A stage magician, only Mr. Electrico, disappeared to the American middle of the country.
The sole evidence of the existence of the entertainer was a memory recalled by the famous sci-fi creator Ray Bradbury, who was credited with an unsettling, almost magical experience with the character Mr. Electrico with changing his life.
Bradbury was just 12 years old when his father, Lester Moberg, was killed in a robbery in the fall of 1932. While the young Bradbury was wrestling with his death, he was attracted to a show in Chicago of Mr. Electrico, who was traveling across the country with the circus.
According to a 1982 essay by Bradbury, the magician was seated with a sword held in his hands in the electric chair. The chair was zapped with between fifty thousand to 10 billion Volts of electricity (the amount is different depending on the story being retold). His hair stood on its own, and sparks exploded through his teeth. And then, Bradbury wrote that he stood up at attention and “brushed his Excalibur-style sword across kids’ heads, and then crowned the children with a blaze of fire. When he came up to me, he touched the shoulders of me, and then on the tips the tip of my nose. The lightning burst into my head. Mr. Electrico cried, ‘Live forever!'”
The following morning, Bradbury was at the uncle’s funeral. Afterward, he returned to the show and was introduced to his friend Mr. Electrico. The magician told him he had been a minister and introduced Bradbury to the other performers in the sideshow. Some would later become characters from the writer’s work, such as Illustrated Man. Illustrated Man.
“We’ve met before,” Mr. Electrico told Bradbury. “You were my most trusted acquaintance during my time in France in 1918. You died in my arms during the Battle of the Ardennes Forest the year 1918. Now, here you are, reborn in a new form and with a brand new name. Welcoming back!”
After meeting with Mr. Electrico, the young Bradbury composed the first of his short tales, a set of compositions focusing on Mars. Mars. “From that time to this, I have never stopped,” Bradbury later remembered. “God bless Mr. Electrico, the catalyst, wherever he is.”
The encounter “really started him on his quest to become a writer, which was essentially a quest to become immortal,” says Jason Aukerman, Director of the Ray Bradbury Center in Indianapolis.
I had heard of Mr. Electrico before, but it was only in spring 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, that the tale of a boy commanded to “live forever” by a sideshow “prophet” took on a new resonance. As a part-time magician myself, I was particularly intrigued. I Googled the performer, hoping a grainy clip of his show had been uploaded to YouTube. Instead, I learned that in the decades since Bradbury first told this story publicly in 1952, no one, including journalists and scholars of the late author, had been able to find any concrete trace of him.
“You’re sniffing around the holy grail of Ray Bradbury scholarship,” Aukerman informed me in November 2022. “So many other stories from Bradbury’s life and past are things that we can verify through letters or through affirmations of family members.” However, the Mr. Electrico encounter doesn’t have evidence of witnesses or records. In addition, Bradbury, who passed away in 2012 at 91, was not necessarily the best storyteller.
He claimed, for example, that he could recall his birthplace. He didn’t mind a few minor embellishments. In sharing stories, “Bradbury’s strong sense of suggestion often [readjusted] the timelines to emphasize the wonder of it,” writes Jonathan R. Eller, founder of the Ray Bradbury Center in Becoming Ray Bradbury.
Sam Weller, who researched Mr. Electrico extensively while writing the author’s official biography in 2006, The Bradbury Chronicles, found an entire hall of mirrors brimming with inconsistencies and dead endings. (A ex-tenured instructor at Columbia College, Weller was exiled in the summer of 2022 because of violating Columbia College’s sexual harassment policy.)
Bradbury always said that he saw his idol Mr. Electrico perform on Labor Day weekend in 1932 after the death of his uncle. However, Moberg was killed just one month later, on October 17. He passed away from injuries on October 24. If Weller confronted Bradbury about this contradiction and asked him to explain it, the writer could not do the issue. It was unclear why the Labor Day connection had passed into the family’s lore and others not remembering the day of the death of Bradbury.
Moberg passed away on a Monday. However, I couldn’t find any reference to a circus or sideshow show in Bradbury’s hometown, Waukegan, Illinois, at any time before or following his death. Seven weeks earlier, in the week leading up to Labor Day weekend, the Waukegan News-Sun included numerous details about the appearance of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and the Downie Brothers Circus. A magician Ralph Redden performed with the Downie Brothers’ sideshow in 1932. However, there was no mention of the electric chair’s performance. Bradbury always stated, “Mr. Electrico had not performed with either circus, but instead performed on the Dill Brothers Combination Shows.
Unfortunately, no conclusive evidence of this operation exists. Bradbury claimed that the eerily similar Sam B. Dill’s Circus that was in process at the time differed from the exact model of the circus he was referring to. Weller discovered a reference in the American Legion Festival held in Waukegan during the Labor Day weekend that included an unnamed carnival. He believed it was at the event carnival that Bradbury saw the event that changed his life. The details of the event could be more extensive.
After many nights of reading old newspaper archives, I wondered if Bradbury had invented the entire story. After that, I spoke to my good friend Stephen Olbrys Gencarella, a folklorist from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He told me the story of Walford Bodie, an iconic Scottish magician sometimes called “the “electric wizard.” In the early 1900s, Bodie performed an electric chair trick that sounded like what Bradbury described in his book. Bodie also made controversial claims that he could use electricity to carry out “cures” in his shows.
There is no reason for scholars to think that Bodie, who died in 1939, appeared in Waukegan when Bradbury could recall meeting the magician Mr. Electrico. However, the magician was highly well-known. He was close to Harry Houdini. In addition, Charlie Chaplin once performed a spoof of his magic act.
Bodie was not the only electric chair entertainer in the early 20th century. Like the sawing-in-half illusion, electric chair performances were performed mainly by sexy women. The “electric girls” often used stage names like Miss Electra or Miss Electricia. The actor Bradbury had observed he used a masculine form of a stage name. The spiritual overtones that led to his writing were also integral to the show.
“Electrical wonder workers,” as they were sometimes called, first appeared in the 1840s, says Fred Nadis, author of Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic and Religion in America. In the early days of these acts, performers gave audience members shocks and created tiny sparks with devices that stored static electricity. They promised both thrills and, in many cases, electricity-based cures.
As time passed, these talks got more complex. In the 1890s, Nikola Tesla hosted several popular demonstrations regarding the security of the alternating currents that allowed millions of volts to flow through his body and remain unharmed. In a similar period, electrical power also received an increase in publicity differently, and a convicted killer William Kemmler became the first person to be executed using the electric chair.
Variations of the electric chair quickly became part of sideshows and vaudeville stages in which they were employed as props for performances by Bodie and other performers. The practice became more widespread when magic shops began offering instructions for building the required device using the engine of the Model T Ford.
In 1911, a performer who went by “stage name” Mademoiselle Electra explained how this effect was achieved on the cover of Popular Electricity magazine. “We finish our act by demonstrating the electric chair, showing the high voltage jumping to the helmet, while pieces of cloth are ignited from all parts of the body, the audiences seeing the sparks jumping fully four inches,” she explained. While the experience may be uncomfortable, the performer avoided electrocution as the chair was powered by the highest power (a measurement in electric tension) but a lower amperage (the amount of current that flows through an electrical circuit).
Tim Cockerill, a zoologist at Falmouth University in England, is also a magician. He has performed traditional sideshow electronic chair shows and more technologically sophisticated high-voltage illusions.
“The old saying is that it’s the volts that give the jolts, but it’s the amps that kill you,” the doctor explains. “Essentially we shield our bodies from the earth which allows many thousands of voltages traverse our bodies. The electrical energy is trying to escape from our bodies, which is why we see sparks emanating from our fingers at times.” If someone touches something that’s grounded, “that would be instant death.”
The fundamental physics behind how this action works needs to be better comprehended. “There’s a thing that some physicists talk about called the skin effect, which is where because of the frequency of the electricity, it passes over the surface of your body rather than going through the middle of your body,” Cockerill declares. “But then other physicists have done calculations to say, ‘Well, no, that shouldn’t even work in theory.'”
Austin Richards, a sensational modern electric show as stage-named Dr. MegaVolt, believes that people are fascinated by electricity at a primal level.
“Electricity is an elemental force,” the author says. “I consider it the fifth element, which includes earth, air, fire water, lightning or electricity. The people have worshipped for a long time.” Richards adds that animals and humans are terrified of electric currents because lightning can be dangerous. It’s a fear that, in a paradox, attracts people to electric chair shows. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 28,068 people across the United States die from lightning strikes every year.)
At the beginning of the 1900s, the acts were even more remarkable. “We’re so used to electricity in our lives that I think we forget just how much of a strange and mysterious force this was,” Cockerill declares. “It was really genuinely magical.”
William Lindsay Gresham’s novel from 1946, Nightmare Alley The story follows the protagonist Stanton Carlisle convincing his girlfriend, who plays the role of Mamzelle Electra, to start a prank where they claim to be able to talk with the dead. I reflected on him as I thought about this and the electric chair’s historical relationship with awe-inspiring claims. Electrico’s encounter with Bradbury. “We’ve been friends earlier,” “We’ve met before,” the magician said. “You were my best friend in France in 1918 and died in my arms.”
I’d like to know whether Mr. Electrico had felt an emotional connection to the show or if this was simply an act. Whatever the case, his words sounded like an electric wonder-worker might have said, just like his command in the show to the Bradbury to be a young Bradbury to “live forever.”
Bradbury scholars Eller and Aukerman both unequivocally believe that Mr. Electrico was real.
“Knowing what I know of Bradbury, it seems very unlikely that he would make up this myth,” Aukerman says.
I agree, even if I’m unsure of the date or location where Bradbury’s encounter with him occurred. I’ve seen numerous mentions of electrical girls found in the digital archives. There was Miss Electrician, who was fed up with the carnival scene and became a star in 1948 when she shot her boyfriend fatally, believed to have been accidental. The media described another as being a “girl who tames electricity and flirts with death.”
I also discovered a few instances of a man who performed the show after Bodie. However, if they were advertised by the moniker Mr. Electrico or performed in Waukegan in the 1930s, they only left a few recordings of the act.