In 1932, an American sideshow magician named Mr. Electrico vanished into the American heartland.
Only a memory by the celebrated science fiction author Ray Bradbury confirmed the performer’s existence. She was Credited with a strange and seemingly unrelated act.
Bradbury was only 12 when Lester Moberg was killed in an October 1932 robbery that went wrong. As he contemplated his mortality, Bradbury was captivated by a Mr. Electrico performance in the Chicago area.
In an essay from 1980, Bradbury wrote that the magician was sitting on an electric chair with a blade in his hand. The magician’s hair was standing on end, and sparks were flying between his teeth as he was zapped by between 50,000 to 10 billion volts (the number can change depending on how the story is told). Bradbury wrote that he stood up and “brushed an Excalibur sword above the heads of children, knighting with fire.” He tapped my shoulders, then the tip of his nose when he got to me. Lightning jumped in me. Mr. Electrico cried, ‘Live forever!'”
Bradbury attended the funeral of his uncle the next day. He returned to the Circus and met Mr. Electrico. The magician revealed to Bradbury that he had been a minister in the past and introduced Bradbury to some of the other sideshow performers. The Illustrated Man was one of the characters that would inspire the author.
“We’ve met before,” Mr. Electrico told Bradbury. You were my best friend back in France in 1918. And you died in my arms during the Battle of the Ardennes forest that year. You are born again in a different body and with a brand new name. “Welcome back!”
After he met with Mr. Electrico a few weeks later, Bradbury began writing his first short stories. They were a collection of compositions about Mars. Bradbury later recalled that “I haven’t stopped since then.” “God bless Mr. Electrico, the catalyst, wherever you are.”
The meeting “really launched him on his quest for becoming a writer, which was a quest to be immortal,” says Jason Aukerman—director of the Ray Bradbury Center.
It was spring of 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, that I first heard about Mr. Electrico. The story of a boy who is told to “live forever” by a “sideshow prophet” takes on new meaning. As a magician, I was especially intrigued. I searched for the magician, hoping to find a grainy video of his performance on YouTube. I was surprised to learn that no one had ever been able, even journalists and scholars, to locate Bradbury since he first publicly shared this story in 1952.
Aukerman told me in November 2022 that I was “sniffing around the holy grail of Ray Bradbury Scholarship.” In contrast, the Mr. Electrico story has no witnesses, documents, or letters that confirm it. Bradbury, who died at 91 in 2012, was only sometimes a reliable narrator.
The writer, for example, claimed to be able to remember. He was not above embellishing. In his anecdotes, Bradbury often “readjusts” the timelines to highlight the wonder. This is what Jonathan R. Eller writes, co-founder and founder of the Ray Bradbury Center, in Being Ray Bradbury.
Sam Weller, who extensively researched Mr. Electrico for the 2006 author’s authorized biography The Bradbury Chronicles, found a hall of the mirrored worth of inconsistencies. Weller, a former tenured Columbia College professor, was fired in the summer of 2022 after violating the school’s sexual harassment policy.
Bradbury has always claimed that he saw Mr. Electrico on Labor Day Weekend in 1932 after the death of his uncle. Moberg, however, was shot over a month after that, on October 17, 1932. He died from his injuries on October 24. Bradbury couldn’t explain the discrepancy when Weller brought it up to him. Labor Day had become a family legend, and other relatives also misremembered the date of Bradbury’s death.
Moberg passed away on a Monday. However, I couldn’t find any references to a sideshow or Circus in Bradbury’s hometown, Waukegan, Illinois, the weekend before or after his death. The Waukegan News Sun had been full of references seven weeks before Labor Day, announcing the arrival of the Hagenbeck Wallace Circus and the Downie Brothers Circus. In 1932, a magician named Ralph Redden was part of the Downie Brothers’ sideshow. However, there is no record that he performed an electric chair act. Bradbury has always maintained that Mr. Electrico did not perform with either Circus. He appeared instead in the Dill Brothers Combined Shows.
Unfortunately, there is no proof that this venture ever existed. Bradbury claimed that the similar-sounding Sam B. Dill’s Circus, which was active then, was not the Circus he was referring to. Weller refers to the American Legion Festival in Waukegan, which includes a carnival. He concluded that Bradbury’s life-changing experience was most likely witnessed at the celebration. The festival is vague.
After spending many late-night hours looking through old newspaper archives, it began to dawn on me that Bradbury had created the entire story. After talking with Stephen Olbrys Gencarella, a University of Massachusetts Amherst folklorist, I wondered if Bradbury had invented this whole story. He told me that Walford Bodie was a Scottish magician who performed an electric chair act in the early 1900s. It sounded very similar to the one Bradbury described. He argued that he could use electricity during his shows to perform “There is More.”
No reason for scholars to believe Bodie, who died in 1929, performed in Wawhenhe time Bradbury remembers seeing Mr. Electrico. The magician was a hugely popular figure. Harry Houdini was his friend, and Charlie Chaplin once performed a parody of the magician’s act.
Bodie wasn’t the only electric chair performer around the turn of the 20th century. Electric chair acts were performed mainly by women in scantily-clad clothing, just like the sawing-in half illusion. These “electric girls,” as they were called, often performed under stage names like Miss Electra and Miss Electricia. The performer Bradbury saw used what appeared to be a masculine form of a female stage name. The same spiritual undertones that inspired the author also appeared in the performance.
“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.
These presentations have become more complex over time. Nikola Tesla held a series of demonstrations in the 1890s on the safety of alternating currents. He let hundreds of thousands of volts pass through his body without harm. In the same period, electricity also received a boost in the form of another kind. William Kemmler, a convicted murderer, became the first person executed using the electric chair.
Bodie, among others, used electric chairs as performance props on vaudeville stages and sideshows. The act became more popular after magic shops started selling instructions to make the device from the Model T Ford engine.
In 1911, a performer named Mademoiselle Electra explained how the effect was achieved in the pages Popular Electricity. She said, “We end our act with a demonstration of the electric chair. We show the high voltage jumping up to the helmet while the cloth is ignited on all parts of the person. The audience can see the sparks jump four inches.” Though the experience could be painful, the performer avoided actual electrocution, as the chair utilized high voltage as a measure of electrical pressure, but the amperage was a low rate.
Tim Cockerill is a zoologist and magician at Falmouth University, England. He has performed traditional sideshow electric chair acts and more technologically advanced, high-voltage illusions.
He explains that “the old saying goes that the volts are what give you a jolt, but the amps are what kills you.” “We insulate our bodies from the ground, and this allows hundreds of thousands of volts to flow through us.” Electricity tries to escape our bodies, so we sometimes see sparks.
The physics behind the act still needs to be better understood. Cockerill says there’s something called the Skin Effect, where the electricity passes over your skin rather than through your middle. But then, other physicists did calculations and said, “Well, no. That shouldn’t work even in theory.”
Austin Richards performs an electric show under the name Dr. Megavolt. He believes that humans are fascinated with electricity at a primal level.
He says that electricity is an elemental power. “I consider it the fifth element, along with air, earth, fire, water, and lightning. Richards says that people have been worshipping lightning for thousands of years. He adds that animals and humans instinctively fear electricity due to its danger. This fear, in turn, is what draws audiences to electric chairs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, lightning strikes kill an average of 28 Americans annually.
These acts were even more impressive in the early 1900s. Cockerill: “We are so used to the electricity that we have forgotten how strange and mysterious it was. It was genuinely magical.
In William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley, the protagonist Stanton Carlisle convinces his girlfriend Mamzelle, a performer, to launch a hoax in which they claim they can commune with the dead. As I thought about the history of electric chair acts and their association with outrageous claims, I remembered Mr. Electrico’s conversation with Bradbury. “We’ve already met,” the magician had said. “You were my closest friend in France in 1918. You died in my arms.”
I wondered if this was a real connection that Mr. Electrico felt or just a part of his act. His words were exactly what an electric wonder worker would say. During the show, he told the young Bradbury he wanted him to “live forever.”
Bradbury scholars Eller and Aukerman both unequivocally believe that Mr. Electrico was real.
Aukerman: “Knowing Bradbury as I do, it is unlikely that he could have invented this myth.”