, and who had a crater on the moon named after him. J. N. was apprenticed to a local watchmaker, and as a boy was a keen amateur conjuror, giving a public performance of his own tricks at the age of sixteen.
In 1865 the famous American spiritualists Ira Erastus Davenport and his brother William Henry Davenport arrived in Cheltenham during a tour of England in which they claimed to communicate with the dead, who would manifest themselves through various physical means – such as playing and throwing of musical instruments – while the brothers were tied up inside a wooden cabinet. The brothers invited each town they visited to select a committee to view the proceedings at close quarters to detect any trickery, and in Cheltenham this committee included J. N. and his friend and fellow conjuring enthusiast George Alfred Cooke, a cabinet-maker. At what he judged a critical moment, J. N. had a sliver of light introduced into the darkened town hall where the Davenports were appearing, and this allowed him to see enough to declare that the brothers were frauds and that in three months he would be able to reproduce their effects by means of practice and dexterity, with no supposed help from spirits. And on 19 June 1865, in broad daylight at the Aviary Gardens in Cheltenham, J. N. and his friend did just that, defying all the audience members’ attempts to catch them out.
The sensation that they caused prompted the friends to give up their steady jobs and take their magic on tour. And after a difficult couple of years they succeeded so well that in May 1873 they began a three-month London residency at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly – a residency which was extended until the building was demolished to make way for flats and offices in 1905.
The hall became known as ‘England’s Home of Mystery’, and nurtured the careers of many illusionist who were booked as guest performers with Maskelyne & Cooke’s company – notably David Devant, whose Times obituary in 1941 reported the opinion that he was ‘not only the prime conjurer of his day, but the foremost magician of all time’. It was Devant who, in 1896, was responsible for the Egyptian Hall being among the first places to show moving pictures in the UK, using a ‘theatrograph’ machine bought from R. W. Paul in competition with the Lumière brothers’ shows at the Polytechnic Theatre in Regent Street.
The company’s acts had developed beyond ‘tricks’ to include sketches or playlets which included illusions as part of the plot, and in May 1898 the show-business paper The Era reviewed Trapped by Magic, ‘A Sensational Illusory Sketch’ by J. N. Maskelyne, and noted that ‘The part of a waiting-maid is brightly and piquantly played by Miss Cassie Bruce, whose fresh, tuneful voice and engaging style give charming effect to a well-written song, “Not at home.”’ The Morning Post, reviewing the same production, described how a pie appeared under a rolled-up piece of cardboard placed on an uncovered table and ‘The pie being opened, out jumps the lively Miss Cassie Bruce, wearing Japanese costume, and gracefully executes a pretty oriental dance.’
Cassie Louise Bruce had been born in London on 1 February 1875. Her parents were Henry Bruce – the newsagent son of the actors John and Louise Bruce – and his wife, Honora, née Neagle, the daughter of a greengrocer from Cork. Cassie and her twin brother, John, who died soon after birth, were the couple’s first children. Others followed in 1881, 1882 and 1889 – and possibly three more who did not survive until christening in the second half of the 1870s. The 1881 census records Cassie as living with her grandmother Louise (‘Actress’), Louise’s second husband, Edward Elton (‘Comedian’), their son, also Edward (‘Comedian actor’), and two of Louise’s children from her first marriage: Alfred (‘Comedian actor’) and Kathleen (‘Danseuse’).
Having been brought up in a household of performers, it is perhaps not surprising that Cassie also took to the stage, though her early career seems to have attracted little attention. On 9 February 1893 she appeared as Clara in a one-off matinee performance of T. W. Robertson’s School at the Opéra Comique theatre in London. In December that year she appeared as Fairy Brassfounder in a production of Cinderella that ran until the following February at the Lyceum. A year later she was Holly in the ‘Fairy Panto’ Santa Claus, again at the Lyceum. In November 1896 she took part in a matinee performance – the London debut – of Neville Lynn’s The Transferred Ghost at the Garrick, under the auspices of the Theatrical Choristers’ Association.
A couple of months after her opening in Trapped by Magic, in August 1898 Carrie was advertising her availability in The Era, but in December that year she was back at the Egyptian Hall, in The Gnome’s Grot. The Evening Standard explained that
The grot, which is in Killarney, is inhabited by a hermit (Mr. J. N. Maskelyne), whose inclinations seem to lie less in the direction of religious observances than in the practice of magic. He is waited upon by a love-sick German tourist (Mr. Nevil Maskelyne [J. N.’s eldest son]), who, through a dream, has conceived doubts of the fidelity of his absent Gretchen (Miss Cassie Bruce). These doubts are cleared up … by a marvellous series of seemingly supernatural manifestations … Miss Bruce, who takes the dual part of Gretchen and the Oracle of Destiny, has a pretty soprano voice, by aid of which, in two or three dainty songs, she considerably enhances the charm and mystery of the piece.
The London and Provincial Entr’acte declared that Cassie was ‘good-looking, speaks her lines well, and, moreover, is endowed with a musical voice, which she uses with excellent effect in tuneful song’. And the Morning Post explained that the ’supernatural manifestations’ included the eponymous Gnome, ‘clothed in red and having a flowing red beard’, suddenly turning into ‘a pretty young girl, represented by Miss Cassie Bruce’.
Thereafter Cassie appeared regularly with the Egyptian Hall company, and also appeared in the company’s magic playlets which were filmed on the roof of the hall at the end of the century and which were distributed all over England and America.
In April 1900 she was the ‘shrewd and fascinating Madge Faulkner’ in A Twin Spirit, and ‘[sang] capably a well-written song to the pianoforte accompaniment of Mr. E. S. Elton’, her uncle. Two years later she ‘act[ed] with much charm and [sang] with rare verve’ in The Entranced Fakir. In 1903 she ‘employed talent, grace, and a charming voice with great effect’ in The Philosopher’s Stone, in which ‘as a materialised spirit [she] gradually appear[ed] out of nothingness and float[ed] in mid-air until she reache[d] terra firma’.
The Era described her appearance in that year’s Christmas show at the Egyptian Hall, Well, I’m ——: ‘Miss Cassie Bruce … mounts an apparently ordinary wooden table placed in the centre of the stage. A cloak is then thrown over her, a pistol fired, and Miss Bruce, who instantly disappears, exclaims within a few seconds at the back of the hall, “Well, I’m here.”’
In 1905, with the company – now Maskelyne & Devant, following the retirement of Cooke – in a new home at the refurbished St George’s Hall, in Langham Place, Regent Street, she ‘contribut[ed] a real character sketch of the cockney housekeeper whose love has been slighted by an impressionable policeman’ in St Valentine’s Eve and was ‘a pleasing and sprightly Dorothy’ in The Mascot Moth, in which a woman dressed as a moth with wings was seen in full view until dramatically disappearing when Devant approached her with a lighted candle.
In September 1906 The Era judged Cassie ‘an interesting and attractive Patricia’ in Daylight Ghosts. Then in the following month Cassie partnered J. N. in A Side Issue, an illusion produced in response to a £1,000 challenge from Thomas Colley, Archdeacon of Pietermaritzburg, that Maskelyne – a continuing opponent of claims about the supernatural – could not reproduce the events that Colley said he had witnessed in 1877 at Bloomsbury séances conducted by the former Baptist minister and convicted fraudster Francis Ward Monck, when
there was seen steaming as from a kettle spout, through the texture and substance of the medium’s black coat, a little below the left breast, toward the side, a vaporous filament, which would be almost invisible until within an inch or two of our friend’s (the medium’s) body. When it grew in density to a cloudy something from which (and apparently using up which for the quick evolving of much white raiment) there would then stand, to step forth timidly, as did this little maiden, or in the same way boldly and naturally, to companion with us, other of our frequent psychic visitors. For as a cloud received One out of their sight, when the disciples of Bethany gazed on their ascending Lord, so, as from a cloud thus inexplicably evolved from the medium, came our materializing friends; and exhaling again to invisibility in a cloud (sucked back within his body) were they withdrawn from us wistfully gazing on their mysterious departure, and noting this or that particular phase of it within a few inches of the point of their inscrutable disappearance and evanishment.
The press and public acclaimed the performances at St George’s Hall, but Colley refused to hand over £1,000, claiming the demonstration was inadequate, notably because Cassie had not been ‘sucked back within’ J. N.’s body as Monck’s manifestation had re-entered his side. And, as at St George’s Hall J. N. had handed out a pamphlet, The History of a Thousand-Pound Challenge, which included a denial of Colley’s right to the title of archdeacon, Colley sued him for libel. J. N. counter-claimed for the promised £1,000. (The naturalist and evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace testified that he had witnessed a similar manifestation from Monck’s side and believed it to be genuine and quite unlike J. N.’s performance.) J. N. lost and had to pay costs and damages – though he considered his total expenses of £1,143 good value for the packed houses that the trial brought.
By now Cassie had become more than professionally close to the Maskelyne family. The March 1901 census, taken a week before Easter, records her as a ‘Visitor’ at the home of J. N. and Elizabeth Maskelyne and their ‘Student’ son, Archie, at Bucklebury, a few miles west of Reading. (At the time of the 1891 census Archie had been at school in Margate.) Then on 27 June 1907 the Dundee Evening Telegraph and Post carried the following report:
Mr. Maskelyne to Marry the Disappearing Lady.
This afternoon at the Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone, will be celebrated the wedding of Mr E. A. Maskelyne, younger son of Mr Maskelyne, the famous magician, and Miss Cassie Bruce, the lady that has been connected with the Maskelynes for many years at the old ‘Home of Mystery,’ the Egyptian Hall.
Mr Maskelyne and Miss Bruce first met each other when they were about six years old [Cassie was in fact nearly five years his senior] at a Christmas pantomime, and Mr Maskelyne said to a press representative: –
‘I did not meet her after that for some time. I was busy studying Chemistry at King’s College for five years, but a year or two ago I left it to take up my position at the hall as business manager. There I met “Cassie.” We fell in love with one another, and I must admit that it was with some regret that I had during the course of the show to make her disappear.
‘A strange thing will take place at the wedding. After the ceremony we shall vanish, and next day reappear in Paris, where we shall spend our honeymoon.
‘One more thing. We have been engaged for five years, and I consider long engagements are the best.’
The Era, after reporting on the wedding and the entertainments at the reception in St George’s Hall, commented, ‘It is good news to hear that Miss Cassie Bruce, who is such a dainty little actress, does not intend to leave the stage.’
On returning from their honeymoon Archie and Cassie joined the company in a provincial tour that began in Ramsgate on 9 July, after which they lived at Cassie’s previous home, with her aunt Kathleen Bruce at 20 Upper Tollington Park, in Finsbury Park.
Archie had made his stage debut with the company at the Egyptian Hall in August 1904, alongside Cassie in Well I’m ——, and in the following year he had replaced his brother in The Mascot Moth. He also presented routines such as The Window of the Haunted House (1912) and The Yogi’s Star (1913), which included a telepathy illusion making use of wireless telegraphy. From July 1914 to June 1915, with just a week off in January, he led Maskelyne & Devant’s number 2 touring company around England, Wales and Scotland, in a new venue at least every week. Then from Christmas 1915 he was in The Philosopher’s Stone at St George’s Hall for six months.
In the spring of 1917 a new production opened at St George’s Hall, devised by Archie and with a script by his sister, Mrs Minnie Jane Mead. The Globe described The Four Elements of Alchemy as follows:
In full view of the audience, and apparently out of nothing, there come a munition worker, soldier, aviator, and sailor, representing earth, fire, air, and water, and combining to produce the spirit of peace [played by Cassie]. That they are real flesh and blood is clear when three of them step on to the stage and proclaim their patriotism. As for the other, the aviator, well he, after ‘awakening’ on earth, vanishes into thin air in a twinkling.
By the summer of 1919 Archie had contracted tuberculosis and was too ill to go to St George’s Hall. In September that year he went for treatment to a sanatorium at Matlock Spa, but a year later, on 26 September 1920, he died, aged 40. He was buried in St Pancras Cemetery on 30 September. The Magic Circular, in its obituary in its November issue, commented that ‘Everyone liked “Archie” … and everyone who knew him will long retain pleasant recollections of him. If one has to mention his outstanding attribute , it would be amiability, for Archie was always amiable, even under the sometimes trying duties of acting management.’
Cassie inherited a life interest in his shares in Maskelyne’s Ltd and his part-ownership (with Nevil) of the lease of St George’s Hall, and at a board meeting in January 1921 she was made the company’s supervisor of female staff at a salary of £10 a week (equivalent to about £440 p.w. today) – perhaps by way of a pension, or to make use of her experience, for she no longer appeared on stage. Two years later a board meeting was told she was taking £3,000 a year from the company, and this was reduced to £280 – which was nevertheless well above the average working wage.
J. N. had died in 1917 (he is buried in Brompton Cemetery), but Nevil and his own sons kept St George’s Hall going until 1933, when the BBC took it over as a studio and concert hall. (It was destroyed in an air raid in May 1941.) On 3 December 1937 Cassie was one of the contributors to ‘Entertainment at St George’s, 1867–1937: The Story of a London Hall of Entertainment through 70 Years ‘ on the BBC National Programme.
She died, aged 83, in the Whittington Hospital, Highgate, on 12 November 1958 – having been living at 20 Upper Tollington Park almost until the end – and was buried alongside Archie on 17 November.
• Anne Pimlott Baker, ‘Maskelyne, John Nevil (1839–1917)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2011
• Anne Davenport and John Salisse, St George’s Hall: Behind the Scenes at England’s Home of Mystery (Mike Caveney’s Magic Words, 2001)
• Edwin A. Dawes, ‘Devant, David (1868–1941)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, January 2011
• The Era, 21 May 1898 (Trapped by Magic), 13 August 1898 (CB disengaged), 21 April 1900 (A Twin Spirit), 9 April 1902 (The Entranced Fakir), 3 January 1903 (The Philosopher’s Stone), 26 December 1903 (Well, I’m ——), 29 April 1905 (St Valentine’s Eve), 12 August 1905 (The Mascot Moth), 8 September 1906 (Daylight Ghosts), 30 June 1907 (wedding)
• Evening Standard (London), 4 April 1899 (The Gnome’s Grot)
• The Globe, 17 March 1917 (The Four Elements of Alchemy)
• Susanne Holt, The Story of a Theatrical Family
• Illustrated London News, 4 May 1907 (‘Spooks in Court: The Famous £1000 Colley–Maskelyne Libel Case)
• London and Provincial Entr’acte, 24 December 1898 (The Gnome’s Grot), 24 January 1903 (The Philosopher’s Stone)
• ‘Magic in 1918: An Interview with Mr. Nevil Maskelyne and Mr. E. A. Maskelyne’, Magician Monthly, December 1917
• Jasper Maskelyne, White Magic: The Story of Maskelynes (London: Stanley Paul, 1936)
• Morning Post, 31 May 1898 (Trapped by Magic), 21 December 1898 (The Gnome’s Grot)
• Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)
• ‘The St. Georges Hall, Langham Place, Regent Street, London’, at arthurlloyd.co.uk
• The Times, 25, 26, 27, 30 April & 1 May 1907 (‘High Court of Justice, King’s Bench Division, Colley v. Maskelyne’), 14 October 1941 (David Devant obituary)
• J. P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1890–1899: A Calendar of Plays and Players (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1976)