19th century magician

Weird People

The Magician - Henry More Smith
 

The Magician. Reward Poster from the 'Royal Gazette', 10th Oct. 1814.Henry More Smith - escapologist, impostor and magician, was born Henry Frederick Moon in Brighton, England. A former Methodist preacher, he found himself in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1814, being chased across the country by a man named Knox, who said Smith had stolen his horse. Though the 21-year-old Smith produced 'proof' that he'd bought the horse legally from another person, Knox pressed charges and he was imprisoned in a New Brunswick jail.

Henry said that he'd received a brutal kick from Knox, and people who saw him during his captivity thought he was dying. He revealed a bruise under his ribs, coughed up blood, shivered with cold and sweated with fever. His condition seemed hopeless and after two weeks he was so weak that he was given a mattress to die on. He requested a hot brick to keep himself warm, and while the jailer's son went to get it - leaving the cell door open for a minute - Smith escaped. Eventually he was recaptured, and this time was forced to wear handcuffs and neck and leg irons.These were connected to each other and attached to an iron ring in the wall, so he couldn't move at all. But they couldn't hold him. The iron collar was made of a flat bar of iron an inch and a half wide, but Smith twisted it from his neck and broke it in half, an incredible feat of strength. The collar was kept for a long time as a curiosity.

One night the jailer heard a noise coming from Smith's cell and went to investigate. At first he found nothing. But then he noticed that the bars of the cell had been practically sawn through. He searched the prisoner and discovered that he had somehow freed himself completely from his chains. On another occasion, despite the new window bars and heavy-duty door locks on his cell, the prisoner was discovered with a woman kneeling at his bed. It was an extraordinarily convincing figure of his wife, and the magical scene was made in the pitch dark from scraps of cloth and straw, and a three-foot wooden trough that had contained his drinking water. He was chained with heavier irons, but next morning was found to be free again complaining about having to wear such uncomfortable things. After a thorough search a minute saw was found that Smith had made by cutting microscopic serrations in a steel watch spring.

One morning the jailor found that Henry had once again freed himself from his chains. The links were found to be separated, but they had been somehow broken and not cut. Sheriff Walter Bates,  the High Sheriff who was in charge of More Smith, never discovered how Smith had managed to do this. Thinking they had some kind of magican on their hands they replaced these chains with seven feet long ox chains stapled to the floorboards, which Henry also managed to break into pieces. Smith subsequently appeared in court acting oddly unconcerned at his plight, and was condemned to death.

Back in his cell he refused to speak or eat, shouted and screamed, and ripped off any clothes he was provided with. Later, again handcuffed in total darkness and without any tools, he made an entire troupe of full-size puppets using straw, rags, and burnt wood and his own blood for colour. 

The incredibly life-like group consisted of ten players - men (including Napoleon dressed as a harlequin), women and children - who danced 'with motion, ease and exactness not to be described', according to Sheriff Bates, Word spread and More Smith soon had visitors for his extraordinary magic show from all over; there was even one gentleman from Ireland.

There were other strange things about this eccentric Englishman. His body was immune to the intense cold in his cell, his hands and feet - and even his chains -  always retained heat. Barbara Grantmyre (see sources) suggests a possible familiarity with yoga techniques - he certainly had plenty of free time to train his mind, and possessed extremely acute senses. Smith also seems to have had the ability to make fire at any time, and proved it by starting fires in his cell with no apparent means. Telling fortunes using tea-leaves was another of his skills, and to some extent he could foretell his own and other people's future. On one occasion he predicted the arrival of a certain amount of papers on a certain day at 4 o'clock, the result of which would be his leaving prison and travelling over water. The papers arrived as he had predicted, and proved to be his pardon. He left the jail a free man, though seeming not to understand what this meant and, a few months later, was arrested again, this time in New Haven, using the name of William Newman. Apparently he'd crept into a young lady's bedroom and stolen one of her earrings as she slept. 

The Magician. Jail cell that once held More Smith, on display at Kings County Museum, New Brunswick. Photo by Peter WalshIn autumn 1817 he was serving a three year prison sentence in a disused copper mine in Connecticut, exempt from the usual forced labour due to 'violent epileptic fits'. Instead he made pen-knives, Jews' harps, rings and other small articles. When his term of imprisonment there was up, he presented his prison keeper with a pocket knife, into the handle of which he'd set a tiny watch which kept perfect time.

After his release he wandered through the states of Connecticut and New York, assuming different characters and carrying out many robberies. He appeared in Upper Canada and called on the brother of Sheriff Walter Bates, saying he had a letter for the Sheriff. On examination, the letter was found to have been written 'in the characters of some foreign language' but it could not be deciphered. He wrote another of these strange undecipherable letters to a Captain Brant, but for what reason, no-one knew.

Subsequently he spent some time in the South as a preacher called Henry Hopkins and, according to Bates, had many followers. In February 1835, he attempted to rob the Northern Mail, north of New York, but was caught. He escaped and headed north towards Upper Canada. But while in Toronto he was imprisoned for shop-breaking and burglary, where Bates tells us there were many 'curious stories told of him.'  Unfortunately this is the last we ever hear of this enigmatic man.

If he had been born a century or so later Henry More Smith might well have rivaled Harry Houdini himself. A strange mixture of charlatan, magician, escapologist and paranormal talent, his feats of strength were beyond human - almost mythical one might say, as were his abilities to start fires and keep warm in freezing weather. A High Sheriff is as good a witness as we could hope for in early 19th century Canada, and the fact that Sheriff Bates put everything down in writing close to the time that it actually happened is a strong argument in favour of the authenticity of at least the basic facts in the case. Obviously many legends attached themselves to such a romantic and mysterious figure as Smith, but these can be identified and separated from historical incidents, leaving us with a record of a genuinely baffling individual.


Thanks to Mr. X for help with research on this article.

Sources and Further Reading

Bates, W. Henry More Smith. The Mysterious Stranger. New Brunswick, Non-Entity Press, 1979 (1817).

Grantmyre, B. Lunar Rogue. New Brunswick, Brunswick Press, 1963.

Wells, J. Princess Caraboo: Her True Story. London, Pan Books,1994, pp251-257.
                                                                 

Copyright 2002 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.
 

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