Ned Buntline’s Magic Mirror

"Magic Mirror" by Official M.C. Escher website.. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

“Magic Mirror” by Official M.C. Escher website.. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

Fresh from the wonders of the Mysterious Mirror of Maine, we turn today to another medium’s magic mirror in, of all places, a book by that master of the dime novel , Edward Judson, better known as Ned Buntline. The book is The Mysteries and Miseries of New York, a sensational story of how the gambling, piece-work-sewing, and whoring classes live, predating Buntline’s more well-known western ripping yarns.

The author writes in the preface:

As a general thing, I dislike prefatory remarks, but so singular is the work I have now to write, so strange its scenes and incidents, so various and peculiar the characters which I have to delineate, that I feel bound to tell the reader that strange as all may be, it is drawn from life, heart-sickening, too-real life. Not one scene of vice or horror is given in the following pages which has not been enacted over and over again in this city, nor is there one character which has not its counterpart in our very midst. I have sought out and studied the reality of each person and scene which I pourtray. [sic]

For our purposes, the situation (and it is only one of a number of lurid subplots) is this:  on page 128, little Willie, he of the obligatory golden curls and blue eyes, the idol of his parents, &c. &c., is lured away by a temptress with confectionery and a carriage.  Desperate, Mrs. Abingdon consults “Genlis, the king of all the Gipseys in America.” She pays a huge fee and is told “His mirror will show thee thy boy, wherever he may be!”

She is blindfolded and taken by a roundabout carriage ride to a room hung with black. There she meets Genlis, a tall, dark, and sinister man who cautions her not to speak or move or she will break the charm.

“As he said this, the strange being moved a wand which he held in his hand, and, as he did so…the curtain slowly arose, disclosing to the anxious mother a plain mirror—a very large one, occupying the other end of the room. When the curtain had been rolled up to the ceiling, which seemed to be done by invisible hands, Mrs. A. noticed that a kind of fog or smoke seemed fast gathering over the face of the mirror. Still she looked on, until the mirror bore the appearance of a sky, through which the white scud of the wild storm is flying. Then, when her heart had become almost still from fear and anxiety, the clouds seemed to stop, and right in their midst arose a form—the form of a young child. Oh, how she gazed at it, while yet the clouds seemed to hide some of its proportions, but in a few moments it was plainly visible.

There he stood, her own Willie, dressed in the very clothes which he had worn when she had last seen him—garments proudly made by her own hands; there, with his glad blue eyes and bright brown hair. He seemed to look a little more pale; but even this might have been fancy with her.

Tell a mother not to speak or move under such circumstances! Better bid the ocean go to sleep, or the north-west blast to hold its peace!

She gazed one long, long minute. She was satisfied that it was he.

She gave one wild shriek:

‘My child! My child! It is my boy!’ then rushed toward the spot. As she did so, she heard a noise like the hissing of a serpent—then a rumbling, like distant thunder. Her strength failed! She trembled—fell to the floor….”

When she awakes she sees only a plain mirror. Genlis tells her that she broke the spell by speaking and she will have to return another time to see another glimpse of her child.

There ensue about a hundred pages of complications and subplots with which I will not trouble you.  Mrs. Abingdon returns to Genlis and sees multiple visions of her child: as he was on the day he was kidnapped, on a steamboat, with a tall, beautiful lady, and then, at a school run by a brutal-looking schoolmaster. Genlis demands $10,000 to get her son back and she agrees to try to raise the money without telling her husband. Naturally she can’t keep the secret so a plan is hatched. So the next time Mrs. Abingdon goes back to see the image in the mirror, she is accompanied secretly by her husband and “a large posse of policemen.”

“Upon her arrival, he gave the usual signal, and she was led through the same winding ways as before, and finally seated, as she supposed, in the room where she had before met Genlis.

She heard his voice a moment afterward, close by her side.

‘For what have you again come to us? he asked. ‘Have you determined to pay the sum I demanded? Am I to take the journey for the child!’

‘I know not what to say or do!’ replied Mrs. A. ‘If you would let me tell my husband…’

‘Why, he’d go and consult with some magistrate, and try to get me in trouble! I know what men are, well enough. No, no, you must keep my secret to yourself!’ replied the Gipsey.

‘But you will let me see the picture once more, will you not?’

‘Yes, if you so desire it. But ‘tis of little use, you have seen it once, and we can show you no more!’

‘Then let me once more look upon the same scene!’ said Mrs. A. ‘You cannot dream how I love that boy — he was named after a dear and noble brother of mine, who is seeking fame and fortune far beyond the ever-heaving sea; — do let me again look upon the picture!’

‘You shall,’ said the Gipsey.

He then left her for a few moments, and she plainly heard whispering in the upper end of the room. He soon returned, and saying to her:

‘Be silent and behold!’ took off the shawl which had been bound over her eyes… when Genlis waved his wand the curtain rose, as if moved by magic, and the mirror, with its rolling mists, appeared as before.

When the mists cleared away, Mrs. A. again saw her child, but once more the picture was changed. The child was in a kneeling posture, his little hands crossed upon his bosom, and his sweet face turned toward a clowded [sic] and troubled sky.

The back ground was dim and misty; the boy was surrounded by a kind of fog, which rendered even his figure dim and vague.

The curtain had been up scarce a moment, when a slight noise behind him caused Genlis to turn quickly, and he beheld the magistrate and Mr. Abingdon enter the room.

‘Curse you, you have betrayed me ! You shall never see your child again!’ he cried, bitterly, darting a fiery look at Mrs. A. “

Genlis and his exotic female accomplice Inez duck behind the curtain. And

“though Mr. and Mrs. Abingdon hurried to the spot and tore down the curtain in a moment, Genlis and his wife had disappeared. Word was quickly passed to the police outside, and a careful watch kept, but no more was seen of Genlis or his wife.

The magic of their operations, however, was at once discovered. The mirror, a large plate of glass lined on the inner side with a thin sheet of common white wax, was connected with a very ingenious contrivance, which consisted of a small steam boiler, set in the cellar below, which could convey a current of steam or heated air to the wax in the back of the mirror, rendering it transparent. Through this, whatever pictures, or figures they chose to introduce behind the glass could be seen, and when they wished to dim, or destroy the effect, they had only to apply a current of cold air, blown by a large bellows from an ice-chest also placed in the cellar.

The contrivance was very ingenious, as figures seen through the glass, looked precisely as if they were shown upon the face of a mirror, and the distance at which the deluded visitors were kept, of course prevented them from seeing any small inaccuracies.

Mr. Genlis had apparently done a very large business, for the police found an immense number of lay figures, masks, wigs, dresses and paintings, which had undoubtedly been used to dupe different customers, who came to read their fortunes in the ’Magic glass.’

The magistrate and Mr. Abingdon were soon satisfied that Genlis had either stolen, or been connected with the thieves who stole little Willie, for the child’s clothes were discovered upon a little lay figure, which was faced with a mask painted to resemble him, and surmounted by curls of the same colour as his own hair. It was no wonder then that at a distance, through thick plate glass, and the transparent wax, the excited mother should think that she recognized her child. The clothes were the same he had worn at his disappearance.

Though they soon discovered how Genlis, his wife and their assistants had escaped, they could learn nothing of the child. The fortune-telling gang had been prepared for any interruption, for a passage from their cellar was opened through into a little shop in the street back of their house, which was kept by one of their gang, and all easily made their escape before any efforts could be used to intercept them. Even the person of whom they rented the house had not known their business or arrangements, so quietly and secretly had all been conducted.

Mr. and Mrs. Abingdon  were now in a worse fix than ever. They knew that their child, if still living, was in the power of a desperate and profligate crew, and they had good reason to fear that it might now be killed in revenge. The warm- hearted and excellent magistrate could do no more for them than he had ; they had no remedy or hope, except to continue in the search for their child ; or to recover him by the offer of a large reward.

They took possession of the picture of the school room, and the little village, in hopes that it might lead them upon some clue to their child ; and Mr. A. also determined to give up house-keeping, and to commence travelling through the country in search of the boy.

On the very same night that the house of Genlis was broken up, the dwelling of Mr. A. was entered by burglars, and every dollar of ready money, all his plate, &c. carried away. The robbers did their job so neatly and well, that they did not even disturb Mr. A. and his wife, or the servants, though they had to open an iron safe, and several doors, which had been left locked and bolted when the family retired to rest.”

The Mysteries and Miseries of New York: A Story of Real Life, Ned Buntline, 1849

After that anti-climax, and a scant dozen pages later, during which the Abingdons are eclipsed by a girl’s ruin, her brother’s indiscretion, a grisly murder, and a mother’s madness and death, the book comes to an abrupt end:

“Reader, with this chapter, we shall close this work. If you would follow the fate of Isabella Meadows, and see what a desperate, crime-hardened being a once pure and virtuous maiden may become, when driven to the very verge of madness, by ruin and wrong; and if you would see the terrible retribution which followed the crime of Albert Shirley, and read a new and strange history in the fate of Constance, his lovely daughter, you must read


A work which will soon follow this, and which will also follow up the strange career of the two Carltons, Sam Selden, and other characters whom we have not disposed of in this work.

The work we can safely promise will be quite as thrilling, if not more so, than this, for we have wilder incidents, and stranger tales to tell than the reader yet has seen.

The search of the Abingdons after their child—after great expense and trouble, was at last rewarded with success. They found him at a village school, near Troy, where he had been placed by Genlis, who gave them information of his whereabouts, through an agent whom they paid handsomely for the service.”


“Read my next book, which will be full of offensive Irish stereotypes, and, oh, by the way, the Abingdons found their boy.”

Really, Ned? That’s it? That’s your big finale? I can see why you were so successful with the ladies.

(In his defense, though the Abingdons held our interest when coupled with a kidnapped child, magic mirror, and a Gipsey, they were colorless compared to poor Isabella Meadows and the other ruined and dissipated creatures limned by Buntline.)

Buntline certainly led a dissipated life of his own. His sins included bigamy, fathering various illegitimate children, getting drunk after giving Temperance lectures, inciting riots, and being a member of the “Know Nothing Party.” One of his more improbable sequences found him seducing an associate’s teen-aged bride then killing the associate in a duel. He was tried for the murder, shot during the trial by the dead man’s brother, and then nearly lynched.  Despite his prefatory assurances that this is a true story, my question is, was the magic mirror a genuine and most ingenious apparatus? Is it even remotely plausible from a thermodynamic point of view? Buntline, who, as an alcoholic who preached Temperance, had no trouble reconciling inconsistencies of conscience, was said to have been (briefly) a Spiritualist and an exposer of fraudulent mediums.

A biographer of Buntline gives the story above as a true tale.

Ned Buntline had heard about the cult of spiritualism as he dodged the law in the summer of 1849. Now in jail, Ned talked with the prisoners about its dangerous growth….Spiritualism became a craze.

Ned remembered an impostor he had exposed in 1848 before the Fox sisters’ fame. That old rascal, no doubt, gloated now over Ned’s imprisonment. Ned had caught him taking money from a grief-stricken mother. The cheat had made her dead son appear in a mirror and wave cheerily. The ghostly figure appeared and disappeared before the weeping mother’s eyes. The trick was very simple to understand after Ned explained it to the readers of his paper, but before he did so a score of women had wheedled hundreds of dollars from their husbands to see once more their dead children. The mysterious mirror, Ned explained, was plate glass backed with white wax instead of quicksilver. On the floor under the glass an ingenious set of small tubes connected with a steam boiler in the basement. Heated air or steam could be played upon the glass to render the wax transparent. Another set of tubes from a bellows above an ice box could blow cold air on the waxed surface of the glass and thus make it opaque. To a spectator in the darkened room the waxed glass looked like a mirror. The operator placed a child of the correct age behind the glass. When the wax melted the child appeared, indistinct but lifelike, in the “mirror.” Alternate currents of hot and cold air made the image appear and disappear in a ghostly fashion.  Ned had warned all bereaved parents to beware of the humbug. Now look where benevolence had got him! The Great Rascal:  The Life and Adventures of Ned Buntline, Jay Monaghan, Little, Brown & Co., 1952.

I cannot find any reference to it in Buntline’s own memoirs and I haven’t found his newspaper online. I’m inclined to think that it was an ingenious figment of his imagination. The apparatus seems a little elaborate and not very portable for the average medium who often held séances at clients’ houses. Certainly the lay figures, costumes, wigs, and masks described were standard equipment for the séance room.

Given Buntline’s improbable life, we can’t rule out impossibilities. There are plenty of conjurers’ shows advertising marvelous magical mirrors, so perhaps this story embodies one of those stage magic effects.

If you have any more details or know if this mirror was an actual apparatus, throw a blast of cold air on me at chriswoodyard8 AT

0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes