In 1864 Harry Cooke performed for the president. Soon he was spying for the Union army.
IN EARLY JULY 1863, AS THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG WAS ENDING some 80 miles to the north, President Abraham Lincoln took a break from monitoring Civil War hostilities to watch a rehearsal for Washington, D.C.’s forthcoming Independence Day parade. The route for that dry run was near Lincoln’s summertime getaway, a three-mile horseback ride from the often sweltering White House grounds, and among the other spectators that day was Antonio Van Zandt, an accomplished British-born magician whose stage name was Signor Blitz.
As the marchers passed him, Blitz suddenly reached out and yanked a bird from a girl’s hair, stopping the awed procession in its tracks. Then, as the crowd pressed in around him, Blitz performed several dazzling sleight-of-hand tricks, including pulling an egg from the mouth of the president’s 10-year-old son, Tad. When a bystander introduced the president to the 53-year-old magician, who often performed his act for wounded soldiers, Lincoln replied, “Why, of course, it’s Signor Blitz, one of the most famous men in America.” Lincoln was so enamored of Blitz that he invited him to the White House, where the skilled conjurer made a bird appear in the president’s famous stovepipe hat. A note attached to its wing read “Victory, General Grant”—a prescient reference to the Battle of Vicksburg, which the storied Federal army commander would soon win.
As it turned out, Lincoln’s invitation to the “Professor of Mechanism and Metamorphosis,” as Blitz was known, was in keeping with his longtime fascination with magic, which the nation’s 16th president would indulge whenever he could slip away from the executive mansion. For example, he made the mile-long trek four times to see John W. Wyman Jr., an American-born magician and ventriloquist who billed himself as “Wyman the Wizard,” perform at the capital city’s Odd Fellows Hall. Another of Lincoln’s frequent guests was the celebrated German-born magician Compars (Carl) Hermann, who in November 1861 entertained a small group in the East Room of the White House. Two months later the self-proclaimed “First Professor of Magic in the World” wowed another audience: an encore performance for the president, his cabinet, and the first lady.
It is probably not surprising, then, that when Lincoln learned of young Horatio Cooke’s formidable skills as a magician, he was determined to meet the Union army enlistee—if for no other reason than to be entertained. As it turned out, however, Cooke would earn the lifelong title of “Lincoln’s Magician.” Yet his remarkable saga—of bravery, dedication, prestidigitation, and escape artistry—and his relationship with the president is a largely untold story.
HORATIO GREEN COOKE WAS BORN ON FEBRUARY February 1, 1844, in Norwich, Connecticut. After moving to Chicago, his family finally settled in Iowa on the eve of the Civil War. Harry, as his friends knew him, was a precocious child, both studious and entertaining, who excelled in his schoolwork. His grasp of English grammar and his comfort in speaking before groups earned him a teaching position at a small rural school when he was just 17.
Although Cooke planned to continue his career in education, on turning 18 he enlisted in the 28th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. His expert marksmanship landed him a position as a sharpshooter. Soon, though, his beautiful Spencerian cursive handwriting caught the attention of his superior officers. “Typewriters were not in general use at this time,” he recalled many years later, “so my skill in penmanship was in great demand.”
Other artistry he became known for included prodigious rope-tying feats and escaping from camp, which he often did simply in hopes of proving he could get away with it. Following one such stunt, Cooke had his thumbs lashed together over a tree limb as punishment. But as soon as the soldier who had secured him turned away, Cooke performed his first of many magic tricks for an audience. “In a flash [I] had freed [my] thumb,” he recounted, “and made a mocking gesture at the back of the retiring officer,” much to the amusement of those watching.
The following spring Cooke’s Iowa regiment was sent to Mississippi, where he took part in Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Siege of Vicksburg, and then on to Louisiana for the beginning of the Red River Campaign with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. Cooke’s job was to perform scouting assignments, skirmishing ahead of the Union army as an advance agent or spy.
Then, thanks to his penmanship and writing skills, Cooke was recruited to work for Grant. “I first did the private correspondence for Gen. B. M. [Benjamin Mayberry] Prentiss at Helena, Ark.,” he wrote in his diary. “My writing being mostly on official documents, [it] created a good deal of comment and inquiry as to who was the writer, until I became quite well known at the Executive Headquarters in Washington.” In fact, Cooke would later write correspondence for Major Generals William Rosecrans, Philip Sheridan, and William Tecumseh Sherman.
But it was his prowess as an escape artist that truly distinguished Private Cooke, who often shocked and mystified his superiors by quickly freeing
himself from whatever bonds they devised. In addition, he began expanding his repertoire with magic tricks, more advanced rope tying, and other skills, which would help spread his renown well beyond his own regiment.
IN 1864 COOKE WAS TRANSFERRED TO THE BATTLEFRONT in the Shenandoah Valley to serve under Sheridan, but along the way he was unexpectedly summoned to the office of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, in Washington, D.C. Cooke entered Stanton’s office to find a small group of military and political luminaries that, to his surprise, included President Lincoln. Cooke wrote in his diary that Lincoln approached him, firmly shook his hand, and said, “Well lad, I am informed that you are rather tricky.” Cooke replied that he was not aware of having been “guilty of doing mean tricks.” The president responded, “Well, I thought we would make an investigation.”
The group was eager for a demonstration of the young man’s ability to free himself from restraints, so a senator and two generals—including
Sherman—tied him up with 50 feet of rope. “When all was ready I asked Lincoln to walk ten feet away,” Cooke wrote in his diary. “Then I asked Lincoln to walk towards me. While Lincoln was walking the ten feet, I liberated myself and stood up, shaking hands with Lincoln when he was close enough”—a feat that amazed the president and all the others. “Taking a [$2] ‘greenback’ of the first issue of Federal currency from his pocket, Lincoln gave it to me [and put me] strictly in charge to keep it always, and also told me that he was going to keep an eye on me for something better as I grew older. ‘Here my boy, keep this to remember Uncle Abe by. The Johnnies would have to go some to hold you if you should fall into their hands.’” Cooke later observed that the remark “seemed rather prophetic, and it was fulfilled afterwards.”
According to Cooke, Lincoln immediately sat down and wrote a letter appointing him to serve as a Federal scout, whose job it was to penetrate the Confederate lines incognito and send back intelligence reports. Following the appointment, he was detached from his enlistment with the army, officially given the brevet rank of captain, and designated as the head of the Lincoln scouts. Cooke then handpicked six associate scouts, who affectionately went one better than Lincoln and always referred to him as “Major” Cooke. When he wore his military uniform, Cooke proudly kept a “Lincoln Scout” badge fastened over his heart.
Cooke was now part of an amorphous and prestigious group that was organized under a chief in the War Department who directed their movements. Their duties included delivering dispatches, locating the enemy, and obtaining precise information about roads, bridges, and fords that would facilitate the march of the army. They typically carried out their missions attired as captured Rebel soldiers.
Cooke’s scouts accompanied Sheridan on his Shenandoah campaign in the second week of September 1864, and after a month of skirmishes enemy troops clandestinely penetrated and then overwhelmed Federal lines at Cedar Creek, forcing a disorderly retreat. Cooke was with Sheridan in Winchester, Virginia, when word arrived of the October 19 surprise attack by Confederate lieutenant general Jubal Early’s army. Sheridan immediately mounted his horse and made his legendary 12-mile ride down the Shenandoah Valley, “Hell bent for leather,” as Cooke described it, to stop the retreat and rally the fleeing Union forces for a counterattack.
Cooke and his six fellow scouts mounted up and started with Sheridan, but, according to Cooke, they were unable to keep up with the general’s furious pace. When they headed into nearby foothills, they were ambushed by a dozen Confederate guerrillas from Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s famed Rangers, who surrounded and captured them. At the time, Mosby was engaged in a savage take-no-prisoners personal war with Union major general George Armstrong Custer, both men executing POWs on the spot. The escape artist and his men were in dire straits, seemingly with no way out.
THE GENESIS OF THIS EYE-FOR-AN-EYE BLOOD FEUD was an 18-month campaign of raids and guerrilla operations by Mosby’s cavalry battalion, which created havoc for the Union army. When Sheridan positioned troops to squelch “Mosby’s Rangers,” as they had become known, Mosby in turn began attacking supply trains, cavalry detachments, and anything else he determined to be of value.
The Union army expended considerable energy trying to foil the Rangers, and Sheridan’s relentless pursuit of Mosby resulted in the taking of Confederate prisoners. In the process, though, one of Mosby’s men fatally shot Lieutenant Charles McMaster of the 2nd U.S. Calvary. Reports varied as to how McMaster was killed, but before he died he told his men that he had been shot while surrendering. His commander, Captain Robert Smith, claimed that McMaster was also robbed before being gunned down. Some reports said that wounded Union soldiers in ambulances had been attacked and robbed.
McMaster’s death was nothing short of murder in the eyes of his comrades, who wanted revenge. And as word of the incident spread through the Union ranks, one of McMaster’s superior officers, Major General Wesley Merritt, ordered the execution of six Confederate prisoners taken during the chase in retribution. Though many—including Mosby himself—blamed Custer for the killings, it was Merritt who gave the order.
Three of the Confederate POWs were executed immediately. The mother of another prisoner, 17-year-old Henry Rhodes, begged for her son’s life, but one of Custer’s cavalrymen shot Rhodes to death as she looked on. Two other prisoners were promised they’d be spared in exchange for information about Mosby, but when they refused to talk, they were hanged. A sign placed on one of the victims declared, “Such is the fate of all of Mosby’s men.”
When Mosby learned of the executions, he proposed to General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, that an equal number of Custer’s men be executed. After Lee and Confederate secretary of war James Seddon concurred, three Union prisoners were hanged and two were shot, albeit not fatally. A note left on one of the corpses stated: “These men have been hung in retaliation for [the execution] of Colonel Mosby’s men hung by order of General Custer at Front Royal. Measure for measure.”
Cooke and his fellow scouts thus had good cause to be worried about having been captured. In his diary, he wrote that Mosby’s men took all their money and everything else that looked of value and that they had been forced to swap clothes with their captors. “They took, also, my most prized possession, President Lincoln’s letter appointing me a scout,” Cooke wrote. His pleas to be allowed to keep it were met with laughter.
For more than a day, Mosby and his men marched the small band of Union scouts up the Potomac River. One of them, enraged by Cooke’s brazenness, fired at him three times but fortunately missed his target. When they stopped to camp on the second night, Cooke learned that their captors expected more of Mosby Raiders, with additional prisoners, to join them the next day. He feared that all the prisoners would then be hanged or shot as spies in retaliation for Merritt’s execution of Confederate POWs. “They tied us to trees and camped in a half circle around us from bank to bank, leaving one of their number in the middle to guard us,” Cooke wrote in his diary. “It was now up to me to get busy figuring out some means of escape.”
That opportunity came at midnight, with the changing of the guard. The new picket, still groggy from being awakened, was not yet fully aware of his surroundings, as Cooke had correctly speculated. So Cooke waited patiently, and as the guard dozed off, he easily freed himself from his bindings and took the guard’s rifle without even waking him. “It was my plan to get his six shooters also,” said Cooke, “which would give us 19 shots—as the carbine was good for seven—clean up the rest of the guerillas, seize their horses and escape.”
On freeing his companions, Cooke tried to persuade them to escape to Maryland by way of the Potomac River. But half of them couldn’t swim, so they at first instead fled Mosby’s Raiders—and certain execution—by land. Cooke and three of his men did eventually manage to navigate the river’s strong currents, but one of them, exhausted from the effort, died trying to cross the deep Harpers Ferry Canal—a loss that weighed heavily on Cooke, who was now even more desperate to get back to Union lines.
The three scouts headed into woods crawling with guerrilla fighters from Lieutenant Colonel Elijah V. White’s 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, “reputed to be even worse than Mosby’s men,” Cooke recounted, “as they generally killed their prisoners as soon as they got them.” After three days of wandering that terrain, with no clothing but trousers and only birch bark to eat, they were captured by six armed horsemen. “We thought they were guerillas,” Cooke recalled, “as they were dressed in a sort of mixed uniform such as many guerillas wore and they believed us to be guerillas because we were wearing the trousers that Mosby’s men had forced us to put on in place of our own.”
Cooke and his men, it turned out, had been captured by a band of Federal scouts. Cooke explained that he had been appointed head of the Federal scouts by Lincoln himself. Not surprisingly, the group’s leader dismissed him as a liar. But in an amazing coincidence, Cooke learned that the group’s commanding officer, Major Gallup Sage of the 7th Illinois Cavalry, was a cousin he hadn’t seen since childhood.
After confirming Cooke’s identity, Sage formed a search party to help Cooke locate those who had fled Mosby’s Rangers by land. But the rescue mission soon took a tragic turn: “We found their bodies hanging from trees,” Cooke lamented, “riddled with bullets and their faces mutilated by birds. We cut them down, buried them and vowed vengeance upon their slayers.”
Setting out on a reign of anger-fueled revenge through the Confederate ranks, Cooke and his fellow scouts vowed that they would never divulge to anyone what had transpired on their ride or the number of casualties they had inflicted. And true to his word, Cooke gave no details in his diary save that they confiscated many guns, horses, arms, and ammunition and turned them in to the quartermaster on returning, weeks later, to Major Sage’s camp near Staunton, Virginia.
Once there, a weary and emotionally spent Cooke learned that he was to be reassigned as a military clerk in Alexandria, Virginia, a welcome change with a particularly convenient benefit: Because Mosby’s Rangers had confiscated Lincoln’s handwritten letter appointing him to serve as a Federal scout, Cooke intended to use his proximity to the White House to see the president and ask that the letter be replaced.
COOKE CHOSE WHAT HE CONSIDERED TO BE AN OPPORTUNE TIME to visit Lincoln: five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, putting the Civil War on a path to its conclusion. In addition to asking for a new letter of appointment, Cooke wanted to tell Lincoln of his perilous exploits. And so on the cool evening of April 14, 1865, Cooke finally went to the White House, only to be informed that the president had gone to Ford’s Theatre to see the comedy Our American Cousin, starring British stage actress Laura Keene. Cooke hurried to the theater, purchased his ticket, grabbed a program as he entered, and stood in the back so as not to disturb the audience.
Cooke described in his diary what happened next: “About twenty minutes after I entered I heard a pistol shot, and at the same moment a man (whom I soon learned was J. Wilkes Booth) jumped from the President’s box to the stage; he fell but got up again, and shouting some Latin phrase, ran through the scenery and out the backstage door. At first the audience seemed to think that the incident was part of the play, but someone shouted from the stage, ‘The President has been shot!’ I think it was Miss Keene who cried out. At that, the whole audience rose from their seats; many rushing to the President’s box. Some started after Booth who had mounted a horse in the alley and fled.…These events cannot be fully comprehended from reading a bare statement.”
Cooke followed the crowd across the street to the Peterson Boarding House, where the mortally wounded president had been taken. “I remained around the place all night with many others and begged that I might be admitted, but that could not be,” Cooke wrote. “In the morning [Secretary of War] Stanton came to the door and seeing me, took me into the room where the President lay. He removed the covering from his face, a face that was so physically homely yet so grand and peaceful. But his spirit had passed on to the ‘Great Beyond.’ I did not obtain that for which I sought, for ‘The Master’s Word was lost.’ ”
For the rest of his life Cooke retained the Ford’s Theatre program from that fateful night, along with the $2 bill that Lincoln had given him years earlier.
WITH THE CLOSE OF THE WAR, COOKE RETURNED HOME TO IOWA. But after his adventures of the previous three years, he found it impossible to be content with life in a small, rural town, and he moved frequently (Ohio, Illinois, then New York City) before finally ending up in Los Angeles.
In his civilian life after the war Cooke devoted himself to his career as a magician, inventing and manufacturing many of the effects he used in his very popular stage act. In addition, he became fascinated with—and immediately skeptical of—spiritualism, the idea that the dearly departed were ever present to offer comfort and advice to the living. This movement held powerful appeal in the 19th century, and its influence soared with the immense suffering the Civil War produced.
Although he was an extremely clever and gifted magician, night after night Cooke devoted his performances to debunking mediums and spiritualists, long before the man who would become his protégé, Harry Houdini, took up the cause. Billing himself as “Professor H. Cooke, The Celebrated King of Spirit Exposers,” or some variation thereof, he often played to packed houses, promising theatergoers that they would see “Spiritualism Outdone and Exposed.”
Cooke once explained his modus operandi for exposing fraudulent spiritualists as follows: “My policy was to duplicate their program, first in the [spirit] cabinet, and then on the open stage, in full light, not showing the people how the tricks were done but simply proving to them that only human agency was involved.”
In reviewing Cooke’s performances, the Boston Herald said, “Nothing approaching to them has ever been seen here before.” And the Wisconsin State Journal, in reviewing his run at a local opera house, observed that “the Professor’s expositions of spiritualistic trickery have been complete and satisfactory in the extreme.”
For some true believers, though, doubting the legitimacy of communicating with the netherworld was a crime so blasphemous that it required punishment. In 1873, for example, outside the jewelry store he had opened in Belle-view, Ohio, to supplement his income as a professional magician, Cooke was shot at point-blank range by John Weaver, who took issue with his refusal to accept spiritualism. After being apprehended, Weaver maintained that he had fired the shot in self-defense following an attack by Cooke. He was nevertheless convicted and sentenced to one year for assault with the intent to kill.
Weaver’s lawyers appealed the verdict, and the matter eventually wound its way to the Supreme Court of Ohio. In Weaver v. The State, an oft-cited case defining the act of self-defense, Ohio’s high court denied the appeal and upheld the lower court’s guilty verdict. Cooke fully recovered from his injury, and for the next quarter century or so he was back on the road with his magic and spiritualism-debunking show, doing his best to discredit what had become the lucrative industry of allegedly communicating with the great beyond.
In 1907 Cooke moved to Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters. Having given up his life as a touring magician, he now turned to other pursuits, among them building his dream home, becoming a bona fide inventor (in 1912 he won a patent for a “Rapid Money-Changing Machine” to be used in cash registers), and forging new relationships with other magicians in the area.
Around this time Cooke became close friends with Harry Kellar, the retired dean of American stage magicians. The two of them founded the Los Angeles Society of Magicians in 1917, and the following year Cooke became the organization’s president. In 1919 Cooke and Kellar, both in their 70s, appeared together in a short motion picture produced by the Ford Film Company. Cooke also found time to work as a consultant to Floyd G. Thayer, a magician and inventor whose L.A.-based Thayer Magic Company manufactured stage illusions and effects for many of the nation’s top magicians.
In the early 1920s Harry Houdini, arguably the world’s most famous magician, visited Cooke at his home in Los Angeles. Houdini had set out to write a book on spiritualism and was clearly fascinated by Cooke’s exploits as a debunker of mediums, clairvoyants, and others who claimed supernatural powers. In his 1924 book, A Magician Among the Spirits, Houdini went out of his way to credit Cooke for his work in exposing mediums.
ON MAY 1, 1924, AT AGE 80, HARRY COOKE REPRISED PERHAPS HIS MOST MEMORABLE FEATH for a collection of Los Angeles–area magicians: escaping from 50 feet of rope, just as he had done for President Abraham Lincoln some six decades earlier. For the performance, Cooke wore his blue Union army uniform with his Lincoln scouts badge over his heart, as he had done during the Civil War. And the result was the same as when Lincoln observed it: Cooke escaped, to the utter amazement of his audience. It was a poetic and fitting denouement to an exciting and dangerous life, and it would be the last time Cooke wore his uniform. Six weeks later Harry Cooke died peacefully in his sleep, having been billed as “America’s Oldest Living Magician.”
That title, however, seems woefully inadequate in describing the amazing life of Horatio Green Cooke. Perhaps, then, a more fitting title would have been “Lincoln’s Magician.” Certainly, “Uncle Abe,” the Great Emancipator, would have heartily approved. MHQ
Jason H. Silverman is the Ellison Capers Palmer Jr. Professor of History Emeritus at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. His most recent book is Lincoln and the Immigrant (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015).
The author wishes to express his deep gratitude and appreciation to Mark Cannon and Dean Carnegie, professional magicians par excellence, for their crucial assistance. They generously provided very important primary sources and other material for this article.
This article appears in the Spring 2019 issue (Vol. 31, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Lincoln’s Magician
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