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Robert Heller

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See also: other magicians names "Heller": George Washington Heller and George Waldo Heller.
Robert Heller
BornWilliam Henry Ridout Palmer
August 19, 1829
Faversham, Kent
DiedNovember 28, 1878 (age 49)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Resting placeMt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia
CategoriesBooks by Robert Heller

Robert Heller (1829-1878), also performed briefly as Joseph Heller, was an English magician, mentalist, and musician.

The year of his birth is the subject of some speculation; some sources list it as 1829 while others claim 1830.[1]


As the son of a famous concert pianist, Heller began his life as a musician studying at the Royal Academy of Music. After becoming fascinated with magic at age 14, Heller began copying his idol Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, from whom he adopted his first name. Heller left his scholarship at the academy to become a professional magician. He rented the Strand Theatre in London in 1851 in order to launch his career. At this time he also took the stage name of Robert Heller.[2]

In 1852 he left the port in Liverpool England and arrived in New York on September 6th aboard a ship called the Arctic. Heller's magic career in the began in New York City.[3]

Heller moved into a suite on Grand Street west of Broadway. He started running ads for his show as early as November 23rd announcing the opening of his "Heller's Saloon of Wonders". He rents space at Buckley's Minstrel Hall at 539 Broadway and the show opened on December 20th ,1852. It ran until the end of May 1853, for a total of 200 performances during that time. These were invitation-only show for actors and journalists, Heller thought that people wanted to see a Frenchman, like Robert-Houdin (whose first name he adopted) so he actually put on an accent and a black wig, and dyed his enormous mustache black to match. [4]

Heller introduces his second sight routine to North America, which some would refer to as 'Hellerism'. He is assisted by 'Ernest Heller' in the Second Sight routine, who is introduced as his brother but is actually M.H. Levett, a native New Yorker.

After the sixth month run with the Saloon of Wonders, he took the show on the road. Heller decides to drop the French accent, the wigs and make-up and goes with his natural speaking voice and his own reddish blonde hair.

He performs for several weeks at the Walnut Theatre in Philadelphia and the Old Chinese Museum.

In 1854, he joins up with a group called 'The Germania Musical Society' and performs with them in the roll of a concert pianist in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and then finally Washington D.C.

Giving up magic for the time being, he settles in Washington, D.C. to become a music teacher.

Heller married one of his pupils, the daughter of a wealthy Washington resident and would eventually return to New York.

By 1861, just as the American Civil War was starting, he decides to try his magic act again. He meets Edward P. Hingston who is the manager for Artemus Ward and other acts. Hingston convinces Heller to basically 'lighten up' his act and may have also been the one to encourage him to add his music to the show. He starts doing a three part show which he refers to as Magic, Music and Mirth.

By 1865, as the American Civil War was ending, Heller was giving his performance of music and magic with some comedy, at the Salle Diabolique, a former French Theatre at 585 Broadway. It was one of the longest-running one-man shows in the history of New York theater at the time. Heller became nationally famous when he went on tour in 1869 for the next 6 years throughout much of the United States, Great Britain, Europe, and Asia.

Heller's success prompted fellow magician Harry Kellar to change the spelling his name as to avoid the impression that he was copying Heller.

Heller was famous for several innovations, especially the trick known as "the Second Sight Mystery." In this, the magician's assistant stands in the audience selecting people. The magician on stage tells them what they are holding (concealed from him), as if by magic.

On November 26th, 1878, Heller along with assistant Haidee Heller (who he advertised as his step-sister, but most historians believe they were not related) opened at Concert Hall in Philadelphia. He had a bad cold, but still presented the first part of the show, the section with varied magic effects with no problems. He laed down for thirty minutes before continuing, and wrapped up the show and headed back to the Continental Hotel. He finally agreed to see a doctor on Tuesday morning. The doctor said he had a slight congestion of the lungs, but the truth was much worse. Heller actually intended to perform on Tuesday evening, but as the day progressed he admitted he was in no condition to do so. Heller's illness got worse as the evening dragged on. Just after twelve o'clock, midnight, he had a severe attack of vomiting lasting but a few moments, and when it ceased he raised himself up, gave one gasp, and falling back upon the pillow he died.

At the time, doctors declared he died from "organic exhaustion", but it is now believed Heller died from a case of double pneumonia. Heller's death was such a shock to Washington D.C. area that his obituary appeared on the front page of the Nov. 30, 1878 edition of the National Republican.

Soon after Heller's death, Fred Hunt, Jr., a one time assistant to Heller's, wrote an expose of his second sight act in the the London Times.

Warren Wright, in cooperation with his widow Haidee, continued "Heller's Wonders" program for several years in England.


In 1907, Houdini reported in his Conjurers' Monthly Magazine (Vol 01, page 167) that he located his grave in poor condition at Mount Moriah cemetery in Philadelphia.[5]


Charles J. Pecor in his book The Magician on the American Stage (1977) wrote "Robert Heller left an indelible mark on American magic. While developing his unique performing style in this country, he made several contributions to American magic in general. He demonstrated that theatrical presentation and style and versatility were as important, if not more important than physical dexterity, magical skill, and elaborate mechanical magical effects. He further proved that humor and magic are not inconsistent and that the magician need not be portrayed as a serious or solemn performer. "

Robert Heller also left a lasting contribution to magic with his invention that he co-developed with Professor DeVere, known as The Black Art Table.



  1. ROBERT HELLER The Prince of Wizards " by Charles J. Pecor (Except from paper given on Robert Heller at the "Yankee Gathering" on November 7, 1998), Linking Ring, April 2003
  3. New York Times December 14, 1852
  4. Robert Heller: The Strange Man On Broadway
  5. Cover The Linking Ring, Vol. 10, no. 9, November 1930.
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