Lincoln’s Magician is a historical novel that follows the life of John Wilks Booth, one of the most infamous assassins in American history.
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States. He is known as Lincoln’s Magician. Read more in detail here: abraham lincoln presidency.
Harry Cooke played for President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. He was soon snooping for the Union troops.
IN EARLY JULY 1863, AS THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG WAS COMING TO AN END 80 MILES TO THE NORTH, President Abraham Lincoln took a break from watching Civil War battles to attend a rehearsal for the upcoming Independence Day parade in Washington, D.C. The path for that trial run was near Lincoln’s summers retreat, about a three-mile horseback ride from the often-sweltering White House grounds, and among the other onlookers that day was Antonio Van Zandt, an outstanding British-born magician known by his stage as Signor Blitz.
During the Civil War, magician Harry Cooke was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s hand-picked Federal scouts. He sometimes performed in his Union army outfit after the war. (Photo by Mark Cannon)
Blitz reached out and plucked a bird from a girl’s hair as the marchers passed him, halting the awestruck procession in its tracks. Blitz then did several spectacular sleight-of-hand feats, including extracting an egg from the mouth of the president’s 10-year-old son, Tad, as the throng pushed in around him. When a spectator introduced Lincoln to the 53-year-old magician, who was known for doing his show for injured troops, he said, “Of course, it’s Signor Blitz, one of America’s most renowned men.” Blitz was so impressed by Lincoln that he invited him to the White House, where the talented conjurer appeared in the president’s renowned stovepipe hat and made a bird materialize. “Victory, General Grant,” read a letter tied to its wing, a foreshadowing of the Battle of Vicksburg, which the famous Federal army leader would shortly win.
As it turned out, Lincoln’s invitation to the “Professor of Mechanism and Metamorphosis,” as Blitz was known, was in line with the nation’s 16th president’s long-standing interest with magic, which he indulged whenever he could get away from the White House. For example, he walked the mile to watch John W. Wyman Jr., an American-born magician and ventriloquist known as “Wyman the Wizard,” perform in the capital city’s Odd Fellows Hall four times. Compars (Carl) Hermann, a renowned German-born magician, was another of Lincoln’s regular visitors, entertaining a small party in the White House’s East Room in November 1861. Two months later, the self-described “First Professor of Magic in the World” dazzled yet another audience: the president, his cabinet, and the first lady.
It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that when Lincoln heard of young Horatio Cooke’s remarkable magic talents, he was keen to see the Union army enlistee, if only to be amused. Cooke, on the other hand, would go on to be known as “Lincoln’s Magician” for the rest of his life. His incredible tale of courage, devotion, prestidigitation, and escape artistry, as well as his connection with the president, is widely unknown.
HORATIO GREEN COOKE WAS BORN IN NORWICH, CONNECTICUT, ON FEBRUARY 1, 1844. On the eve of the Civil War, his family relocated to Iowa after living in Chicago. Harry, as his friends called him, was a bright, studious, and amusing kid who excelled in school. When he was only 17, he got a teaching job at a tiny rural school because of his command of English grammar and ease speaking in front of people.
Cooke joined in the 28th Iowa Volunteer Infantry when he was 18 years old, despite his plans to complete his studies. He was hired as a sniper because of his exceptional shooting. His exquisite Spencerian cursive calligraphy, on the other hand, quickly drew the notice of his senior commanders. “Typewriters were not widely used at the time,” he reflected many years later, “so my handwriting skills were in high demand.”
He was also renowned for his prodigious rope-tying skills and for fleeing from camp, which he did often only to prove he could get away with it. Cooke was punished by having his thumbs lashed together over a tree branch after one such act. Cooke began performing his first of many magic acts for an audience as soon as the soldier who had detained him looked away. “I had released [my] thumb in a flash,” he said, “and made a sarcastic gesture at the back of the departing officer,” much to the delight of onlookers.
The next 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 to Louisiana, where he joined Major General Nathaniel P. Banks for the start of the Red River Campaign. Cooke’s role as an advance agent or spy was to conduct reconnaissance missions ahead of the Union troops.
Cooke was then hired by Grant because of his handwriting and writing abilities. In his journal, he wrote, “I first handled the private correspondence for Gen. B. M. [Benjamin Mayberry] Prentiss in Helena, Ark.” “Because my work was mainly on official papers, it drew a lot of attention and questions about who was the author, until I became well-known at Executive Headquarters in Washington.” Cooke would subsequently compose letters for Major Generals William Rosecrans, Philip Sheridan, and William Tecumseh Sherman, among others.
But it was Private Cooke’s skill as an escape artist that really set him apart, as he often surprised and perplexed his superiors by swiftly escaping from captivity.
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States (Library of Congress)
He was able to free himself from whatever bindings they had created. In addition, he started to add magic acts, more sophisticated rope tying, and other talents to his repertoire, which helped him gain notoriety well beyond his own regiment.
COOKE WAS TRANSFERRED TO THE BATTLEFRONT in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 to serve under Sheridan, but he was unexpectedly summoned to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s office in Washington, D.C. Cooke entered Stanton’s office to find a small group of military and political luminaries, including President Lincoln, who surprised him. Lincoln approached Cooke, firmly shook his hand, and remarked, “Well boy, I am told that you are quite difficult,” according to Cooke’s journal. Cooke said that he had no recollection of being “guilty of playing nasty pranks.” “Well, I thought we’d do an investigation,” the president said.
The group was anxious for a demonstration of the young man’s capacity to break free from his shackles, so a senator and two generals—including one from the army—were sent.
Sherman shackled him with a 50-foot rope. Cooke stated in his journal, “When everything was done, I requested Lincoln to go 10 feet away.” “After that, I invited Lincoln to approach me. I freed myself and stood up as Lincoln was walking the ten feet, shook hands with him when he was near enough”—a feat that astounded the president and everyone else. “Taking a [$2] ‘greenback’ of the first issue of Federal money from his pocket, Lincoln handed it to me [and] informed me that he would keep an eye on me for something better as I got older, and that he would keep an eye on me for something better. ‘Keep this, my son, to remember Uncle Abe by.’ If you fell into their hands, the Johnnies would have to go a long way to hold you.’” The comment “seemed fairly prophetic, and it was fulfilled thereafter,” Cooke subsequently noted.
According to Cooke, Lincoln sat down right away and drafted a letter designating him as a Federal scout, whose duty it was to infiltrate Confederate lines anonymously and report back information. Following the appointment, he was released from his army service, granted the brevet rank of captain, and sent to the Lincoln scouts as their commander. Cooke then hand-picked six associate scouts, who fondly referred to him as “Major” Cooke, going one better than Lincoln. Cooke proudly carried a “Lincoln Scout” insignia over his heart while he donned his military uniform.
Cooke was now a member of an enigmatic and distinguished organization led by a War Department head who controlled their activities. Delivering messages, finding the enemy, and collecting accurate information about roads, bridges, and fords that would aid the army’s march were among their responsibilities. They usually dressed themselves as captive Rebel troops and went on missions.
In the second week of September 1864, Cooke’s scouts joined Sheridan on his Shenandoah campaign, and after a month of skirmishes, enemy forces secretly infiltrated and eventually overwhelmed Federal lines at Cedar Creek, forcing a chaotic retreat. Cooke was at Winchester, Virginia, with Sheridan when news came of Confederate lieutenant general Jubal Early’s army’s surprise assault on October 19. Sheridan mounted his horse and rode down the Shenandoah Valley, “Hell bent for leather,” as Cooke put it, to halt the retreat and gather the fleeing Union troops for a counterattack.
Cooke and his six other spies mounted their horses and set off after Sheridan, but they were unable to keep up with the general’s fast pace, according to Cooke. They were ambushed by a dozen Confederate guerrillas from Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s famous Rangers, who encircled and captured them as they went into surrounding foothills. Mosby was fighting a brutal, no-holds-barred personal battle with Union major general George Armstrong Custer at the time, with both soldiers killing POWs on the spot. The escape artist and his companions were in desperate circumstances, with no apparent way out.
THE ORIGIN OF THIS EYE-FOR-AN-EYE BLOOD FEUD was Mosby’s cavalry battalion’s 18-month campaign of raids and guerilla operations, which wreaked havoc on the Union army. When Sheridan sent soldiers to put down “Mosby’s Rangers,” as they had become known, Mosby retaliated by assaulting supply trains, cavalry detachments, and anything else he thought was valuable.
The Union army spent a lot of resources attempting to stop the Rangers, and Sheridan’s persistent pursuit of Mosby resulted in Confederate captives being taken. However, one of Mosby’s men mortally shot Lieutenant Charles McMaster of the 2nd US Calvary in the process. McMaster’s death was reported in a variety of ways, but before he died, he informed his troops that he had been shot while surrendering. Captain Robert Smith, McMaster’s commander, alleged that he was also robbed before being shot. According to some accounts, injured Union troops in ambulances were assaulted and looted.
In the perspective of his colleagues, McMaster’s death was nothing short of murder, and they sought vengeance. As news of the event circulated through the Union forces, Major General Wesley Merritt, one of McMaster’s senior commanders, ordered the death of six Confederate captives captured during the pursuit as revenge. Despite the fact that many people, including Mosby, blamed Custer for the massacre, Merritt was the one who issued the command.
Three Confederate POWs were executed on the spot. Another prisoner’s mother, 17-year-old Henry Rhodes, pleaded for her son’s life, but one of Custer’s cavalrymen shot Rhodes to death as she stood there watching. Two other convicts were told their lives would be spared in return for information concerning Mosby, but they were hung when they refused to cooperate. “Such is the destiny of all of Mosby’s men,” said a placard put on one of the victims.
When Mosby heard of the killings, he suggested to Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commander General Robert E. Lee that an equivalent number of Custer’s men be executed. Three Union captives were hanged and two were shot, though not fatally, after Lee and Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon agreed. “These soldiers have been hanged in revenge for [the execution] of Colonel Mosby’s men hanging by order of General Custer at Front Royal,” said a letter placed on one of the bodies. In the same way, measure for measure.”
Cooke and his fellow scouts had reason to be concerned about being apprehended. Mosby’s men seized all of their money and everything else of worth, he wrote in his journal, and they were forced to change clothing with their captives. Cooke said, “They also stole my most treasured item, President Lincoln’s letter designating me a scout.” His pleadings to preserve it were greeted with amusement.
Mosby and his men marched the small party of Union scouts along the Potomac River for more than a day. Enraged by Cooke’s bravado, one of them fired three shots at him, luckily missing his aim. Cooke heard that more Mosby Raiders, along with more captives, were due to join them the following day as they stopped to camp on the second night. In retribution for Merritt’s killing of Confederate POWs, he believed that all of the captives would be hung or executed as spies. Cooke wrote in his journal, “They tied us to trees and camped in a half circle around us from bank to bank, leaving one of their number in the center to guard us.” “It was now up to me to go to work devising a plan of escape.”
With the change of the guard at midnight, that chance presented itself. As Cooke had predicted, the new picket, still sleepy from being woken, was not yet completely aware of his surroundings. So Cooke waited quietly, and when the guard fell asleep, he effortlessly untied himself from his shackles and grabbed the man’s weapon without awakening him. “It was also my intention to grab his six shooters,” Cooke said, “which would give us 19 shots—the carbine only had seven—clean out the remainder of the guerillas, take their horses, and flee.”
Cooke attempted to convince his friends to flee to Maryland across the Potomac River once they were freed. But since half of them couldn’t swim, they had to flee Mosby’s Raiders—and likely execution—by land at first. Cooke and three of his men finally made it over the river’s strong currents, but one of them died attempting to cross the Harpers Ferry Canal, weary from the effort—a loss that weighed hard on Cooke, who was now even more eager to get back to Union lines.
The three scouts entered woods infested with guerilla fighters from Lieutenant Colonel Elijah V. White’s 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, who were “reputed to be much worse than Mosby’s men” since they “usually murdered their captives as soon as they caught them,” according to Cooke. They were caught by six armed horsemen after three days of traveling across that terrain, wearing just their underwear and eating only birch bark. “We assumed they were guerillas because they were dressed in a kind of mixed uniform that many guerillas wore,” Cooke said, “and they thought we were guerillas because we were wearing the pants Mosby’s men had forced us to wear in lieu of our own.”
Cooke and his men had been apprehended by a group of Federal scouts, it turned out. Cooke stated that Lincoln had chosen him as the commander of the Federal scouts. The group’s head, predictably, rejected him as a liar. Cooke discovered that the group’s commanding officer, Major Gallup Sage of the 7th Illinois Cavalry, was a cousin he hadn’t seen since boyhood through an extraordinary coincidence.
Sage organized a search team to assist Cooke in locating individuals who had escaped Mosby’s Rangers via land after verifying Cooke’s identification. The rescue effort, however, eventually took a sad turn: “We discovered their corpses hanging from branches, riddled with gunshots and their faces mangled by birds,” Cooke mourned. We killed them, buried them, and swore revenge on those who killed them.”
Cooke and his fellow scouts set off on a reign of vengeance across the Confederate lines, vowing that they would never tell anybody what happened on their ride or how many fatalities they had caused. Cooke kept his promise and wrote nothing in his journal except that they seized numerous guns, horses, weapons, and ammunition and handed them in to the quartermaster when they returned to Major Sage’s camp near Staunton, Virginia, weeks later.
Cooke was reassigned as a military clerk in Alexandria, Virginia, which was 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 planned to use his proximity to the White House to see the president and request that the letter be returned.
COOKE CHOOSE WHAT HE CONSIDERED TO BE AN APPROPRIATE TIME TO VISIT LINCOLN: five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, thus ending the Civil War. Cooke intended to inform Lincoln about his hazardous adventures in addition to requesting a fresh letter of appointment. Cooke eventually traveled to the White House on the chilly evening of April 14, 1865, only to learn that the president had gone to Ford’s Theatre to watch the farce Our American Cousin, featuring British stage actress Laura Keene. Cooke rushed to the theater, bought his ticket, grabbed a program as he walked in, and took a seat in the back to avoid disturbing the crowd.
“About twenty minutes after I entered I heard a pistol shot, and at the same time a man (whom I soon learned was J. Wilkes Booth) jumped from the President’s box to the stage; he fell but got up, and shouting some Latin phrase, ran through the scenery and out the backstage door,” Cooke wrote in his diary. The crowd first mistook the event for a scene in the play, but then someone screamed from the stage, “The President has been shot!” Miss Keene, I believe, was the one who screamed out. The whole crowd rose from their seats at that point, with many racing to the President’s box. Some after Booth, who had mounted a horse and escaped down the lane…. These occurrences are too complex to be completely understood from a single statement.”
Cooke led the throng across the street to the Peterson Boarding House, where the president had been brought after being fatally wounded. Cooke stated, “I stayed about the location all night with many others and begged to get in, but that could not happen.” “When [Secretary of War] Stanton arrived to the door in the morning and saw me, he brought me into the chamber where the President lay. He lifted the cloth off his face, revealing a face that was both physically and emotionally homely. His soul, however, had gone to the ‘Great Beyond.’ I didn’t get what I was looking for because “The Master’s Word was lost.”
Cooke kept the Ford’s Theatre program from that fateful night, as well as the $2 note Lincoln had given him years before, for the rest of his life.
COOKE RETURNED HOME TO IOWA AT THE END OF THE WAR. But, after the experiences of the previous three years, he couldn’t stay in a tiny, rural community for long, and he traveled about a lot (Ohio, Illinois, then New York City) until settling in Los Angeles.
After the war, Cooke focused on his profession as a magician, developing and producing many of the illusions he used in his very successful stage show. In addition, he grew intrigued by—and instantly dismissive of—spiritualism, the belief that the dearly dead are always present to console and advise the living. This movement had a strong following in the nineteenth century, and its popularity grew in tandem with the Civil War’s massive suffering.
Long before the man who would become his protégé, Harry Houdini, took up the cause, Cooke, although being a very smart and talented magician, dedicated his performances night after night to discrediting mediums and spiritualists. He frequently performed to crowded houses, assuring theatergoers that they would witness “Spiritualism Outdone and Exposed,” billed as “Professor H. Cooke, The Celebrated King of Spirit Exposers,” or some variant thereof.
“My strategy was to repeat their program, first in the [spirit] cabinet, and then on the open stage, in broad light, not telling the audience how the tricks were done but merely demonstrating to them that only human activity was involved,” Cooke once described his method for exposing fake spiritualists.
“Nothing approaching them has ever been seen here before,” the Boston Herald remarked of Cooke’s performances. In a review of his performance at a local opera theater, the Wisconsin State Journal said, “the Professor’s expositions of spiritualistic deception have been comprehensive and satisfying in the extreme.”
Doubting the validity of communication with the netherworld, on the other hand, was a felony punishable by death for certain genuine believers. Cooke was murdered at point-blank range by John Weaver in 1873 outside the jewelry shop he had established in Belleview, Ohio, to supplement his income as a professional magician. Weaver took issue with Cooke’s reluctance to embrace spiritualism. Weaver said that he fired the shot in self-defense after being attacked by Cooke after being arrested. Despite this, he was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison for assault with the intent to murder.
The judgment was overturned by Weaver’s attorneys, who took the case all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected the appeal and affirmed the lower court’s guilty judgment in Weaver v. The State, a well-known case defining the act of self-defense. Cooke completely healed from his injuries, and for the following quarter-century or more, he was back on the road with his magic and spiritualism debunking act, attempting to disprove what had become a profitable business of supposedly connecting with the great beyond.
Cooke, his wife, and two children relocated to Los Angeles in 1907. He moved to other interests after giving up his career as a traveling magician, including constructing his dream house, becoming a true inventor (he obtained a patent for a “Rapid Money-Changing Machine” to be used in cash registers in 1912), and establishing new connections with other magicians in the region.
Cooke made good friends with Harry Kellar, the retiring dean of American stage magicians, about this period. In 1917, the two of them established the Los Angeles Society of Magicians, and Cooke was elected president the following year. Cooke and Kellar, both in their 70s at the time, starred in a short film made by the Ford Film Company in 1919. Cooke also found time to consult with Floyd G. Thayer, a magician and inventor whose Los Angeles-based Thayer Magic Company produced stage illusions and effects for many of the country’s best magicians.
Harry Houdini, perhaps the world’s greatest renowned magician, paid Cooke a visit at his home in Los Angeles in the early 1920s. Cooke’s adventures as a debunker of mediums, clairvoyants, and others who claimed supernatural abilities were obviously fascinating to Houdini, who had set out to publish a book on spiritualism. Houdini went out of his way to praise Cooke for his efforts in exposing mediums in his 1924 book, A Magician Among the Spirits.
HARRY COOKE REPRISED PERHAPS HIS MOST MEMORABLE FEATH FOR A COLLECTION OF L.A.–AREA MAGICIANS ON MAY 1, 1924, AT THE AGE OF 80: escaping from 50 feet of rope, exactly as he had done for President Abraham Lincoln six decades before. Cooke donned his blue Union army uniform with his Lincoln scouts badge over his heart during the performance, just as he had done during the Civil War. And the outcome was the same as it was when Lincoln saw it: Cooke fled, much to the delight of his audience. It was a poetic and appropriate end to a thrilling and hazardous life, and it was Cooke’s last appearance in his uniform. Harry Cooke, touted as “America’s Oldest Living Magician,” died quietly in his sleep six weeks later.
However, that term seems woefully insufficient in characterizing Horatio Green Cooke’s extraordinary life. Perhaps “Lincoln’s Magician” would have been a more appropriate title. Certainly, the Great Emancipator, “Uncle Abe,” would have given his blessing. MHQ
At Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Jason H. Silverman is the Ellison Capers Palmer Jr. Professor of History Emeritus. Lincoln and the Immigrant is his most recent novel (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015).
The author wants to thank Mark Cannon and Dean Carnegie, two of the best professional magicians in the world, for their invaluable help. They kindly contributed crucial original sources and other materials for this work.
With the headline: Lincoln’s Magician, this essay appears in the Spring 2019 edition (Vol. 31, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Did Abraham Lincoln know magic?
Abraham Lincoln is not known to have used magic.
Who was Horatio Cooke?
What was a magician in the 1800s?
A magician was someone who would use sleight of hand and misdirection to fool their audience.
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