Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Zomah - The Unsolved Mystery

 Zomah was one of the most baffling telepathy acts ever to work the theatre. Madam Veda Zomah sat on ornate wooden chair on stage. She wore a headdress, jewels and a long gown that gave the impression she was some kind of Egyptian queen. Mr Zomah blindfolded his regal wife and then went down into the audience to collect personal objects handed to him at random. The moment he held an object in his hands, Madam Zomah would name it, often in great detail. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a verbal code but here is where the Zomah’s differed from many of their competitors. The act was delivered in virtual silence. Mr Zomah rarely spoke save to confirm the accuracy of Madam Zomah’s divinations. Theatre audiences had seen several similar telepathy acts. But even reviewers made the assessment that no code was used, as per this review from The Evening Telegraph and Post for March 13th, 1917.

The usual charge of using a code rather than depending on genuine transmission of thought which is levelled against very many exponents of so-called telepathy cannot attach to the performance of Madame Zomah who tops the bill at the King’s Theatre this week.

Last night Madame Zomah fully justified her claim to be able to “tell you anything” by correctly describing, without any aid of material kind from her assistant, articles of all descriptions submitted by members of the audience. Her crowning feat was to name the cards held in two “nap” hands dealt by a gentleman in the audience and to play the two hands.

The act was billed as Zomah, The Unsolved Mystery, not The Zomahs a telepathic duo. I’ve never seen a show photo of Mr Zomah who wisely stayed in the background when it came to publicising their ‘Silent Miracle.’ Mr Zomah was magician Alfred James Giddings and Madam Zomah was his wife Adelaide Ellen Giddings.  In Will Goldston’s The Magazine of Magic (July, 1917) there is a double-page spread photo of Madame Zomah together with the challenge: ‘A Code? You watch for it, listen for it, guess at it. You discover nothing; after a moment’s consideration you reject every guess. The assistant makes no signal to Zomah; he speaks no word to her save the simple request for information and the acknowledgement that the information is correct.’ And goes on to say, ‘Zomah is offering big cash rewards to anybody who can duplicate her performance or can prove that she employs confederates.’

It wasn’t until 1933 that the challenge was taken up. And it was by J. C. Cannell in the pages of a national magazine. Cannell was a writer and amateur magician who later became known for his books on magic authored for the public. Personally I am very grateful to John Clucas Cannell. He wrote the very first magic book I ever owned. Modern Conjuring For Amateurs, which I bought for 10 pence from a school friend. I still have it though its barely holding its pages together in its somewhat shabby yellow binding.

The answer to the Unsolved Mystery was given away in, appropriately enough, the December 23rd, 1933, issue of Answers, a weekly magazine published by Amalgamated Press. The article was headed 'Famous Music Hall Secrets Exposed.' And Cannell alleged not only that the Zomahs used a code but that it had been revealed to him by the creator. The ‘assistant’ ceased his silence and Alfred Giddings issued a writ against Cannell and Amalgamated Press. In May 1935 the case came to trial.

Giddings took a strong stance against exposure. He was President of the Institute of Magicians in London and often spoke out against any kind of public discussion of magical secrets.  Having challenged people to guess the secret you might think Giddings should not have been surprised that someone had. But in fact the situation was more complicated than that. Cannell claimed to have been told the secret by its originator. As the originator was Giddings he was in a good position to judge what had or had not occurred.  More than that Giddings was a member of The Magic Circle a society that requires an oath of secrecy that Cannell was alleging Giddings had broken. This constituted defamation of character and gave rise to a charge of libel.

The question was asked in court as to whether the Zomahs used a code but Giddings was not to be drawn on the matter. ‘I am not answering whether our act is a code or not,’ he said. Mr Norman Birkett, the Counsel for the Defence asked, ‘How can the jury know unless you tell them?’ Giddings responded, referring to performances before the Royal Family, ‘The King asked the same question, but he did not get an answer.’ Mr Justice Swift, presiding over the case, said the Defence was trying to guess the method by a process of elimination. The method wasn’t in question. The case hinged on Cannell’s claim that Giddings, a man bound to secrecy, had given it to him. William R. Minns, Hon Secretary of The Magic Circle testified to the effect that the society was satisfied that Giddings had not revealed any secrets to Cannell. Other magicians including Horace Goldin and Murray testified that once a secret was known it ceased to be a theatrical draw. And the Zomah’s agent, Bert Montague, said that the article led to a decline in bookings.

The Zomahs won their case and the judge allowed no grounds for appeal. There were damages to be decided. In summing up Justice Swift pointed out that the average annual earnings of the Zomahs in the four years between 1917 and 1921 was £3,522, adding that. ‘After 1921 the Zomahs did not do so well. We all know that ideas of what is entertaining and amusing vary from age to age, and what has done well with one generation does not go down with another. An entertainment comes as a vogue and then disappears. Whether the Zomah’s performance had had its day or not is for the jury to decide.’ The judge awarded Mrs Giddings £250. Mr Giddings £500. And another £150 for both in relation to damage to their business. A total of £900. That’s over £57,000 in today’s money according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator.

In 1948 publicist W Buchanan-Taylor wrote what appears to be the third book in a trilogy, One More Shake, a collection of stories from his career. Chapter Ten tells the story of the Zomahs and the day they came to see him at his agency in Charing Cross Road, London. At that time they called themselves The Marriotts. ‘Their speciality was second sight.’ They staged an impressive demonstration which Buchanan-Taylor details, a test involving Mr Marriott in one room and Mrs Marriott in another. ‘To say I was flabbergasted is putting it mildly.’

As the Marriotts the act had worked at Maskelyne and Devant’s St Georges Hall. In 1908 they appeared there as a new act calling themselves, ‘The Technopathists.’ The act was pretty much the same involving the describing of borrowed objects and the game of Nap. W Buchanan-Taylor signed them not long after with the intention of turning them into stars. He claims he thought up the name of Zomah, made Mrs Zomah the centre of the act and designed the Egyptian aesthetic. ‘At last a scheme took the form of an Egyptian setting and a throne on which Cleopatra might have sat.’ This does contrast with the story that the Adelaide Giddings later told Peter Warlock. She said the name came about partly because of the Zancigs but also because of an advertisement she saw on the London Tube for an ointment known as Zambuk. She combined Zancig and Zambuk to arrive at Zomah. Curiously Buchanan-Taylor says he had no idea how the Zomahs accomplished their act but then goes on to describe a feasible and detailed method. The method is a simultaneous counting code in which the silences tell as much as the words. Enough to construct a Silent Miracle you might think.

Alfred Giddings died in 1948. His wife said of the secret to the act, ‘It will die with us. We have no children.’ She did, however, have a sister, Ethelbertine and in searching for that uncommon name I found a clue in Peter Warlock’s Talkback column in The New Pentagram for November 1979. Warlock says of the Zomahs:

It was an act that started rather humbly at the time of the Zancigs, but so superior was it in technique that from an early tryout as the Marriotts, they with a non spoken code became a star music hall (Variety) attraction having top billing. A very clever code system, and interesting to note the high back throne on which Madam Zomah is seated. In the larger halls like the Palladium and Colisseum where the act so often appeared, and where the Zomah would work in every part of the house, stalls, dress circle, upper circle and gallery running quickly from one to the other it was said that Mrs Giddings’ (Madam Zomah) sister Ethelbertine knowing the code was behind the throne watching Zomah through binoculars noting and then whispering the name of the object to Madam Zomah. Until I saw “Mercedes” it was the first time that I had seen a nonspeaking two person mental act.

Ethelbertine, who was never mentioned in conjunction with the act, was no stranger to magic judging by several write ups I’ve seen of her performances at magic clubs. Her repertoire included a blindfold effect, here described in Goldston’s The Magician Monthly (April, 1936) by Francis White watching a show at the Institute of Magicians:

The final effect was undoubtedly the strongest item on the evening’s programme when cards chosen by the audience were located by Ethelbertine when reading through the pack although blindfolded by cotton wool and black bandage. A pack of cards borrowed from the audience was read through under similar conditions.

Interestingly it was during the interval of this show that Alfred Giddings, the President of the Institute of Magicians, took to the stage and complained about the exposures carried out by David Devant in The People newspaper. Giddings raised a petition to be despatched to The People the next working day. It had two hundred and forty-six signatures. Giddings also wrote to The Magic Circle to draw their attention to The People articles. Devant, long since retired and in failing health, argued that he was exposing his own tricks, a wish to make them public before his death. Nevertheless he had broken the magician’s code of silence once before and he was expelled for a second and final time from the magic society he helped found.

Later that evening, Madam Zomah concluded the Institute of Magicians show with The Unsolved Mystery to much applause. The secret has never been published. The newspaper exposures were serialisations of Devant’s book Secrets of My Magic. They contained descriptions of two of Devants’ popular effects Mental Magnetism and Translucidation. Devant introduced both items to the programme in 1909 just after The Marriotts finished their successful nine-month run. Mental Magnetism, was an item that Devant had been performing since 1905 and made use of a silent code and fake blindfold.

Publicly Alfred Giddings never had anything but praise for Devant. And of the Q&A act with Dora, called Translucidation, he said in The Sphinx’s tribute issue to Devant (March,1938) ‘I don’t think this method has been worked by any other performer.’ He’s probably right about that because it involved Dora secretly pushing sealed envelopes through a slit in her dress and into the hands of an assistant below stage who would open them and whisper their contents back to her through a hidden speaking tube. Still, he can’t have been happy at seeing explanations of secret codes and dodgy blindfolds revealed in a national newspaper.

If you want to read David Devants' Secrets of My Magic you can buy a digital copy here. In it the illusionist and inventor Charles Morritt, a popular performer at St George’s Hall, says that he was the first to bring the silent code to the theatre in London. It was a mystery he had solved and performed by 1886.