Madame Cora came forward to greet them. Over her greying hair, she’d draped a spangled, gauzy black fabric which, despite being torn in a few places, gave the impression of an Indian sari. She cultivated an air of eccentricity; whether it was for effect or to discomfort them, Lillian wasn’t sure. First of all, she claimed to know Lillian from Calcutta — a place she’d never been — then tugged on Lillian’s sleeve to draw her closer. She smelled of camphor and some other indefinable sweet odour. ‘You know it’s not true what they say about me,’ Madame Cora said in a breathy whisper.
‘I’m not sure what you’re referring to, Madame Cora.’ Lillian was beginning to feel uneasy and regretted her superior expression when Ruby had left on her errand.
‘That I murdered a member of my troupe in a fit of jealousy — strangled her with my bare hands.’ Madame Cora flexed her fingers then steadied them on the table. ‘Alice Wren, the little song-bird with a delicate neck, on a tour of South Africa in 1877.’
Excerpt from Chapter 7, The Aerial Queen.
Madame Cora de Lamond (real name Ursula Bush) was the first woman to tour as a magician in Australia and New Zealand. She first appeared at Sydney’s Prince Of Wales Theatre in November 1871. Her performance consisted of troublewit (folding paper into shapes) and legerdemain (sleight of hand). The high point of her show was the ‘Couch of Angels’ where her sister was placed in a reclining position in mid-air, suspended only by her elbow resting on a pole.
At the conclusion of the show, Madame Cora would distribute prizes — ranging from a bag of flour to a silver-plated tea service — to members of the audience via numbered tickets. This earned her some notoriety when, in 1878, the Bendigo Court fined her £1 plus costs for conducting a lottery.
In 1883 while on tour in New Zealand, her husband (the theatrical agent T.W. Bush) was found dead in his hotel bed in Auckland. The Lorgnette reports: He was of intemperate habits, and a verdict of apoplexy was returned.
After touring India, China, and Japan, Madame Cora (now Mrs Chisholm) returned to Melbourne in 1890, advertising herself as a mesmerist in addition to her repertoire of illusionist, conjuror, mind-reader, and general dealer in magic. She became involved in the Van Tassel balloon exhibitions but on 7 May 1890, she had Van Tassel arrested on an absconding debtors’ warrant in Adelaide. The outcome of this dispute features in Chapter 10 of The Aerial Queen.
Madame Cora died in South Africa, where she had lived for the last ten years, in 1902.