Robert Whitehand – A Forgotten Master Craftsman

Robert A. Whitehand, known to everyone as Bob, was a well-known Washington D.C. silversmith, engraver, craftsman, and dealer/collector of curiosities. His business was named the “Old Curiosity Shop,” but was known to everyone as the Ark. The little shop was filled to the brim with unique and rare antiques and relics. Whitehand even had the purported bloody shirt that Steve Brodie wore when he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and a short length of the transatlantic cable. He was 55 years old at the time of his death in 1896.

What the public did not know was that he also built and repaired apparatus for many of the major professional magicians of his time. The following article from the January 9, 1897 issue of the “Evening Star” gives a small insight into his endeavors.

 ‘The late Bob Whitehand, the silversmith, will be much missed by magicians,” remarked an attaché of a professional magician, “for he could always be depended upon to fix up our properties and apparatus and to keep the secret of their operation to himself. He was very, very clever at tinkering with metal, as many in our business found to our satisfaction. Whitehand made much of the apparatus with which Heller started on the road as a magician. Heller, you may not remember, was named Palmer when he originally resided in this city, when he was the organist at Epiphany Church. He did nearly all his practicing in the room over the drug store at the corner of 13th and F streets. As he thought out the apparatus he needed he gave his orders to Whitehand, who put them into shape. The latter did many hundred dollars of work for Heller then and afterward. Whitehand also did considerable jobbing during the past twenty-five years for the late Prof. Herrmann, and Prof. Wyman, the father of magicians, and Prof. Anderson, the wizard of the north, who was such an attraction years ago.

 Among the odds and ends recently sold at auction in Whitehand’s old curiosity shop – and it sold for old metal, by the pound – was the plans for one of Heller’s famous tricks. It never worked satisfactorily, and was sent back to Whitehand to be remade. It was nearly completed when word was received here that Heller had died. It was the apparatus by which Heller apparently grew a tree of oranges from a pot located in the midst of the audience. The flower pot was filled with tubes, attached to the end of which was a rubber balloon bag, which when blown up resembled in color and size an orange. The growing was done by pumping air into the rubber oranges until they were sufficiently large. The pump was a bellows at the bottom of the pot, the magician using the bellows. Whitehand had done over hundred dollars’ worth of work on the apparatus.”

 After Whiteshead’s death the contents of the shop were sold to Mr. H. E. Rafferty of Alexandria, VA for just $100.

orange treeI always thought the idea of inflating balloons to imitate growing oranges was a fanciful explanation of the Orange Tree. So I was surprised that Heller used a pneumatic method.   This was first described by Henri Decremps in his “exposure” of Pinetti’s effects in La Magie Blanche Devoilee, 1784. The figure shows an pneumatic example described in Wiegleb’s “Die Natuerliche Magie” published in 1794 and reprinted in Houdini’s “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.” The more familiar mechanical method was perfected by Robert-Houdin in the mid-1800s.

Hope you enjoyed and good hunting.

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