Nebraska State Historical Society Blog

Timeline Tuesday: Magic among the Indians

What happens when a magician is tricked by his audience? Julius Meyer, pioneer Omaha merchant and Indian trader, is the source for this tale of how Sioux tribesmen in the 1870s turned the tables on a white performer of magic who sought to dazzle them with his powers. Meyer had settled in Omaha in 1867 and became acquainted with Plains Indians, reportedly learning to speak six Indian languages. He served as an interpreter for Gen. George Crook and later opened the "Indian Wigwam," a curio shop, in Omaha. The Omaha Daily Bee reported on March 18, 1900: "Of all the stories told by Julius Meyer relative to his long experience with the Indians away back in the early history of Nebraska, none are more interesting than his recital of a tour he once made with Hermann, the celebrated magician [of the renowned Hermann family of performers in magic]." Meyer said that Hermann, while visiting Omaha during the 1870s, had "expressed a desire to see the Indians in their natural state." Accordingly, Meyer and Hermann "set forth for the country occupied by the Sioux tribes. He was anxious to mystify the Indians with his tricks, and soon after our arrival he was given an opportunity."

 Julius Meyer's Indian Wigwam store, 1879. NSHS RG2341.PH769


 After Meyer had convened a group of curious Sioux, "[t]he magician performed several clever tricks, which greatly pleased and astonished the Indians. . . . At last Hermann asked to borrow a hat. An Indian named Fighting Horse was the first to respond. . . . Holding the hat in his hand, Hermann made a little speech, the substance of which was that while he usually received pay for his entertainments, he was not on that occasion asking anything. Then he scanned the hat closely for a moment and nodded that he had found enough money in it to compensate him most liberally for his work. . . . [and] drew out a roll of bills aggregating $600." What happened next surprised both Meyer and Hermann. "'That's my money; It was found in my hat,' roared Fighting Horse. For once the man whose business it was to puzzle other people was himself puzzled. He couldn't afford to give that Indian so much money," and a lengthy conversation followed. Fighting Horse, supported by the other Indians, continued to insist loudly that the money belonged to him because it had been found in his hat. At last the leader, Spotted Tail, was appealed to-but he supported Fighting Horse. When Meyer tried to explain that finding the money had been one of Hermann's tricks, "Spotted Tail replied: 'A man who can perform a trick once can do the same trick again. Let him give Fighting Horse that money and then reach in the hat again and get more for himself. Then they will both have money. That's fair.'"

 Julius Meyer and Native Americans outside his Indian Wigwam store. NSHS RG2246.PH6


Meyer replied that "Hermann was not prepared to repeat the trick just then, but that he might do so if given a little while in which to rest. This was to give Hermann an opportunity to get away. But the Indians would not accept such a proposition. They wanted Hermann to remain in sight. He stood upon an improvised platform and there they wanted him to remain until the question was settled."    In desperation Meyer "finally suggested that the only way Hermann could perform the trick over again would be to have another hat just like that of Fighting Horse, and that the same hat could not be used twice. I knew there was no such hat in the crowd. But not to be outdone, the Indians said they knew a man a few miles away who had a hat like the one Hermann had used . . . . A messenger was dispatched for the hat. "While he was gone Hermann was given time to arrange for a repetition of the trick. When the hat was produced the Indians examined it to see that it had no money in it. It was then passed over to Hermann and he drew from it the same roll of bills that he had apparently found in Fighting Horse's hat. Then they believed it was really a trick, and Hermann was allowed to keep the money."


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